Section 377 verdict: Love finds a way

From a man jailed for 46 days under Section 377 to an IIT graduate who almost left the country, from an activist who began decades ago to the first transgender to register her marriage — the petitioners and their counsel who scripted history.

Written by Somya Lakhani , Dipanita Nath , Damini Ralleigh | New Delhi | Updated: September 7, 2018 5:25:01 pm
Section 377 verdict: Love finds a way Section 377 verdict, the petitioners and their counsel who scripted history. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

‘After HC verdict, floodgates were open’

Anjali Gopalan (61)
Naz Foundation
Represented by Anand Grover

I have been a fighter since childhood,” says Anjali Gopalan, founder of Naz Foundation, which had filed a PIL in 2001 in the Delhi High Court for a reading down of Section 377 to exclude consenting adults. The office of Naz is in a bustling neighbourhood in south Delhi with a framed photograph of her brother, Vijayan Gopalan, a surgeon, who had died in 2002, hung at the entrance. The premises are buzzing with children with HIV and orphans that the Foundation takes care of.

It was here that a boy came in to meet Gopalan with his parents 18 years ago. “He was in his early twenties, just finished college. He came with his parents for counselling and, obviously, when parents bring their kids, they expect me to tell them to get married and change. And then, usually, after they have gone through counselling, they don’t allow their kids to come back to me because I am not telling them to become straight and get married or whatever,” she says. She explained to the parents that this boy was gay, and forcing him to get married was not the solution. “After that, I didn’t hear from him for a while and then he came back to the office, looking very shaken, and said, he had been given shock treatment to make him straight. That’s when we went to the Human Rights Commission and they said couldn’t file a complaint because it was against the law. It was a criminal act,” she says. The incident was a trigger for Naz Foundation and Lawyers’ Collective filing the PIL.

Read | Section 377 verdict: History owes apology to LGBTQ community for delay in justice, centuries of ostracism, suffering, says SC

“I was braced for a long fight. I am very clear and I have always felt very strongly, ever since I can remember, that you cannot deny people basic rights and definitely you cannot deny rights to citizens of your country based on who they love and who they live with. I have been a fighter, ever since childhood,” she says.

She returns to her formative influences. “I was brought up all over the country. My father was a Brahmin, my mother a non-Brahmin, one was from the South, the other from the North, in those days, the early fifties, when such marriages didn’t happen. They always believed in equality,” she says. They always had gay friends, who would be invited home with their partners. “I had always had gay friends from as long back as I can remember,” she says.

It was when she was in the US that she began to look at homosexuality in a different way. “I finished MA and started working with an organisation working with undocumented migrant labour and I had a lot of gay friends who were dying. I was drawn into it and around 1986, I started my work with HIV. Once you start working with HIV, it is something that makes your life very differently. It makes you look at issues of culture, your values, as how we are as a people. HIV does all of that,” she says.

Naz Foundation’s PIL began one of the major movements for the LGBTQI community as it wound through the courts. In 2009, the Delhi High Court announced a verdict decriminalising homosexuality. “When we got the judgement, initially there was total silence. I remember that I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought I had heard wrong and I kept asking, ‘What did, what did, what did he say?’ Somehow, I hadn’t wanted to be hopeful. It was such a long journey and we didn’t know what would happen. I cried and I am not a crying person. I couldn’t quite believe it,” she says. By 2013, the euphoria was over as the Supreme Court overturned the Delhi High Court verdict and re-criminalised homosexuality. “I think what the Delhi High Court verdict did was that it brought people out of the closet. It opened the floodgates and, once they were out, you couldn’t tell them to go back again,” she says.

That a large number of people filed petitions in the Supreme Court, leading to the present verdict is one of the effects of the 2009 judgement. “I think it’s really fantastic this happened. It was great you have people who are directly impacted filing PILs. When we first went to court in 2001, noone was willing to stick their necks out and identify as gay in court,” she says.

Will she rest now? “I don’t think the fight will end in any way with decriminalisation.. That’s just the beginning of the journey because decriminalisation does not ensure your rights. All it does is say, ‘Ok, you are no longer a criminal’. It does not ensure rights that every citizen takes for granted like the right to marry, inherit, adopt. This fight will be another fight that has to happen,” she says.

She still derives strength from her family’s attitudes. “My mother’s parents were killed in front of her during Partition. I didn’t know about this and she didn’t speak about this for many years. I was in college when, I finally asked her about her patents, because, through somebody else, I had heard about them. We always had a lot of Muslim friends in the family and my mother’s driver, who she trusted with her life, was Muslin. He was with her from the time she came to India. I asked her and she said, “Why, you think it happened only on one side? It happened on both sides. It had nothing to do with religion.” I was brought up to look at equality and discrimination from a different lens,” she says.

Section 377 verdict: Love finds a way Members of the transgender community at Kashmere Gate. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

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‘Can now tackle marriage, surrogacy, adoption’

Ashok Row Kavi (71)
Humsafar Trust
Represented by Anand Grover

“I congratulate the bench because it is unanimous that Section 377 should be read down. Remember, we had never asked for this elimination because that does protect children and animals also since bestiality is quite common. With the present verdict, we can tackle a lot more issues — marriage, surrogacy, adoption and inheritance laws. The fight has just begun,” said Kavi.

Kavi said he has spent decades fighting Section 377, and “now, we can focus on the mental and sexual health of the minorities”.

“We were facing all the other stigmas and discriminations that lead to these issues. HIV among gay men in India is 20 times more than in the general population. Section 377 was becoming a block as people were afraid to go to a doctor,” he said.

“I am looking cold-bloodedly at certain issues. Mental health, for one. Depression is very high in the LGBT community. We can tackle depression and harassment in schools. Now, we can talk about sex education in schools and sexual minorities in schools without it becoming a stigma,” Kavi added.

Express Editorial | The long road to equality

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‘Felt leaving India was only choice… not anymore’

Romel Baral (24)
IIT graduate
Represented by Menaka Guruswamy

Since he turned 12, Baral has studied extra hard, getting into IIT-Guwahati, just so he can settle abroad. “I thought it was the only way I could live like a normal gay man,” he said. On Thursday morning, he flew down from Bengaluru to Delhi to represent 20 IIT students and alumni who had moved SC.

“When I was young, a Bengali newspaper used the word ‘homo’ to describe a gay celebrity in a salacious manner… I realised I was that man but it was such a negative connotation. I wanted to leave India, but last year at Goldman Sachs, I saw a pride flag being hoisted for the first time ever. That job is the best thing that happened to me. It gave me courage… and I decided to tell my parents, friends, the world. I jumped at the idea of filing a petition this year with other IIT students and alumni,” said Baral who has, as of today, dropped all plans to settle abroad.

Section 377 verdict: Love finds a way Celebrating the verdict. (Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

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‘I thought, let people persecute me if they want’

Ritu Dalmia (45)
Restaurateur and chef
Represented by Menaka Guruswamy

“After the SC overturned the HC verdict in 2013… we thought it was time for a petition from homosexuals rather than from NGOs or parents… Menaka asked me to sign the petition and it took me all of 30 seconds to agree. I am many things but a coward.”

“Many well-wishers said it was stupid… because I was announcing myself as a criminal in the eyes of the law. I thought, if this makes me a criminal and someone wants to persecute me, please do,” she said.

“There was an outpouring of hate mails, Twitter threats… Someone threw a bottle of acid; fortunately nothing happened… But I also received mails from people about how much it means to them. And that’s what made this worth it. It made me realise why people put their lives, their careers on hold for a cause. Because today, I feel really good about myself,” she added.

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‘Skipped college out of fear’

Yashwinder Singh (38)
Humsafar Trust
Represented by Anand Grover

School was such a nightmare for Singh that he never attended college. “I finished college from home; I couldn’t deal with the idea of being bullied, mocked, harassed and sexually and mentally abused again,” said Singh at the Supreme Court lawns Thursday afternoon.

Years later, he went on to become a core member of the organising committee of the first Delhi pride parade in 2008.

It was a party in Delhi the same year that changed Singh’s perception, and made him take up activism full-time. “There was an attack on some of us by homophobic people there, and I couldn’t go to police out of fear… I had never felt more helpless,” he said.

Section 377 verdict: Love finds a way Following the historic apex court judgment. (Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

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‘Law doesn’t decimate bigotry’

Ayesha Kapur (44)
F&B consultant
Represented by Menaka Guruswamy

“This day is a culmination of a lot of people’s efforts, many of whom remain anonymous but have been instrumental in providing the community support and courage. And it is these people who gave me the courage to put my name on a public document.”

“As for the verdict, there’s a lot that needs to happen but at least we have the law on our side now. The law of the land now acknowledges us as equals. But we still need to talk about this and counter notions often attached to that which is unknown… The law doesn’t decimate prejudices and bigotry. It’s not a switch that can be turned of and everything will be fine. We still have a long way to go.”

Read | Section 377 verdict: What the Judges ruled

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‘I am not a criminal anymore’

Arif Jafar (48)
LGBT activist
Represented by Anand Grover

When he was 12, Arif Jafar got his publisher grandfather to bind a book titled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) by David Reuben. Months later, he began ordering “gay journals” such as Shakti Khabar, Trikona and Aarambh. “I didn’t hide them; I would deliberately leave them around so they could be found by my parents and we could start a discussion… home was such a safe space that at 19, when I had my first boyfriend, I lived with him in the same house as my mother,” said Jafar.

From the cocoon of that Lucknow house in the late 1980s to becoming an activist to spending 46 days in a jail under IPC Section 377 in 2001, where he claims he was beaten up for 20 days — Jafar’s 17-year-long silence broke when he filed a petition in the SC in February this year. “When the verdict came today, I was inside the courtroom… I never thought this would happen in my lifetime, and in that moment I thought to myself, ‘I am no more a criminal’,” said Jafar, who returns to Lucknow on Friday for a biryani party.

Founder of the first “gay group” in Lucknow called ‘Friends India’ in 1989, Jafar’s activism shifted gears when he began concentrating on the working class population. “I realised education gave me the means to fight, but the man on the street was being beaten, abused and thrown out of his house,” said Jafar, whose organisation is now called Naz Foundation International.

Now aged 48, Jafar keeps that copy of Reuben’s book by his side, as a way of remembering his grandfather. “My family gave me space to grow, taught me not to take abuse, and gave me strength. After the verdict today, I spoke to my mother… she was so happy for me,” said Jafar.

Section 377 verdict: Love finds a way Outside the Supreme Court on Thursday. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

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‘Order ensures no one can peek into my bedroom’

Akkai Padmashali (35)
transgender rights activist
Represented by Jayna Kothari

Within hours of the verdict being announced, Padmashali had already lost her voice. “I have celebrated too much — shouted, laughed, cried — today. My voice is gone… I am incredibly satisfied with the judgment,” said the transgender rights activist over phone from Bengaluru.

From being unable to cope with her assigned gender identity as a child and attempting suicide, to being the first transgender in Karnataka to register her marriage, Padmashali has emerged a champion of human rights. “After this verdict, it’s clearer than before that a majoritarian view will not decide my identity. The 2009 verdict by the Delhi High Court that decriminalised Section 377 got me my family’s acceptance, and this 2018 judgment ensures no one peeks into my bedroom. I am, however, waiting for the PM to comment on this, and support it,” she said.

Express Explained | Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 377: 493 pages, 5 judges, one mantra of Constitutional Morality

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‘Always had a taste for drag’

Keshav Suri (33)
Hotelier
Represented by Mukul Rohatgi

“It was difficult to fully be myself in front of other boys at school — there was bullying, but I always had a taste for drag and cross-dressing,” said hotelier Keshav Suri. On Thursday, he reached SC with Cyril Feuillebois, who he married three months ago in Paris.

“The conversation with my parents was a long-drawn one but I didn’t have it as bad as other petitioners and countless LGBTQI members of this country,” said Suri.

Apart from coming out to his parents a few years ago, Suri said he had to “prove and work extra hard to justify his leadership position at work.”

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‘Verdict not about one individual’

Aman Nath (67)
Hotelier and writer
Represented by Menaka Guruswamy

“Today’s verdict is not about one individual. It’s about an outdated law being flushed out after 160 years… India is just returning to its open, progressive morality. Finally, the love of mankind will be legal in India,” said Nath after the historic judgment.

Nath, who had earlier spoken about the protection his “place of privilege” affords him, had said: “I have never felt I couldn’t

live the way I chose to with dignity and freedom. India is growing up and we should all be a part of that process. We must all be part of a progressive and inclusive society. No one should believe their truth to be the only one.”

The other petitioners who helped bring change

Navtej Singh Johar, Delhi
Sunil Mehra, Delhi
Vivek Raj Anand, Mumbai
Gautam Yadav, Delhi
Uma Umesh, Bengaluru
Suma M, Bengaluru
Anwesh Pokkuluri, Kakinada,
Andhra Pradesh
Akhilesh Godi, Bengaluru
Debottam Saha, Delhi
Sridhar Mandyam Rangaihn, Mumbai
Balachandran Ramaiah, Mumbai
Krishna Reddy Medikonda, Mumbai
Tanveen Kaur Randhawa, Bengaluru
Udai Bhardwaj, Delhi
Aashish Rathi, Mumbai
Keerthana, Pennsylvania
Anurag Kalia, Bengaluru
Rakesh Kumar Duan, Bengaluru
Vardhaman Kumar, Durham
O K Varun, Delhi
Viral Jesalpura, Pune
Manas Modi, Bengaluru
Madhansai Narisetty, Mumbai
Kumar Shivam, Ranchi
Ashris Choudhury, Boston

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