Indian American Gays Hail Ruling Decriminalizing Homosexual Sex in India

India West, News Report, Ashfaque Swapan Posted: Jul 10, 2009

The Indian American gay community is cheering the recent ruling by the Delhi High Court to repeal portions of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality, though some activists told India-West that this is just the first small step towards a continuing movement to achieve full equality for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in the world’s largest democracy.

The Delhi High Court ruled July 2 that treating consensual gay sex between adults as a crime is a violation of fundamental rights protected by India’s constitution (see separate story). The ruling is the first of its kind in India.

“The community here has reacted ecstatically. Most people I talked to said over and over again that they did not think it would happen in their lifetime,” Sandip Roy, an award-winning journalist and a long-time activist for LGBT issues, told India-West. “There were impromptu celebrations in many cities. People went down to the Stonewall Inn in New York where the modern gay rights movement began in 1969. In San Francisco, friends distributed mithai at a bar in Castro. With Facebook and e-mail these days, the news was huge news as soon as it broke.”

Krishnakali Chaudhuri, a Berkeley, Calif.-based life-coach and business consultant, also lauded the ruling, but added that much more remained to be done.

“I think overall it’s a small step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go,” Chaudhuri told India-West on the sidelines of a special forum on LGBT issues at the recently held North American Bengali Conference in San Jose, Calif. (see separate story.) “The international community of human rights is really applauding the ruling but we have to understand that we have just decriminalized homosexuality but we haven’t legalized it yet.”

Chaudhuri said that the task now was to work towards achieving full equality. “We need to legalize homosexuality and then we can make changes to all the qualities of workplace, marriage unions or health or everything else.”

An Indian American group has also come out in support of the ruling.

Troy, Mich.-based Navya Shastra, an international Hindu reform organization, lauded the Delhi High Court ruling in a press release.

“For over a century, the law has given license to the state to persecute individuals based on their sexual orientation,” the release said. “Navya Shastra urges the Government of India not to challenge the ruling or to be swayed by religious chauvinists of any persuasion who would deny equality to all citizens based on ancient interpretations of religious texts.”

The organization was particularly critical of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which came out against Article 377. "Unable to find any strong theological basis in Hinduism for opposing homosexuality, the VHP relied on the old canard that the family structure would somehow be threatened by the decision," said Sugrutha Ramaswamy, a Navya Shastra activist. "This is an unscientific understanding of homosexuality, which is not a lifestyle choice but rather an inherent human condition," she added.

Roy said there were reasons to be optimistic both in terms of the maturity of India’s LGBT community and public awareness.

“What was most heartening was that the judges went back to citing Pandit (Jawaharlal) Nehru in their ruling. It was really an example of how the LGBT movement in India had grown and matured and spent years working on building an alliance across society to push for this change,” said Roy. “Almost every major newspaper had an editorial in support of overturning 377. Prominent Indians like Amartya Sen circulated an open petition several years ago asking for this change and the list of signatories felt like an Indian who's who.

“Does this mean discrimination or homophobia is dead in India? No, and there may even be a rise because of a backlash prompted by growing visibility of the LGBT movement. But changing social attitudes are undeniable. In this case social change really was the push behind the legal change.”

From that perspective, the court decision was not a surprise, Roy said.

“I think the Supreme Court decision was long overdue because the law was a relic of Victoria era British Raj. It had been overturned in most of the former colonies. India, as the first colony to become free of British rule, should have been in the lead of overturning that law as well.”

Now comes the harder task of convincing the arguably more conservative diaspora community to cease treating LGBT rights as a taboo issue.

“What I have found is that people who come here, because they feel that they have left their country, they try to cling to the roots more than even people who are in India right now,” Chaudhuri said. “We sometimes find that people are going forward more back home in Calcutta than some of the Bengali communities I have found here, because here they are trying to hold on to what was in the 50s and 60s.”

Misha Chowdhury, a San Francisco-based writer who is traveling to India for a year on a Fulbright Scholarship, said this ruling may create greater awareness among the Indian diaspora.

“I think one good thing that can come out of a ruling like this is for people in the diaspora to recognize that there is a huge community of people (out there),” he told India-West.

Roy agreed the ruling would be a salutary wake-up call for Indian Americans. “South Asian gays growing up here are consistently told by their parents that gayness was a Western thing, that there are no gays in India. This ruling from the Delhi High Court knocks the wind out of those arguments,” he said.

“This decision sprang out of activism that was homegrown in India,” added Roy. “It was not directed from New York or San Francisco. But it's worth remembering the first South Asian LGBT groups were born in the U.S. like Trikone in the Bay Area. They started talking about it when no one else was.

“I think South Asian gays here will be cheering this decision. Now they get to feel proud of their home country both as Indians and as gay without having to choose between those identities.”

Perhaps one small but significant step was taken at the North American Bengali Conference hosted in San Jose.

For possibly the first time in a mainstream Indian event in the U.S., space was provided to the LGBT community to air their issues. In an admittedly small room, Krishnakali Chaudhuri and Misha Chowdhury gave poignant, articulate accounts of their own experience. Moderated by UC Center for South Asia Studies chair Raka Ray, the event was packed with both older and younger Bengali Americans including some key NABC organizers.

“I think it was far more of an important event than I had expected. Being Bengali and queer in my everyday life…what was really powerful I think was just how many people in the audience were really moved,” said Choudhury.

Chaudhuri agreed: “I was really amazed and surprised by the reaction of the crowd. I was touched by people who were with tears in their eyes…For me it was almost like what I would like to do with an extended family and other Bengalis that I haven’t been able to do, and to find that place in a very traditional Bengali conference, it’s beyond my expectation.”

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