By Chandni Shah
On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court read down Section 377 to decriminalise consenting sexual acts between homosexual adults. On the day, we asked people where they were and what they were doing when they heard the verdict “for the history books.” The answers were wonderful, full of a sense of what a huge moment it was.
In the spirit of the long and arduous journey that led to that moment, we tried to trace a small, informal history of LGBTQ+ activism by speaking to queer activists about significant memories in the run-up to the verdict.
For some, despite the jubilation of the verdict, the systemic oppression and harassment they faced at the hands of the state is fresh in their minds.
Rumi Harish from LesBiT, a Bengaluru-based community support collective, talks about a painful experience that had three villains working together — politicians, police and prejudice. “I had a close friend called Pamela, a trans woman. Pamela and I used to work together. Way back in 2002, when we had an office in Shivajinagar, an MLA lived in the same building. He and some others decided that we were unnatural people who should not be using the building, even though we were paying rent. So they called the police who threw us out and barred us from entering our own space. That night, Pamela and I were sitting somewhere and getting drunk. She told me, ‘If Section 377 was not there, we too would have had our own office and it would have been rightfully ours. We wouldn’t have been thrown out like this’.”
Another incident that encapsulates the bittersweet nature of the 6 September ruling was recalled by Vinay Chandran, LGBT rights activist, counsellor and founder of Benaluru-based Swabhava Trust. “I remember when the 2009 judgement from the Delhi High Court (scrapping Section 377) came in, I walked into the office and I got two calls in succession. The first one was to tell me that the High Court had ruled in favour of Naz Foundation so it was a very celebratory occasion. A few minutes later, I got a call from an engineering student who had gone on a date. He had a shoulder bag with a laptop in it and they had gone to a hotel room. When he was in the bathroom, the other man took his belongings and made away with it. This person would’ve let it go if it wasn’t a college laptop. So he filed a police complaint and they told him to come back a few days later. When he went back, the police said ‘We know what you were doing in this hotel with this person. If you want your laptop back, pay Rs 25,000’. This person called us in a panic, so we sent a lawyer with him. This was the day that the judgement came out.”
Pawan Dhall, founding trustee of Varta Trust, a Kolkata-based gender and sexuality publishing non-profit agency shared his story. “In 1997, I was part of a support group called Counsel Club (one of the first Indian queer support groups started in 1993 that continued till 2002). We used to receive copies of a journal called Trikon from the oldest South Asian queer support group in the US, to distribute in India. This arrangement was working quite well but the Customs Department happened to open a parcel with about 50 copies. So I got a show cause notice as to why I should be penalised — the magazine had ‘immoral content’ so I was corrupting the morals of the nation by distributing it. The notice was very unnerving because the support group was just four years old and although we knew supportive doctors and social workers, we didn’t know any supportive lawyers.”
Dhall notes that “Even after Section 377 is gone, there is always the fear of the obscenity laws. The obscenity laws, 377, all these also inform the Customs laws”.
These accounts are a reminder that while the judgement is a big victory, there is still much work ahead to undo the effects of years of stigma.
“For me, this is the beginning of a bigger battle. It’s not the culmination of 20 years (of struggle), it’s the beginning of god knows how many more because we’re fighting discrimination in the minds of people now. We fought it in the courts, but there’s a lot more work to do,” Chandran says.
Other LGBT activists spoke of how activism brought them closer to others in the community.
Anirudh, the co-founder of Q&A: The Queer and Ally Network, shared a happy memory from the group’s early days. “I remember getting together with my college friends in Manipal and trying to get an LGBTQ+ support group afloat. Four very, very different people, coming together, united by the need to do something for the community, the need to create a space where people could be themselves without fear. And my god, getting it going was hard. There were problems from the ground up. But we managed to get the group running in a Hindutva-influenced, narrow-minded, small place like Manipal. That was a huge success. and evidence that activism can actually work.”
For some, there are years’ worth of memorable experiences that make it difficult to pick just one or two. Nitin Karani, a key member of Humsafar Trust and an activist for about 20 years, recounts: “Starting from the first Gay Men’s Conference held in India in December 1994 and the first pride walk I attended in Kolkata on 2 July 1999., there were so many things (along this journey) — setting up of Humsafar Trust, the revival of Bombay Dost, I could just go on and on.” When asked about his first thoughts when the verdict came out, he compared it to the 2013 judgement. “This time, I was not emotional at all. The last time, it was a complete shock and total disappointment but this time it was very much expected. I was more keen on knowing the contours of the LGBT equality they would spell out,” he said.
Rashid (name changed), a student and activist, recalled his foray into activism. “This was in 2013 when I was in Class 1o. I was being trained under a special UN programme on LGBTQ+ rights when we heard the news about the recriminalisation of 377. When I returned home from school, I found an email that said “Do not look back from today. Fight towards equality… Breathe a sense of relief only when you are done fighting [sic]!”
For Rōmal Lāisram, founder of the Queer Arts Movement India, and so many others like him, this is a promise of better times. “As the news broke, something within me didn’t want to believe it. Memories of the recriminalisation came back. I remember the mad joy I had felt in 2009, and how my world broke when the SC recriminalised us just a few years later. I remembered all the tears and all I wanted was to cry again. It took a while to let it sink in. This was an SC judgement and it wasn’t going to be so easily contested. Like an adorable policeman at one of the Bengaluru Prides said, “Nāviddé alvā?” (we’re here, no?), here’s hoping that more heterosexual allies join the movement to make us as accepted as anyone else. I can now actually dream of that day.”
Co-published with Firstpost