“Being gay is not crime in India, but having gay sex is a criminal offence.” Suraj Sanap, a legal officer at Lawyers Collective—a legal advocacy NGO founded by the lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover—explained. Sanap begin his career with Lawyers Collective in 2013, the year the Supreme Court reinstated Section 377, which criminalises homosexual sex.
Sanap also works with the Humsafar Trust for legal representation of LGBTQ+ community. He explained how the law and social stigma often left people using Tinder, Grindr and other dating apps vulnerable to blackmail.
VICE spoke to Sanap about his experience of helping people facing exactly this denial of access.
VICE: You mentioned blackmail and extortion were a problem for queer people?
Sanap: In March and April of 2014, we received two complaints of blackmailing and extortion; one was a bisexual male and the other was a gay man. They were both harassed and extorted by the same group of two to three men, who posed as gay men and met them at their home or hotel room.
They never had sex, but threatened the men that they would tell their parents if they did not hand over their money, laptop, and watch. This is textbook extortion.
Why not go to the police?
We went to police; the funny thing is that the police don’t understand these cases and laws. They noted it down as simply robbery. “ Ladka aaya, daraya dhamkaya aur paisa lekar gaya. Ye to chori ka case hai, where is extortion and blackmail (A man threatened you and stole your things)” They don't understand that the threat of telling your parents or the police is blackmail.
So what did you do?
They registered a robbery case. You have one more chance. When the case goes to court, there is a stage where the charges are framed. You can then convince the judge that this is not robbery but extortion. The two laws for this are IPC 388 and 389. The judge filed the case under section 388, extortion by threat of accusation.
This must have been a big deal?
Several journalist from across the country as well as internationally covered it. It was big for us; even if only the charges were framed, it was big. Now there was a judge, who knew that a gay man was standing in front of him and he has to ensure that justice is delivered. That is the milestone for me.
What has been one of the worst moments in your career?
One of the lowest points was when a 22-23-year-old man came to us in Bombay. He met an older guy online who was in his mid 30’s. They’d had consensual sex before but one day our client went to the house of the older man and was sexually assaulted.
It was rape. Forced sex is rape, but in India, rape can only happen to women.
The client insisted that he did not want to go to court. He told us that he only wanted to punish the accused, so we offered to file criminal charges. The problem with that was we’d have to go to the police and explain how the client and this man met. If it came out that yes he had been raped, but he had also at one point had consensual sex, he would have been jailed under 377.
He was only 22 at that time and was still in college.
We had to explain to him that the best thing to do was to do nothing. Don’t go to the police, they will attack you. It was hard to explain that this was how it was, and there was nothing to do but sit with it for life.
Are extortion cases the most frequent?
In Delhi and Mumbai, yes.
Some of the other cases we received are from lesbian couples whose families are trying to keep them apart. They’ve either been detained by their families or have run away and need support. There have been cases where a few transpeople have been booked under anti-begging laws.
How helpful are the police towards queer people?
There have been cases in Rajasthan where policemen would pose as gay men to arrest unsuspecting men. In Mumbai, the police would intentionally go to catch them in public parks, public toilets or cruising points to entrap them. Not to prosecute them but to extort money out of it.
We never let our clients go to police station alone, because they are not helpful and quite conservative. There is no way to communicate how homophobic they are.
Are all queer communities equally at risk for blackmail or extortion?
The blackmail cases are based on the 377 and it covers only bisexual man, gay and transgender men. We’ve mostly dealt with cases regarding these groups.
How supportive are the parents in such cases?
Almost never. Most of the victims are not out to their parents and that is one of the biggest reasons why the victims does not file criminal charges against the accused.
What can people do to decrease the risk of such instances?
To reduce the risk of a crime you have to reduce the anonymity. Meet publicly, in the park or for a drink or coffee.