It was the time of hearing the plea against Section 377 by the Supreme Court of India. Section 377 is a draconian law that criminalises “unnatural sex” or “sex against the order of nature” based on archaic notions of sex, marriage and patriarchy. The LGBT community in India finally saw a ray of hope, as it still recovered from the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013 that upheld Section 377 by upturning the Delhi High Court verdict. That ruling was a shattering blow to a community has been systemically discriminated against in almost all countries and cultures, with no other explanation other than a hetero-normative definition of marriage.
As the hearing began on 10 August, 2018, the community and its allies waited with bated breath about news of the first day. As the arguments were made on the right to privacy and the protection of sexual orientation that comes under this purview, it affected some people who believed this issue was “blown out of proportion”. Some went on to suggest that the issue was not at all important because it had affected only a “minuscule population” and nobody has been convicted so far under Section 377. Surely, there are more important issues to be looked at? Apparently, a petition requesting to look into the killing of stray dogs is still pending in the Supreme Court of India. When 20,000 people a year die of dog bites, the Supreme Court decided to prioritise this issue pertaining to this “Page 3 crowd”?
Some “activists” took it further. With the country suffering from problems such as acute poverty, discrimination against Dalits and women’s safety being under threat, “talking about gay rights seems to be a far-fetched bridge to be crossed”. So, “let women get their rights, let the Dalits and minorities get their rights and then we can talk about the LGBT group.”
This article is a response to these notions that seem to be prevalent amongst some people. In an attempt to get my viewpoint across, I have had several discussions about these very issues on social media platforms. This article can be considered a compact version of all the threads that I have been an active part of, with relation to LGBT.
First things first, I must say I am slightly glad. These arguments have proven that the debate around LGBT issues has matured. Now, it seems at least some people are done debating that this whole community is an “abomination” to society, or what “sex against the order of nature” actually is. It seems it has been accepted that it is okay for two consenting adults, whatever their gender, to engage in sex. The questions now are more centered on granting civil rights, representation, legal backing and how important the issue really is.
So, let me begin by first talking about the LGBT community. For years, the community has been subjected to harassment and discrimination for having a different identity and yes, homosexuality is as much an issue about identity, expression and fundamental rights as much as it is about sexual orientation. It has taken years of activism and courage by LGBT activists to bring this issue to the fore and have it even under discussion. Individuals with a different identity have been brought up to have a sense of shame about their own natural feelings, making it an issue of prejudice, self-hate and mental health. This is not simply a fight to decide who an individual wants to be with – it is a fight against norms that have been oppressive and debilitating. One can agree that there are other causes that demand our attention too. But the issue of homosexuality is certainly not as trivial as being thought of, and needs to be dealt with urgency.
What about the numbers, one may ask, especially since it is a “microscopic minority”? As of 2018, only 25 countries recognise same-sex marriage by law. An estimated 3.5% of adults in the US identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual (approximately 11.4 million people) and 0.3% (approximately 1 million people) of adults identify as transgender. In fact, these numbers are thought to be even higher, as people who identify as LGBT do not disclose their identity for fear of being discriminated against. According to Wikipedia, (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_sexual_orientation), the number of people who identify as LGBT vary from 2-10% in the countries in which this study was undertaken. Out of the 25 countries that have decided to grant civil rights to gay couples, most of them are low-population countries comparatively. That means a massive number of people still don’t have basic fundamental rights pertaining to their identity, freedom and privacy. According to the figures submitted by the Government of India to the Supreme Court in 2012, there are about 2.5 million gay people recorded in India, and these figures are only based on those individuals who have self-declared to the Ministry of Health. This is more than the number of people residing in the state of Goa according to the 2011 census. It seems that this community is not exactly as small as it was originally thought of.
But then, what about ‘more important rights’? Surely, our country needs to focus on issues such as women’s rights and Dalit rights, which apparently need to be solved first before moving on to LGBTQ? Let me point out that the denial of rights to women and Dalits and other minorities is not mandated in Indian law unlike gay rights, and therein lies the basic difference. Most importantly, if anyone studies the history of human rights, they will realise that rights work in tandem with one another. A minority group getting access to basic rights paves the way for other oppressed groups to fight for their rights too. The human rights narrative can never be looked at like a silo, as society does not bestow only one type of identity on a person. Sometimes a person can be a woman, a Dalit and identify as gay: all together and this is called intersectionality. For such a person, it is important to make significant progress in all human rights movements in order to guarantee them their complete set of rights. In fact, if someone belongs to an oppressed group, they cannot just fight their oppression: they have to fight the whole oppressive system. If not, it will be a lost battle, as granting of rights to one group and not to the other will lead to the same distortions the oppressive systems were creating in the first place.
In fact, if one looks at the history of human rights, rights have always evolved in a symbiotic ecosystem, with the understanding of rights coming from various groups and their struggles. As an oppressed group, one benefits from recognizing the rights of other oppressed groups, and that is exactly why the systems of power fear introducing new rights. I remember one show set in the early 1900s of America, where a high-and-mighty official remarked, “Freedom from slavery? Free the black slaves? Next thing you know, women will be asking for the right to vote!” And that is exactly what happened. It is never a case of one before the other; it is always a case of togetherness.
So finally, someone asked: if we allow gay couples to have sex and make it legal, what will prevent other forms of “perversions” from coming into place? What if paedophiles demand rights too? And what about bestiality? Most importantly, how do we draw the line between inclusion and disruption?
I am not commenting on other forms of sexual behaviour right now, but let me clarify that LGBT activists are essentially advocating for consensual sex amongst adults. No way are they or anyone for that matter trying to fight for a system which will condone coercive sex. Currently, the forms of behaviour outlined in this argument involve a party who cannot effectively convey consent, be it a child or animal. Till the time further scientific research is done on these types of sexual behaviour, the LGBT community does not see this as part of the change their activism is trying to bring about.
Most importantly, the attempts at inclusion are very different than attempts at disruption. The former involves peaceful demonstrations, recourse to legal mechanisms and attempts to change oppressive laws by recognising the fallacy in arguments. Any movement concerning rights such as women’s rights, worker’s rights, minority rights etc. follow similar patterns. They also rely on empathy and have advocates dedicated to research and objective thinking. For eg. There are tons of academic studies out there that classify homosexuality as a natural variant, and of social norms such as gender identity being social constructs. An inclusive movement at this day and stage will look for backings that support their arguments, preferably well-researched and coming from reliable sources. Most importantly, an inclusive movement does not gobble up other individual rights – in fact, it adds and diversifies it. LGBT rights will add to the plethora of rights that define an individual, while not disallowing anyone else to their right to marriage. A disruptive movement lacks all of these. Violence is a disruptive movement for example, because it does not do most or all of these things. It is not justified on either simple grounds of empathy nor does it have unbiased vocal supporters who have nothing to gain from it other than the pleasure of being on the right side of history.
We are at the day and age where the world has become aware of its rights as an individual and as a community. The LGBT movement is just the beginning of the monumental change we will see happening in our world in the near future. Let us be part of this sweeping force that is striving for an equitable, diverse world by challenging old notions of patriarchy, marriage, power and distribution of resources. The world needs each one of us for this desirable change to happen, and it is time to step up.
A lover of literature, music, babies and anything that captures her imagination, Raina Bhattacharya loves to write about topics that challenges her notions and brings out hitherto unexplored bits. Currently a development professional, she loves interesting conversations and experiences that leave a mark in her heart and mind.