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Demonising Homosexuals In India

By Siddharth Srivastava

International Herald Tribune [France]
September, 2003

The Indian government recently reaffirmed its stand against homosexuality in
India, a move that could drive the gay community further into the fringes of society.

Arguing before the Delhi High Court, the government argued that "Indian society is intolerant to the practice of homosexuals/lesbianism."

The government was replying to a petition filed by the New Delhi-based Naz foundation, which works for the welfare of HIV positive and AIDS patients, that had sought to legalize homosexuality in India. The foundation had challenged the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes homosexuality illegal. According to the law, "whoever voluntarily has sex against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be
punished with imprisonment for life, or for a term that may extend to 10 years."

The Naz foundation argued that due to fear of police action, consenting adult males having sexual relations were not coming out, thereby hampering medical intervention.

The government's reiteration of the law comes during a time of hesitant moves by Indian gays to venture out of their closet existence. In June this year, more than 100 people marched in a gay rights parade in Kolkata in a rare display of
activism for one of the country's most hidden cultures.
Braving bemused and at times unsympathetic responses from hundreds of bystanders, the men -many wearing makeup and jewelry - waved banners, including one that said, "Let us love and be loved." Others waved the rainbow flag, a symbol of the gay rights movement.

It has been a rough ride for gays in India. In the past, the police have raided health-workers working with gays charging them for conspiring to promote "unnatural sexual acts." A few years ago, "Fire," a movie by top director Deepa Mehta starring leading actresses Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi that dealt with the subject of lesbianism was forcibly pulled out of movie halls nationwide by right-wing protestors.

In popular culture, Hindi movies have dealt with gay characters, but only as caricatures to be made fun of.

Sylvie, who runs several high-profile beauty salons in Delhi, is effusive about being a woman trapped in a man's body. His cross-dressing is the subject of tabloid photographers, but he has never admitted to being a practicing gay.

The government's position has spurred a whirl of discussion among gay groups on the Internet. Many have talked about the changes in attitudes as
well as rights of gays all over the world. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down Texas's antisodomy laws; two provinces in Canada -
British Columbia and Ontario - have ratified same-sex marriages, while in Britain, homosexual couples will soon be offered a civil partnership
conferring upon them the same legal rights as that of heterosexual couples.

"At least people should know that we exist," was one comment on the Internet. "Even the UN recognizes that being gay is not a disease. We do
not want sympathy and we do not want support. All we ask for is our right to live our life the way we want to without hurting others."

The most serious criticism is that the government's position will further marginalize the gay community in a tradition-bound society. This will only drive it further underground, with serious negative consequences in an age when HIV/AIDS is set to assume pandemic proportions.

Section 377 is clearly anachronistic and regressive and should have been removed from the statute book a good while ago.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.