There is this routine I do on stage while performing stand-up comedy, where I ask members in the audience about how they would feel if their child came out to them as gay. More often than not, I’m met with stone-cold silence, or they succumb to the open-mindedness of a comedy show and say, “of course”, before nervously chuckling. But the most common response I get from parents who watch my act is, “See, it’s cool that you’re gay. I support gay rights and all. But my child could never be gay.” What they inherently believe is that since our kids do not exhibit the ‘symptoms’ associated with the ‘sickness’ of homosexuality, they are safe. We accept that you have it, our children can’t get it. Ever.
It’s the eve of my 27th birthday as I sit down to write this. Over the past month, I have travelled across three cities not only as a comedian, but also as a gay man trying to grasp where we stand when it comes to the layperson’s perception of India’s LGBTQ+ population. Section 377 is now almost history, with The Supreme Court of India decriminalising queer sex, but the conversation doesn’t move forward. In many ways, it has been a harrowing experience because after all the progress we seem to make as queer individuals, the general public’s understanding of our lives is still infinitesimal. On several occasions during my interactions with people, they have me convinced that even after having lived in this country for 27 years, my existence here is illegal.
Deciphering Section 377
One might be surprised to learn that the Indian Penal Code’s Section 377 was not a law that just happened to creep into our lives overnight. That definition, on the contrary, suits the several extortion racket-running dudes who use the law to harass gay couples in the country. The law was in fact modelled by our British wig-wearing overlords after the Buggery Act of 1533, which, on Googling, will show you a very graphic image of a dude doing nasty things to a goat. The image itself works its magic and you end up closing the browser before someone from your family or office thinks you are researching that part of the Internet for perverted reasons. You thereby never spend enough time reading about the law to bother enough. Fair enough.
TL;DR? They just don’t want people doing butt stuff. Penis in vagina is okay, in case you’re still wondering.
My foray into understanding my rights as a gay individual in modern-day India came through second-hand sources. There was very little activity online, so I would look for the keyword ‘homosexual’ in the usually unnoticed part of the newspapers. Another keyword that became synonymous with homosexuals in India was of course ‘Section 377’. As the law was being challenged in court I got to read more about it through Facebook and Twitter. I, like most Desi LGBTQ+ individuals, broke down with joy when the Delhi High Court repealed Section 377 in 2009. By 2013, I had managed to do enough reading on Section 377 to understand that it had problems with what I do in my bedroom, thus allowing me to be gay in public in all my glory. But by repealing the law, they had us believe that we were now free as gay individuals.
The next four years saw tremendous support shifting in favour of gay couples. What was once thought of as an act of sodomy was made appealing to a lot of urban allies because of adorable TV couples sweeping our collective pop culture conscience. But there are problems associated with being an openly gay couple in India that are far too many for any of our allies to comprehend, irrespective of Section 377 being read down yesterday. The first challenge came in the form of trying to convince our respective religious bodies to dial it down to a 21st century time code. But since Section 377 is also always brandished as a tool to catch hold of active pedophiles, I don’t know where and how we can begin this discussion. I leave it to activists who can deal with that chapter in a much controlled manner. By this year, most other religious bodies didn’t object to the law being modified, except three Christian organisations. Go figure.
Where We Stand
On two broken feet, with the joints attached facing the wrong direction.
What has been an interesting observation throughout my conversations with people on the streets of India, is the fact that everyone is aware that gay people exist. In their own little ways, people have figured out that being gay is okay and rebuking gay couples or physically hurting them for merely existing is nonsensical. Be it a group of college kids in Mumbai’s Bandra, a rickshaw driver in Pune, or a cigarette seller in the narrow bylanes of Bengaluru’s Koramangala—everyone agrees that we dropped the ball big time when it came to listening to gay people earlier and got swept up in collective hatred for no reason whatsoever. Amends are being made.
Sadly, that is where the level of empathy ends. If you are a gay man or a woman who blends with the society’s gender binaries easily, then you are exempt from the glares and hisses femme men and butch women deal with. But the worst end of this deal is meted out to India’s transgender community. Even after the historic NALSA judgement of 2014, trans persons find it extremely difficult to be accepted as the third gender. At an open mic recently, I asked a fellow comic if he knew what transgender means, and he clapped his hands loudly to make it obvious that he had shit for brains. Trans women are narrowed down to this miniscule community of outsiders who are perceived as beggars. Many believe in the power of a trans woman's blessings because they are historically magical beings. We exist in such a pitiful dichotomy in this country.
I have heard spine-chilling stories of transgenders being hunted down, beaten up, tortured, raped, and sometimes murdered and disposed off in the ocean. And if they manage to fall sick and decide to go to a clinic, they are left unattended or asked to wait till the very end. The judiciary has failed one of India’s most revered communities. Nothing we can do is ever going to be a good enough apology for how we have treated our nation’s trans community. The bathroom debate continues, employment rates are still low, and housing is out of the question.
My younger self saw a picture of an idyllic garden apartment with my partner, a pet and a baby. Now that I have grown up, I am made aware that Section 377 is the tip of the iceberg. The chances of finding a housing society that will let me rent a house as an openly gay man are sparse. And to top it off, the 2016 surrogacy bill is a sweet screw-you to gay couples. It’s like the levels of a video game that just keep getting harder. You are being beaten to a pulp before you even get to the boss level.
What Lies Ahead
The Indian queer rights movement has been building up to the day Section 377 gets abolished entirely. Weirdly enough, the law that has done so much damage to so many queer individuals is shrugged off by several straight individuals as something that can be just forgotten. I have to keep reiterating that it affects everyone equally, dum-dums. The law currently exists like Schrödinger's cat. We know it’s going to be gone soon, but will it still get rid of the stigma it helped breed for all these years?
The question that arises here: Is there hope for India’s queer freedom struggle?
There is. We have allies in powerful positions now. Heck, we have openly gay CEOs and princes now. Parents are marching alongside their kids on the streets during the Pride parade. A lot of doctors are mending ways and joining the Pride every year to make it publicly known that they were terrible as a community to one of the most crisis-hit population of our democracy. Even our lawyers are now becoming wiser and arguing the case not just from the sexual point of view, but from the aspect of loving someone and being termed a criminal for it. They may say some weird stuff along the way, but together we can even out the edges.
The next question is, what do we do with our new-found freedom?
There are problems on the outset that decriminalising gay sex will take care of, but it’s just going to open the floodgates and a lot will come pouring to the fore. India’s queer community needs to ease up on the in-fighting and get ready for the full extent of the challenges that are to come, getting marriage licenses being the least of them. It won’t be the end of our woes with the scrapping of Section 377. There are several such laws that need fixing. We need to question the nature of such laws, instead of allowing the law to teach us the order of nature.
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