Section 377: A Queer Year In Review

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TW: Violence, Homophobia, Suicide (The following article contains queer news from this year in India. Some pieces may be triggering to some individuals).

On September 6th 2018, the Indian Supreme Court made a historic decision: reading down the archaic, colonial Section 377 law, which criminalised ‘gay sex’ between consenting adults, announcing it to be unconstitutional. A year has already come and gone, so how exactly has the judgement affected the LGBTQ+ community? What has changed? And what does the future look like for the community in India?

Creating Space For More Queer Heroes To Emerge

The reading down of Section 377 helped foster a safer space for queer individuals to come out this year. Dutee Chand became India’s first openly gay athlete earlier on in the year. Despite backlash from her community, Chand claimed that the Indian Supreme Court’s decision gave her courage to publicly speak out about her sexuality. Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju, two lawyers who were leading the fight for the decriminalisation of Section 377, also publicly came out as a couple. These two cases highlight the importance for queer individuals, particularly for queer women (who usually have a lack of visibility compared to their cis, gay, male counterparts), to feel represented in India.

Workplace Inclusiveness

This past year has seen a huge rise in LGBTQ+ inclusiveness in the workplace. Corporations such as Citigroup and Star India have extended their group health insurance policies to cover partners of LGBTQ+ employees, with Citigroup also setting up a Pride Network. The Pride Circle also organised India’s first ever LGBTQ+ job fair, with a sell-out crowd, proving that there is a need and demand for discrimination in the workplace to be tackled.

Transgender Rights: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019 came into effect this year. What should have been a bill that is meant to protect transgender people, is in fact regressive, with the need for certification for transgender individuals based on a medical examination report. The bill also fails to provide any action in the fields of education, politics and employment, and includes intersex people within the bill, without differentiating or highlighting their identity.

Pride Continues to Build Momentum

Amritsar held its first ever pride parade this year, organised by two 18-year-old students. Pride also continued to thrive in areas outside of the main cities, such as Dehradun and Patna. Kolkata held its 20th anniversary Pride celebration, with the inaugural celebrations, dubbed ‘The Friendship Walk’, seeing around 20 activists march and speak to individuals and NGOs.

Safety Concerns

The past year has seen more conversation around the safety of queer individuals. One such medium for there to be harassment towards queer individuals is the world of online dating. Noticing this trend, Blued, the largest gay dating social media app, launched India’s first anti-cyberbullying campaign for the LGBTQ+ community, along with a helpline for victims. Despite positive legislation, queer based violence still occurs, even in the most ‘progressive’ LGBTQ+ countries. A 19-year-old woman in Odisha was tied to a tree and beaten by her neighbours after she was found in bed with another woman from her village. Further, there was the tragic incident of Avinshu Patel, who died by suicide after feeling the weight of constant homophobic bullying and hopelessness.

Film and Media

Bollywood has had trouble portraying LGBTQ+ characters in the past, perpetuating negative and exaggerated stereotypes. This year has seen the start of a shift in the industry, with Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga being released in February, which looked at the story of a closeted lesbian and her coming out to her family. A teaser trailer for Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan was also released, which will look at a gay couple dealing with a taboo subject of a bodily issue. Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival held its 10th festival this year, with independent queer cinema coming to the forefront. ‘Keeping It Queer’, India’s only queer podcast, also launched its third season in June with no signs of slowing down.

The Perfect Indian (Queer) Family?

Despite the ruling of Section 377, all other civic rights are continually denied to LGBTQ+ individuals, with numerous marriage equality petitions having been denied. However, in what is considered to be the first ‘rainbow’ wedding, Tista Das and Dipan Chakrabarty, a transgender couple, recently got married. The Madras High Court did rule that the term ‘bride’ in the Hindu Marriage Act would be inclusive of trans women, although this still operates in the heteronormative framework of traditional marriage. The central government also recently passed the Surrogacy Bill, which bans commercial surrogacy. Same-sex partners, live-in partners and most single people, will be unable to hire a surrogate to carry their child, making it even harder for queer individuals and partners to raise children. LGBTQ+ couples still face barriers, with still no legal documentation being available to prove their relationship, which further causes many financial complications.

Looking Ahead

With the decriminalisation of Section 377, queer issues have come to the forefront more than ever before, with conversations finally starting to happen. While there is more visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals in popular media, there is still a long way to go. We are still not considered equal in the eyes of law-makers and sections of society, and mindsets still haven’t changed.

Indian High Courts have shown a tendency to protect couples in some cases, but the Government needs to finalise legislation to further protect LGBTQ+ citizens, so these situations do not need to escalate to such dangerous extremes of potential abuse and violence, for the Indian courts to acknowledge and protect queer individuals. One thing can be said though: the Indian LGBTQ+ community shows no signs of slowing down with its advocacy for creating socio-legal change and activism for a better future.

To keep up to date with queer news happening in India, be sure to check out our bi-monthly news feature In Focus.

Harshil Shah is a Research Associate with the Queer Resource Center at One Future Collective.

Featured image source: Foreign Policy