Editorial – August 2015

Published on

It is estimated1 that about 4 - 10% of the world population identify themselves with the labels Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender. Many of these individuals feel little or no choice their about gender identity or sexual preference and the same has been indicated by multiple studies2 which also show that these attributes are determined in large part by biological processes that are already underway before birth3, based on genetics or early uterine environment4 , 5 among other factors. With increased understanding of these factors, homosexuality - which had incorrectly been listed as a mental illness in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) issued by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) - was removed6 from the DSM partially in 1973 and later completely in 1986. Even if there was no scientific consensus on the reasons behind alternate sexual orientations and gender preference, it should be remembered that LGBT rights are at the center of struggle for human rights all over the world wherever the state and the society try to dictate consensual interaction between adults. That alternate sexual orientations and gender identities are an import from ‘western culture’ is nothing but a myth. Indian working class transgenders have been visible and vocal for centuries7 in demanding equal rights and forming support groups for themselves. Ancient Indian history8 , 9 as well as the mythology and poetry of some religions10 , 11 has mentioned many instances of homosexuality and different gender identities. Inspite of the history, scientific consensus and a worldwide progress in the understanding of human rights, Indian lgbt communities are being victimized by Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that punishes sexual union between consenting homosexuals by labeling it ‘against the natural order’. The British imposed this law in 1877 during their colonial rule and is in vogue even today in India and many other former British colonies, whereas the British repealed12 it in 1967 and even made13 way for weddings between same sex couples, two years ago. When a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) NAZ foundation challenged this draconian law in court, Delhi High Court in its judgment in 2009 struck down the section 377 saying14:

If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of ‘inclusiveness’. This Court believes that Indian Constitution reflects this value deeply ingrained in Indian society, nurtured over several generations … Where society can display inclusiveness and understanding, such persons can be assured of life of dignity and non-discrimination. This was the ‘spirit behind the Resolution’ of which Nehru spoke so passionately.

But unfortunately, four years later, the Supreme Court repealed15 the Delhi HC judgment and upheld the section 377 saying:

2009 order of the High Court is constitutionally unsustainable as only Parliament can change a law, not courts.

The effect of this law is seen16 in the way thousands of gay and transgender individuals continue to get arrested or extorted by the police for their gender identity or sexual orientation all of which the heterosexual and cisgender majority, take for granted without any repercussions.

While this has been the struggle on legal fronts, the LGBT community face an uphill battle in their societal acceptance which is very low inspite of the fact that this issue cuts across barriers of religion, caste, class and nationality. Such dispersion of the LGBT community across various strata of society has a twofold effect:

LGBT community is therefore, not a sizeable vote bank and its issues cannot even enter the mainstream political rhetoric. Because of this, barring a few exceptions, most major political parties in India either pay lip service17 to the lgbt cause or ignore it completely.

LGBT individuals that belong to two or more disadvantaged groups simultaneously - such as poor transgenders or dalit lesbians - are at the receiving end of discrimination that is even worse than that experienced by others.

This lack of legal backing and societal acceptance leads to unending cycles of victimization and discrimination of LGBT community in India. This is reflected in incidents such as the unearthing18 of 35 instances of lesbians in Kerala committing to pacts of suicide with each other. Such an alarming state of affairs is not unique to India. An American study19 showed that:

gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents (males in particular) can have rates of serious suicide attempts at least four times those of apparently heterosexual youth. There are various reasons why this figure is likely to be an underestimate. Reasons for these elevated rates of suicidal behavior include a climate of homophobic persecution in schools, and sometimes in family and community-values and actions that stigmatize homosexuality and that the youth who has not yet ‘come out’ has to endure in silence.

It is not difficult to understand why adolescents in the lgbt community resort to such tragic actions when we look at the rampant homophobia and transphobia being fueled20 unitedly by most major religions and their spokespersons. This is possible only because majority of the world population rely blindly on moral structures founded on their respective religious scriptures, or confuse societal traditions with religious scripture. Indian governments at the state and central levels barely blink an eye in response to such tragedies. In March of this year, India along with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and others voted21 against a resolution in the United Nations that grants equal medical benefits for same sex couples who are citizens of different nations but are employed at the UN.

However, there are welcome signs too of India changing for the better even if very slowly. In the case22 of NALSA vs Union of India, the Supreme Court in its judgment recognized the rights of transgender people and provided guidelines for the Indian government to treat transgender and hijra people with dignity. Following these guidelines, application forms for obtaining a Passport23 and to appear in the IIT JEE Mains and other exams as well as to gain admission in educational institutions, have included an option ‘other’ in the column ‘gender’ in addition to the options male or female. Apart from these minor steps, the central and almost all state governments are yet to implement the guidelines in any shape or form, let alone in their entirety. India also saw24 the first ever appointment of a transwoman Manobi Bandopadhyay as the principal of a private college in Kolkata. While a Transgender Rights Bill has passed in the Rajya Sabha and will be shortly debated in the Lok Sabha, the majority of the LGBT community barely survive daily incidences of violence, exlusion from jobs, homelessness, persecution, harassment and insecurity perpetuated on a daily basis by the largely homophobic and transphobic state and social attitudes.

We urge the institute community to be sensitive to the struggles of the LGBT community and come forward in cultivating a safe space and an active network of support for LGBT individuals. Surely, declaring solidarity for an ongoing struggle to achieve basic freedoms of our fellow human beings would be one of the better ways to celebrate this year’s Independence Day.

This issue hopes to provide an objective analysis of the state of LGBT rights as well as a subjective understanding of the state of living experienced by LGBT individuals in India and abroad. We hope this will be an enlightening and educative experience for the readers, just as it has been for all of us who were involved in its production. We urge the readers to engage in the discussion by contributions as well as by giving us an honest feedback about the contents.

We wish you a thought provoking reading!

Footnotes:

2
L S Allen and R A Gorski, “Sexual orientation and size of the anterior commissure in the human brain.” in “Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, USA”, 1992.
4
Frankowski BL, “Sexual orientation and adolescents” in “American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence”, 2004.
5
N Langstrom et al., “Submission to the Church of England’s Listening Exercise on Human Sexuality” in “Archives of Sexual Behavior”, 2008.
7
L Cohen, “The Pleasures of Castration: the postoperative status of hijras, jankhas and academics” in “Sexual Nature, Sexual Culture”, 1995.
11
The Man who was a Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore, 2002.
19
Pierre Tremblay et al., “Elevated rates of suicidal behaviour in gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth” in “The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention”, 2000.