Section 377 becoming a dangerous tool in the hands of homophobic law enforcers?

While the police personnel were molesting him, Ajay recalls that they threatened to use Section 377
Section 377 becoming a dangerous tool in the hands of homophobic law enforcers?
Section 377 becoming a dangerous tool in the hands of homophobic law enforcers?
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In the month of June, Ajay Gabriel Sathyan had posted on Gaysi Family, a network and support group for LGBTQ communities in India, about his horrific experience in the hands of some police personnel in Chennai who allegedly sexually molested and harassed him. Ajay had been returning from an interview, dressed in a kurta and leggings, when a policewoman in the group spotted him and figured out that he was gay. 

‘It was the leggings,’ Ajay says. ‘I usually wear denim pants or pajamas or leggings to go with my kurtas. I was wearing a long, plain khadi kurta, nothing with embroidery…nothing loud or colourful that fits the stereotype of gay men. I wasn’t wearing any make-up. But the woman still noticed the leggings and called out to me.’

As always, it’s the clothes of the victim that seem to matter the most in any case of sexual violence. Ajay takes pains to explain that he knows this isn’t true if one were to look at the statistics on gender-based violence, but unfortunately, it becomes necessary to detail one’s attire to justify feeling aggrieved. Responses to Ajay’s story varied between unconditional support to victim blaming. Surprisingly, Ajay says, a lot of gay men told him that he ought to have been more careful, he ought to have grown his facial hair, and he ought not to have worn those leggings. This is not because they are taking the side of the cops but because, like many from the LGBTQ community in India, they live in a state of fear. 

While the police personnel were molesting him, Ajay recalls that they threatened to use Section 377 and arrest him if he ever talked about the incident or filed a complaint against them. The 2009 judgment by the Delhi High Court which decriminalized Section 377 was a reason for much celebration among LGBTQ communities and indeed, anyone who believed in human rights. However, Ajay says, it also created an ‘awareness’ about gay people among those who only used that knowledge to target the community. Previously, Ajay says, most people didn’t know what terms like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ meant. When the judgment came out, it was all suddenly out in the open. Many people who did not conform to normative gender identities came out of the closet. But this visibility also meant that they became easy targets for criminals looking to make a fast buck. 

In 2013, when the Supreme Court recriminalized Section 377, the situation became even more dangerous. Those who had come out of the closet post 2009 were left feeling exposed and vulnerable. One only needed proof of someone’s involvement in an ‘unnatural’ sexual act – a photograph, a video – to blackmail and extort money. A case in point being that of the doctor from Bangalore who was blackmailed by a group of youths who had sex with him and later extorted sixteen lakhs from him, threatening that they would reveal the fact that he was gay to his wife and children. The irony is that the police used the secretly recorded videos of these encounters to nail the youths and book them under Section 377. However, if it is proved that the doctor engaged in these acts with his consent, he too, will head to prison along with his blackmailers. 

But does this mean the criminals who are targeting gay people are gay themselves? Not necessarily. A person’s sexuality goes beyond just the act of having sex. There are men who identify as straight who may occasionally engage in sex with other men, without pausing to think if they are gay or bisexual. These transgressions are not taken seriously unless someone chooses to identify themselves as belonging to a non-normative sexual identity. In fact, Ajay says, the haters and homophobes are more likely to be people with repressed feelings about their own sexuality. These acts of harassment are about power, control, and simply, lucrative opportunities. 

Chennai, Ajay says, is a conservative yet tolerant city. But the threat that something can go wrong is always in the air: ‘Travelling for gay people is expensive. It’s difficult to take public transport if you happen to be easily identifiable as LGBTQ. So, many of us have to depend on autorickshaws. We have to depend on auto guys we know because sometimes, there’s danger in taking an unknown auto. One of my friends took a rick to a party but the auto driver figured out that he was gay and took him somewhere else. He had to call his friends to escape from there.

'All of this will sound very familiar to any woman who lives in India. The emphasis on the clothes, the difficulty of emerging unmolested from a crowded public bus, the victim blaming when things go wrong, the constant need to take safety precautions…it’s an old and tired story. Perhaps this is why it came as a shock to many who read Ajay’s story that it was the policewoman who allegedly incited the violence. Ajay, however, doesn’t find this surprising. ‘I was sexually abused by my aunt when I was four,’ he says. ‘It’s more common than people think.’ He points out that many men don’t even realize that they were abused as children. ‘Society eroticizes the sexual relationship between a young boy and an older woman. The victim is supposed to see it as a compliment and boast about it rather than feel violated,’ Ajay says. He recalls observing a group of college girls in Chennai who were catcalling and ‘adam-teasing’ the young men walking down the road: ‘Everyone was laughing and treating it as a joke. They were sexually harassing those boys, singing songs with double meanings and so on. But nobody felt it was offensive. Just imagine if the situation had been reversed. It would have immediately been recognized for what it was.’

A man is expected to want it all the time and this makes it very hard for a male victim of sexual violence to come out in the open and speak about his experiences. There are straight men, too, who are harassed by their male bosses. The emasculation that they feel forces them into silence. Ajay, however, decided to talk about what happened to him because he feels it’s important to articulate the violence against LGBTQ people that happens so routinely in this country. ‘I wanted to authenticate it,’ he says. He’d posted pictures of his battered face along with the post to show the world just what he’d gone through. ‘There were people who asked me if it really happened despite that,’ he says. ‘But there were also others who gave me a lot of support. It told them something about this city that they did not know before.’

However, Ajay has no plans yet of taking the legal route. ‘The cops who molested me know who I am. They know where I live. They’ve been visiting my house and asking for me when I wasn’t around. They’d told me that they have powerful political connections. I cannot imagine going to a police station and filing a complaint. I have to think about my family,’ he says. His parents know that he’s gay but they don’t know about the violence that their son was subjected to. ‘They are old,’ Ajay says. ‘They will think all this happened because I went against their religious beliefs. They think the cops visited for some other reason.’

At 28, Ajay has already tried to kill himself and end it all. ‘I’m deeply unhappy,’ he confesses. ‘The incident triggered many memories in me.’ Ajay suffers from learning disabilities that make it difficult for him to find and retain jobs. ‘I have to live with my parents because I’m unemployed currently,’ he says. ‘I sometimes think there’s no point in living like this. I still live in fear that those cops will come back for me. I live in the fear that they will find me.’

There’s no denying that Section 377 is a deadly weapon in the hands of homophobic law enforcers and criminals to oppress an already marginalized minority. What seems pretty unnatural at the moment is really our tacit acceptance of this ongoing, unspeakable violence.

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