Monday, November 14, 2011

India overturns 148-year-old law banning homosexuality

In July 2009, the Delhi high court in India decriminalised homosexuality. An Indian court has overturned a 148-year-old colonial law banning homosexual relationships saying it was an affront to human dignity.

Sylvia Rowley talks to Shaleen Rakesh, the activist who brought the case Outside Delhi's high court the streets thronged with jubilant crowds hugging, sobbing and beating drums. Inside, in front of a hushed courtroom, the judges had just passed a historic ruling. Gay men were no longer criminals. Section 377, the 149-year-old colonial law that banned gay sex, had been deemed to be a violation of fundamental human rights protected by India's constitution.

For some gay and lesbian Indians the high court declaration will mean having the courage to come out. For Shaleen Rakesh, a 38-year-old veteran gay rights activist, it is the end of a legal campaign he mounted six years ago against an insidious law that left him powerless against homophobic violence and unable even to talk about rights.

Campaigners described the ruling as "India's Stonewall moment," a reference to historic riots by homosexuals in New York which are regarded as the inspiration of the modern gay rights movement.

Same-sex couples with rainbow-painted faces kissed openly at Delhi's Jantar Mantar monument in jubilant scenes which would have been unthinkable in conservative India before the ban was lifted.

The ban on homosexual relations was introduced by British colonial officials and describes sexual intercourse between people of the same sex as an "unnatural offence."

Indian government officials maintained the British line until shortly after the Congress Party returned to power with a stronger grip on government.

"Every citizen has the right to lead a decent and moral life in society and the right would be violated if such behaviour is legalised in the country," officials had submitted.

Their argument was rejected yesterday by Delhi's High Court judges who said the ban denied gays equal rights and was an affront to human dignity.

"In our view Indian Constitutional Law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconception of who the LGBTs (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster dignity of every individual," the judges commented.

Their ruling will take precedence over India's Penal Code until the parliament passes a new law on equality.

Celebrating campaigners, who until the ruling could have faced life sentences for having same sex relationships, said the historic decision for Indian homosexuals represented a vital first step in a new challenge to secure the same financial and social rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples. "This is a victory for human rights not just homosexuals. It's a remarkable step.

This will defiantly encourage people to come out openly and express their sexual preferences. But this is just a milestone we have achieved. Now we will fight for the right to same sex marriages, adoption of kids, right to own property. The society will now accept us," said Manish Kabir, a gay rights activist.

Manvendra Singh Gohil, the scion of the Rajpipla royal family, is still set to be India's first openly homosexual maharajah after his family reconciled with him. When he first came out, following a nervous breakdown in 2005, villagers burned pictures of him and his family issued press notices stating he was no longer their son.

Many homosexuals have suffered violent attacks from their relatives and others and have been forced from their homes, and experts say criminalisation has been a factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS.

BBC:Gay sex decriminalised in India

Gay Sex Now Legal in India

Indian gay pride parade draws thousands

Kerala to host its first gay parade

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