Friday, July 3, 2009

Gay Sex No Crime, Decrees Delhi High Court; Victory Of Lower Classes: Row Kavi

My good friend Ashok Row Kavi was the first journalist to expose the mainstream media's homophobia and bring LGBT issues into the public domain. Disgusted by the status quoists who preferred to keep quiet, he quit to start Bombay Dost, India's first LGBT journal. It ceased publication for a few years for want of funds but is now back on the stands again. Here's Ashok's take on India's gay scene in his own words:

“After a few years I launched Bombay Dost in the late ’80s, ironically the main opposition to this incipient activism came not from straight quarters; it came from the gay community itself. For instance, the gay segment from the city’s corporate elite, featuring brown sahibs who frequent Bombay Gymkhana and such types, the upper middle classes with their ever-growing detachment from the nation’s core concerns, were opposed to queer activism.

One of the arguments was, “Which policeman would dare catch people like us; it’ll take one phone call to the police headquarters to set matters straight.” This attitude exemplifies the queer paradox, where despite being so sequestered from the mainstream, it remains a microcosm of India and its worst qualities: a horribly divided society based on caste and class.

This historic judgment is thus a victory of the lower classes, of the poor, and oddly enough, of heterosexual liberalism. The poor and the petty bourgeoisie have had significant reason to fight against Section 377. It is they who need protection from police harassment most; it is they who need the canopy of a law that will protect them from the injustices that they are so prone to. It’s been a long battle, but they are larger battles to fight in the coming years.”

Here's an interesting comment from a queer feminist and activist I came across in the Asian Age:

July 2, 2009 is a historic day. Not just for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, hijras and kothis in India, but also for all those who strive to uphold the values of equality, freedom, non-discrimination and inclusiveness in India.

The Delhi high court on Thursday, in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) asking for the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalised adult, consensual, same-sex sexual activity in private.

The reading down of Section 377 is not just a reaffirmation of the rights of all citizens of this country to live their lives with freedom, dignity and respect, but it also upholds the essence of the Indian Constitution, that of inclusiveness.

The judgment states very clearly: “If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be the underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of ‘inclusiveness’.”

Among various other statements, this one in particular makes the judgment not a simple reaffirmation of the rights of a large section of citizens of this country but also of the basic pillars of our Constitution, that of freedom, dignity, respect and equality.

This Delhi high court judgment, in content and language, has set an example that can be emulated in various demands for justice, equality and freedom of oppressed communities in this country.

The struggle for decriminalisation of same-sex activity has been on in the Delhi high court since 2000 and in the streets of this country for many years before that. The judgment comes soon after this country witnessed its second “pride march” in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Bhubaneshwar.

The colourful parades and the march, along with many other campaigns over the years, like the open letter written by Vikram Seth against Section 377, and signed by many prominent citizens including Amartya Sen and Swami Agnivesh, contributed immensely to this historic judgment.

What will be the effects on this judgment on the everyday lives of India’s lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people? The daily violence upon and harassment of this section is well-known.

Violence and discrimination exists in the public sphere as well as in the private sphere (among friends, family and colleagues), and has in several instances led to death and suicide. When stopping short of death, it has meant lives that are lived in secret with the threat and danger of being “outed” looming large.

Discrimination towards same-sex loving men, who have been forcibly married off to women, has led not only to adverse effects on their own lives but also on the lives of the women they have been married to, who are unaware that their husbands are uninterested in them in any way.

Given this reality, the judgment has been long overdue to grant basic rights to these communities and ease the reality of their everyday lives. The symbolic significance of this judgment is beyond measure.

The constitutional framework within which it has been placed gives it enormous legitimacy, strength and significance. In legal terms, it only applies to Delhi but is a strong precedent that can be used in any other parallel court in this country. While other courts are free to disagree, they will have to counter the Delhi high court judgment substantially, a task that is close to impossible.

An appeal in the Supreme Court by any of the defendants in the PIL is a likely reality and will have to be addressed. This may not necessarily be a bad thing as a victory in the Supreme Court will vindicate the judgment of the Delhi high court nationally, beyond any further doubt. Either way, the legal battle may continue, but the effects of this judgment can never be entirely undone.

In real terms, the judgment, we hope, will mean a significant reduction in harassment of gay men, hijras, kothis, panthis, lesbians and transgenders in the public and public spheres. Further, this judgment gives us the right to demand our rights openly in cases where there is discrimination and violence on the basis of gender and sexual identity.

The basic civil rights assured to all citizens of this country need to be extended to same-sex desiring persons. This includes rights of property ownership, adoption, inheritance and others. These rights are not automatically attributed to same-sex loving people by this judgment but have to be fought for. That can now be done with pride and openness.

We hope this judgment will also open up space for individuals in this country to renegotiate the freedom and openness with which they live their lives. Colleagues, friends and families can no longer argue the illegality of homosexuality and we hope this will be encouragement for individuals to live more open and honest lives with their loved ones.

The struggle for equality and freedom has been flagged off to an illustrious start with this landmark judgment and will now continue with all the momentum that has been gained by it.

The joy of this historic day is beyond measure. Celebrations will be on while we look with hope at the future struggles that can now be fought, not as criminals, but as equal citizens of this country who have the space to demand their basic rights.

Let this day be the beginning of many more such illustrious days that reaffirm the rights of all Indians without discrimination and make its people proud of the country’s firm belief in freedom and democracy.

Ponni Arasu/The Asian Age

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