What Small-town Queer India Needs More than Sec 377 Repeal

Social Commentary

What Small-town Queer India Needs More than Sec 377 Repeal

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Twenty years ago, being an effeminate man required thick skin because it would elicit that most loathsome of questions: “What, are you, a chakka?” In the fanatical need to prove that he was not actually a chakka, the ’90s’ queer boy had two options: He could either outperform his buddies in the homophobic arts or retreat into his own cocoon of shame. But there was a secret third option, known to a few and available to fewer: a window into the infinite prospects of the interwebs.

Luckily for me, the internet’s reckoning in India coincided neatly with the blossoming of my loins. If that imagery makes you squeamish, take a moment to imagine how I felt as a prepubescent gay boy surrounded only by references to boobs and pussies. Being this different from your friends is an awful thing, this feeling that you are the antithesis to maleness. It makes you internalise the vitriolic resentment for desiring something you are not supposed to.

But all that changed when I got my first dial-up connection.

Forget fire, forget the wheel – the internet is doubtless humanity’s greatest accomplishment. Its contribution to sweeping political and cultural movements like the Arab Spring and #MeToo are well documented. Fewer know about how the political movement for LGBTQ+ rights would probably never have taken off with such vigour had it not been for the emancipation and security afforded by the internet. For me, access to this restorative, informative, and incredibly friendly safe space guaranteed that I didn’t need to rely on a physical support network. It also enabled me to form alliances that flowed freely and without discrimination in these invisible cyberdepths.

At first I used to actively find Yahoo! chatrooms which catered to gay men, but any rapport I had on there was tenuous. Each newly minted friendship dissipated when either of us went offline. In 2003, I joined Guys4men, an online social network for queer men. This was the first time I met my peers, people with names (handles) and faces (avatars) whom I could converse with for as long as I wanted. There were still vestiges of anonymity, masks we hid behind, but none of that mattered because we finally had the power to speak. Our minds and all their contents were finally out in the open, receptive, empathetic.

Every queer person deserves that online epiphany I had all those years ago, the one that told me I was not alone or broken or different.

Since then, we have had a host of online zones, from discussion platforms to dating sites where we could be our queer AF selves. However, while our technology was probably on par with the 21st century, several of our laws regarding sexual and gender minorities are still staunchly puritanical. A part of that changed only yesterday after the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality.   

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code affected me personally. Introduced by the British Raj in 1861, it criminalised “whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”. Or to put it crudely, inserting an object that is not a human penis into a bodily orifice that is not a human vagina was enough to ostracise someone, to delegitimise their existence, and to erase their identity.

Although rarely used in legal contexts, its dangers were in the cognisability of the offence, which left the police free to harass, abuse, and torture people who don’t seem heteronormative enough. In 2002, two AIDS health outreach centres were raided by the police with the excuse that they were distributing gay porn in the form of safe sex health pamphlets. In 2013, a queer party was raided and several people (including many of my friends) were arrested, stripped, and illegally detained on the pretext of “indecent dancing,” “doing drugs,” and “consorting with eunuchs”. Section 377 has also been misused by many members of the general public, who entrap closeted queer people and then blackmail or extort money from them in exchange for silence.

Fighting to scrap laws like Section 377 has been an uphill battle in India. Over the last ten years, courts have wavered on this decision. When the Delhi High Court scrapped Section 377 in 2009, the celebration lasted only until 2013, when the Supreme Court overturned that decision. After five more years of denying Indian citizens their rights, the Supreme Court finally struck down the law.

But before we rejoice, we must see that the silver lining only looks bright because the cloud is that dark. Reformative as the Section 377 ruling might be, I wonder if it will really make a dent in the lives of the vast majority of queer Indians residing in small towns and villages. Folks who are cut off from liberal media access, unaware and fearing of their own identities, let alone political movements. Worse off are queer women living under rural patriarchy, who have to endure honour killings, corrective rapes, and forced marriages. These lesbian and transgender women are far likelier to resort to suicide than gay men. Mob justice is on the rise, with a transwoman killed and three others seriously injured by a crowd in Hyderabad about two months ago. No legal right can magically erase the continued bigotry and mistreatment that they continue to face when they overstep their pre-constructed social roles.

Which is why I hope the rapid spread of the internet will do for them what it did for me. With the Telecom Commission recently accepting the necessity for net neutrality and the universality of internet access – a concept the US is still grappling with – small-town queer India will hopefully find the safe space I did.

Every queer person deserves that online epiphany I had all those years ago, the one that told me I was not alone or broken or different. Everyone needs a throng of voices shouting affirmations, holding out their hands in warm welcome. But this requires us, the already aware, to become the welcomers. There is no revolution without solidarity, no victory without cooperation.

As the the late Ursula K Le Guin said, “Absolute freedom is absolute responsibility”. It is the only way the spectre of Section 377 will be banished for good.

This is an updated version of a story published earlier.