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A new kind of pride
Did you tick the transgender box on your Aadhar form? OK, you probably didn't , but if you've applied for the government's new unique identity number you must have noticed that the form now gives you the option of identifying as male, female or transgender (Purush/Stree/Anya). This small, barely noticed detail of the government's ambitious data gathering exercise is a sign of the direction in which things are moving exactly two years since July 2, 2009, the date on which Chief Justice A P Shah and Justice S Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court delivered their judgment in the Naz India case, which read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, thereby decriminalising same sex relations between consenting adults in India. It was a verdict that caused a bewildering array of reactions at that time. The lesbian , gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community was, of course, ecstatic, at the victory and the eloquent judgment which derived its argument from the basic principles of the Indian constitution. A few sceptical voices did wonder if the victory was more symbolic than substantive, since Section 377 was rarely used in practice. Some felt it would be something that only applied to elite, urban life. And a few wondered whether the verdict would really stand scrutiny in the Supreme Court appeal that was bound to come.
The media reaction was mostly positive, with editorial opinion generally agreeing that this was an overdue correction to an outdated British era law. International reaction was even more positive - gay writers like Andrew Sullivan and Rex Wockner noted that the verdict liberated more LGBT people at one stroke than any other in history. For the mainstream global media, the verdict signalled that India's economic story could be balanced by protection of minorities and basic human rights. LGBT rights are, rather unfortunately perhaps, emerging as a globally polarising issue. On the one hand, you have Europe, North and South America, which are all moving solidly towards tolerance and acceptance, on the other hand you have much of Africa, the Middle East and former Soviet Union moving the other way, and then there is China which has no real problems with gays, but is hugely allergic to rights of any kind. The Naz verdict firmly put India in the first category.
RAINBOW COLLISION But the negative reaction in India was also quick to come. Baba Ramdev was the most visible, giving early warning of his ambitions to move from TV yoga to a larger social agenda. He announced his plan to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court, but was beaten to it by another TV personality, astrologer Suresh Kumar Kaushal, whose petition, the first filed in the Supreme Court, claimed to be acting in the interests of national security since allowing homosexuality would lead to it being practised by lonely jawans in remote Army outposts, weakening them and leaving our borders open to enemy incursions! Kaushal's plea to the Supreme Court to ask the Indian Army to give its view on this was, perhaps sadly, denied. But every petition against the verdict has been admitted - in all around 15 - making for a curious coalition. Hindu fundamentalist groups are joined by Muslim extremist groups, evangelical Christian congregations (including one from Orissa that has been at loggerheads with one of the Hindu groups that it is now allies with), an organisation that believes that AIDS is a myth, one minor politician clearly looking for publicity, and a serious institution like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
On their side, the original petitioners, Naz India and Voices Against 377, have been joined by a group of parents of gays and lesbians who are defending their children , a group of leading mental health professionals , a group of leading academics, and Rajya Sabha MP and filmmaker Shyam Benegal, acting as a concerned citizen. In all, the case is quite a circus now, but the one notable non-participant is the government . In the Delhi High Court, it opposed decriminalisation, and after the verdict a few Congress politicians, like Vyalar Ravi, made negative noises. But word evidently went out that this buck was best passed to the courts, and since then there has only been silence. A few months back, this writer met a senior, and usually very vocal, Congress leader, and asked him for the government's view on the verdict. The minister muttered that the party was liberal, and abruptly changed the subject.
The most significant consequence of the government's decision was seen immediately after the verdict. Petitioners like Kaushal wanted a stay on the Delhi High Court's verdict, but government declined to join them in this, and the Supreme Court accordingly refused to give a stay. Under the Indian legal system, this meant that the Delhi High Court verdict was in force and applicable across the country. For the last two years then, homosexuality has been legal in India - but always only pending the Supreme Court hearing, which may start later this month.
For many in the LGBT community, it seems hard to imagine the clock could be turned back. The greatly increased visibility of LGBT people in the last couple of years builds trends that started before the judgment , but which received a strong affirmative boost from it. For many, the real benefit was not directly from the judgment, but from this visibility and the discussions it inspired. A lot of closeted people gained the courage to start coming to LGBT events, like film screenings, meetings and parties.
PINK INC Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, the wellknown gay activist, launched a gay magazine , Fantasy Fun, that differed from previous community magazines and e-zines by being quite openly a commercial lifestyle magazine like any other in the market, but just aimed at gay men.
In Mumbai, shops like Azaad Bazaar and D'Kloset have come up to cater to the gay community, and Queer Ink, an online bookstore and publisher, was launched to promote LGBT writing in India. More such writers are emerging, in different styles, like Mahesh Natarajan, whose collection Pink Sheep tells stories of gay men and their families in a gently comic style, or autobiography, as with A Revathi's Truth About Me, a powerful story of a hijra activist's life. A prominent women's magazine recently featured Rose, a transgender activist from Tamil Nadu, on its cover. Tamil Nadu, in fact, has become an unexpected frontrunner on queer issues, particularly with respect to support for transgenders.
Chennai's parade on June 26 showed how much change has taken place in that conservative bastion. Meanwhile, in Kerala, Thrissur is holding its march today, July 2, in a neat answer to all those who said that gay rights was only a big city issue.
The impact of all this is mostly felt within the LGBT community, so perhaps the better marker for change in society at large is seen in the increasing visibility of the issue in popular media. What's significant is that the real change here is being driven by TV at the moment, which suggests that it is here to stay. Films with LGBT characters are more high profile, yet it is TV, which potentially reaches all households, which results in lasting change. This can be seen from the West, where films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk, for all their acclaim, have not really led to greater LGBT visibility in films, as compared to TV shows like Glee, Brothers & Sisters, Desperate Housewives and all the soap operas and reality shows where LGBT characters are now routine.
What such shows do, with their repeated presence, and reach to people who would never see Oscar-bait films, is normalise LGBT people, even when they are shown in stereotyped ways. People are still likely to see LGBT people as weird and different, but such exposure makes it increasingly hard to believe that they should be treated as criminals . Surveys routinely show that most Indians aren't comfortable with LGBT people , but change the wording to ask if they should be treated as criminals, and the chances are that you will see the figures change. Reality shows like Dance India Dance have started showing gay characters, but what's truly remarkable is Maryada, a regular melodramatic serial, but with a gay character shown in a non-stereotyped way and with an important story-line.
Against all this progress there are reverses , which are many and may even rise. The persecution of Professor Siras by Aligarh Muslim University for being gay, and his subsequent and still unexplained death was a stark reminder of the problems that exist even in prestigious institutions. Lesbians have been notably left out of the media visibility , except for stories on subjects like 'lipstick lesbians' clearly meant more to titillate a male audience. (The rare exception to this has come from a few 'multiplex' films like Turning 30 and Life Goes On, both made by women directors who have tried to bring sensitivity to the subject).
Against this, lesbians and transgenders feature disproportionately in stories of harassment and violence. Recently in West Bengal's East Midnapore district two cousins, Swapna and Sujata Mondol, were found dead, probably from consuming pesticide . Even more shockingly, in Haryana's Bhiwani district, Naresh Kumar, a convicted rapist out on parole, publicly beat to death his aunt and another woman allegedly for having an affair - and not a person in the village tried to stop him. Stories like this are the dark side of all the progress being made on LGBT issues, a constant reminder of how much has to be done, and for which the Naz decision two years ago was just the starting point.
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