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The retreating global divide on same sex bonding: Time for India to change

With several countries becoming more receptive to the idea, India needs to re-examine its discriminatory laws and practices on the subject.

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21st June 2013 09:31

Alessia Valenza | ILGA Asia

The stunning victory of Blue is the Warmest Colour, winning this year’s Palme d’Or Cannes prize, reflects the sea change in the attitudes around sexuality and same sex relationships globally. The Steven Spielberg-led jury selection of an extremely intimate portrayal of love, sex and joy between two young women, marks a triumph for ?gay? cinema, and also for Adellatif Kechiche, the film?s Tunisian born French director. Extraordinarily, Steven Soderbergh’s film, Behind the Candelabra, the closest competitor to Kechiche’s film, also took on a gay theme. Bringing megastars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon into a lip-locking embrace in the representation of a six-year affair between Liberace, a flamboyant over the top diva and pianist, and his much younger lover in the 1980s, the film leaves one
wondering whether the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Ranbir Kapoor could pull off such a pairing in a manner that helps to build respect for gay relationships in India.

This year’s award is even more poignant as it was given on the same day as thousands in France protested against the country’s recently enacted same-sex marriage law that also protects the rights of gay couples to adopt. France became the 14th country to legalise same sex marriage.

In the U.S.

Attention now turns to the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently heard a challenge to two laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman. A decision is expected soon. Nothing in the American Constitution explicitly requires invalidation of a law denying gay marriages, but Chief Justice John Roberts, a Conservative, will not want to deliver a decision that will look retrograde in two years. Whether he votes to uphold either or both laws, his decision will be analysed for his views on gay marriage and current trends.

In India, top senior counsel argued in support of a Delhi High Court decision to read down the scope of the sodomy provision in the Indian Penal Code, to apply only to non-consensual sexual conduct (whether straight or gay) more than a year ago. The Supreme Court has yet to deliver its decision, which will have significant ramifications on gay citizens and their fundamental rights in India. The court’s position becomes all the more significant given that the subject of sex and sexuality continues to be addressed in separate registers, with an out of touch generation of politicians expressing prejudices openly and shamelessly, as witnessed in the parliamentary debates on the reform of the rape law in March, and a younger generation that is already exhibiting public displays of affection, and demonstrating a healthy level of comfort with its sexuality and sexual preferences.

Global standards

Responding more openly to these global cultural shifts is critical if neo-liberal India seeks to be taken seriously. Diversity in the workplace, including representation of women, gays and lesbians has come to be regarded as a ‘good business practice’ by corporations everywhere. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer in her recent book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, argues that women must take leadership positions in today’s global economic structures, which demands that men step up to their duties at home as equal domestic partners. On issues of sexuality, Beth Brooke, global vice-chair at Ernst and Young, or Ashley Steel, vice-chairperson of KPMG (U.K.) and Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, have all spoken openly about their same sex relationships, reflecting a more gender and homo-friendly environment in corporate culture. Several global companies, such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google have made public
statements in favour of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, including same-sex marriage. These very workers may end up stationed in the new emerging economies. Discriminatory practices and laws in countries like India will be forced to change if investment is at stake. If India continues to toot its horn as a global player, then it must play by global standards. Changes in the workplace must reflect the changes in wider public attitudes, and the increasing culture of openness of a Facebook generation of young people.

There will always be resistance to change. And the courage of the politician is clearly not found in sycophancy and vote bank politics that characterises
today’s political environment. It rests in doing the right thing, as French President Francois Hollande has done in the face of some of the largest protests seen in France since the 1960s, including by a far-right essayist, Dominique Venner, who shot himself dead at the altar of Paris’s famous Notre-Dame, in protest against the ?vile? law legalising same-sex marriage.

The courage to do the right thing, whether by the Spielberg committee at Cannes or Hollande culminated in the performance of the first same-sex wedding in France on May 29. In his wedding speech, one of the grooms recognising his marriage as a political act as well as of love, quoted Martin Luther King: "The law may not be able to make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me." His spouse added: "After the hatred, it’s time to talk of love."

(Ratna Kapur is Global Professor of Law, Jindal Global Law School.)