It was in India that the British colonial rulers first introduced laws criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” enshrined in the Indian Penal Code, Section 377, in 1860. These laws were spread throughout the British empire and today account for half the laws that criminalize same-sex intimacy.
In 2009 the Delhi High Court struck down section 377. This historic victory was celebrated worldwide. It was a testament to the growth and strength of the movement for decriminalization, and the queer movement. The case was launched by Naz Foundation (India) Trust, an HIV/AIDS NGO in Delhi, later joined by the coalition Voices Against 377.
However, re-criminalization took place in 2013, when the Supreme Court set aside the 2009 verdict. Today the social and legal landscape is a complex pattern of acceptance and discrimination. For instance, another historic Supreme Court decision in 2014 recognized “the right of human beings to choose their gender” and mandated legal recognition of “third gender.”
Envisioning has produced a documentary film, "No Easy Walk to Freedom", from the research in India. It tells the story of the struggle to strike down Section 377, through the voices of lawyers, activists and community leaders. It exposes human rights violations and documents the growth of queer organizing.
Keywords: Sangama; Trans; Transgender; Hijra; Dalit; HIV/AIDS; Gender Identity; Family; Human Rights; Sex Work; Employment; Social Movement Organizing.
Veena: “One finger alone cannot do anything – to have strength, all five fingers have to come together.”
Synopsis: Veena is a peer support educator with Sangama in Bangalore, and identifies as a trans woman, and as Dalit. She speaks about her experiences of discrimination from an early age. She was kicked out of her home, was homeless for two months and began doing sex work in order to make a living. She joined the community known as Hijras, a widespread traditional community of people who transition from male to female and live as families. After joining Sangama and participating in capacity enhancement and training she left sex work and started working in HIV/AIDS prevention activism. Veena speaks about how this experience and the work of Sangama was empowering - she became involved in meetings, rallies, and protests that drew connections between Dalit minorities and sexual minorities. ‘We are all one,’ Veena says as she describes the ‘one level’ movement, a movement that fights for the rights of all minorities and victims of discrimination. For more on Veena’s story and the work of Sangama see: Sangama: Movement Building.
Maya Shanker and Betu Singh:
Keywords: Sangini; Lesbian; Trans; Transgender; Family; Forced Marriage; Compulsory Heteronormativity; Lesbian Shelters; Human Rights.
Maya: “We are looking at opportunities to figure out how we can spread the word…It is important for people to know we are not heroes…it’s just our job…Of course, you need courage, but…even you can do it.”
Synopsis: Maya Shanker and Betu Singh speak about the work of Sangini Trust in Delhi, which was founded by Betu in 1997. Sangini provides a helpline, counseling center and a shelter for lesbians, bi and trans-women. Maya and Betu talk about the difficulties faced by women whom come to Sangini, who often run away from their families in order to be together and, in many cases, to escape forced marriage. They speak about the societal and family pressures to get married, the lack of spaces for lesbians, sexual violence, and their work to educate women on understanding their rights. An early activist in the Indian lesbian movement, Betu passed away October 4, 2013, having lived her life courageously in the service of lesbians and trans women in need.
Keywords: Voices Against 377; PRISM; LGBT; Queer; Human Rights; section 377 IPC; criminalization of homosexuality; LGBT rights in India; Activism; Queer Politics in India.
Gautam: “While incidents of discrimination and violence were critical, important and part of the queer experience, what we were bringing to court was also diversity, liveliness and positive queer experience…the queer story in India is not just one of violence and discrimination.”
Synopsis: Gautam Bhan is a leading queer rights activist based in Delhi who writes extensively on queer issues and social movements. He is a member of Voices Against 377, PRISM and the Nigah Media Collective. He is the co-editor with Arvind Narrain of Because I have a Voice: Queer Politics in India. Gautam describes Section 377 of the Indian penal code which criminalizes carnal intercourse ‘against the order of nature’ - as ‘like a sword’ that hangs over any gay man’s head. He discusses the importance of intersectionality, dignity, and equality, encouraging people not to think narrowly, but broadly about society, family, and sexuality – arguing that many elements affect queer peoples lives. He speaks passionately to queer people having a voice, speaking back to authority and to society. Commenting on the legal case against s. 377 he says a legal victory alone cannot end homophobia – but that striking down the law will open the ground to fight for broader social change.
Keywords: Naz Foundation International (NFI); HIV/AIDS prevention; Most-at-risk populations MARP; MSM; Hijra; Kothi; Heteronormativity; Gender Identity; Family; Human Rights.
Shivananda: “We need to think in pluralities, rather than in singularities. South Asian countries have many different types of masculinities, from the very hyper-masculine man to the very feminized man.”
Synopsis: Shivananda Khan was the founder and chief executive of Naz Foundation International, an HIV/AIDS, MSM and transgender organization, as well as APCOM, the Asia-Pacific Coalition on male sexual health, both of which have developed a vast network of local HIV organizations. They do outreach and education with MSM, transgender, hijra, kothi, and most-at-risk populations in India and across South Asia. Shivananda speaks to understandings of gender identities amongst kothis, and the expression of various masculinities in India. He also speaks about marriage and sexuality, including homosexual expression outside marriage, and ‘mischief’ and enjoyment. Shivananda passed away on May 20, 2013. For more on Shivananda’s story see: ShivanandaKhan, In Memoriam: Part One and Part Two.
Keywords: Lesbian; Queer, Transgender; Women; Sexual Orientation; Gender Identity; Same-Sex Partnerships; Law and Love; Rural India.
Maya: “Back where I work, in the rural tribal areas, people are still very shy of openly expressing their feelings. So [silence] is also part of that culture, as well as the restraining patriarchal control. In a sense, because there’s room for silence, people are also able to live their lives the way they want.”
Synopsis: Maya Sharma is a leading feminist scholar, activist and author of Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India. Her work covers contemporary lesbian, queer and transgender issues as well as gender, women’s rights and social issues. Maya speaks about the liberty and freedom she felt when she first began to identify as a woman who loves women, at a time when there was no queer movement in India. She speaks about her love of the work she does with women and with queer people, and says she has learned to challenge the word ‘women.’ Her eloquent reflections on how silence can speak make links between her own experience and that of women in the rural tribal areas where she works. She asserts that people find a way to live their lives in spite of the law, and this is how the law will change.