On 6 September, a five-member Bench of the Supreme Court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), insofar as it applied to consenting adults, violated India’s constitutional morality. The landmark judgement not only affected the lives of millions of LGBTQ+ people, but also reversed an earlier ruling that had criminalized the community only five winters ago. It was on 11 December 2013 when two judges of the apex court had decided that India’s LGBTQ+ community was a “minuscule minority" and reinstated the IPC section (which had been repealed by an earlier Delhi high court ruling in 2009), effectively turning LGBTQ+ people into “criminals".
As Justice Indu Malhotra, one of the five judges who read out four concurrent verdicts on 6 September, said, society owes the LGBTQ+ community an apology for the historical wrongs perpetrated against it.
Over the last three months, Lounge reached out to individuals across the community to understand the ways in which the change in legal status has affected their physical, mental and professional well-being. The stories we heard ranged from individuals finally finding the conviction to come out to their families to euphoric jubilation at the prospect of living freely. Some felt better equipped to battle the daily micro-aggressions they faced at schools, colleges or work. For others, the novelty of a post-377 world quickly wore off, as social structures, inflected by class, caste, and religion, cut into their hopes of a life of dignity and equality.
Opening the door
Coming out as LGBTQ+ is never easy, even in societies that are supportive and protective of the community’s rights. The process begins with accepting oneself, followed by asserting that identity to the world. Judicial reform may create an enabling platform to come out, but social realities don’t necessarily change in sync. So the battle must be fought as much inside courtrooms, as inside drawing rooms, classrooms and meeting rooms, every day of our lives.
“Will someone who hasn’t been able to express their sexuality for, say, 10 years, be able to overcome this ‘taboo’ overnight?" asks Atri Kar, a 28-year-old school teacher in Kolkata. Kar, who came out as a transwoman in 2014, fought a legal battle against the state of West Bengal in 2017 to include third gender in application forms for all public offices and won the case. “When I began sex reassignment surgery a few years ago, I already knew that if you want to have a revolution, you have to start it at your home," Kar adds. “If I am unable to sensitize people I have grown up around, how will I be able to convince the rest of the world?"
Bengaluru-based LGBTQ+ activist Ayaan Syed shares the sentiment. Coming out, he admits, should not be forced by circumstances. Each individual has to find the right time to make that decision. “But you should not put yourself in a situation like marriage for the sake of social cover-up," he says. “I come from an orthodox Muslim family and they will never accept me for who I am. I knew this and even the fact that there was a threat to my life. But I still chose to come out, because I really don’t care what society says about me."
One of the most affecting stories that emerged on 6 September was of 25-year-old Arnab Nandy, a Mumbai-based tech professional who came out as gay in a Facebook post. Pictured with his mother planting a kiss on his cheek and his father beaming at the camera, Nandy is seated between his parents, who are holding up a poster saying: MY SON IS NOT A CRIMINAL ANYMORE. Nandy says he has been out since he was 23 but told his mother about his sexuality three months before the ruling. It wasn’t easy to break the news to the family, more so because his father is a government employee and was worried about Section 377. “I didn’t want to come out to the entire world unless my parents were ready to fight for it," he adds. The post not only went viral, but some people even put it up as their WhatsApp display picture.
Having grown up in a conservative set-up, though fortunate to have supportive friends in college and colleagues in workplaces, Nandy is reluctant to dismiss anyone as a homophobe. “In India even menstruation is taboo, how do you expect people to be okay with gay sex?" he says. The task of making people around us more sensitive is long-drawn, uphill, sometimes futile. But we can’t give up, he says. And it must start as early as possible.
Young and sorted
Shortly after the ruling on Section 377, Arpita Das, publisher of the independent imprint Yoda Press, spoke on social media about celebrating the victory with her 13-year-old “queer" daughter Amalia (who shares her views with us). Das’ post created ripples of praise but also ugly denunciation and accusations of bad parenting. On 8 September, Das wrote an article in The Quint, in which she addressed these responses with a clarity that makes it required reading for all parents. “Feeling queer has nothing to do with being in a sexual relationship," she wrote. “It is about understanding where you stand in terms of your preference, identity and desire."
“The last few years of activism around LGBTQ+ issues has given 13-14-year-olds a narrative that they can join," says Nupur Dhingra Paiva, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist who works mostly with young people. Until recently, the binary of being identified as a boy or a girl was the only one available to children. But no more.
One of Dhingra Paiva’s youngest clients, a four-year-old, refused to be called by a girl’s name and came to sessions wearing different (male) superhero outfits. Another 14-year-old girl felt piqued because “today was not a girl day"—but she did not want to become a boy either. “The real struggle for the parents is to stay with this feeling of in-between-ness," says Dhingra Paiva.
Another clinical psychologist, Mumbai-based Sonali Gupta, adds, “Any judgement has value if you build resilience into the system. You build this with children and larger institutions like schools." While most schools in India (even in the urban centres) have a long way to go before sex education becomes part of their curricula, parents and families can start the conversation early. “I told my daughter about LGBTQ+ identities when she was 4 (she is 9 now)," says Gupta. “I introduced her to the concept using a book called And Tango Makes Three."
The struggle to sustain the momentum of the reading down of Section 377 must begin at the grass-roots. While Syed and his associates are trying to convince local schools and colleges to let them organize workshops on gender and sexuality for young adults and millennials, other organizations are working to push through policy changes.
Chennai-based L. Ramakrishnan is the vice-president of the NGO Saathii, which works on barrier-free access to health, legal, social and educational services for communities that are marginalized on account of their HIV status and/or gender or sexual identities. He particularly relates the Section 377 ruling back to the 2014 Supreme Court verdict on third gender, also known as the Nalsa judgement. “The disconnects between the Nalsa verdict and what the state governments understand of it, and need in order to implement it, are resoundingly large," he says. “The state officials, for instance, look for government orders to be able to implement policies on the ground, and those orders don’t often exist. Further, their understanding is often limited to transgender = third gender = kinnar or hijra. The notions of binary trans identities and transmasculine persons are largely foreign to them, despite their inclusion in the scope of the verdict."
Particularly dire is the predicament of the transmen community (those who identify as male but were assigned female gender at birth). Nandini Krishnan, author of a new book, Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks, says, “The language used by the judges (in the Section 377 ruling)—saying ‘the law has become a weapon of harassment’, for instance—is a crucial moral victory." Scarcely accounted for even within the trans community, transmen may be less haunted by the fear of discovery and persecution, adds Jamal Siddiqui, a 27-year-old transman from Delhi. “The police may finally become more aware of the transman identity," Siddiqui adds, describing the recent ordeal faced by an underage transman at the hands of the police in Delhi, who had no idea that such an identity even existed, in spite of the (now nearly-five-year-old) Nalsa judgement.
Ramakrishnan, however, mentions one immediate change he has experienced in his work post-Section 377. “A person from a state branch of the national health mission approached us to help modify the mental health policy of that state and include LGBTQ+ people under it," he says. The idea may take time to gestate and realize, but it is a beginning nonetheless.
Nipun Arora, 28
Researcher | Ottawa, Canada
When I moved to Canada in 2016, my life from the point of view of my sexual orientation did not change much. Earlier I had worked in tech in Bengaluru for several years, where I was out at my workplace, and accepted as such. I was lucky to work with companies that embraced inclusivity and diversity in word and deed. For instance, when the Supreme Court ruling against the LGBTQ+ community was announced in 2013, the company I was working with at the time sent out an email to all its employees saying it stood behind the rights of the community.
But it was only in Canada, though, that I realized the political freedoms I had. I could, for instance, kiss a guy on the street without thinking in terms of "being caught". Now that IPC Section 377 is gone, will it allow for more free expression of love on the streets of India? I don’t think so. Culturally sanctioned norms of behaviour are not going to go away simply because there is a legal change now.
I have been out to my parents for the past eight years and they have come to accept it. I never felt in any way that their affection towards me was compromised. So, on the day Section 377 was struck down, I was expecting some form of response from them. My mother did call me up, and I could tell she wanted to talk about it, but all she could bring herself to say was something like, “So the ruling happened".
As her reaction was rather diluted, I explained to her that it was a pretty big deal, and that it could change millions of lives. She eventually did admit that even after all this time, she didn’t know how to talk about the subject and highlighted that this discomfort stems from a general discomfort around topics related to sex. Interestingly, a few years ago, she had pushed through the discomfort to talk to me about the importance of safe sex. My father was very awkward and didn’t even mention it.
When I lived in India, I would have probably at worst faced ostracization, hopefully not physical harm. I was protected by my education, class and caste privileges as well as the circle of friends I have. I do want to come back to India to live there one day, and the ruling sort of makes it slightly more okay for me to do so. But my desire to claim my identity is strong. And for that to be realized, more changes need to happen in other spheres and become integrated with the day-to-day politics of life.
—As told to Somak Ghoshal
Sidhant Kumar Behera, 24
Fashion designer | Raipur
Even when I was studying in class X, I knew I was different. I felt female and “feminine" but I didn’t feel accepted or even understood. It is only much later when I got intimate with someone that I felt sexually accepted. Eventually, I accepted myself too.
My family is originally from Odisha, and that’s where I grew up as well. I always wanted to join fashion designing, and I cleared the entrance exam for the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) with top marks. I could have gone to Bengaluru, but I realized I wouldn’t be able to afford the city. I chose Raipur instead.
Here, I found a community that has been a great support system. I fiddled with the idea of a sex reassignment surgery (SRS), but I wasn’t convinced it would be safe. My sisters in the community call me Siddhi. I wanted to look like the woman I felt I was. In Raipur, the transgender community is mostly hijras. They resort to begging, and some of them even to prostitution, to make a living. They have the guru system, and undergo a nirvaan (castration). There is a lot of superstition around the idea of SRS in this community, and they vehemently oppose it. (The rudimentary castration) makes them all the more vulnerable to a lot of health issues and even fatal diseases. Besides, will they even feel sexually satisfied? Chhattisgarh is not the kind of place where the conversation on SRS and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community happens as it does in other places. Still, through a lot of counselling, we have been able to make the hijra community more open to SRS.
What the 377 verdict has done is ensure that this is a safer process and gives me the legitimacy to look ahead. I am already undergoing a hormone replacement therapy, and have undergone a lot of counselling to prepare myself for SRS next year. The verdict gave me the confidence that I can choose a good surgeon in a reputed hospital, and ensure that I won’t be asked a lot of demeaning questions. I am looking to have a vaginoplasty procedure next year, but preferably in a metro like Delhi. The 377 verdict states, “Transgender persons’ right to decide their self-identified gender is also upheld and the Centre and state governments are directed to grant legal recognition of their gender identity such as male, female or as third gender." It means I can be whatever I want to be.
—As told to Benita Fernando
Bidisha Mohanta, 21
Performance artist | Mumbai
I am usually a late riser, but on 6 September I woke up around 5.30-6am and immediately started looking for updates on social media. Finally, around midday, the news came, and the first person I called was my girlfriend, who is in the Netherlands. It was quite early there and she was barely awake. But in no time we were squealing with joy. Earlier I wouldn’t have wanted my girlfriend to live with me in India, because where she is from, same-sex marriage is legal. But after the ruling I feel we could well be together here.
The reading down of Section 377 showed the community that we, as a people, are moving in the right direction. But it’s just the beginning. Hate crimes against the community have not gone away because the law has changed. It’s as though there is a perception that we, members of the LGBTQ+ community, are antigens. We must be dangerous to the social fabric. As an artist I’m inspired to work even harder to bring about a change in this mindset, to channel my anger into my art.
A lot of conservative Indian families consider our kind of love radical. But there are people—including children from conservative families—who have reached out to me since I came out on national TV on India’s Got Talent (IGT). They say my courage on stage has given them hope.
Before Section 377 was removed, I went for an audition in a reality show and was rejected because I came out there. My intention was to provide a face in the entertainment industry that young lesbian women could relate to. I wanted to show that I am a millennial who is proud of her sexuality and also wants to win people over with her music. There is nothing to be ashamed of. When I went to IGT after Section 377 was gone, there was a clear difference in the way I was encouraged to talk about my sexuality.
—As told to Somak Ghoshal
(name withheld on request)
Student | Delhi
I live in Begum Vihar with my parents and two older brothers. I belong to a Hindu family—farmer’s caste. My father runs a small store near our home. My parents don’t know what the words “gay" or “transgender" mean, nor do they know that such identities exist. So they won’t understand who I am or the kind of people I might love in the future.
I was in the hospital, accompanying a friend for a minor check-up, when I heard about the Section 377 ruling. Unlike my parents, my brother, who is two years older than me, knows that I occasionally dress up like a woman. He is possibly the only one in my family who knows exactly who I am—you know, meetha, gudd, chakka, names that I’ve been called all my life. He got really angry about the ruling. In fact, recently he told my mother to check my bag for lipstick and eyeliner. And she did. She was really surprised and a bit embarrassed to find a lipstick and “pancake" in my bag. I lied, saying those belonged to a friend from college. She confiscated them and said, “Either you ‘fix’ yourself, or I will kill myself."
Since childhood, my mannerisms have been too “feminine". I stand a particular way; I walk with a sway in my hips. My mother always felt there was something “wrong" with me, so she once took me to a local doctor who promised that he would be able to “cure" me. I went there for a month, but I think he eventually gave up. Of course, he did—he was a fake doctor anyway. All he said was that I couldn’t be helped and advised my mother to ensure that I hung out with the “right" people.
In places like where I live, it will take decades before any crucial change comes about, even after the Section 377 ruling. The ruling seems very superficial anyway, because nothing has changed in my life or my friends’ lives. The other day, a friend was waiting at a traffic signal and a policeman yelled from behind, “Now your kind will have the freedom to s**k and f**k men publicly, legally!" This is what people think of us and the Section 377 ruling. So what change are you talking about?
I wish I was born a girl. When I go to LGBTQ+ parties with my friends, I wear the most beautiful dresses and look gorgeous when I put on make-up. Maybe in future, I will have the courage to undergo a sex-change operation, but that will only happen when I get a high-paying job and live independently (as my family will banish me for sure). There still aren’t such jobs for people from my community—so all this just seems like an impossible dream for now.
As told to Radhika Iyengar in Hindi
Amalia Ribeiro, 13
Student | Delhi
I found out what the word “gay" meant when I was eight years old. Around that time, I asked my mother some questions about it and she mentioned Section 377 in that context. Even at that age, I thought the law was dumb. Eventually, I got older and realized I was part of this community myself.
Over the last few years, my initial annoyance with this weird law turned into anger. So many people I knew—not just my LGBTQ+ friends—felt put down by it. I always felt that the law affected a certain group of people, of which I am a part.
The good part is I am really lucky to go to a school with a student body that doesn’t really care about how you identify—which is truly great. I can loudly talk about how I like my girlfriend, for instance, and no one would mind. But, of course, some teachers are still conservative.
Earlier I would imagine that whenever Section 377 would go, it would feel different, and in a way it did feel so when I first found out about the ruling. I felt a surge of intense pride and happiness when I heard about it. The first thing I did when I got home from school that day was hug my mother and scream out the news to my friends, but after the first flush of excitement was over, I thought, “Okay, so what’s the next goal for us?"
I would like to do something for the community, even if it is something small. I want other people like me, those who are close to my age or not, to know that they are not alone—even if they lose family or friends over it. They still can find other people in the world if they look far enough. There will always be people who will accept them for who they are.
As told to Somak Ghoshal
Anupom Kumar Hazarika, 27
PhD Student | Guwahati
At school, I was bullied for not adhering to the gender assigned to me by society. My classmates, though not all, made me feel miserable and my only escape was literature. If school was a living hell as my gender was at stake, college was a place where people speculated about my sexuality. As I was a supporter of homosexuality, some people, whom I regarded as “close friends", spread silly rumours about me. I didn’t have the courage to argue in favour of homosexual behaviour as it was a crime then, neither did I know much about queer theory. My experiences in school and college compelled me to take up urban space, gender and sexuality as my research interests. Queer safe space plays a significant role in our lives. I consider myself fortunate to have got such a space in Guwahati.
The Supreme Court verdict was a kind of second independence for us in the LGBTQ+ community. As soon as it was announced, I called up my friends and congratulated them. I also called up a friend who is in the closet and trapped in marriage. I hope he will come out soon and take the right decisions now.
If the Supreme Court had passed the ruling when I was a kid, I would not have faced the humiliation I did. I have been more vocal about homosexuality since the judgement. I have got the courage to talk about homosexuality with people who have little knowledge of it. Our struggle does not end here. Awareness programmes about gender and sexuality should be conducted at schools and colleges in towns and villages. For if people still live in the closet and become victims of failed marriages, all efforts to create a fairer, more inclusive, society will be in vain.
—As told to Somak Ghoshal