Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Geetanjali Misra: Good morning everybody, and thank you to Barry and the organizers for inviting me to be here. It's a privilege and an honor.

So, now I have a stopwatch because I've gone from 25 to 20 minutes, and I have some clips so I'm going to be looking for some technical support to get this going.

So, I'm going to present a snapshot of the LGBT movement in India, and I'm going to focus my talk a lot more on the lesbian movement because I can only give a snapshot. It is India, it's diverse, it's one billion people.

Okay, just as the previous speaker said, they say it like it is. We in India never say it like it is. We have one billion people and we never talk about sex, leave alone heterosexual sex, so therefore the LGBTI movement has come out of a very complicated context. And I don't want to belabor the context but the Indian society is very traditional, and LGBTI individuals have often been stereotyped as coming only from educated, westernized elites, with those from poorer and more marginalized groups usually seen as victims of the sex-work industry rather than people exercising choices.

The rise of Hindu fundamentalisms in the past two decades has made the environment more challenging still. The BJP party, that's their sign, and its followers, including women, have promoted the idea of the chaste, married, heterosexual woman as a symbol of pure India, with anyone contravening these ideals as beyond the pale and persecuted.

On the other hand there have been some advantages that facilitated the rise of a new social movement. Firstly, civil society in India is traditionally very strong, and the women's movement, which would eventually produce a number of lesbian activists, was very prominent and well organized. Secondly, from the late 1980s India received significant funding for HIV/AIDS prevention efforts which helped bring LGBT issues into the fore, and it persuaded some policymakers that ostracizing these groups would be counterproductive and more likely to spread HIV than curtail it.

But even these advantages were mixed blessings. The women's movement was very reluctant to engage with lesbian issues in the early days, and the relationship between the two movements was often hostile. Feminists felt that women had much bigger problems than those faced by a small number of lesbians and bisexual women, and that associating themselves with lesbians might allow the Hindu right to tarnish feminism and reverse the wider gains they had made.

So, LGBT activists were not allowed to talk at national conferences of women's movements; for example when feminists did stray into same-sex sexuality they mainly talked about the lesbian sphere as a site of violence rather than about the positive and pleasurable aspects of same-sex love and desire, and the right to such relationships.

And the HIV/AIDS movement was also a mixed blessing, as it had a tendency to medicalize same-sex sexuality rather than looking at the social context or the positive side of relationships. This tended to enhance the image of lesbians and other minority groups as victims in need of treatment rather than agents with control over their lives who sought acceptance by society as the best medicine.

These constraints, and the pressure of tradition, meant that the lesbian movement in India was later in getting off the ground than it had been in some western countries, and although there had been some signs of life during the 1980s it was really a series of events that provided the spark for more concerted action. The first of these events was a same-sex marriage between two policewomen in a small town in central India. This was widely reported in the newspapers and resulted in the two women losing their jobs, but their family and friends supported them. And the widespread reporting of the story made other lesbian women across the country come out and realize that they were not alone, that abuse and prejudice were not inevitable if they came out, and that same-sex relationships were not the exclusive preserve of wealthy women from the big westernized cities.

After this story broke several other reports of women marrying began to emerge, along with a number of tragic stories about same-sex couples committing suicide; of women and girls for whom social stigma were preventing them from being together. Although none of these women were part of a movement their stories began to raise awareness and encourage would-be activists that mobilization might be possible.

Then came the famous film, "Fire," which really – and if you'll excuse the pun – set the movement alight. The film is about a relationship between two women who escape their oppressive marriages by falling in love with each other and beginning a serious sexual relationship. The women were named Radha and Sita, who are popular figures in Hindu mythology. The film directly challenged the patriarchal Hindu construction of the pure, chaste, heterosexual woman. It was released overseas in 1996 and in India in 1998. Many people were surprised it passed the Censor Board, because although there had been some queer films before they had never attempted to reach a mainstream audience. When it was released "Fire" attracted huge audiences and sparked an enormous amount of discussion.

I'm going to show you a one minute clip of "Fire."

So, the woman in the red is also a member of Parliament, and she doesn't really talk about lesbian issues.

[laughter]

She talks about slum people and poverty and many other social issues, but not... but she did do that film, and it did make her famous.

So, the film "Fire" also sparked a serious backlash. The women's wing of the Hindu fundamentalist party, the Shiv Sena, disrupted screenings of the film in Bombay and Delhi by vandalizing movie theatres and tearing down advertising posters, and they threatened to stop the film from being screened across the country. The protesters argued that the film was perverted and that lesbianism was not part of Indian, and especially Hindu, culture.

At first the film's supporters were taken aback by all this, but they soon regrouped and fought back. And for the first time, LGBTI individuals came out onto the streets of Delhi and Bombay in organized groups to protest. So, we do have to thank the Shiv Sena for forcing us to come together. These counter-attackers argued that homosexuality was part of Hindu culture and that the Shiv Sena's image of India did not match reality. Lesbian groups in India held candlelight protests and meetings and marches, and in Bombay there were sit-ins in front of movie theatres that had stopped showing the film. Posters were put up around the city and there was a 300-woman march which received widespread media coverage.

Gay men had begun to agitate publicly for change six years earlier when an organization working on HIV/AIDS organized a rally in Delhi against police harassment of gay men. But this was the first time that lesbians had a visible public presence in India.

In the wake of "Fire," groups like the Campaign for Lesbian Rights in India and PRISM emerged to make the demands for improved rights more concrete and formal. CALERI's aim was to raise awareness of lesbianism and dispel the myths surrounding it, as well as advocating for lesbian rights. And among PRISM's major achievements had been to persuade feminists that sexuality is an issue that should concern them, and that because sexuality is used by patriarchal societies as a tool to control women, feminists should work on these issues even if they themselves are heterosexual.

Much of this early work was about reacting to harms and injustice such as lesbian suicides, or of attempted repression of lesbians by the Shiv Sena. But as the lesbian movement grew it forged links with organizations representing gay and bisexual men, and as LGBT activism became more organized the objectives became bigger, and the movement soon turned its focus to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. There is a whole workshop on 377 that Sumit is leading tomorrow, so hopefully some of the details of it will be covered there.

But Section 377 was authored by Lord Macaulay, the President of the Indian Law Commission, in 1860. It was part of Britain's attempt to impose Victorian values on its biggest colony.

The law was still in place at the turn of the millennium, and there are numerous documented cases of the law being used as a weapon to harass, threaten and blackmail LGBT individuals and groups. While the law wasn't used that often to bring successful prosecutions, as it was difficult to prove that carnal intercourse against the order of nature had taken place in private, it created a climate of criminality around sexual minority groups. Just the threat of arrest could be used by the authorities to discriminate against LGBT people. For example, in the State of Gujarat a woman underwent a sex change and married a woman and was the subject of a high-court petition calling for criminal action under Section 377 on the grounds that she was still a woman and therefore engaging in a lesbian relationship.

377 also made life difficult for groups working on HIV/AIDS to reach people who might be at risk. In 2001 four activists working on HIV/AIDS in a small town called Lucknow had been distributing pamphlets and condoms to gay men, and whose work was recognized by the State AIDS Control Agency, were accused of running a gay sex club and they were charged under Section 377.

There was a case where a group of physicians recommended that condoms be distributed in a Delhi prison where there were high reported rates of homosexual sex. The prison authorities refused because homosexual sex is a crime under Section 377, and distributing condoms would mean condoning a criminal act.

So, the LGBTI movement mobilized to have this part of the law read down. This had been first attempted before "Fire" by a group representing gay men, but the petition they made to the Delhi High Court withered and was forgotten about.

Then in 2001 the Naz Foundation India Trust, another Delhi NGO whose workers had suffered police harassment during HIV/AIDS education campaigns among marginalized communities, joined with the Lawyer's Collective, a legal organization working for the rights of people affected by HIV/AIDS. They petitioned the Delhi High Court to read down Section 377 to exclude private, consensual sex between adults. Child-right's groups were opposed to the entire law being repealed as it is the only law under which some types of sexual abuse of minors can be prosecuted.

After some legal wrangling a coalition of NGOs working on human-rights issues, called Voices Against 377, joined the petition. This was an important alliance because Voices Against 377 brought together a large number of NGOs working to strengthen gay, lesbian and transgender rights, along with child-right's activists, feminist groups and other human-rights groups. As the momentum grew new groups which had been isolated and reticent to make themselves known came forward to join up and add their voices. So, the coalition was able to provide stories from people whose lives had been torn apart by fear of prosecution and blackmail from police, and others who took advantage of the law. These testimonials showed how damaging the law was and they made such an impression on the judges that they were quoted in the final judgment.

So, this 377 campaign, like the film "Fire" before it, was a rallying point which strengthened the LGBTI movement and gave it a greater profile and a stronger organization. This was helped by Voices Against 377's decision to shift the focus of the petition from a health-based case to a human-rights case. It no longer focused the case on issues of morality or what constitutes natural sex, but it brought consent to the fore and highlighted the discrepancies between 377 and the guarantees of the Indian Constitution to respect privacy, liberty and non-discrimination. By doing this they were able to include other movements not strictly related to LGBT rights in their cause.

The campaign's advocacy strategy was based on large-scale demonstrations, press conferences, and there was a Million Voices Campaign which gathered issues of thousands of signatures opposed to Section 377, including the signatures of many who were directly affected by the law. The Lawyers Collective organized a lot of meetings with legal advocacy groups and local groups in major cities.

So the judgment came on July 2nd, 2009, after an eight-year campaign. The Delhi High Court ruled that the provision of Section 377 in India's Penal Code that criminalizes private, consensual sex between same-sex adults violates the country's Constitution and international human-rights conventions. The two judges ruled that consensual sex amongst adults is legal, which includes even gay sex. That's part of the judgment. I'm not going to read that.

But the judges also said that where society can display inclusiveness and understanding, such persons can be assured of a life of dignity and non-discrimination. They said, "In our view the Indian Constitutional Law does not permit the Statute to read criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconceptions of who the LGBT people are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual."

So, what next? Even though the ruling has sparked massive celebrations across the country by LGBT groups who saw decriminalization as a major step towards acceptance by society, there's still a lot of work to be done. Anjali Gopalan, the Executive Director of the Naz Foundation, said, "We have finally entered the 21st Century. The judgment that decriminalizes adult, consensual same-sex sexual activity is one of the positive steps that have been taken towards affirming the rights of LGBT persons in India."

But we have a long way to go legally. For example, family and employment law may continue to discriminate against people based on their sexual preference. We don't know if same-sex Indian couples will be able to marry or adopt children, or how inheritance and tax laws will apply for same-sex couples, or whether workplace discrimination will be outlawed. And we don't know if such laws will be strictly enforced.

Social change is needed and we need to basically take the content of the judgment and publicize it much more. We need to disseminate the message of 377 and embed its vision of greater tolerance into society, and there is a lot of work going on to achieve this.

This is now – currently: There are marches in every city, there are support groups for LGBT people, lots of books have been written about sexuality, there are books that exist in regional languages that have come out, a lot of Bollywood movies now have queer themes; and these are all parts of this thriving movement. The LGBT community is becoming more visible.

But there is still a long way to go, and of course as the religious right's outraged response to the 377 judgment shows, the LGBTI movement in India has advanced some distance down a road once mapped out by Gandhi, who, although far from being a sexual radical knew a few things about activism.

[laughter]

"First they ignore you," he said, "and then they laugh at you, and then they fight you; then you win." I like to think we've reached the third stage at least.

Thank you very much.

[applause]

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com