On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India took a landmark decision wherein it declared the British era law, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, as unconstitutional with regard to its criminalising of certain sexual acts between two consenting adults. The LGBT community in the country has been fighting against this section of the IPC for decades now and with this judgement, the apex court effectively decriminalised homosexuality.
While the community is rejoicing the move, they are also of the opinion that there’s a long way ahead for members belonging to the LGBT+ spectrum to gain social acceptance, as Charlie, a transmasculine person from the USA, who is currently on an exchange programme in Hyderabad, says, “I got here two months ago and I was shocked to know that homosexuality was illegal. I’m very happy to be in India at a time when the country took such an important decision. However, the law doesn’t change the culture. There’s still a long way to go for social acceptance of the community.”
Sandy, a prominent LGBT activist, also points out, “There’s a lot that needs to be done to gain social acceptance as people from the community are discriminated against on a daily basis. Films and TV shows mock gay people, and that adds to the homophobia.”
The major problem, according to Sandy, is the lack of awareness about the whole LGBT spectrum. “It is because of lack of awareness that many people misunderstand what a lesbian or a gay person is. I’ve had many instances when I was asked if I was a hijra. The ones who are aware are automatically sensitised,” explains Sandy.
Echoing his viewpoint is Pranathi Renamala, general secretary of the NGO Mobbera Foundation that works for the betterment of the LGBT community. She says, “It was because I could educate myself about the community when I was a teenager that I got sensitised. I support them and work for them only because of my awareness. In fact, I am asked if I’m a lesbian because I work for the community and that shows people’s ignorance towards these aspects.”
According to them, it is also the lack of awareness that makes people ask them the question “Why do you care if Section 377 exists or not, is it what you’re doing in your private space?” and to that, Pranathi says, “It’s not just about sex. The decriminalisation of homosexuality now gives members of the community a legal base to go on. They are humans with human emotions and aspirations; their sexuality is just a part of their life. The Section 377 had criminalised their very identity but now, at least no one can call them criminal.”
But, the lack of awareness also exists within the LGBT community itself, as Sandy explains, “There’s a lot of misinformation within the community. When I first came to Hyderabad and realised I was gay, I was on a bunch of WhatsApp groups where ‘likeminded’ people used to meet up but the general perception was that ‘we are having fun now and any way we have to get married to a woman later’. There are a lot of teenagers on these groups and they end up being misinformed about the community. That is the reason I started ‘Mobbera’, to provide proper knowledge about different sexualities. And then, there are certain places in the city where gay guys can find guys to hook up with and it’s usually done in an unsafe scenario; putting them at the risk of HIV and other diseases.”
It’s not just the misinformation that exists within the community, as Shane, a transwoman points out, “There are many assumptions about transpeople within the community. Transphobia exists even inside the community and transpeople are looked down upon. Closet gays usually hesitate interacting with transpeople for fear of being labelled a ‘hijra’. The fact that most hijra/transpeople don’t have education and end up doing odd jobs adds to the transphobia.” Sandy agrees with Shane and says, “Even within the community, the Ls, Gs, and Bs put themselves on one side and the Ts to the other.”
What the heteronormative society fails to realise is that gender and sexuality are extremely complex and highly subjective. This attitude seems to reflect even within the community wherein Pansexuals and Gender Fluid people are discriminated against.
Patruni Sastry, a well-known classical dancer who identifies as gender fluid, says “A pansexual is someone who is comfortable with all or no genders. And this confuses people. Even the ones willing to accept gay or lesbian or even bi, can’t grasp the concept of pansexuality. The fact that mockery exists when it comes to such unfamiliar concepts doesn’t really help.”
Sastry has attempted to counter this by giving a series of dance performances with pansexuality-based themes, and it was received positively. “When I first did a show based on Greek mythology, with a pansexual theme, a few people came up to me and asked me questions about it and one person later told me that they’re pansexual. It is this sort of sensitisation that is extensively needed,” says Sastry.
Conducting awareness programmes, talks, cultural events, group sessions and more aimed at triggering a dialogue, is the unanimously agreed upon method to increase the sensitisation towards the LGBT community. “We need to build awareness within the community first and after that, we can work towards gaining social acceptance on a larger scale. Once the people within the community are aware of what is what and are sensitised, I believe that will enable them to let go of their fears and fight for social acceptance,” explains Sandy.
Another step that needs to be taken towards gaining social acceptance is the removal of transphobia and mockery about the community in the entertainment sector. There are several shows, according to Shane, that have subtle elements of transphobia, “These shows mock transwomen and show them in a poor light. It angers me to see such shows because these shows are consumed by the masses and are very impactful. If filmmakers work towards positivity around the LGBT community, a lot will change.”
Needless to say, the LGBT+ community in India has come a long way from having their very existence being deemed criminal to being armed with a legal decision. As to how the rest of the population becomes sensitised, stops the discrimination against them and manages to have a peaceful coexistence with acceptance of the community, remains to be seen.