This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
In 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalized Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which had made same-sex sexual activity illegal. When the decision came down, the local LGBTQ community danced with joy in the streets, and many believed it was a huge step in a march toward progress in the rapidly changing country. So it was a widespread shock when, just a few years later in 2013, the Supreme Court nullified that decision. As a result, India has the peculiar distinction of being one of the only countries in the world to have decriminalized and then re-criminalized homosexuality. In January this year, the Supreme Court announced it would revisit its decision by October, and activists have said they are “cautiously optimistic.” Until then, however, the uncertainty continues.
Aarti Singh and Jake Naughton, who formed a creative incubator together called Suno Labs, explore what it’s like today for India’s queer community through Yesterday Tomorrow Today, a project supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Born in the United States, and raised in northern India, Singh seeks to tell more complex narratives about India, and to make sure they are seen and consumed in India as well as abroad. Naughton, a gay American living in London, often works on stories about queerness around the world.
Through extensive interviews as well as still and video portraits, Yesterday Tomorrow Today explores the jarring effects created when social progress abruptly changes course, and addresses other frustrations, such as the limited narratives allowed for stories coming out of India, the way stories from the region are often taken away and never shared with the community that they come from, and the limited frameworks and media those stories are allowed to be told in.
Though the project was designed to be open-ended enough to let people come to their own conclusions, Singh and Naughton hope that viewers leave with an understanding that progress for any marginalized identity isn’t linear—what was taboo yesterday may be accepted tomorrow, and today, meanwhile, we move forward in whatever way we can.
Garlands and images of deities hang over the doorway of an apartment in the Dharavi area of Mumbai, India. This particular part of Dharavi is home to many hijras, a formally recognized third gender in India.
Karthika, a member of the hijra community, poses for a portrait near her home in Dharavi. Hijras occupy a unique place in India—they are revered in Hinduism, but many occupy the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
A scene from the cramped and winding Dharavi neighborhood. It’s a dense warren of flats stacked on top of one another, all painted vibrant hues.
A gay man from the city of Patna poses for a portrait. He is not out, so he preferred to hide his identity. Patna is the capital city of Bihar State, considered one of the country’s most rural, and acceptance for the country’s LGBTQ community has been slow to arrive.
A lesbian from Patna poses for a portrait. Though she is proud of her sexuality, she said she believed that eventually she would give in to the intense social pressure around marriage and get married to a man.
A gay man, who is a teacher in Mumbai, poses for a portrait. He is out to most of his friends and family, but fears showing his face due to fears of possible repercussions at his job.
Inder Vhatwar poses for a portrait with his partner, Ashish Srivastava, in the home the two share in Mumbai. Vhatwar is a prominent gay activist in Mumbai. He ran D’kloset, the only gay fashion shop in the city, but was forced to close it when his landlord wouldn’t renew his lease after Section 377 was reinstated.
A gay married couple display their wedding rings. They declined to share their names or faces out of fear of how their parents will react when they discover the news.
Faraz Arif Ansari, an out gay man and director of “Sisak,” an LGBTQ short film, poses for a portrait in his hotel room in New Delhi. The film tracks a brief encounter between two men who meet each other on Mumbai’s local trains.
A gay man from Patna poses for a portrait. Like others, he is not out, so he declined to show his face. Still, he was part of a small group of LGBTQ-identifying people.
Kriti, a member of Delhi’s LGBTQ community, poses for a portrait. In many cases, Western notions of sexuality and gender don’t translate seamlessly to India, and Kriti was one for whom Western labels seemed ill-fitting.