It is a historic day indeed for India as its supreme court has issued a landmark ruling that decriminalizes homosexuality. They overturned a colonial-era law that once made gay/lesbian sex punishable by up to 10 years in prison. This archaic law, first brought into effect in 1861, was a relic of Victorian England — the then-colonizers of India — used to discriminate, persecute, and oppress homosexuals into submission; a law that hung on too long after British colonialism that has finally been addressed by the people. “We feel as equal citizens now,” – Shashi Bhushan, Activist. “Now more people will have the strength to come out,” says Tanveen Kaur Randhawa, one of 20 former students of the Indian Institute of Technology who filed one of several petitions in court earlier this year. “When you are treated as a criminal, it is not easy to come out and this step is very important because it ensures that you have the right to be who you are.”
Section 377, the law that criminalizes homosexuality and bestiality, has seen only less than 200 people committing this offense under these grounds in over the 150 years it has been instituted but members of the LGBTQ community claim that that this law has been a source of harassment and ostracism despite its low prosecution rates.
The five-judge bench reached an unanimous decision Thursday in the capital of India, New Delhi. The court ruling was a major win for LGBTQ communities throughout the deeply conservative nation, where homosexuality was still considered a social taboo with gay and lesbian people facing discrimination especially in the more rural areas of the country. In the non-urban cities of the nation, homosexuality is still viewed as a disease to be treated or at best “just a phase.”
India is one of the first Southeast Asian countries to join the list of now 18 Commonwealth nations that have overturned their laws criminalizing homosexuality that have lingered since the era of British sovereignty even after the end of its rule and might be the first of many to join to new trend. Homosexuality is still deemed illegal in the other two-thirds of the Commonwealth of Nations but activists are hoping that this court ruling will reverberate throughout the entire Asia Pacific and hopefully jumpstart a movement to spurn anti-LGBTQ laws everywhere.
However, notable high-profile voices in the LGBTQ community say that this is only the first victory. There are still many challenges in the future to overcome. It is a constant battle between those who choose to oppress and those who just want their rights to be just as recognized and just as equal as the rest of the people. The LGBTQ movement in India is still very urban-centric, with the underprivileged parts of India still very much uneducated about gay rights and the gay movement. There is still a need to spread awareness to the remote areas of India, currently a major hurdle for gay-right activists right now due to the sheer number and volume of people there is to reach out to in the second most populated country in the world.
There is also the matter of fighting to the keep this new court ruling permanent as this isn’t the first time homosexuality has been decriminalized in India. In 2009, a New Delhi High Court case declared the Section 377 unconstitutional, but that decision was swiftly overturned several years later in 2013 by multiple Supreme Court petitions from several prominent religious groups in India.
Yet despite the looming and impending challenges to be faced by the LGBTQ community in India in the upcoming future, today they celebrate this stupendous milestone marking the forward march of progression towards a greater and more liberal India; a stepping stone to something even greater.