By Kinjal Dagli-Shah, Womens Feature Service
It was a regular summer day in Toronto but on July 2 this year, the winds of change had already swept across India. The Delhi High Court had decriminalised homosexuality by repealing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and gay Indians, their supporters, and activists, were already in a celebratory mode. Back in Toronto, Aditi Iyer’s day had just begun. “I woke up to congratulatory emails from friends – both gay and straight – in time zones closer to India than mine and I was too groggy to fully absorb them. I hadn’t realised that the decision was due and so it was a huge surprise. I was euphoric and emotional at the same time,” recalls Iyer, who has been in a same-sex relationship with her partner, Melanie, for nearly four years.
For Iyer, 31, and homosexual Indian women around the world, the legal movement in India has altered more than just perspectives. It has given them, maybe for the first time, a chance to view India as a legally viable destination to visit, if not to live in. This is why Iyer, just after she heard the news, shook awake her partner and said, “(Section) 377 is gone.” She recalls Melanie’s first reaction: “Want to move to Bombay (Mumbai)?”
Another same-sex couple living in Philadelphia, USA, Jyoti Sanghvi and Lori Mccarthy, too, heaved a sigh of relief. Sanghvi, a 32-year-old marketing professional and Mccarthy, a 36-year-old theatre artist, had just been married. Tired of living in a US state that doesn’t recognise same-sex marriages, the couple decided to move to Ireland on the basis of Mccarthy’s family ties there. “We never thought of India as an option because of the homophobia. I remember a gay friend telling me that the police caught her one night and nearly put her in prison for being out with a girl. It was only thanks to some name-dropping that she escaped,” says Sanghvi. But that may have changed now. “At least now I know that nobody can touch me legally because Section 377 has been revoked. And it feels good to know that if our Irish residency doesn’t work out, we can always move back to Mumbai and know that our relationship will not be deemed a criminal offence any longer,” she observes.
A brief hiatus in her career has led Sanghvi to be in Mumbai for a year, and she is rejoicing over the fact that it may actually be possible to have her partner visit without the fear of being humiliated, or even hurt. “I’m not saying we can kiss in public or even hold hands like we do in the US. But I will be at peace knowing that we cannot get into any legal trouble any more,” says Sanghvi.
Iyer, too, derives comfort from the fact that home may not be too far away. “Even though it doesn’t affect my life directly in Canada, this legal change means I can rest assured that when I’m in India on a holiday with my partner, I won’t be harassed by the police if they figure out that I’m gay.” However she also knows that in India, while the law may be great in theory, it is often ignored in practice and that the gay movement in India still has miles to cover before it can ensure equal rights and open mindsets.
Therefore, important as this move is, the repealing of a legal chapter can only be the tip of a stubborn iceberg. “I don’t think the legal change will mean that people will wake up one morning and stop their homophobia. What does help is all the discussion and media attention that this issue is getting. Where we were once hidden in our closets, we now have several people talking about their lives as gay persons and I think that helps break down prejudices and stereotypes,” says Iyer.
Sanghvi hopes that the law will force society to accept what is quite obvious. “Homosexuality is a topic that’s brushed under the carpet in most Indian homes. At least this will induce people, especially those of the earlier generation like my aunts, to consider that if a legal system allows it, so can you,” she says.
Even as Indian gay women in foreign lands revel in the new found possibilities of this change in the law, they hold out a sympathetic hand to their counterparts living in India.
Iyer is emphatic about her support as she says, “I’m lucky that I have the resources and support to live here and to live a life almost completely free from prejudice. I know many gay women who still live in mortal fear that they’ll be found out and will lose their jobs, families or, even worse, their lives. I know that this is not some theoretical fight, this is my fight too. I am here today and who knows what tomorrow might bring? I might have to go back and live in India and I had better invest in this struggle at this time before it is too late.”
(Names have been changed to protect identity.)