#Sec377: Are we there yet?

CHRIS LEWIS*, an Indian student at Sydney Uni and a member of LGBTQ+ community, is not quite ready to come out of the closet yet

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“History owes an apology to the members of LGBTQ+ community and their families…” When Supreme Court Judge Indu Malhotra said this in her judgement while decriminalising homosexuality, I knew that a new chapter in my life had just begun. Her statement reminded me of the millions of gay men and women in our country who have suffered mental, emotional and physical abuse for just being their true self. I agree that this apology has been delayed by almost a century: will it right all the wrongs? No. But is it welcome? Certainly.

Indian activists of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community celebrate during a rally after the verdict at the Supreme Court in Kolkata, Eastern India, 06 September 2018. Photo: AP

Earlier this month, when news broke that the Supreme Court of India was ready to present its statement on the constitutional validity of Section 377, I was confident that this time India would be on the right side of history. It made a mistake once in 2013. It would not repeat it. This time, during all the hearings it was heartening to see that the court was sympathetic to the LGBTQ+ community. Following the verdict, rainbow colours took over my social media feed. Our moment had finally arrived.

Or had it? I began thinking: how will this change my life? I call myself an activist. For the last two years, I’ve been working in India around issues of climate change and human rights. I was proud of my work, and so were my friends and family.

So when I decided to uproot my life and move to Australia for further studies, I faced a series of questions, mostly along the lines of “Why are you moving when you can make impact in India?” My answers would be bland — “to learn skills from a different country” or “the course in Australia is better than that in India”.

If you’re parents of a gay child, check out the organisation Sweekar on Facebook

Let’s just say these answers were mostly true. What I didn’t tell people is that I wanted to move away from my loved ones to be in a place where I could stop hiding my identity and live a normal life, even if for a few years. Now that I think about it, I couldn’t agree more when petitioners from IIT told the Supreme Court that the mere existence of Section 377 is causing young Indians to leave their home country and settle abroad.

Every LGBTQ+ person in India wants to live a simple truth: a life where they are not fighting anyone anymore. I’m blessed that I have the privilege to make such a move, but not everyone can do this.

Most people in India do not understand what decriminalisation really means. Many say that Section 377 has hardly imprisoned anyone in India for consensual gay sex. While this may be true, most don’t understand that it’s not the law that the LGBTQ+ members fear, it’s the society. And to get over this fear, we need to first let go of Section 377.

Since the time I knew I was gay, I’ve been living in fear. How would people react if they knew? Would I get beaten up? Will my friends stop talking to me? My poor teenage self could barely survive this trauma, but thankfully I got past it. For the last few years, I’ve begun to trust people, and have started to come out to my friends — all of whom were nothing but supportive. I’ve been lucky to be in a family where my parents have never questioned or rejected my queer identity. They’re taking their time to understand me, and I’m glad that they’re part of this journey.

I’ve been extremely lucky to also find a partner who treats me respectfully. I’ve been with this person for the past two years. But being a gay couple in India is not easy. My partner and I lived together in India for the past two years. In front of our friends, we could be like every other couple. But in public, we had to be different people. For the outside world, we were friends, colleagues, and sometimes even siblings. You see, the fear of society had the power to change the face of love.

It has been two months since I’ve been in Australia. And I’m slowly getting comfortable with the idea of being my true self. I still remember the feeling of holding my partner’s hand at the airport. It felt natural but at the same time it was also surreal. Moments such as these is what India’s gay community is hoping for. They may seem small, inconsequential and even run-of-the-mill to other folks, but for us, it’s a huge victory.

Now that Section 377 has been scrapped in India, am I ready to come out of the closet completely? Well, I’m not sure. Society has been cruel to us, and many will still continue to fight for equal rights. A change in the law is the first big step, but we have to clear many more hurdles before we finally proclaim that we’ve arrived. Here’s hoping.

*Name changed on request