Probably the biggest news to come out of the US the past few days, has been the landmark judgement by the US Superme Court which effectively legalises homosexual marriages throughout the country. The reaction on social media was overwhelmingly positive, though the naysayers also had a sizable representation. The protracted process of achieving marriage equality in the US is rather insightful for other countries, especially India, which quite honestly has for far too long not addressed the concerns of the LGBT community in any realistic and tangible way. That being said, the reaction by Indians on social media has been mixed at best. While the usual bigotry is once again quite visible (which is absolutely unacceptable and is not worthy of further discussion), there has also been an overwhelming trend to change ones display picture to rainbow colors and show ones solidarity towards the LGBT community. It is the latter scenario which is somewhat perplexing to this author. Whilst a lot of these people are indeed well-meaning, the pervasiveness of arm-chair Facebook activists, America idolaters, and wannabe ‘cool’ people among this ‘rainbow’ crowd is making it rather hard to separate the grain from the chaff, and is quite honestly not leading to any meaningful discussion on this important issue. If one seriously wants to achieve the same level of inclusion for LGBT people in India, one needs to first improve the quality of public debate and not just degenerate into mere token online activism. This article is an attempt to understand what Indians, particularly the vocal ones can learn from the US judgement, and how they can make India a more inclusive place.
The US is most certainly not the first to achieve marriage equality (a few weeks earlier, Ireland legalised gay marriage in a much-praised referendum where over 60% of the people throughout the country voted Yes, and only one constituency voted No), but the economic, cultural, and political importance of the US makes it by far the biggest country to do so, and has undeniably placed LGBT issues on a unified global platform for the first time. Additionally, for this particular discussion, the similarities between the US and India (large population, multiculturalism, importance of religion in polity, relatively high levels of income equality) makes it a better base of comparison than say countries in Nordic Europe. It might come as a surprise to many of the online activist crowd that the decision to legalise gay marriage in the US has not happened overnight. Indeed, the shrillness that is permeating Indian social media with respect to this issue completely fails to take into account the long-winding, transformative process that the US underwent to achieve this landmark judgment. Marriage at the end of the day, religion aside, is a societal construct, and fundamental alterations to such a construct requires, like it or not, large-scale support. According to Gallup polls, it wasn’t until 2011 that most Americans even supported gay marriage, a clean 8 years after homosexuality was decriminalised in all states, and it was only in 2009 that the first state allowed gay marriage. Since then though, until the Obergefell judgement, roughly 70% of the population of the US already lived in states which legally recognized same-sex marriages, and thus it was only a matter of time that a federal ruling would pass a law that would be binding in all 50 states. If one wishes to achieve the same goal of same-sex marriage in India, one has to first create a culture and society that is accepting of gays and lesbians and accords them the same respect and dignity that heterosexual people are entitled to. Legal considerations aside, truthfully speaking, Indian society as a whole is no where close to such levels of tolerance. Societal reformation requires a continuous process with incremental change. There are three steps that India has to go through (none of which it has yet) to ensure that this issue reaches a logical conclusion:
- Remove section 377, effectively decriminalising homosexuality.
- Create a society that is accepting of openly gay people. Keep a check on the view of the nation with regards to marriage equality via polls which use unbiased, and statistically significant samples that factor in socioeconomic realities of India.
- Legalise gay marriage with multi-partisan support via a constitutional amendment.
Point 1 is an absolute no-brainer. By its definition, section 377 is fundamentally discriminatory towards people participating in a consensual act behind closed doors, and is against any personal liberties and privacy rights that citizens are entitled to. The fact that such a draconian law is still around is the first clear indication that the ostensibly overwhelming Indian support seen for LGBT issues in the last few days does not seem to rally when it comes to actual reformation of the laws in India.
Point 2 is the difficult one, and is unfortunately a decadal process, probably even a generational one. Trolling Karan Johar unnecessarily, and making a stereotypical comedy like Dostana a box office success is the second indication that Indian society is quite a long way away from accepting homosexuals. On a related note, it is high time India gets its own version of Gallup which can measure the pulse of the nation in a sensible way with regards to social issues, that would enable lawmakers to make relatively informed decisions than now. If the first two points are fulfilled, point 3 will be a natural consequence and not just a daunting goal as it seems now.
This particular issue has also raised another aspect of the nature of online discourse among Indians. Bigots, and the fad bandwagon aside, there have also been a considerable amount of over-zealous online activists who see any development in any part of the world as an indication of the ineptness of the Indian Government (irrespective of the governing party). Cartoons such as these, for example, while definitely well-intentioned, end up mixing legal precedence and societal acceptance, and only adds to the cacophony without contributing to the discussion in any meaningful way. With respect to this particular cartoon, it is worth pointing out that there is absolutely no Indian law that prevents two heterosexual adults of different castes and religions from marrying. Whether that marriage sees societal acceptance is a completely different matter, and is a subject of another debate (this author for one believes that no marriage between two consenting adults is wrong). Looking at it from another angle, legalisation of gay marriage in the US does not imply that there will be 100% societal acceptance, particularly in the more conservative states, and it will take much more efforts to change mindsets than change laws. This is easier said than done, and one must maintain a constant pace as we (India/US/any other country) work towards creating a more accepting society for all peoples, irrespective of their sexual orientation, and/or any other arbitrary classification.