“I am what I am, so take me as I am,” said (the then) CJI Deepak Mishra on September 6, 2018.
While this quote might evoke the imagery of complete and unabashed freedom, and that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identities is a thing of the past, the ground reality is much different.
The partial striking down of Section 377 was seen as a victory for one of the largest queer populations in the world. Allies used hashtags, companies painted their logos rainbow, and queer rights shot into public consciousness for a time during news cycles. Come Pride Month, companies were, again, found with their “#pride” Instagram posts and rainbow-colored products.
Major MNCs like IBM and Accenture to name a few have started “openly allying” with the community, but beyond the top few companies, situations haven’t changed. According to a survey by Mumbai-based think-tank MINGLE, 40% of employees faced discrimination for being queer while 67% reported hearing homophobic comments in the workplace.
Make no mistake, the Center had absolutely nothing to do with the striking down. People claim that the (partial) striking-down happened because of the party in power. Though it is true they didn’t file a petition against it, they did file an affidavit stating, “no other issue/issues and/or rights are referred for consideration and adjudication and therefore, may not be gone into.” They effectively said that the Supreme Court should restrict themselves to ruling on the issue of 377, and not grant any further rights in the process. According to a news report by Indian Express, a party source had also said, “Any attempt to grant broader rights beyond it will be contested. These will fall foul of our Hindu core ethos.”
Decriminalised? Yes. Equal in the eyes of the law? No, by a huge margin. Also, it seems the SC took heed of this veiled warning since they dismissed a petition seeking civil rights for the LGBTQ+ population. The SC wasn’t “inclined” to hear petitions regarding this issue. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, passed on August 5 this year goes against the right to self identify guaranteed by the SC in the NALSA judgment. But did the government listen to the concerns of the community it was apparently working for? No. They made minimal changes to the bill and passed it in the aftermath of Article 370 to obfuscate the voices against it. For added measure, India abstained from voting on an important resolution on LGBT rights at the UN, giving company to countries like Burkina Faso, DRC, and Senegal.
The performative progressiveness shown by the Center walks a tightrope between staying true to their ‘core ethos’ and not isolating themselves on the world stage. This for-show allyship percolates down to the youth too. The people who say they say they support LGBT rights to not appear “uncool” are the same ones who would use gay as a placeholder for anything they want to denigerate. “Chakka” and “meetha” still find a place in colloquial vocabulary, and nobody flinches when it is used in apparent “good nature”. React to any of these “socially acceptable” slurs and the onus will be put on you, “Why are you so sensitive, yaar? I was kidding. Aise hi bol diya (I said it just like that, unintentionally).” Bullying and harassment are also widespread, with a UNESCO study finding that one-third LGBT youth dropped out of school.
The situation isn’t that bleak though. India got its first mainstream same-sex love story on the big screen in the form of “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga”. We also got “Made in Heaven”, showing one of the most nuanced depictions of a gay protagonist to ever grace Indian homes. For people who grew up having only “Dostana” as a pop culture depiction of how Indian gay men were supposed to be like, the new crop of media representation is breath of fresh air. Slowly but surely, attitudes are changing across the country. Surveys have found more and more people accepting of same-sex relationships.
A lot of battles still have to be fought, both regarding social acceptance and legally guaranteed rights. For the queer community, I know it’s exhausting but we have to keep fighting. And, for the allies, please do more. We need more concrete help than just rainbow filters. As Harish Iyer said one year ago, “This is the end of the beginning.”
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.