MUMBAI — When the Indian Supreme Court reinstated a 153-year-old ban on gay sex, reversing a lower court’s decision that it was unconstitutional, something stirred in the stillness around equal rights activist Pallav Patankar.
“It occurred to me that all these years we had worked on a narrow path of judicial reform against Section 377,” he said, referring to the part of the Indian Penal Code drafted in 1850 by British lawmakers to outlaw homosexual acts. “But now, we could no longer afford to be apolitical. I had voted as a student, a professional, as someone who defended women’s rights, but I hadn’t asked what would happen if I looked at myself as a political entity through a queer lens.”
In the first Indian election where the rights of sexual minorities are a political issue, two national parties, the ruling Indian National Congress and the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), have included the reading down of Section 377 in their political manifestos.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is leading the polls, has been silent on Section 377 in its manifesto, but party president Rajnath Singh has previously described homosexuality as “unnatural” and stated the party’s support for Section 377.
“Gays and lesbians are not criminals, but we are a conservative party that strongly believes in the traditional family structure, and the need to keep our social and moral fabric intact,” said Shaina NC, national executive member and Maharashtra state treasurer of the BJP.
On Tuesday, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court allowed the country’s marginalized transgender community to identify as a third gender and directed the government to ensure their equal treatment. It is also the first national election in which transgender people can register to vote under the category of “others.”
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“You’ve got to love India,” said Anuja Parikh, member of support group Gaysi Family. “A minority within a ‘minuscule minority’ gets recognized.” Parikh was referring to the Supreme Court judgment that recriminalized homosexuality and called LGBT people “a minuscule fraction of the population.”
In India, politicians tend to cater to vote banks, offering policies and concessions to those sections that they believe have enough numbers to catapult them to 543 parliamentary seats.
“In order for this invisible community to become invincible, we have to show numbers and politicize ourselves,” said Harish Iyer, an equal rights activist who became a member of AAP.
Sitting in the window seat of a local train, as the city tore past, Iyer, 33, talked about how there was no choice for the community but “to dirty its hands” and begin forming political alliances.
His party had excluded its opposition to Section 377 from its manifesto but later feebly added it when the LGBT community raised a stink.
“We need to fight not only for LGBT people but for all those who want to live their lives without the Indian government peeping in their bedrooms,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Humsafar Trust polled 524 queer and queer supporters and found that a majority favored the Congress Party and the AAP — with 45 percent and 41 percent, respectively — parties that have opposed criminalization of gay sex.
But the survey also showed that a 14 percent portion said they would vote for the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party that has opposed gay rights. The poll was accompanied by a qualitative analysis of the queer Indian voter, which mapped the opinions of 37 queer voters in Mumbai.
In a room scattered with political manifestos, voters were asked to write their political views in one line.
What showed up on flipcharts was a wide spectrum: from views like “Queer rights are not important, national interests should decided whom to vote” to “Regressive and bigoted parties will not get my vote.” Almost half of those who attended were undecided; Congress led with 22 percent of the vote and the rest was equally divided between AAP and BJP who each received16 percent.
“Because the LGBT community can no longer expect others to fight on our behalf, given the spate of homophobic comments from political leaders and the Supreme Court ruling, it’s crucial that we come together, lobby, and make our voice heard,” said Parikh, the activist with Gaysi Family.
Part of channeling one clear voice for an entire community was to start a conversation. What did the queer voter want? Reading down Section 377 was top priority, followed by laws supporting marriage equality, anti-discrimination, adoption rights and a gender-neutral sexual assault mechanism.
Soon, the room was opened up for debate, and voters were allowed to attack and defend their political views, especially those who supported the BJP.
There was talk of how being Indian came before being gay and that the BJP had proved itself in its states showing better governance, growth and infrastructure.
Some felt the BJP did not defend gay rights publically only to oppose its rival Congress party.
“At first it confused me to see gay people support a party that believes homosexuality is a crime,” said Patankar, director of the HIV Programs at Humsafar Trust. “One reason is internal homophobia: You don’t like the fact that you’re homosexual and you don’t mind voting for the BJP because you don’t consider queer rights as rights.“
As Patankar spoke in his office at the Humsafar Trust, a young man in a nearby cabin said he hated himself because of his sexual orientation, tears rolling down his face, his gaze fixed into the middle distance.
At the event, after an hour-long debate, the organizers called for a secret ballot, to see if opinions had changed. They found that the section favoring the BJP remained untouched while those who had earlier been undecided sided with the Congress now with 49 percent and AAP with 21 percent.
“We need to talk among ourselves and at some point present these findings to politicians,” Patankar said.
Outside his cabin, near a rainbow flag painted onto a pink wall, a small group had huddled around a computer to discuss how a gay man had been beaten and blackmailed by someone he met on an online dating site. Thumbs anxiously skittered over smartphones to tip off friends who could be possible targets of such hate crimes that had peaked since the Supreme Court ruling.
“The queer struggle is one of the many struggles that fight the inherent discrimination in our social system,” Patankar said.