Decriminalising homosexuality is just half the battle won. Will abrogating Section 377 change the way we perceive the LGBTIQ community? We must look beyond their physicality to the soul within
Soon after the Supreme Court’s verdict decriminalising homosexuality, India’s first transgender college principal Manabi Bandopadhyay said it was like getting a marriage offer after retirement. And in faraway Aligarh, Irfan wondered whether he would be finally treated as a partner of Prof Ramchandra Shrinivas Siras, who was allegedly murdered for a consensual same-sex relationship with him. Wronged and compromised for years, they are asking the big question, will the decriminalisation change the way we perceive the LGBTIQ community? Will the inclusion be whole-hearted and absolute without adequate legal protection? Though now they have the right to be jubilant, they weren’t full-throated about it as they had worries on a day when extremist viewpoints still insisted that they could be toxic in a society and needed psychological redress. This despite the Court’s explicit observation that “homosexuality is not a disorder.”
In June 2018, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) removed all trans-related diagnoses from the mental disorders chapter as “evidence is now clear that it is not a mental disorder, and indeed classifying it in this can cause enormous stigma for people who are transgender.” Homosexuality was removed as a mental disorder in 1970 from the ICD.
Perhaps, that’s the reason why the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Section 377 was a clarion call not just to the Government to do what it had been mandated to do — protect a citizen’s right, even if it is of just one — but an appeal to society at large to be accommodative of its pluralistic worth. In fact, the ruling went way beyond the scope of the immediate subject to address the prevailing societal mindset of homophobia, paranoia and a presumed extinction by anything and anybody “other than us.” This larger context of a reality check is amplified by the Court’s observations that “majoritarian views and popular morality cannot dictate constitutional rights.” Or that “no one can escape from their individualism. Society is now better for individualism…Autonomy of an individual is important. He or she cannot surrender it to anyone… Identity is equivalent to divinity... Denial of self-expression is inviting death…. Destruction of individual identity would be tantamount to crushing of intrinsic dignity that cumulatively encapsulates the values of privacy, choice, freedom of speech and other expressions.” In fact, Chief Justice Dipak Misra even quoted Goethe: “I am what I am, so take me as I am.” While empowering the most muffled voice, the Court also reminded that the Government should have followed the spirit as laid in the Constitution confidently instead of assigning the role to the Court as the purveyor and executor of justice. “Majoritarianism constitutionally is untenable. The Constitution is a dynamic document, having the primary objective of establishing a dynamic and inclusive society. We have to vanquish prejudice, embrace inclusion, and ensure equal rights.” This is just not a comment on the aggressive muscularity of mainstream discourse but an appeal to introspect and self-correct pre-conceived notions of minoritysm. It is a desperate call to ethical benevolence.
The Court, while emphasising that history owes apology to the LGBTIQ community for unwarranted ostracism, even delineated the role of the Government in normalising humanity over sexual preferences, advising it to give wide publicity about LGBTIQs in the media and conducting awareness drives for Government officers. Therein lies the bigger challenge beyond remedial justice, that of ensuring access to economic, social and cultural rights for the community, to allow them a share of mainstream opportunities by valuing their mind and skill sets beyond their physical orientation. And while we have big names from the community doing seminal works, what is needed is empowering the commonest among them as a stakeholder in the country’s economic development and social institutions such as education, families and health care.
A World Bank study on stigma and exclusion for LGBTIQs in India, collecting data from 2006, shows that 41 per cent of Indians would not want a homosexual neighbour and 64 per cent believe that homosexuality is never justified. This negative attitude has probably diminished over time with popular images of LGBTIQs as influencers and thought leaders too. Corporate India has already begun showing the way. The Tata group and IBM have expanded their diversity portfolio to include the community, private educational institutions like the Shiv Nadar school have awareness modules, hotel chains like The LaliT have included LGBTIQs in all services, from front desk to night clubs, and the Lakme Fashion Week featured them for the first time on the ramp with designers like Shantanu & Nikhil even putting out a marketable line of clothing. In fact, The LaliT’s Keshav Suri sees a huge potential in the tourism economy too.
Popular media, like Bollywood and particularly streaming platforms, are also reshaping the way we look at “otherness”, as humans before their physicality. These have happened without Governmental intervention. But we still need laws to protect rights. The Government, on its part, needs to deal with issues of a civil union — What should be the rights of a partner? Would a marriage be allowed? Would all existing legal spousal clauses apply to them? What should be the rights of inheritance? What about insurance benefits?
As of now, medical insurance is a nebulous area when it comes to transference rights to same-sex partners. What about discrimination and typecasting at the workplace and ensuring their participation in the larger labour market? The assimilation of LGBTIQs has a long battle ahead beyond the urban consciousness. In the hinterland and the vast countryside, where they continue to be castaways or seen as nature’s aberration, a law that allows them to proclaim who they are may prevent them from a jail term but can it protect them from alienation and non-inclusion in community affairs?
Affirmative action is needed to first alter the perception among the disadvantaged sections of the community that they are not just beggars and sex workers but can be masons, carpenters and of employable worth. Apart from stereotypes, they, too, have the additional burdens of caste hierarchies to deal with.
What is needed is a practical awareness drive that begins with the primary school network, counsellors and trained teachers. Creating safe spaces for the LGBTIQ to talk about their issues, providing them support and encouraging them to look at themselves beyond their sexuality as capable individuals is the next step. Otherwise, we will have ghettoised set-ups which are detrimental rather than being absorptive. There should be a layered legal redress system pan-India where LGBTIQs can claim protection from bullying, violence and ostracisation.
There should be a dedicated mental health service for the most deadening psychological battles that LGBTIQs face in their reintegration attempts. Human rights can only work if we are conscious about our duties as fellow humans. Decriminalising them is just a fraction of the battle won. We must look beyond their physicality to the soul within. That is why our mythologies and epics talk about shape-shifting and sex-changing capabilities of divinity, metaphorically urging us to look beyond the fixities of the material world and value the true core of being. But try invoking the allegories embedded in epics and myths now and risk being trolled as a non-believer. Yet it is in these texts that we need to seek solutions and find our anchor for a just and healthy society.
(The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer)