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Queer Indians Tell Us How Much has Changed Since Gay Sex Was Decriminalised A Year Ago

“I think that one thing that has changed with Section 377 being read down, is more respect for us, and a willingness to try to understand us.”

by Shamani Joshi
06 September 2019, 10:00am

Photo (left to right): Rishi Raj Vyas, Jason Arland, Bhakti Chachada and Anisha Sharma 

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

I still remember the unsurmountable sense of pride that overtook India exactly a year ago, when Section 377, the draconian law that criminalised “unnatural sex” and especially targeted the LGBTQ community, was read down. It was as if the country was walking on rainbows as crossdressers, drag queens and queer people could finally embrace their inner selves without being afraid of getting arrested for swiping right on dating apps. But while 6/9 (because September 6 duh) itself is marked with a spectrum of smiles, many were worried that the happiness would be short-lived and fall to pieces once the society-driven self-doubt kicked in and people realised that just because the law is on their side, doesn’t mean the in-laws will be.

Fast forward to one year later and we’ve still got a long way to go before we find the pot of acceptance at the end of the rainbow. We may have decriminalised gay sex, but we’re yet to legalise love, and the LGBTQ community continues to fight for the right to marriage, adoption, inheritance of property and total social inclusion. So how much has really changed over the last year? We asked queer Indians to find out how they feel one year down the line with 6/9.

Jason Arland, 22, model

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Photo: Jason Arland

There has been a positive change because now I feel that there is a law that stands for me. So many queer people who have always been scared or didn’t feel confident enough or felt that they didn’t belong, are now empowered and celebrated by the law, which reinforces that who we are is not wrong. Now, people have realised that there is no fault in us and we don’t have to pretend to be something we’re not.

There’s more representation of our community in terms of movies and web series, and as a child, you see this and internalise it, even relate to it. This has opened up the scope for dialogue and reduces the stigma that may have existed before. Now, even if we are scared, we know that there are people like us out there who will stand up for us regardless of our sexual orientation. I wish I had it when I was younger, and I’m so glad I have it now. The Indian fashion and film industry has always been supportive, but over the last year, they have gotten even more inclusive.

Anisha Sharma, 31, creative director

I think that one thing that has changed with 377 being read down, is more respect for us, and a willingness to try to understand us. Earlier, when I told people I was queer, it was immediately a license for cis people to ask me whatever they wanted to ask, even invasive questions about sex. But now there’s slightly more respect in terms of trying to understand where we come from and what we feel. Of course, this is also because I come from a place of privilege and don’t live with my parents.

Now, a lot of organisations, brands and corporations have realised the value of catering to the community. While this gives the younger generation more representation, I’m worried about whether it’s because you truly accept me or because you’re actually worried about losing business. I have been kicked out of restaurants in the past because people were uncomfortable with me and my partner, so the fact that restaurants are now more open-minded, with some even adding an LGBTQ friendly tag, is definitely a huge change, even though I think it needs to be more heartfelt. And even while some public spaces are inclusive, if my partner and I go to a park or tourist spot and want to take a couple-y picture, I don’t know how comfortable I would be doing that, especially since I am a girl, and given the recent incident in the UK where two lesbians were beaten up by a bunch of homophobic people. If that can still happen over there, then who’s to say I won’t get beaten up during my evening walk.

In terms of whether people are more comfortable coming out, it depends on the generation. I’ve seen so many more people coming out on social media and to themselves. They’re younger, more confident and feel a true sense of pride. They haven’t had to face the shame of being publicly rejected and feel that the society thinks of them as disgusting, so it’s less intimidating to come out. Also, younger parents are now more woke so it’s easier for future babies to come out to their parents, especially with social media and the resounding rainbow love that is happening all around. Even something as simple as putting a pride flag in your bio can make it feel like a safe space for someone still in the closet.

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Photo: Bhakti Chachada (left) and Anisha Sharma (right)

Bhakti Chachada, 26, market researcher

I’ve definitely noticed some changes, especially in corporate environments. I worked with a prominent field market research company, and it was one of the very few organisations that set up an employee committee to cater to the community, which is the first major step that I have seen an organisation take after Section 377. In such an environment, people who are more knowledgeable about traditional relationships, are now also trying to understand our side of it. Brands are advertising left, right and centre, and it’s probably to come across as progressive and open-minded. Even so, just the fact that institutions are realising the value in supporting the LGBTQ cause is normalising the conversation. Just a few days ago, I came out to my driving instructor when he asked me why I wasn’t married. I said it wasn’t legal yet. Even though he didn’t know much about my community, it started a conversation. Using the example of Section 377 being repealed and the legal backing we have been given as a reference point, I was able to confidently explain about the community and our culture in a more open manner, something I probably wouldn’t have felt like I could do confidently before.

Joeita Lahiri, 20, musician

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Photo: Joeita Lahiri

When Section 377 was read down, it was such a big deal, but I feel like a lot of people were let down and it felt a little bit like the government had given us this right just for show because we still don’t have the same rights as the heteronormative section would. Of course, on a personal level, you can’t expect things to change overnight. At least now there are pride organisations in even the smallest of cities, the fear of coming out has reduced, dating apps are way more inclusive and small things like Tinder adding 26 new genders of sexuality are helping bring about the change.

I came out when I was 16-17 and people around me were supportive, but for people who are still in the closet, small stuff like seeing rainbow flags everywhere can make them feel happy, and included in our society. Earlier, there was a lot of cultural as well as social stigma. Now that parents don’t have to be afraid of their gay son being a criminal, things are improving on the social front, but not so much culturally, since we are still not as open-minded in India.

Still, even if people are discriminatory, they’re more discreet about it and won’t be as vocal about their hatred or homophobia. In terms of PDA, it differs from place to place, like it wouldn’t matter much in safe spaces like at a college festival or a club, but doing it at a railway station or tourist spots is still very much a big deal.

Ultimately, the biggest change I’ve seen is a more supportive attitude from people who aren’t even in the community. The Ahmedabad pride parade I help organise used to get about 60 people, but this year we got 300, so I know that though it will still take some time, things are going to get better.

Rishi Raj Vyas, 18, student

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Photo: Rishi Raj Vyas

When the verdict came out, we all celebrated with happiness, even dancing in front of the police station, shouting “I am gay”, because they could no longer criminalise us for being who we are. But the bitter truth is that anxiety and depression levels in the queer community are still high. With the verdict, the institutionalised oppression has reduced and it’s easier for us to get permission for things like protests. However, while we don’t have to worry about the police harassing us anymore, the on-ground bullying and violence against the queer community continues. So, for starters, we need anti-discrimination laws to establish just how wrong being homophobic is.

My partner and I can now do things we could not do openly before, like going to the doctor. But, even in my college, when I tried to start a queer collective, the vice principal said the institution cannot endorse this. Despite wanting to make the school a safe space, they remain close-minded and try to keep it as an andar ki baat (internal issue). For real, tangible change, we need to introduce queer education in our schools, sensitise students, normalise it, mobilise more people, talk about the queer community on television, hold marches and speak out. When we go outside to protest and do nukkad nataks (street plays), we also spout homophobic slurs and people laugh at them, but we use this humour to make them understand our issues and give them examples of things they shouldn't say or do. It’s in our hands to make the change because no one else is going to fight for us. We have to resolve the conflict with ourselves and learn to accept ourselves so that everyone can. We have to really mean it when we say: We’re queer and we’re here.

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