The harm done by Section 377 to individuals like me — those romantically and sexually attracted to others of the same sex — was devastating. This was true even for the tiny proportion of us who, like me, were spared the worst because of our affluence and because we had caring families. Most others suffered lifetimes of desperation, scarred by shame and self-loathing, by sham marriages, and, often, by being reviled, blackmailed, beaten and raped. It was in recognition of this harrowing suffering that Justice Indu Malhotra remarked, in the Supreme Court’s recent judgment decriminalising same-sex relations, “History owes the LGBT community an apology for their sufferings.”
In reflecting on this law that took such a toll on my life, ending only now, when I am in my late 50s, what strikes me is how authentically Indian it seemed to me in the early decades of my life — which was then, to my great surprise, steadily followed by the opposite conclusion that this law was an alien import and did not have deep roots in India.
In 1982, when I was 20 and heading to the US to complete my college studies, if anyone had asked me whether I thought homosexuality was criminalised in India, I would have instantly answered “Yes!” It was not that I had any knowledge of this either way, it being many years before the internet made information readily available. But, everything in my short life till then had convinced me that homosexuals — in other words, people like me — were so intensely despised in India that we were surely criminalised, and it was only because we had desperately hidden our orientation that we had escaped being apprehended and jailed.
Astonishingly, I began to feel like a criminal long before I even know what homosexuality was. At the age of eight, the taunting of my peers at Kolkata’s La Martiniere school had made me realise that I was a “sissy”, and that I was forever marked out as abnormal and loathsome. I encountered even worse humiliation at the Doon School, another warped boys-only world. In a revealing paradox, I was subjected to unrelenting sexual assaults because of my pretty-boy looks while being condemned for my femininity, often by the very boys who were assaulting me.
St. Stephen’s College, blessedly co-ed by then, was a sanctuary because of the close friendships I struck up with women, but in this adult world I had to confront the era’s nullifying silence about homosexuality, which left me desperately fearful that there was no one else in the world with my sick longings. The silence was punctuated only by incidents that revealed a widespread, intense hatred of homosexuals. My parents’ friends spoke of men rumoured to be homosexual in tones that they did not use even when talking about the most vile politician or corporate swindler.
By the time I returned to India in 1986, I had come out about my orientation to my family and friends. I had studied pioneering works of scholarship documenting the centuries of persecution suffered by Western gay men and women. I knew this inexplicable hatred had emerged in the turbulent late years of the Roman Empire, and that Britain had developed virtually a national mania for persecuting and killing homosexual men. I now knew, for a fact, that homosexuality was criminalised in India, under Section 377 of India’s penal code, a hand-me-down from British colonial rule, with a maximum sentence of imprisonment for life.
Everything that followed in the years after my return, while working as a journalist in Delhi, reinforced my belief that Section 377 was a quintessentially fearsome feature of Indian life. All the gay men and women I met, however privileged, lived in apprehension. Many were in sham marriages in a desperate attempt to hide their orientation. In the public parks where gay men went to meet others or find sex, blackmail and beatings by the police were a constant danger.
When I fell in love and began to live with a man in a committed relationship, my fears about Section 377 intensified. I knew we were violating India’s criminal laws, despite being in the privacy of our flat. I knew we could be arrested and imprisoned.
And then, one night in 1988, aged 27, the worst of my fears became a reality. My boyfriend and I spent terrifying hours imprisoned at the local police station, accused of being “homos” because we lived together. Only my family’s privileged position ensured that we were released unharmed — and that we could soon move abroad.
But then, beginning with my second return to India some years later to do research on rural poverty as well as on AIDS, my views about whether Section 377 was an Indian law began to change, first to ambivalence, and then to the outright conviction that it was an alien import with shallow roots despite being in operation for far more than a century.
I found that the further I went from Anglicised enclaves as well as the seats of power — the further from New Delhi, the further from “brown sahib” Kolkata, the further from the bureaucrats and the police — the greater was the gap between the homophobic views that I had witnessed all my life and what were clearly more accepting Indian values.
Thus, I saw that my aunts and other less Anglicised relatives in small-town Madhya Pradesh handled the fact that I was gay in the most natural, constructive way I could have hoped for — as an unremarkable matter — rather than reacting with the homophobia I had initially encountered with my Doon School-educated father. I saw that men in many parts of the country were raised in traditions that were far less macho than those of Anglicised India or northern India, and that this made them qualitatively more gentle and less prone to homophobia and other aggressions. I saw that many average men and women treated same-sex desire as acceptable to an astonishing degree, very different from the anti-gay bigotry displayed by Anglicised Indians or the brutal homophobia I had seen erupting regularly in the US and Britain.
I saw, too, that the terrible persecution suffered by gays and hijras was invariably the result of the exploitative licence that Section 377 gave to powerful local men, such as the police, thugs and politicians — no different to their brutal treatment of any defenceless or impoverished group.
Over the years, while documenting the changes sweeping through India, I saw average gay men and women, as well as hijras, striving to build families and safe communities for themselves, often in shanty-towns and slums — and that their families, friends and neighbours often supported their efforts, certain that they had an equal right to love.
All these insights led me to conclude that not just on matters of same-sex desire but also on concepts of masculinity, gender expression and intimacy, both Indian traditions and contemporary grassroots trends are often vastly more humane than the unjust Victorian notions that influential sections of Indians have internalised and now hold on to.
The truth is that Britain’s centuries-old homophobia has lived on in independent India overwhelmingly from being internalised by conservative elites. The first were “Macaulay’s Children”, the Anglicised class to which I belonged and which had an outsized role in shaping India until the late-1990s. It says everything that Lord Macaulay was both the creator of this “class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” and also the primary author of Section 377. And the ascendant Hindu-right, always anxious to assert its triumphal, bigchested, He-Man image, also readily absorbed the homophobia, pretending ignorance of its British roots. (Indeed, some of the most homophobic Hindutva ideologues are actually “Macaulay’s Children”.)
It is India’s great strength that most of Indian society has withstood the spread of homophobia and other bad imports. It is India’s great fortune that its higher courts are now so resolutely committed to questioning and discarding the wrongs of the past. These are the larger reasons why all Indians, not just those of us who are gay, should celebrate the ending of the colonial legacy of Section 377.