India decriminalizes homosexuality
Same-sex marriage has been legal for less than a decade in the United States. People in the LGBT+ community continue to face prejudice in American society, but steps are being taken toward progress. Halfway across the globe there are places where it is still illegal to be true to who you are.
On Sept. 6, 2018, India decriminalized homosexuality.
UMD professor Rebecca de Souza provided context for the announcement.
“The issue of the HIV epidemic brought forward talking about sexuality and sexual norms,” de Souza said. “Fifteen years ago, or twenty years ago, was when this came into question.”
Section 377 is the portion of the Indian Penal Code, or IPC, which outlawed homosexuality.
“This [Section 377] is being used to terrorize people, to create a culture of terror,” de Souza said. “Police officers can extort you, beat you because they can, jail you. [Now] the social threat still continues but at least the legal threat is not there anymore.”
Social perception of the LGBT+ community in India is complicated. While homosexuality only recently became legalized, India has long recognized a third gender, the hijras, whom those in the West will recognize as being transgender or intersex. De Souza said hijras have “a very complex social and religious history.”
“They are heavily stigmatized,” de Souza explained. “They typically are ostracized, and they don’t typically live with their families or communities. They live within their own communities. They’ve become very vocal in fighting for their rights and fighting against this minoritization. This penal code severely affected this community; this community was the community most subjected to the police and the culture of terror.”
Section 377 has roots in the colonial era.
“It came from colonial powers,” de Souza said. “It was made into penal law by the British.” Looking back at the history of hijras in India, de Souza added, “It’s not new—this is ancient tradition, practically. This is not enlightenment. This is decolonializing.”
With homosexuality decriminalized and progressive movements in India on the rise, the next step could be legalizing same-sex marriage.
“It could happen really quickly, but this [legalizing homosexuality] has taken so long,” de Souza said. “The conversation started about fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, and it’s only now happening.”
De Souza suggested that Western influence could make the legalization of same-sex marriage a possibility.
“Because of groups coming out and connections to the West and gay pride and gay identities—those connections push the conversation forward in India,” de Souza said. “There is a move to do something like that. It might be a possibility and more realistic if it comes from the middle class.”
The decriminalization of homosexuality was a victory fought for by marginalized groups within India with support from connected groups around the world.
“It’s a very big win for the LGBT+ community,” de Souza concluded.