Pride month has become ultra cool in India these days.
I have seen pink momos, cookies with Pride icing, rainbow-coloured dog chew toys and even rainbow-sliced bread pop up as soon as June rolls around. All that rainbow razzle-dazzle can be blinding. While promoting his gay romcom, Shubh Mangal Zyaada Savdhan, in 2020, Ayushmann Khurrana said he was proud that India had legalised same-sex marriage. He later called it a “genuine slip”, but it is easy to get carried away by the rainbow euphoria and forget that while the Supreme Court judgement decriminalising gay sex in 2018 (reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code) was a landmark one, it’s a lonely landmark. Since then, the government has resolutely resisted the notion of advancing LGBTQ+ rights beyond simple decriminalisation, which, it bears reminding, is not a right at all, just a stepping stone to equal rights. When a plea for recognising same-sex marriage under the Special Marriage Act came up, the Centre was vehement in its opposition, saying the Supreme Court might have decriminalised “a particular human behaviour” but it “neither intended to, nor did in fact, legitimise the human conduct in question”. No one, the Centre added, was “dying because of the lack of marriage registration”.
One could be a cynic and wonder what decriminalisation has gotten the LGBTQ+ community other than a glut of rainbow stickers. As Sharif D. Rangnekar, author of the memoir Straight To Normal—My Life As A Gay Man, said in an interview in 2020, “Had the press, as well as Central and state governments, done what the (2018) verdict suggested—to sensitise society, including key government departments, such as the police, we may have made some tangible progress.”
Perhaps we would not even have had the case that ended up before Justice Anand Venkatesh of the Madras high court recently. A queer women couple sought protection from harassment by the Madurai police at the instigation of their parents, who disapproved of their relationship. In a 104-page judgement, Justice Venkatesh not only put an end to the harassment, he ordered queer-affirmative counselling for the couple and their parents, suggested sensitisation programmes for different government departments and issued guidelines on how the police should treat future complaints.
While activists can weigh the merits of the various measures the court prescribed, what is moving is Justice Venkatesh’s honesty. He writes, “I am also trying to break my own preconceived notions about this issue and I am in the process of evolving.”
He said he had never personally encountered anyone from the LGBTQ+ community. So he set out to educate himself. He met members from community organisations like SAATHII, a trans woman and her mother, attended a session with a clinical psychologist, was given books like Maya Sharma’s Loving Women. He writes that the psychologist, the community activists and even the petitioners themselves became the “gurus” who helped him in his process of “evolution”, pulling him out of the “darkness (ignorance)”.
Not so long ago, another judge also said he had never encountered anyone from the gay community. When the Supreme Court was ruling on Section 377 in 2013, Justice G.S. Singhvi asked almost every lawyer who appeared in the case if they knew any gay person because he did not. In his ruling with S.J. Mukhopadhaya restoring Section 377 to the rulebooks, the justices dismissed LGBTQ+ people as a “minuscule fraction of the country’s population”, as if that somehow made them less deserving of their rights, or as the judgement put it, their “so-called rights”. Singhvi later said child pornography had weighed heavily on his mind even though the case had always been about consenting adults.
Writing about the legal battle around Section 377 in the anthology Sex And The Supreme Court, Saurabh Kirpal says that a “sensitised and empathetic” judiciary makes all the difference. “It was judicial indifference that resulted in Section 377 being retained on the statute books, and it was the clear presence of empathy that resulted in Section 377 being read down.”
But that empathy is not just a matter of chance. It comes from visibility. If you are not visible, you matter less, your rights can become “so-called” rights. When the first petitions against Section 377 were filed in the Delhi high court, no member of the LGBTQ+ community was comfortable being the standardbearer for the cause in court. By the time the Supreme Court read down Section 377, that was no longer the case. Writer Vikram Seth had put his unshaven mugshot on the cover of India Today, holding a placard saying “Not a criminal”. LGBTQ+ people like Ritu Dalmia, Navtej Singh, Aman Nath, Sunil Mehra and Ayesha Kapur had filed a writ petition challenging Section 377, saying it impacted their lives directly. Twenty IITians approached the court saying geekily that Section 377 had “first, second and nth order effects in the lives of LGBT individuals”.
It is a matter of quiet pride that when Justice Venkatesh reached out, there were groups like SAATHII, trans women like Dr Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju and her mother, counsellors like Vidya Dinakaran to guide him. We fear coming out, like the parents of the couple at the centre of the Madurai case, because we are afraid of log kya kahenge (what people will say). The fears of stigma are not unjustified but people also have the immense capacity to surprise us. Years ago, I came out to an old friend over a letter. He said he was shocked by it and wondered how he could refashion his image of me in his head. He slept over it and then realised it didn’t change who I was or the memories we shared. Now he can pull my leg about gay life. It’s not the elephant in the room that we must tiptoe around.
LGBTQ+ Indians are indeed a minority, perhaps even minuscule. The movement would not have come this far this fast without the allies who have stood by it. They were the wind beneath its wings. In fact, sometimes they were the wings. Like Anjali Gopalan, head of the Naz Project, who spoke up for LGBTQ+ Indians when they didn’t want to appear in court themselves or lawyers like Anand Grover, who pursued the long arc towards justice in court, or Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who added his weight to an open letter against Section 377. While the queer petitioners in the Supreme Court made waves (and justifiably so), this story would not have been written without people like Minna Saran. When her son Nishit came out to her on camera in the 1999 documentary Summer In My Veins, she winced and said: “You are joking. You like to shock people.” Nishit died in a car crash in 2002. In 2011, Saran was the lead signatory on a petition with 18 other parents against Section 377.
Many of these people spoke up on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community long before Pride cookies became cool. When human computer Shakuntala Devi wrote The World Of Homosexuals in 1977, she was attacked for writing a “voyeuristic book”. The World Of Homosexuals might have had its problems as a book but her courage in writing about those “forced to live in ‘half-hiding’ throughout their lives” should never be forgotten.
Justice Venkatesh, however, feels special. His ruling was not prompted by any need to appear woke. It came from questioning his own preconceptions. That is something all of us, regardless of ideology, can be inspired by. That is the change we would all like to see.
In a month when Pride can sometimes feel more like a celebration of food colouring than equal rights, this is something truly worth being proud about.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.