The landmark Supreme Court judgement decriminalising homosexuality is the culmination of a battle fought by LGBTIQ+ (hereafter, queer) activists and their allies stretching over three decades. The road to victory was paved not just by rights activism but the queer community’s spectacular success in raising and sustaining public consciousness through creating spaces for cultural, social and intellectual engagement.
In Delhi, in the late 1980s, a handful of women met regularly and called themselves the “Delhi Group”. They exchanged stories, books, films and reached out to those stigmatised for their sexuality. Later, when I became friends with some of them, I was introduced to texts that I didn’t know existed. This included Vijay Dan Dheta’s Naya Gharvas (A New Domesticity), an extraordinary short story about lesbian love translated by Ruth Vanita in Manushi. In 1992, my friend and I watched a bootlegged video copy of Pratibha Parmar’s Khush (1991), featuring South Asian gays and lesbians coming out publicly for the first time. It quickly became an underground cult classic in Delhi where the word “queer” had yet to arrive and the terms “gay” and “lesbian” had only a tentative presence.
The post-liberalisation mediascape of the 1990s was inaugurated by moral panic and anxieties as well as an efflorescence of sexual speech. The prospect of being arrested for publicly “promoting” homosexuality was real, so spaces with diplomatic immunity became venues for queer cultural activities. In 1993, Max Mueller Bhavan Delhi staged Rustom Bharucha’s audacious Hindi adaptation of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman. In 1994, the AIDs Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan filed, unsuccessfully, a petition against Section 377. In 1996, queer cinephiles were discussing Riyad Wadia’s sexually-explicit BomGay and A Mermaid Called Aida, a documentary on Aida Banaji, Bombay’s charismatic trans-model. In 1996, audiences at Kamani Auditorium were mesmerised by a sensuous homoerotic dance by two women in Chandralekha’s Mahakal. A similar performance by men in Raaga (1998) fetched her censure from a section of the press.
In 1998, Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) — where two women occupied the space conventionally devoted to heterosexual lovers — was released in India. The film ran peacefully in theatres till Hindu right groups attacked it for endangering “marriage” and “Indian culture”. Defenders of free speech and expression — of whom some were critical of the film and homosexuality — gathered in front of Regal Cinema to protest. They were joined by people from the streets. For this reason, the first pride parade in Delhi paid tribute to Regal Cinema. The controversy around Fire initiated post-independent India’s first public debate on homosexuality. Nishit Saran’s “coming-out” documentary, Summer in My Veins, made its appearance in 1999. The self-identified queer had arrived — with friends, family and a determination to speak.
In 2000, Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita’s Same-Sex Love in India was published by Palgrave, USA, as no Indian publisher was ready to take the risk. By the time it was published in India, the formidable tome with its dazzling array of material from South Asian history, literature and mythology had already become a queer classic and was submitted as evidence in 2001 when the Naz Foundation filed a legal challenge to Section 377. This decade saw an explosion of speech by and about the queer community culminating in the landmark high court judgement of 2009 decriminalising consenting sex between adults. This victory had as much to do with legal activism as with the public opinion that queer activism had been able to create. The two-judge bench of Chief Justice AP Shah and Justice S. Murlidaharan read down Section 377 on grounds that it violated the constitutional guarantees of dignity, equality and freedom. They stated that “safeguarding popular morality” was not “a compelling state interest” and that “constitutional morality must outweigh the argument of public morality, even if it be the majoritarian view”. The judgment did not endear them to their colleagues, many of whom secretly called them “Gaylords”.
On December 11, 2013, the Supreme Court, in a shocking reversal, set aside this judgment and reinstated Section 377. The decision was met with widespread condemnation and disapproval from the national media, public intellectuals, academics, celebrities, and, most importantly, people on the streets. The issue was no longer the preserve of queer activists.
When on September 6, the Supreme Court’s judgment laid to rest the offending section, the silence around queerness had long been decisively shattered. The internet had exploded with what scholars Thomas Waugh and Brandon Arroyo are calling the Third Sexual Revolution. Real and virtual spaces for friendship, solidarity and political engagement had been firmly established. Cultural activities across cities took for granted the participation of queer groups, writers, activists, publishers, performers, academics, filmmakers and an increasing number of young people. Perhaps, nowhere in history had “criminals” been so productive! For those who still ask: “Is India ready for this?”, the answer is, “Yes, it has been for some time.”