Queerscope | Homophobia and Society: Are We in Danger of Mass Persecution?

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Queeerscope is a bimonthly column that aims to look at queerness and its aspects, in concern with modern culture as well as lessons from queer movements across the world.

TW: This article has mentions of suicide and homophobic violence.

This article briefly covers the persecution of LGBT individuals in America, during the McCarthy era and attempts to analyse the homophobia in India in parallel to its understanding.

July 2, 2019. A 19 year old boy, Avinshu Patel, commits suicide in Chennai, after having written a Facebook post that now serves as his suicide note. He cited the harassment and homophobia he faced as a reason, stating, “Everyone knows I am a boy. But the way I walk, think and talk is like a girl. People in India do not like that…It is not my fault that I was born gay.” In Odisha, a 19 year old girl, Sarmila Malla, was tied to a tree and beaten by her neighbours after they allegedly found Malla and her girlfriend sharing a bed, an act they termed “immoral”.

Section 377, the colonial era law that served to criminalize homosexuality in India, was recently abolished, almost two decades after the struggle against it first began. On September 6, 2018, a unanimous verdict by the Supreme Court struck down the 19th century law, deeming it as unconstitutional. The above mentioned incidents of homophobia took place post the abolition, and stand to serve as gruesome examples of the persecution non-heterosexual and non-cisgender persons face in modern age India. Homophobia and transphobia are rampant prejudices in our supposed democratic country.

Keeping in mind the recent actions taken by the courts in terms of LGBT status and rights, we need to think about the steps the government is taking to actually combat persecution faced by homosexual and transgender communities. India, under the current government, has repeatedly displayed conservative and fascist views, especially in facets of discrimination against minorities. As of now, devices to exert control have been used, with disastrous consequences. Journalists, academics, unions, Dalits – they are among only a few facing consequences of what can be termed as McCarthyism, adapted to the Indian context. In fact, scholars such as Prof. Ramchandra Guha have been warning of such an ideology. Under McCarthyism, political repression, campaigns of fear, and witch hunts were just some of the techniques used to tip over majoritarian views.

Under the McCarthyian rulership in America, came about another lesser known persecution, the echoes of which have been recently seen in countries across the world. The Lavender Scare was a  phenomenon of the 1950s, where witch hunts and mass firing outed homosexual individuals to the government and society. The American federal government began associating communism with homosexuality, creating a deadly double-edged sword which they could then use to invoke ideas of morality in public perception. And use, they did. In an aim to promote ‘family’ values and eugenics, President Eisenhower famously signed off on Executive Order 10450, which restricted homosexual individuals from working under federal employment. Moreover, thousands were fired from their jobs at federal offices under the pretext of them being gay or lesbian. These people not only lost their jobs, they were also publicly outed. It was believed that since they were leading double lives, they may not be able to perfectly guard the secrets of the government and either be double agents or susceptible to selling out.

While the current Indian government has, on the face of it, supported the rights of LGBT individuals in the country, where do we see just redressal of the injustices suffered throughout the years? Stigma lingers in this post-abolition world. Ignominy and harassment are still persistent. In 2018, students in Kamala Girls School, Calcutta, were asked to write letters of “confession” that stated they were lesbians. Kamala students said it wasn’t uncommon for teachers and administrators to conduct anti-gay witch hunts. The Indian Railways arrested as many as 1,399 transgender persons in January of this year itself, for the “crime” of begging. In return, jobs provided to them have been next to nothing.

This is not to say that there has been no progress. The Indian Psychiatric Society, in a position statement on homosexuality, said that it was not a psychiatric disorder. Businesses have started to implement LGBT inclusive policies and Bangalore recently held India’s first LGBT job fair. However, discrimination persists, and openly so. BJP MLA Sadhna Singh, in a thinly veiled comment exhibiting transphobia and sexism, called Mayawati “worse than a eunuch”. Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi referred to transpersons as “the other ones” in the Lok Sabha, amidst laughter. In a more McCarthyian vein, Indian Army General Bipin Rawat stated that homosexual activities will not be allowed in the INA.  Can we shroud these behaviours under lack of knowledge? And if so, then for how long?

The Supreme Court in this past month, denied a petition on civil rights for LGBT people. The recently passed Transgender (Right of Persons) Act does not respect the self-determination of the transgender community and does not adhere to the NALSA provisions. We are not in a despicable state of persecution as 1950s America but we are binding ourselves to a fascist mode of governance as time goes by. McCarthyian oppression and punishment are already visible in our society. The homophobic law may be banned, but there has been little progress. Judgement persists. It is not enough to say an apology is owed, but there needs to be a translation of that to action and activity.

Aditi Paul is a Research Associate at the Queer Resource Center, One Future Collective.