Outside Delhi’s high court the streets thronged with jubilant crowds hugging, sobbing and beating drums. Inside, in front of a hushed courtroom, the judges had just passed a historic ruling. Gay men were no longer criminals. Section 377, the 149-year-old colonial law that banned gay sex, had been deemed to be a violation of fundamental human rights protected by India’s constitution.
For some gay and lesbian Indians the high court declaration will mean having the courage to come out. For Shaleen Rakesh, a 38-year-old veteran gay rights activist, it is the end of a legal campaign he mounted six years ago against an insidious law that left him powerless against homophobic violence and unable even to talk about rights.
‘Domestic partnership, adoption, all the things that straight people take for granted, activists couldn’t even talk about because Section 377 made it illegal to be gay in the first place,’ he says. Under the colonial law, men could be jailed for 10 years for having gay sex, an act which was classed as an ‘unnatural offence’ along with paedophilia and bestiality. ‘How could you talk about rights when the legal framework made you a criminal?’
Six years ago, on behalf of the Naz Foundation HIV/Aids charity, and with the help of a legal charity called the Lawyer\’s Collective, Rakesh began to put together a public-interest litigation against Section 377. ‘Besides just coming out and shouting from the rooftops, trying to change the law was the only thing we could do,’ says Rakesh, who now lives with his partner of seven years in Delhi.
The everyday harassment of gay men by police and thugs also strengthened Rakesh’s resolve to fight the law. Gay men were rarely prosecuted under Section 377, but they were often intimidated or exploited because of it.
Once, while he was coordinating the Naz Foundation’s ‘men who have sex with men’ programme, a whole group of men with whom Rakesh had been working were badly beaten up. ‘A bunch of gay boys who were walking home from the support meeting were attacked by some street boys,’ says Rakesh. ‘They had iron bars and hockey sticks. Many of the boys I knew got their heads smashed that night and were taken to hospital.’
‘We knew who did it. I wanted to make a police complaint but we couldn’t because of the law,’ says Rakesh. ‘The police had a history of raiding groups working with gay men and of rounding up and arresting outreach workers,’ he says. ‘So we were afraid.’ The men who were beaten up were also afraid to speak out. ‘They were not ready to own up to being gay publicly; they thought they would be criminalised,’ he says. ‘In the end we made no complaint.’
Rakesh’s journey to becoming a gay rights activist and legal victor began when, as an 11-year-old schoolboy in Delhi, he realised he was attracted to men. He describes growing up surrounded by a ‘conspiracy of silence’, in which nobody even spoke of the possibility of homosexuality. ‘I would have been happy to hear something I could latch onto or fight with, but there was just silence, nothing,’ he says.
‘There was this hypocrisy. It’s okay to do what you want to do in the bedroom but you don’t talk about it in the living room. I used to find that appalling.’
He got into gay activism in his twenties, finding that voicing what he felt about the state of affairs ‘began to heal the years of silence and oppression that I felt as a gay boy growing up’.
But before he could go public, he had to tell his mother. After keeping his sexuality secret from family and friends for a decade Rakesh came out to his mum, who delighted him by replying simply, ‘So what?’ Most gay Indians do not have the privilege of being born to such liberal parents.
After coming out to his family, he began working with gay organisations, starting with the Humsafar Trust in Mumbai and then the Naz Foundation in Delhi. ‘I became a very openly out gay rights activist,’ he says. ‘I used to write a magazine column, I did training workshops and seminars, I was very vocal in the media, I organised protests and I did a lot of work with the National Human Rights Council on the psychiatric mistreatment of homosexual clients by the medical fraternity.’
Rakesh did not expect legal victory to come so soon – the petition had been winding its way round the country’s judicial pipelines for years – but credits the judicial change of heart to two things: ‘the HIV/Aids argument’ and a groundswell of public activism.
Gay men are up to eight times more likely to contract HIV than the average Indian, and many groups lobbied for Section 377 to be overturned on the grounds that it pushes gay men underground, making them more vulnerable to HIV. NACO, the government’s HIV/Aids control body, came out against Section 377 in 2006, arguing that the law made HIV prevention more difficult. The health minister Anbumani Ramadoss and many AIDS organisations, including the Indian HIV/Aids Alliance, where Rakesh now works, have also called for the law to be abolished in order to protect public health.
Opening the floodgates
Social pressure from around the country, but particularly the big cities, has also grown hugely in the past few years. ‘The floodgates have opened,’ says Rakesh. Cities such as Delhi and Mumbai have held gay pride marches; young gay people and their families have been interviewed by journalists on primetime TV; Bollywood films now have gay characters. Bombay Dost, a gay magazine, has been relaunched and is no longer sold wrapped in brown paper. This cultural shift ‘probably gave the court some degree of comfort to believe that the population was ready for change,’ says Rakesh.
Now that homosexuality has been decriminalised by the high court the government will discuss formally repealing Section 377. But there is also plenty of opposition to a change in the law. Religious groups, leaders of the BJP (the Hindu nationalist party), and millions of ordinary Indians, especially those in rural areas, still find homosexuality unacceptable.
This social discrimination will be much slower to budge. ‘In small towns in India it’s still virtually impossible to come out to your family,’ he says. ‘Even in Delhi most young gay men find it hard to come out.’ Many men succumb to the social pressure around them and keep their sexuality secret. When Rakesh was in his late teens he asked a man he’d met at a cruising spot whether he would ever get married (to a woman). ‘I already am,’ he replied. ‘Isn’t everyone?’
Rakesh no longer sees himself as a political activist. But the legal change he helped to bring about has set a host of new challenges for the next generation of activists – to make social change follow legal change, and to campaign for all the rights that straight people take for granted.
‘I don’t think people are just going to change their opinions overnight because of the law,’ says Rakesh. ‘Stigma and years and years of socialisation don’t get changed overnight, but it’s a start.’
Global developments in gay rights
A law was proposed earlier this year that would legalise same-sex civil unions in Venezuela. It has passed through one round of discussion in the national assembly but it has faced strong opposition from Venezuela’s episcopal church, which has publicly condemned the proposal. The proposed law would also accord equal rights to transexual people.
Gay rights campaigners in Zimbabwe believe they have a 50-50 chance of getting gay, lesbian and bisexual people protected under the country’s new constitution, which is currently being drafted. At the moment sex between men is illegal. Keith Goddard, director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, says that the best chance of success is to argue for the law to be repealed in the name of HIV prevention.
The supreme court in Islamabad has ordered that transgender people should receive equal protection and support from the government. The interior ministry has also been directed to ensure police provide protection to trans people from criminal elements. Gay sex is still illegal.
Gay rights took a step back in Burundi in April this year after the government criminalised homosexuality for the first time in the country’s history. Gay men who are prosecuted can be punished with up to two years in prison.
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry