Ripples from the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in a Texas sodomy law case have made it all the way to India, where activists are fighting a colonial-era ban on homosexual sex that authorities use to intimidate gay people.
As the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the sodomy law in Texas on grounds of an unconstitutional violation of privacy, half a world away in India, activists are challenging their own anti-sodomy law in the Delhi High Court.
While one case may not directly affect the other, to Vikram, a journalist in India’s commercial capital Mumbai, who asked that only his first name be used, the indirect effect is invaluable. “Judges read papers, lawyers read papers, people read papers,” Vikram says. “The steady drip-drip of tolerance on gay issues will end up making a difference.”
Anand Grover, director of the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS unit in New Delhi, is spearheading the drive against the Indian anti-sodomy law for Naz India, a non-govern- mental organization working on HIV/AIDS. Grover is arguing the case on grounds of both privacy and equality for India’s sexual minorities. The controversial law, Section 377 of the penal code, makes sodomy or any kind of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” punishable by up to ten years in prison. Grover says that by criminalizing predominantly homosexual behavior, Section 377 drives same-sex relations underground and creates societal conditions that significantly impede HIV prevention efforts.
The lawsuit contends that Section 377 is a major impediment to carrying out HIV/AIDS intervention work with the “men who have sex with men” (MSM) community. The officer in charge of a prison in Delhi once prevented condom distribution on the grounds that it tacitly condoned sodomy. “HIV/AIDS, in a horrible way, has helped the gay community by forcing the government to accept that men are having sex with each other if it is to prevent HIV from spreading,” Vikram says. Section 377 “didn’t make it a crime to be gay, just to be caught in certain sexual acts.” But that distinction is often lost on authorities, who abuse their power over gays through extortion, blackmail, and even physical and sexual abuse. As long as the law is in place, say rights groups, police will continue the abuse in an atmosphere of impunity.
Some gay men in India worry that the controversy over Section 377 will focus unwelcome attention on the growing but discreet gay scene in India. But Vikram says, “We tend to forget the subtle negative effects of 377. The fact that homosexuality is seen as illegal comes in the way of us being able to do so many things.” This could be as simple as having an official gay night at a Bombay nightclub.
Aditya Bondyopadhyay, Asia Director of the International Lesbian and Gay Law Association, says Anand Grover’s petition on behalf of Naz India is only seeking an amendment of 377, which would still cover male rapes. “Getting rid of 377 lock, stock, and barrel seemed unwise, since all studies and data showed a law is needed in the books to protect males against rape and sexual assault,” Bondyopadhyay said by phone from Lucknow, India.
Interestingly, activists in India, as in the United States, are using the courts to push for change instead of the legislature. However, despite three notices by the Delhi High Court, the state has not filed any written response. Bondyopadhyay says the strategy of not filing a reply is a time-tested method of the state, which had successfully stalled in 1994 when a similar petition was filed. Bondyopadhyay is optimistic because the international “political reality around sexual minority rights” is changing. Canada’s decision to allow same-sex marriages was highlighted above the masthead of the influential daily, The Times of India.
London-based international gay rights activist Peter Tatchell says Section 377, a relic of British colonial rule, is the unfinished business of India’s emancipation struggle. Tatchell adds, “India’s current anti-gay laws were imposed by the British colonial administration. The real Western import is homophobia, not homosexuality.” Though Britain struck its own anti-sodomy law off the books in 1967, it still exists in at least half a dozen of its former colonies, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Activists in all these places will be watching events in Delhi. Whether the reverberations of the Texas sodomy case will help them in their mission remains to be seen. “But every change everywhere helps build up the momentum,” said Paula Ettelbrick, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco. Recalling how activists in America use gay rights in South Africa and gay marriage in Canada to push for change domestically, Ettelbrick hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court decision, which set out a text and rationale for gay equality, “can only help activists in places like India who are also using the court process to overturn the law.”
Ahmar Mustikhan, born in Burma and raised in Pakistan, is a journalist who recently moved to the San Francisco Bay area.