Gay or straight, India: It's time we all come out

Vikram Johri
Vikram JohriFeb 02, 2016 | 16:53

Gay or straight, India: It's time we all come out

In the trailer of the upcoming Aligarh, about a gay professor at Aligarh Muslim University who killed himself after being caught having sex with a man in his house on campus, a series of screen shots runs demanding a variant on the words "Come out".

The screen reads: "Come out and Question." The last word flips and we see: "Come out and Talk." And so on we read "Come out and Live" followed by "Come out and Love." Then, with a mournful violin playing in the background, the words compress, and the screen is all black except for the simple white of the words "#ComeOut."

Director Hansal Mehta and screenwriter Apurva Asrani play brilliantly on the English phrasal verb for telling the world one is gay, words that also lend easily to showing expression of support. But even they could not have guessed that close on the heels of their film's release, the highest court of the land would "come out" and admit the curative petition that seeks to decriminalise homosexuality.

Today, the Supreme Court admitted the curative petition on Section 377, referring it to a five-judge bench. Should the bench deem fit, a Section that criminalises any sexual act "against the order of nature", making gay sex illegal, will be removed from the statute. The curative petition was the final legal option available to the gay community after a review petition following the December 2013 order of the Supreme Court had been set aside by the court.

If it comes to pass, everything changes.

I, and millions others like me, will be legal in the eyes of the law. We will have a right to exist and will no longer be denied our humanity on the basis of who we love. As Gautam Bhan wrote in The Hindu this morning, "If we lose Naz [the legal name of the case], it is not gay rights we lose. We lose our ability to make dignity ordinary and injustice rare."

If it comes to pass, we will be able to commemorate in full the memory of a Ramchandra Siras, the AMU professor whose story Aligarh captures. We will finally be able to offer more than hollow words of comfort to the teenage boy in Agra who set himself on fire after he was bullied for being gay. We will be able to truly mourn the death of Priya Vedi, the AIIMS anesthetist who killed herself last year on discovering that her husband was gay.

Each of those tragedies, and countless others, happened because the social stigma to being gay in this country has operated in a system where the law is an active supporter of bigotry. If the scrapping of 377 comes to pass, all that will change. A gay person from a mofussil hamlet will know that a section that deemed him illegal no longer exists, and the fact that eminent judges of the Supreme Court will have spoken for his rights will perhaps give him courage, if not to come out, then to feel less ashamed of himself.

While the battle continues, this is a moment of pause. There have been many points in this journey when all hope was lost. The most grievous injury was inflicted by the Supreme Court in its December 2013 judgment where it went against the Delhi High Court judgment of 2009 that had read down Section 377. What had seemed till then a steady march forward in the battle for equality was suddenly halted mid-track. That the highest court of the land, which is supposed to uphold dignity of life and liberty, took this step added insult to injury.

But the community soldiered on. It made a life for itself. Couples lived together as "just friends" and explored options to settle abroad. To the small-town gay man, the situation was more oppressive. Yet, he too basked in a more open climate. There was greater discussion in the media. Section 377 was a common debating point on nightly debates and in newspaper editorials. Then there were PlanetRomeo and Grindr, offspring of the internet that made intimacy possible. Special moments were stolen from the daily grind of fear and bigotry and, slowly but surely, a narrative was born.

How much has changed in a short span can be gauged from the number of people who came out after the Delhi High Court order of 2009. Advocacy is one thing, but living life openly as a gay person has served an object lesson in demolishing orthodoxy. It takes a certain courage to break down this wall, and many gay men and women made that choice in order that those who refused to see had no option but to ogle at first, and then accept.

Beyond the immediate battle that will continue in the SC, other wars will need to be won. But since we will have crossed the Rubicon if 377 goes, things will become simpler. The main battle, for visibility, which has been fought in the media for long, will have been won legally, and this should open the floodgates for greater realisation of rights, including marriage and adoption rights. If 377 goes, for the first time, gay men and women in this country will be able to hope for a future in their own land.

So, come out ye all, today, this moment, whether you are gay or not, in celebration of a truly landmark chapter in this country's legal and social history. The scrapping of 377 is long overdue and will come not a moment too soon. Be prepared to rejoice.

Last updated: February 03, 2016 | 14:33
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