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Vulnerability of gay and transgender Indians goes way beyond Section 377

in INDIA, 20/12/2013

Prompting international outrage, the Supreme Court of India has overturned a “reading-down” of the notorious Section 377 of the India Penal Code. This, in effect, reinstated a law that is widely understood to criminalise homosexuality. Many see this as a betrayal of basic human rights, particularly freedom of sexual expression and protection from harassment and abuse on grounds of sexual difference.

For lots of activists, the decision has significant symbolic implications in terms of India’s image in the international arena. India had previously looked relatively progressive on the world stage in terms of minority sexual rights. This was part of a package of other attributes, such as growing socio-economic liberalism and urbanising modernity in the sub-continent, often associated with sexual progress despite their problematic impacts in terms of poverty and the wealth gap. Now, a more regressive image suddenly seems to have taken centre stage.

The Supreme Court decision is especially important not only because it stirs up a new set of concerns for same-sex desiring and practising people in India, but because it appears to upset an equivalence between legislative progress on sexual rights and the image of India as a modern, secular and progressive nation. This speaks to another set of anxieties too – the possibility that next year’s elections could result in a right-wing victory, bringing a fresh wave of religious conservatism and a divided vision for what a future India might look like.

But in marked contrast to the symbolic and emotional importance the decision has acquired, many activists and scholars (including representatives of working-class LGBT communities in India) feel that the judgement and Section 377 itself is being given far more importance than it deserves, and is being misrepresented as “criminalising” homosexuality.

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