For India’s gay community, the joy that greeted this month’s court ruling legalizing gay sex is tempered by the fact that, although the law now accepts them, society still does not.
For all the celebrations and talk of an historic milestone, many believe it will take more than a court decision to change public attitudes toward homosexuality, which is largely taboo in India and considered by many to be a mental illness. Although the Delhi High Court’s verdict has served as a morale booster for men and women who lived in constant fear of being criminalized, they say it is unlikely to encourage those in the closet to come out.
“I don’t think it will make a major impact,” says Maya, 32, who runs a counseling center for lesbians and people with gender identity issues. “I’m sure some people who were afraid of the legal implications are more comfortable now, but there are still so many social issues.”
“The major issues are how you’re going to tell your family — it has nothing to do with the law,” she said.
Abhi’s parents took him to a psychiatrist when he came out to them two years ago. They eventually came to terms with his sexual orientation, but the 22-year-old call center employee believes it will take generations for India to tolerate, let alone embrace homosexuality, on a wider scale. After several narrow escapes with police who raided community parties he attended, Abhi hopes he will be able to meet other men with the comfort of knowing he cannot be arrested.
“I can go to a party every night. For us to express ourselves before in public it was so difficult. Now it shouldn’t be an issue for us,” Abhi said.
Rahul, a 35-year-old who works for an outsourcing firm, says the ruling is a “psychological step forward” for him, but means more to people who suffered regular harassment at the hands of police.
He and other middle-class gays generally meet men through discreet avenues such as the Internet and formal groups, while others are forced to turn to public areas such as parks, where police are eager to nab suspected homosexuals.
“The gay and lesbian community was especially fearful of cops because if you are vulnerable enough they’ll try to extract money from you,” Rahul said. “They wouldn’t actually threaten to put you behind bars but it was implicit.”
The government has the choice to appeal to the Supreme Court, but if the law is repealed nationwide, it means the next step in the rights movement could be a campaign to legalize gay marriage and adoption for same-sex couples.
In staunchly conservative India, where heterosexual marriage is viewed as a cornerstone of family structure, the thought of a same-sex couple raising a child once seemed unthinkable.
“I’m emboldened by the fact that I can look forward to marrying my boyfriend,” Rahul said.
He sees it as a natural progression toward full-fledged equality, and is optimistic — some would say overly so — that gay marriage will become legal within four to five years.