The last decade has been monumental for the LGBTQ community in India. It was defined by the 2014 NALSA judgement which gave protection to the rights of transgenders, and the striking down of Section 377 which criminalized same-sex relationships.
With a few other landmarks such as three transgender judges, and the first transfemale Padmashree awardee, we are on the slow road to giving them a right to equal identity. But are their voices strong enough to make it to party manifestos?
A few decades after the Stonewall uprising which is widely regarded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ movement, the community has earned a strong presence as a voter base in the West.They form approximately 5% of the total voters in the USA. News outlets measure their loyalties in exit polls, and advocacy groups have been spending millions in mobilising them towards voting. Last year, in a country like Poland, three key political leaders marched at a gay pride parade to make their support public against all odds.
Meanwhile in India...
The biggest hurdle is that the roughly 8% strong LGBTQ population isn’t even official because there are millions who haven’t even come out of the closet yet. The problem starts at the very beginning, in our schools. Transgender children often end up skipping or dropping out of school because of humiliation and bullying. The culture of ridiculing ‘gay’ behaviour, especially amongst boys, was something I grew up and unfortunately, also see my nephews and nieces growing up with. In 2019, a UNESCO survey in Tamil Nadu revealed that 84% of the sexual and gender minority youth participants faced bullying, while only 18% reported it to authorities.
Rural India is replete with hardly documented cases of secret honour killings, corrective rape of lesbians, and traumatic ‘psychiatric’ treatments. And yet, in 2015, former Supreme Court Justice M. Katju said,“..all this shouting and screaming about gay rights is simply to divert people’s attention from more important problems like poverty, malnutrition, price rise etc.”. The appalling reality is that for a country like India which faces severe economic disparity, newly popular issues like mental health and LGBTQ rights tend to take a backseat and subconsciously get regarded as lesser issues by both authorities and the public alike. According to a World Bank study, India was losing 1.4% of its economic output due to discrimination against LGBTQs in 2018.
Despite the SC ruling in 2018, India, in 2019, abstained from voting on a Latin American resolution regarding protection against violence and discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the UN. This was just another example of our PM’s silence on LGBTQ issues, and when it happened, hardly anyone outside the community took note. In the same year, an extremely problematic Transgender Persons Act made without consulation of transpeople was passed.
A crucial reason for ruling politicians not touching LGBTQ issues is religious opposition. In 2018, several Christian organisations had appeared in favour of Section 377, claiming that homosexuality leads to transmission of HIV. There have been constant discussions amongst Islamist groups about homosexuality being against the religion and the ‘third gender’ being a disability. Hindu leaders like Baba Ramdev have very explicitly expressed their homophobia. Will parties risk enraging the religious votebanks they try so hard to pander to?
A rainbow at the end of the tunnel?
About 8% of India’s population, as per some estimates, belongs to the LGBTQ community. Compare it to the largest minority population in India- the Muslims, who stand at around 14%. Christians form 2.3% and Sikhs are 1.7%. Theoretically, the LGBTQ community can form a formidable votebank, if parties were to recognize its power.
Soon after the ruling in 2018, morale within the community was boosted. Dutee Chand, in spite of being disowned by her village, came out as India’s first openly homosexual athlete. Bollywood came out with two star-studded films with homosexuality at the core of the narrative. Social media helped the community outrage, educate, and revolt. Companies started hiring transgenders. Despite the controversial Trans Act, companies took the initiative to hire trans people and take an active interest in their inclusion. Several firms like Accenture, Godrej, and IBM have made it possible for homosexuals to buy insurance coverage for their partners. When iconic figures and organisations stand up for something, it means that the ruling class must take note of what’s happening.
The most important story has been that of Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju, two lawyers who fought the arduous battle for striking down of Section 377. The two came out publicly as a couple, and made it to Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’. They have spoken at a number of worldwide forums since, and have recounted the large number of coming-out stories that people personally approached them with after the judgement.
In a fundamental step towards progress, the Goa government, in December 2019, issued guidelines to all its schools to not just admit transgender students, but also train to be sensitized towards their life, culture, psychosocial and emotional conditions.
Harish Iyer, one of the most popular and adored LGBTQ activists in India, joined the Congress and became India’s first openly gay politician last year. With little to unsatisfactory mentions of the community in manifestos of various parties, Iyer took it upon himself to become a part of the system and change it.
Reforms are restricted to urban high classes, and middle classes. While the community is gaining more and more social power, it is bound to grow in numbers and change is going to slowly trickle down to the lower rungs. That’s how progress works in a developing country. While this process takes place, the ones in charge of running the nation will have to sit up and take note of the community tomorrow, if not today. The party that galvanizes this community first stands to gain; or even better, the community stands to gain when multiple parties recognize their needs.
Snehal is Columnist at GGI.
She is a writer, poet, music aficionado, Oxford comma proponent, and a lot of other things. She also writes on personal finance for 'Qrius Creative Labs'. She has worked as a copywriter, content writer, scriptwriter, creative strategist, and direction assistant at multiple organisations in the past.
Snehal is a graduate from the Bachelor in Mass Media, Advertising from St.Xavier's College, Bombay.