India’s Supreme Court yesterday struck down a ban on gay sex after a decades-old campaign against a colonia-era law used to hold back LGBT rights.
Members of LGBT groups held tearful celebrations in cities across the nation of 1.25 billion as the historic verdict was read out.
“The law had become a weapon for harassment for the LGBT community,” Chief Justice Dipak Misra said as he quashed the cornerstone of Section 377, a law introduced by British rulers in 1861.
“Any discrimination on the basis of sexuality amounts to a violation of fundamental rights,” he said in the ruling, which added India to a list of more than 120 nations where homosexuality is decriminalized.
While India’s law only legalizes sexual acts between adults, LGBT activists have hailed the verdict as a major boost in the deeply conservative nation.
Activists had been fighting the ban since the 1990s, suffering several court reverses before yesterday’s verdict.
The Delhi High Court in 2009 decriminalized gay sex, but the Supreme Court reinstated the ban in 2014 after an appeal by religious leaders.
According to official data, 2,187 cases under Section 377 were registered in 2016 under the category of “unnatural offenses.” Seven people were convicted and 16 acquitted.
“It was a law that propagated homophobia,” said Keshav Suri, one of the petitioners against Section 377, who organized a dance show at his family’s luxury Delhi hotel to celebrate the court victory.
“In rural areas it is a harassment tool, used by cops, used by authorities for extortion for glorifying rape and molestation,” Suri said in an interview ahead of the verdict.
Many gay professionals have moved abroad, where they are more accepted, Suri added.
India’s government had opposed ending Section 377, but said ahead of the hearing that it would leave the decision to the “wisdom” of the Supreme Court.
However, it said that judges should not change other legal aspects, such as the right to marriage.
Despite the pressure on the LGBT community, India has quietly made some strides in sexual rights.
A transgender judge, Joyita Mondal Mahi, presides over courts in West Bengal State, Indian passports state whether a holder is “male,” “female” or “other,” and the city of Raigarh, with 139,000 people, has a transgender mayor.
Many say that gay marriage and equal rights in inheritance and other areas must be the ultimate prize, but they acknowledge that change will not be swift.
“This is the first step of the history of a lot of other countries that first decriminalized gay sex, allowed civil unions and then marriage,” Suri said. “It is a long battle to equal rights, but I am sure we will get there eventually.”
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