After Section 377

Manak Matiyani | Updated on January 04, 2019 Published on January 04, 2019

Spreading the message: The LGBTQ community wants to ensure that the spirit of the Supreme Court judgment is delivered on the ground   -  G RAMAKRISHNA

A watershed year for LGBTQ rights behind them, equality and justice continue to remain work-in-progress for the community

You discover yourself in different ways. A first for me was when I chanced upon a slim booklet titled Rights For All: Ending Discrimination Against Queer Desire Under Section377 in an NGO’s office while researching on a college project. Until then, for many, chat rooms and porn sites were the only avenues where they could discover their sexuality. Many a first-generation internet user in India will vouch for the fear, joy and excitement experienced as images downloaded, painfully slowly, via a tedious dial-up connection late at night in the family room, where computers were usually kept. For some, like me, this was the sole space that afforded glimpses of queerness and non-normative desire, whether for sex, affection, identity or a future free from secrecy and guilt.

Much like the first unsure clicks that led me to discovering gayness, the booklet led me to understanding queerness. And like any good porn site, this too was free. I kept returning to the copy many times in the days and months that followed. My first tryst with Section 377, it added to the inward churn of guilt, shame, and social stigma, the awareness of criminality. Nevertheless, it also gave me a framework of queer rights.

The standout feature of the movement against Section 377 was that it was never about just that. It showed that the nuance of the private and the consensual stood on an edifice of dignity, equality and rights. It asserted that sexual freedom was a core part of identity, liberty and rights not just for queer people, but everyone. Child rights groups, mental health professionals, parents, women’s rights groups, development organisations, students and human rights organisations came together to demand a better future for queer persons as citizens and human beings. This future was affirmed by the Supreme Court judgement on September 6, 2018, ending the over two-decade-long legal battle.

The joy and pride of being a generation that lived through this change in India is indescribable. “What next,” we are now asked. To view decriminalisation as the sole agenda of queer movements is a bit reductive and ignorant of our histories. The 2006 booklet, published by Voices Against 377, imagined freedom from violence; it earmarked mental health and well-being as areas that required work. It imagined not a queer utopia, but a country that ensured, through its Constitution, the highest standard of justice and equality to everyone. The judgement echoed this, too, when Justice DY Chandrachud wrote about “a re-imagination of the order of nature as being not about the prohibition of non procreative sex, but instead about the limits imposed by structures such as gender, caste, religion and community makes the right to love not just a separate battle for LGBT individuals, but a battle for all”.

“What next?”, then, is the gap between a judgment that upholds the Constitution, equality and rights, and the news reports the next day that highlight the decriminalisation of “gay sex”. The text of the judgment is an important foundation to base our future on. Ensuring it is delivered on the ground is the task that this moment, and the movement, places before queer communities. There are three things queer folk as individuals, activists and movements must do to ensure the futures we imagined at the end of our struggles.

Agitate. For health access. For inclusive workspaces. For marriage rights. Ensure diversity and sexuality education in schools so that the next generation grows up with acceptance. Change the gender and sexually normative frameworks for physical and mental healthcare, and make services available to all. Even as we push for queer-friendly workplaces, it must be recognised that spaces that affirm queer rights don’t always affirm labour rights, or women’s rights, and that all these are linked. It must be understood that gay marriage within a carefully curated caste, community and clan framework is not really a gain. Acceptability and respect are easier for those who hold gender, caste and class privilege as opposed to those deemed disreputable, immoral or unlawful. We have to continue to demand freedom from violence by families, the police, and the State for all of us, not just a few.

Preserve alliances. The struggle has been forged through alliances with people’s movements, women’s movements, individuals and organisations. Section 377 is only one among many oppressive laws that violate a citizen’s rights. Many more need to be struck down. We must acknowledge that the right to personhood is not to be selfishly guarded for ourselves, but expanded to all communities that are bereft of it.

Introspect. This victory allows us to give up the pretence of being a unified, linear and happy movement. It is to be recognised that even as queerness brought us together, class, caste, political alliances, blindness to privilege and diversities across identities continue to divide us. The benchmark of constitutional values, inclusivity and justice that has been held out to the world by the movement, must also be held up to each other within it. We must not be afraid to call out, challenge and express dissent within, as much as we have done outside.

Manak Matiyani is a development professional who works on issues of sexuality rights and gender justice

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Published on January 04, 2019
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