#Sec377: The Closet in Your Living Room

India’s Supreme Court may have passed a historic judgement on Section 377, but the onus is on the civil society in India to lead the charge, just as it did in Australia

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I know some gay people in the Indian community.

I am using the term ‘gay’ generically of course. I also know a few lesbians, and have routinely met trans people in India – called kojja in Telugu or hijra in Hindi.

Some of my gay friends are now married to straight women, so I’m assuming they are bisexual.

I know these people from my social circle, and from work.

Some, I look up to as role models.

Of course there are some gay people I don’t like, but their sexual orientation has nothing to do with it.

What the hell are you on about, you ask.

Allow me to elaborate.

The Indian Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the archaic S. 377 is a massive victory for the LGBTQ community. This epic battle for equality can now move from the court rooms into the living rooms. And the living rooms need to get ready to help this change.

As Indian origin people in Australia, we live in a society that acknowledges its sexual diversity, and recently voted for equal civil rights. Australian living rooms do not treat the topic as taboo. Just the other day, I saw a TV spot touting the first same-sex marriage on the Neighbours show. My son was next to me, so I got my answers ready. No questions were asked, though. It was just another family wedding the way he saw it.

Indian living rooms too are not far from that day when sexual diversity ceases to be a taboo. Changing the TV channel is not going to help, because India just crossed a tipping point.

I know there is a long distance to go before that change. However, the first step is to be able to TALK about sexual diversity.

It amuses me to see how some people dance around the topic. During the same sex marriage vote in Australia, the Indo-Aussie social media saw both outrage and passionate support, much like the rest of the country. What caught my attention the most was how some people referred to those of LGBTQ persuasion. ‘The Yes people’ is what they called them, probably feeling too awkward even to say the word ‘gay’.

This is a direct reflection of the social attitudes in India as well. A majority of the Indian society views its LGBTQ members with a mixture of ignorance and prejudice. The terms ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ are actively avoided. The word ‘kojja’ is as much an insult as an identity. A lot of tweets yesterday used ‘Karan Johar’ as a proxy for LGBTQ!

PICTURE CREDIT: The Hindu

S 377 itself is now the preferred euphemism even for people supporting equal rights.

If even uttering the words ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ is still such an issue, acknowledging that some of our friends and family identify that way is going to take time. Studies show that LGBTQ are not a miniscule fringe in India. The Supreme Court cited a 7% figure in its judgement. A corporate study estimated that 5-10% of the Indian work force identifies as non-heterosexual. Given the numbers, chances are very high that every single Indian knows at least one LGBTQ person. Acknowledging that fact instead of avoiding it, is the first step in achieving equality.

The next and more difficult task would be to accept people different from us as equals. When the Delhi High Court first decriminalised non-hetero sex in 2009, I was in a 2-day corporate training program in Mumbai. I connected with the well-read trainer who was a globalised progressive hailing from South Bombay. He was also from a religious minority. If he didn’t qualify for an ‘intellectual elite’, I don’t know who can. He also brought a minority perspective to the table. When I got the news during the lunch time, I excitedly shared it with him wrongly presuming where he stood on the topic. His face immediately morphed into absolute scorn. “I don’t know what these people want,” he said derisively, walking away.

If even that gentleman had difficulty accepting that sexual minorities deserved equal rights, I can imagine what the larger population must be thinking. This change is not going to come overnight. Politicians are not going to take the lead on this. While the Indian Government deserves partial credit for playing weak defence, it also warned the Supreme Court against opening the doors to civil rights. The onus then falls on the civil society to lead the charge, just as it eventually did in Australia.

In order to do that, it’s important to open up to LGBTQ topics in daily conversations (and get them using the terminology!) It is important for people to acknowledge and accept that their own brothers and sisters, their own children could identify as non-heterosexual. 

This Supreme Court is a victory has now opened doors for what is biologically normal to become culturally normal.