India's Supreme Court Strikes Down Law That Criminalized Gay Sex

Sep 6, 2018
Originally published on September 6, 2018 7:16 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

LGBTQ activists are celebrating across India tonight after a landmark ruling from India's Supreme Court. The court overturned a law criminalizing gay sex that had been on the books since British colonial times. From the capital New Delhi, NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Moments after the judges announced their unanimous ruling under India's Supreme Court's ivory dome, cheers erupted outside.

(CHEERING)

FRAYER: There were dozens of plaintiffs in this case from Bollywood film stars to business leaders to a health worker jailed for handing out condoms to gay men. Such prosecutions have been rare, though. The law had been used more often as a tool by police to harass and blackmail homosexuals. Human rights activist and plaintiff Anjali Gopalan is surprised that the court went as far as to order civil servants to fight such harassment going forward.

ANJALI GOPALAN: Not only has it decriminalized homosexuality, it is also about ensuring that this information goes to every police station, which means it's going to affect everybody across the country. The courts apologized. They apologized for the way that the community was being treated, which is unbelievable (laughter).

FRAYER: Gay, lesbian and bisexual people rushed to the Indian capital today. They posted selfies with rainbow flags on social media from train stations and airports en route.

AYUSH THAKUR: And I want to dress as a gay. I just don't want to be, like - pretend, like, to be a straight guy and, you know, living two secret life. I want to be free. I want to be out. I want to be myself.

FRAYER: That's Ayush Thakur, who was among those celebrating in front of the Supreme Court. He was with his American boyfriend, James Williams, who's originally from Alabama. Williams says the removal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which banned carnal intercourse against the order of nature, could empower thousands, maybe millions of young Indians coming out to their families.

JAMES WILLIAMS: Now 377 gets struck down. The power dynamic shifts. The conversation changes. Now the argument becomes the government evolved. The government used to think the way you did, and they changed their minds. Now they see me as a full, normal human being, and hopefully you can, too.

FRAYER: Not all Indians agree with that, though. India is deeply religious and conservative. Very few polls have been published on homosexuality here, but those that have show a dramatic change in the past 30 years towards more acceptance. Still, it's not clear a majority of Indians would rule the way the Supreme Court has. Swami Agnivesh is a Hindu priest and social worker whose orange turban and age - 78 - stood out in the mostly millennial crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court today. He was born when the British were still in charge here, and he has watched his country change profoundly in the years since. Awareness of gay rights is new for many people in India, he says.

SWAMI AGNIVESH: (Through interpreter) It's been quick and drastic how the world has changed its thinking. Our society has changed, too. Personally, I don't think we should glorify homosexuality, but I respect people's privacy and the court's decision.

FRAYER: Even one of the staunchest right-wing Hindu groups, the RSS, today issued a statement saying it no longer believes homosexuality is a crime. But it said same sex-marriage - that would be unnatural. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.