Fight against Section 377 is about dignity, reducing it to ‘gay sex’ is unfortunate

More than anything else, this is a struggle against discrimination, exclusion, and 'otherisation'.

 |  6-minute read |   13-07-2018
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Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is once again in news and for good reasons this time.

It isn’t because FMCG tycoon Ramdev has once again claimed that homosexuality is “a medical problem” that can be cured; nor has a church, a maulvi or a saffron-robed self-appointed omniscient guardian of Indian culture spammed us with their “anti-Indian culture” rant against homosexuality.

The good news is that a five-member Constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of India has started hearing daily arguments from different parties on whether Section 377 IPC should be decriminalised.

Above all, the cardinal questions before the apex court are whether this Colonial-era law meets the test of constitutionality; is it in tune with the fundamental rights gifted to every citizen by the Constitution; does its presence hinder individuals from enjoying their human rights that they are entitled to by the virtue of them being humans?

Much has already been written about the array of arguments in favour of and against the rights of the LGBTQI+ community.

This article does not intend to revisit them.

It rather attempts to discuss the terms through which Section 377 IPC is being referred to in public discourse and what problems are associated with them.

Discussions on Section 377 often pop up terms like “gay sex”, “same-sex” and “gay rights”. This is not limited to casual conversations over tea, but they find place in headlines of newspapers, websites, blogs, TV debates, Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages.

gay-sex_071318025749.jpgPhoto: Reuters

Sample these headlines: “The gay sex debate”, “SC commences crucial hearing on pleas for decriminalising gay sex”, “What is at stake in fight against gay sex law Section 377?”, “India’s Supreme Court considers decriminalising gay sex”, “Will Supreme Court decriminalise gay sex?” The list can go on.

Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky in her TED speech argues that languages and terms that we use have profound impact on how we think. She gives the example of German and Spanish languages. In German, Sun is associated with a feminine grammatical gender and moon a masculine. However, in Spanish, it is opposite.

Does this have any bearing on how Germans and Spanish people visualise Sun and Moon? Boroditsky says it does. Germans attributes more feminine aspects to Sun than Spanish do, she says. The same is the case with the word “bridge” which is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish.

Closer home, in Hindi and Sanskrit, “country” is said to be feminine. So, when one hears the term “Bharat Mata” (Mother India), an image of a female “who protects and feeds” the subcontinent is often evoked. Our languages and, in turn, culture, associate sari, jewellery, lipsticks, bangles etc with females. So, when one thinks of a sari and a blouse, the image that is created in the mind is of a female wearing the dress. Similar was the case with trousers and suits until this construct was shattered and women started putting them on.

The terms that we associate with a person, issue, place or event, conditions our mind to think accordingly. When the mind is thinking, it tries to understand things by creating images. These images in turn are conditioned by what words are used to describe the subject.

If these terms are well-thought, they open doors to more mature and nuanced discussions. On the contrary, if they are callously employed, they tend to generate reductionist views which narrow issues and debates to single-point agendas.

So, when the debate around Section 377 is reduced just to “gay sex”, the image that is consciously or sub-consciously created is two men having penetrative sex. The image of course is not a problem on face value, what is problematic is that it leaves asides many other aspects.  At times, this reductionist image can result in trivialisation of a very sensitive issue concerning human rights.

One must realise that the fight against Section 377 is primarily a fight for human dignity; a fight that calls for equality and freedom irrespective of gender, sex, and sexuality. More than anything else, this is a struggle against discrimination, exclusion, and “otherisation”.

It is a human rights issue and should be treated with the same dignity as other human rights struggles are. This demands that the words that are used to describe the struggle are meticulously chosen.

Reducing the decades-old struggle against Section 377 IPC to just “gay sex” and “same sex”, militates against the struggles of the larger LGBTQI+ community. Besides being unjust upon lesbians, transgender, bisexuals, intersex, and others, it also does disservice to gays by presenting their sexual practice as something unique, and hence paves path for “otherisation”.

By terming the debate as “gay sex”, we are in effect placing sex between two men at a different pedestal. The terminology is not inclusive as it results in “otherisation” of a sexual practice. There is nothing called “gay sex” or “gay love”. It is simply sex between two consenting adult individuals and love between two persons.

Nothing more and nothing less.

On the factual side, Section 377 IPC affects all sexual orientations and not just gays. It affects lesbians, gays, transgender, heterosexuals, bisexuals, intersex, among others. Besides criminalising penetrative sex between two males, the draconian law also criminalises any form of non-vaginal penetrative sex between any two individuals. This includes anal sex between a man and a woman, use of sex toys by a female, oral sex between two individuals etc.

A classic example of how callously associated tags can harm a struggle is the case of Irom Sharmila, the woman from Manipur who was on a fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for 14 years. She was often accused of being on a “fast unto death”. The State used this phrase to book her under Section 309 IPC (attempt to suicide) and the media also used it while reporting the cases.

Contrary to the accusation, in the 14 years, Sharmila never herself used the term “fast unto death”, neither did she say that she desires to die. Her petition in the court said that the faintest idea of death did not occur to her. “The allegation of a ‘fast unto death’ has been created artificially,” her petition before the court read.

But, because the state and media often used the term “fast unto death” for her struggle, the common image that was created was a distorted version of what Sharmila stood for when it comes to life and death.

Within the LGBTQI+ community, gay right activists are often criticised for overshadowing interests of members who have other orientations. Popular discourse on LGBTQI+ rights also unfortunately places gay rights at a higher pedestal and works on the assumption that gay rights include everything.

There is already a dearth of literature and media coverage on issues faced by lesbians, bisexuals, intersex and polyamorous people. Reducing the debate on Section 377 to just gays doesn’t help in improving this. It rather aggravates.

Also read: Why the BJP-led Centre won't clarify its view on Section 377 in Supreme Court

Writer

Mukesh Rawat Mukesh Rawat @mukeshrawat705

A nomadic vagabond by passion, the author is trying to understand things and people that are here, there and in-between. He works with IndiaToday.in.

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