Decriminalisation Of Homosexuality In India: A Positive Step But Still A Long Way To Go
Muhammad Salman Khan writes about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, the persecution of the queer community in Pakistan, and how queerness was once tolerated in our society.
Last year, the Supreme Court of India decriminalised adult and consensual ‘homosexuality’, bringing an end to 160-year-old colonial-era law.
In the ‘Navtej Singh Johar vs Union of India’ verdict, the Indian courts struck down Section 377, paving a future where its constitution not only recognised the citizenship of its LGBT citizens but guaranteed them protection, equality, life and liberty.
The development followed decades of activism and civil rights litigations initiated after the 2009 Delhi High Court judgment in the ‘Naz Foundation v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi’ that set a precedent for upcoming petitions by declaring criminalisation of consensual homosexual acts between adults a violation of fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution.
The determination shown by co-petitioner LGBT Indians such as dancer Navtej Singh Johar, journalist Sunil Mehra, chef Ritu Dalmia, hoteliers Aman Nath and Keshav Suri, and businesswoman Ayesha Kapur, who came forward to challenge Section 377, shows the world that their existence is part and parcel of Indian culture.
Due to India’s rising political, economic and cultural influence, this decision holds a global significance. The move has already paved way for queer liberation across the non-Western world from Costa Rica, Bulgaria, Belize, Taiwan, Bostwana, Ecuador to Trinidad and Tobago.
One of the judges who declared Section 377 as unconstitutional said, “History owes an apology to the members of this community and their families … for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries. The members of this community were compelled to live a life full of fear of reprisal and persecution.”
We simply can’t ignore the embrace of humanity in this decision that has led to a change in societal attitudes towards LGBT folks in less than a year; Bollywood movies showcasing LGBT characters are increasingly being showcased such as ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’.
Dutee Chand, a professional sprinter made history by coming out publicly as India’s first openly gay sportswoman despite receiving threats from her family for going against their wishes.
Despite the progress, Indian society remains socially conservative at its heart. Marriages are arranged by parents and millions of LGBT children living in the closet don’t even dare to come out for fear of being disowned.
Across the border, Pakistan’s LGBT communities have not been so fortunate either. Rising radicalisation within the society leaves no room for recognition of the existence of its queer and transgender communities, who are forced to live a life of constant fear and persecution.
We seem to be unaffected by India’s queer liberation, and to a certain extent are even hostile towards it. On the contrary, the transgender community had their rights granted through the ‘Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2018’, which is seen as a progressive legislation on transgender rights, at least on paper, as compared to the controversial ‘Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019’, introduced in the Indian parliament this year.
In 2009, Pakistan became one of the first countries to legally recognise the rights of all transgender persons as ‘equal citizens’, while India’s Supreme Court recognised its transgender community in 2014. But despite being an active proponent of transgender rights, we sanction homophobia not only at home but even aboard, and on multiple occasions have opposed all moves at the United Nations to recognise LGBT rights.
The rise in extremism has nurtured an atmosphere of hatred for our queer communities. Hardliners unapologetically label human rights activists as ‘foreign agents’ and continue to label them as propagators of ‘homosexuality’, the latest victims being feminist activists such as Gulalai Ismail and Imaan Mazari.
The suppression of the queer community will not make us disappear; we are queer and we have always existed here. We need to carry out an introspective soul-searching of our own tolerant and pluralistic past where homoeroticism ‘same-sex relationships’ were accepted and tolerated.
We’ve always lacked a constructive discourse over the indigenous diversity of gender identities and sexualities. We need to unlearn our existing prejudices and demystify our understanding of “self”.
A 16-century shrine in Baghbanpura, Lahore, is devoted to a Sufi mystic and Punjabi poet Shah Hussain whose very existence and work challenged the mullah orthodoxy. His Sufi poetry goes on to preach love, as he wrote, “Qazi mullah hmatti dainde, kharay siyyane rah dasende, ishq kee lagay rah de nal.” (Translation: Judges and clerics are full of advice, the righteous and wise show you the path, but love itself needs no guidance)
Not many people are aware that Shah Hussain fell in love with a Hindu Brahmin boy named Madhu Laal. Together they established a bond to eternally dwell in spiritual unity and divine love. Madhu Laal Hussain, continues to symbolise the existence of love that unites humanity while transcending caste barriers, communal tensions and toxic heteronormativity in our society.
The latest victim of the prevailing homophobic rhetoric is an Indian book, ‘Gay Icons of India’, by Hoshang Merchant and Akshaya K Rath. The book provides an insight into the lives of the queer heroes of India who’d paved the way towards victory through their love, perseverance, achievements and activism. It was removed from the website and bookshelves of Pakistan’s largest bookstore ‘Liberty Books’ after receiving a complaint by a ‘social worker’ who views the book to contradicts his religious liberties.
Some intolerant buffoon created ruckus about removing books on queer icons at @LibertyBooks_. Shame on you for giving into this extremist rhetoric, censorship and erasure of all such queer literature. “Liberty” books, yeah right pic.twitter.com/3rWT4HS8RG
— mafty (@maryamful) September 6, 2019
In modern Urdu literature, we see ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt), a short story written by Indian author and screenwriter Ismat Chughtai in 1942 that explored the taboo subject of female sexuality, lesbianism and other alternate desires which was far ahead and progressive of its time.
Ifti Nasim, a gay Pakistani poet born in Faisalabad, Punjab had to flee to the US to escape a life of persecution. where he published his Urdu poetry called ‘Narman’ (hermaphrodite in Persian) in the 1990s. Narman is said to be the first direct acknowledgement of ‘gay’ longings and desires in Urdu language and sparked awareness of queer rights and pride across India, Pakistan and the South Asian diaspora.
Our indigenous spirituality, literature, culture and history are filled with stories of queer and transgender characters that validate our existence as a community that is not ‘foreign’ or ‘deviant’ in its being. I often wonder will there ever be a future for my kind; will we ever get our own apology?
I’ve for years been bullied, hated, cursed, and received occasional death threats from my own people. What keeps me going is the unconditional love from my mother who accepts her gay son and her transgender daughter (my sister) with all the compassion, affection and respect that dwells in her motherly heart; it makes me think why is it so hard for our society to accept us as their own too?
Muhammad Salman Khan (Sal Khan) is a freelance journalist and LGBTQ+ activist from Pakistan currently based in the US. He tweets at @IamGreenGuru and can be reached through his email at [email protected]