India’s Gay Rights Activists Seize Momentum After Landmark Ruling

NEW DELHI — At a jammed intersection in New Delhi, a passing parade of people announced their mission with a single word in Hindi, dicing it into short, snappy syllables.

“Azadi!” or freedom, the crowd chanted as drivers leaned out of their rickshaws, straining to hear. One of the marchers, Rishi Raj Vyas, 16, filled in the blanks.

“We are here to break stereotypes,” he said, “to tell Delhi that we are here and we are queer.”

He was one of several thousand participants in Delhi’s annual gay pride parade who gathered on a smoggy afternoon this month to march, cheer and dance Bhangra through the streets of the city. 

If the parade atmosphere seemed even more buoyant than usual, it may have been because a major victory was in sight for gay rights in this country. In a landmark decision in August, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the country’s citizens had a constitutional right to privacy. In its judgment, the court made special note of the gay community, writing that “sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy.”

For lawyers building a case against a colonial-era law, known as Section 377, that criminalizes sex between men in India, the ruling was welcome news. And it has renewed some hope for the repeal of other repressive laws, including one requiring the “registration and control of eunuchs” and marital rape exceptions in the Indian Penal Code.

Anand Grover, a lawyer leading the effort to overturn Section 377, said the privacy ruling was keeping him busy.

“This is another nail in the coffin, the privacy judgment,” he said. “We are going to win. I don’t lose my optimism.”

Depictions of gender-fluid identity are common in ancient texts found in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, gods transform into goddesses, or they cross-dress. Men become pregnant.

But when the British colonized India, they imported “a great discomfort with all things pleasurable and sensual,” said Devdutt Pattanaik, the author of several books on mythology. The British also declared transgender people a “criminal tribe,” he said.

Today, many Indians object to homosexuality not so much on moral grounds, but because of the pressure to marry someone of the opposite sex. Marriage is often framed as a social pact between two families in India.

“Unlike in the West, where religion is organized, and even homophobia seems institutionalized, in India, all of this is very fluid,” Mr. Pattanaik said. “The only major issue is marriage. People want men and women to marry, no matter what their sexual orientation.” Read more via New York Times