July 11, 2018

Gay Sex Could Be Decriminalized For 1.3 Billion People




 India Supreme Court



NEW DELHI — India could be on the brink of repealing a 157-year-old law that criminalizes gay sex in what is one of the world’s largest and longest-running LGBT legal battles.
On a sweltering Tuesday afternoon in a courtroom so full people barely had space to turn round, a bench of five judges from India’s highest court began hearing arguments against a law known as Section 377, which was introduced under British rule in 1861 and states that all sexual activity apart from heterosexual intercourse is “against the order of nature.”
If the Supreme Court judges strike down the law it would transform gay rights in a country of more than one billion people.
But the ruling could have huge repercussions in other countries — particularly the Commonwealth, an association of countries made up mostly of former territories of the British Empire — where LGBT activists are fighting similar legal battles against colonial-era penal codes
Akhilesh Godi, a 25-year-old petitioner from Hyderabad who travelled to New Delhi for the hearing, told BuzzFeed News that making legal history was exciting, but that was not his primary goal. “I came out in my early twenties, and it took me a long time to understand what that even meant,” he said. “I battled severe mental health issues and depression, even went on medication. But I feel stronger now.”
Godi, an ex-student of the Indian Institute of Technology, (a prestigious university that is India’s version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) said that as a result of filing the petition as part of a group of 20 students, he has been able to discuss his sexual orientation freely with his colleagues — and is now in the process of helping them set up an employee resource group that is inclusive of LGBT people.
“What I want more than anything else is for other educational institutes to set up support groups and safe spaces for young queer people like me, that are confused and perhaps battling similar mental health troubles.” 
The list of petitioners includes well known figures such as dancer Navtej Johar, trans activist Akkai Padmashali, chef Ritu Dalmia, and a hotelier named Keshav Suri.
But there are also petitioners representing the broad spectrum of society and queer experience, such as HIV activist Gautam Yadav and Arif Jaffar, a 47-year old man who was sent to police custody and tortured for over a month for his sexual orientation under Section 377. (Jaffar has been fighting a separate case against the officers that arrested him for the last 18 years).

A significant proportion of the petitioners against Section 377 are men – in part, this is due to the social stigma all expressions of female desire carry in India, but also because according to senior lawyer Mukul Rohatgi, the law penalizes men far more often: "Section 377 in our country will affect mostly men even though the section appears sex-neutral," he said during arguments in court.
Activists say the most hopeful part of this latest fight against Section 377 is that it is no longer limited to allies or members of the community standing in as proxies for others who are too afraid to come out.   
The petitioners from IIT, nearly all of whom are below 30 years of age, are scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, researchers, and business owners who describe themselves as the children of farmers, teachers, homemakers and government servants. The 17 men, 2 women and one trans woman described the impact of Section 377 on their lives to the court on Tuesday.
“People think coming out as gay is some kind of happy ending, but it’s not,” Anwesh Pokkuluri said, as the court broke for lunch. “Even after you muster up the courage to speak with your parents or maybe your siblings, there’s still people at work, people you meet socially, or landlords...and as a result of 377, you never know how they will react to the news of you being gay.” 
Despite this, Pokkuluri said he was eager to join the petition because he is relatively more privileged than others in his home town in Kakinada, in Southern India. “If not me, then who? When I explained my decision to my parents in this way, they understood.”

Other petitioners — despite the fact that they were now part of Indian legal history at the country’s highest court – were still to discuss the matter of sexual orientation with their families. One of them, Krishna Reddy Medikonda said that if his parent learnt about his orientation “through this fight,” that was probably the best way for them to find out. “In a way, you could say I’m hoping for that,” he said, breaking into laughter.

Being treated as “unconvicted felons” (the term senior lawyer Mukul Rohatgi used to describe the plight of LGBT people in India) has meant that billions of people have been unable to access sex education and seek medical and legal assistance when required. Despite having received scholarships to some of the most elite institutions in the country, the petitioners from IIT said that they frequently considered leaving India for a country where same-sex love was not treated as criminal. Their petition cites Section 377 as one of the major reasons for a “brain drain” from India.
But there were also some pleasant surprises — as the day's proceedings drew to a close, Romel Baral, a 25-year-old from Bengaluru who studied at IIT Guwahati and is presently employed at Goldman Sachs, said that his employers were actually the main reason he felt empowered to join the petition. “I knew I would have to admit it some day, I always imagined what it would be like — but seeing how inclusive and warm my colleagues were made it really easy for me to talk about my sexual orientation. When I told them why this law needs to change and why I need to be part of the petition – they told me to make them proud!”
Hearings into the Section 377 petitions will take place over the coming weeks.
Nishita Jha
Nishita Jha

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