India’s Supreme Court recently ruled that a colonial-era law that criminalized homosexuality was “irrational, indefensible, and manifestly arbitrary,” striking down the past of the law pertaining to homosexuality – thereby decriminalizing homosexuality in the second most populous country in the world – and declaring that all LGBT Indians deserved all of the same protections of the country’s constitution as every other citizen.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced by colonial Britain in 1861, criminalized any sexual acts that were “against the order of nature” and this included consensual sex between two men or two women. While convictions under the law only numbered in the thousands, the law primarily served to incite fear in the LGBT community, and discourage them from reporting physical or sexual crimes against them, which would only result in convictions for the victims under Section 377.
A review of the law in the Supreme Court was ordered after LGBT activists filed a petition, following months of persistent work and campaigning against the law – which in turn was built on years of LGBT-activism, despite the hostility faced in the largely politically conservative country.
According to government figures, India is home to (at minimum) 2.5 million LGBT-identifying people. However, with a population of 1.3 billion and a historically LGBT-opposed society, there are likely many more LGBT-identifying people who are not in a position to reveal their sexual orientation to the government or their community. Unlike large cities, smaller towns and more rural areas are unlikely to have any LGBT-friendly resources or organizations.
Therefore, while this law is a win for India’s LGBT community at large, whether or not things will truly change remains to be seen. For those living in rural areas, the law will likely make little difference in their day to day lives, as smaller communities are likely to be more socially and politically conservative, in comparison to larger, younger, and more populated urban areas. Therefore, while changing the law is in itself a start, these anti-LGBT attitudes and opinions need to change in order for LGBT people to feel safe, respected, and heard in their communities.
India was not the only country that continued to criminalize homosexuality; in at least 70 other states, sexual relations between men are illegal and in 48 of these states, sexual relations between women are illegal (laws surrounding same-sex relations between women in at least two countries are unknown). In several countries – including Russia, India, and Indonesia – homosexuality is illegal in specific geographic areas. In other countries, such as Angola, Russia, and Egypt, homosexuality was decriminalized, but is still considered to be de facto illegal, and LGBT peoples are still prosecuted for their sexuality. There is hope that India’s law change will prompt some of these countries to begin the process of decriminalizing homosexuality, while also encouraging activists, organizations, and communities to fight for change in these states.
In India, while LGBT rights such as marriage and adoption are a long way off, this beginning can at the very least pave the way for a more tolerant and accepting future, work to change existing attitudes and opinions, and allow LGBT Indians to know with certainty that their very being is no longer challenged by an archaic and outdated law.
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