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LGBTQ Activists in India Push for Decriminalization

The LGBTQ community in India stands on the verge of what could be a massive breakthrough.

The gay community and its allies in India are currently awaiting the ruling of that country’s Supreme Court on a legal ban concerning same-sex intercourse. If the high court overrules the ban, it would be a significant step forward for the civil rights of LGBTQ Indians.

As the Washington Post reported, the five-person high court is considering six petitions from gay rights groups. The organizations are seeking to “overturn a colonial-era law that effectively bans gay sex and is widely used as a pretext for the mistreatment and exclusion of LGBTQ people.”

“One of the petitions comes from alumni of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), equivalent in status to the Ivy Leagues.”

As the Post notes, the petitions come from influential sectors of society. The petitions are making a moral and economic argument, observers write: “Criminalizing gay sex isn’t only unjust, they say, it also comes at a sizable financial cost to India’s developing economy.”

According to scholar M.V. Lee Badgett, “Discrimination against LGBTQ people costs India 0.1 percent to 1.4 percent of gross domestic product.”

As reported in a July story published by National Public Radio, even showing a man how to use a common for gay intercourse can land you in jail: “Advocates and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities have been campaigning for Section 377 to be overturned for many years.”

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code outlaws gay sex as ““carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”

As the story notes, the most recent legal turnaround arrived nine years ago. In 2009, the High Court of Delhi ruled that “the law could not be applied to consensual sex.”

K. Sujatha Rao, writing in The Wire, described the Delhi ruling as “a remarkable judgement,” which essentially declared 377 “as being contrary to the fundamental rights guaranteed to every Indian citizen and held it unconstitutional.”

However, that ruling’s influence was limited. By the letter of the law, the stipulations only applied to the region in and around New Delhi.

As NPR further notes, “in 2013, a conservative Hindu astrologer filed a motion to overturn the Delhi High Court ruling and keep what amounts to a gay ban in place.”

The Supreme Court of India concurred, and reinstated 377. However, the current case, which the high court began hearing on July 10, challenges the law, and may in fact overturn it.

The LGBTQ activists behing the suit seek to move the fight for gay rights from health concerns (as it has traditionally been labeled in Indian politics) to broader questions about fundamental human rights.

It is difficult to find precise information on LGBTQ approval in India. For instance, the Pew Research Center, in its poll concerning global attitudes towards homosexuality, said it could not correctly or accurately administer a poll in the India.

The World Bank published a report using data gathered in 2006. The World Bank reported that “64 percent of Indians thought homosexuality was “never justified,” down from 93 percent in 1990.”

An estimated quarter of young people in India give approval or semi-approval to gay persons.

As Rao wrote, “Such shifts, however, were not due to a sudden change of heart or mind of some individuals. It was the result of a hard, deliberate and targeted effort put in by the LGBTQ community’s activism, several developmental agencies and partners, the political leadership, NACO, media and the judiciary. Change comes in the right environment and these catalysts of change brought about that environment.”

As in many countries, there is a long tradition of underground LGBTQ culture in India. Indian culture has long recognized the existence of a “third gender.” Additionally, several Indian metropolises have seen the emergence of gay pride festivals and parades in the last several years.