September 6 marked a historic day in Indian history – the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment read down section 377 which criminalised consensual same sex relations as well as any sexual act other than heterosexual penile-vaginal sex. The archaic law, which has long been used to harass and prosecute members of the LGBTQI+ community, was declared unconstitutional by a five-judge bench, except in cases of bestiality.
Scenes of celebration erupted in various places across India as the queer community rejoiced the verdict. While many became emotional and expressed relief and joy, others also pointed out that this was a small but significant victory in the long battle ahead.
An emotional, long deserved victory
When TNM spoke to Dolly Koshy, a Bengaluru based IT professional and a lesbian woman, she said she was following the verdict in office and was almost in tears. “I knew that there was a high chance of homosexuality being decriminalised, but still there was that 5% doubt. Now, I am just out of words. This is such an important moment for all of us,” she said, voice full of emotion.
Malini Jeevarathnam, director of Ladies and Gentlewoman and a queer person, was one among close to 50 people gathered at the NGO Sahodaran’s office in Chennai. “On September 7 last year, my mom passed away. I never told my mom about my sexuality. Today is September 6 and I'm so happy,” she said.
Saying that she and others from the community have been subject to discrimination and abuse for years, this judgment was proof that they were humans, that they mattered. “This law allows us to breathe. This is a first in our struggle for our rights. We have to so full of life, and have to live the lives of all community members who have died for our fight,” she said.
Jaya, the General Manager of Sahodaran, which has been batting for LGBTQI+ rights for two decades, said, “From 2001, we've been waiting on the courts. They have reaffirmed our hopes. We have lost a lot. We are grateful for those who stood by us. This is for all the activists who've worked. Thank you so much,” Jaya said.
Kalki Subramaniam, an activist, artist and trans woman from Tamil Nadu, said, “I feel victorious and I feel proud. All these years of guilt and fear about the attraction we felt have been oppressing us. I am positive about the days to come – now that section 377 has been read down, people will begin asking why, and that will open the road to inclusion and acceptance,” she said. “This, along with last year’s Supreme Court verdict declaring right to privacy a fundamental right will help ensure that trans children and LGBTQI+ children have the law protecting them,” she added.
For Jabez Kelly, a drag queen from Chennai, the news started his day on a good note. “I woke up 15 minutes ago and saw all these celebratory messages on my social media. I was expecting it, but it’s still mind boggling that it is finally true. I’m very happy, though we have a long way to go,” he said.
Mohammed Unais, a 25-year-old B.Ed student and genderqueer person from Kollam, Kerala, said that while the news brought him a lot of joy, it also reminded them that many of their friends – members of the LGBTQI+ community – could not witness this day. “Many were driven to suicide, thinking they could not live like this. I wish they were here to witness this historic moment,” they said.
Uma, a trans activist and founder of NGO Jeeva, that works for the rights of gender minorities, said that legal acceptance was a small but significant victory. “The next step is to create awareness and gain societal acceptance,” she said.
The first victory in a long battle ahead
While section 377 decriminalises homosexuality, it does not address the civil rights of the LGBTQI+ community like gay marriage, property rights and adoption rights – which leads activists to say there is still a long way to go.
Moulee, the co-founder of Queer Chennai Chronicles, said that because they will not have to spend energy on answering question about section 377, they will be able to focus more on other day-to-day issues that LGBTQI+ community faces. “We still have schools that kick out queer children or force them to quit. Discussion on inclusive workplace is still limited to corporates. Let us talk about empowerment of queer individuals and not sympathy while talking LGBTQI+ rights,” he said.
Bittu, a member of the Telangana Hijra Intersex Transgender Samiti, said that Section 377 was only one of the laws used by the police to oppress and harass working class street sex workers. “New provisions like the anti-trafficking bill and trans rights bill which are deeply problematic in their present form need to be tackled now as they criminalise livelihoods of many from the LGBTQI+ community,” he said.
Naveen of Bengaluru-based NGO Sangama, was present along with around 30 people at Town Hall in Bengaluru, celebrated with them when the SC verdict came out. “But we should not forget that there are so many others in this country who are being persecuted for their progressive thoughts like those who have been placed under house arrest. Today is a small victory. Our struggle has always been a long and hard one. And will continue to struggle until we are liberated,” he said.
The people TNM spoke to agreed that while the verdict will not result in the society’s acceptance of the queer community overnight, this is a step in the right direction. “Legal struggle must go hand in hand with cultural struggle,” Bittu maintained.
(With inputs from Theja Ram and Manasa Rao)