Two years after the country’s highest court ruled against decriminalizing homosexuality, a national conversation about sexual minorities is well underway.
BENGALURU, India — The green benches of the lower house of India’s Parliament were mostly empty on the afternoon of Dec. 18. It was late in the winter session. An earnest but unhurried debate was taking place between Nishikant Dubey, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and Shashi Tharoor, a writer, former diplomat and opposition M.P., who was introducing a bill.
It wasn’t until the vote was called, and a sudden clamor filled the hall, that the significance of the law became apparent: It proposed to decriminalize gay sex. Dozing M.P.s jumped to their feet and barked across the room. One voice was heard jeering, “Tharoor only needs this bill for himself!”
The final tally was 24 votes in favor and 71 votes against, and the bill was sent back to Mr. Tharoor’s drafting table. Yet the debate itself was a hopeful development: Two years after sexual minorities in India were dealt a terrible setback by the Supreme Court, more elected politicians are stepping up for L.G.B.T. rights.
Unlike the courts, the politicians speak for constituents. Their statements come from and travel back to the hundreds of thousands of voters they represent — a national conversation that could do more than any learned court ruling to stop prejudice against L.G.B.T. Indians.
Mr. Tharoor intends to change Section 377 of India’s penal code, a Victorian-era provision that punishes “whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” with life imprisonment. Convictions are rare, but the law is sometimes used to harass and blackmail gay men and transgenders.
In a country where every kind of sexual preference permeates cultural heritage and lived reality, Section 377 is both antiquated and incongruous. Mr. Tharoor’s bill proposed to rewrite the provision, penalizing only intercourse with minors and nonconsensual sex.
For many years, the campaign against Section 377 focused on challenging the provision in court. And the strategy seemed to be succeeding: In 2009, an enlightened ruling from the Delhi High Court found that the clause violated the Constitution’s promise of equality.
But on Dec. 11, 2013, a panel of the Supreme Court reversed that decision, adopting an unusual position on judicial restraint. It was a bewildering abdication of the court’s role as a guardian of civil rights, and devastating news for L.G.B.T. activists.
A few days later, I joined an angry gathering on the steps of the town hall in Bengaluru, the city at the heart of India’s technology industry. Just one year earlier, the local Pride March had ended on these stairs — an especially colorful and buoyant parade, with veteran participants and fearless trans-folk joined by giggling tech geeks hoisting banners branded by Google and Goldman Sachs. After the Supreme Court decision, however, the protesters wore black, and chanted, “If you’re criminal and you know it, clap your hands!” The occasion was called the Day of Rage.
Soon, though, the insurgent anger mixed with astonishment at the outpouring of solidarity. On Twitter, even self-described “Hindu far/extreme-right-winger patriot-capitalist-conspicuous-consumers” called for Section 377 to be revised by executive ordinance. The evening of the protest, the prime-time news shows were thundering against the Supreme Court decision, and inviting politicians to state their positions on it.
Through the gloom there was a glimmer of consolation: The action had just shifted out of the courts and into popular politics.
The first formal statement against the ruling came from the maverick Aam Aadmi Party, which had recently captivated the urban middle class with its campaign against corruption and politics-as-usual. It was followed by the Congress Party. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress’s vice-president, said that sexual preferences “should be left to individuals” — a mild but unprecedented statement from a leader of India’s then-ruling party.
That declaration pushed the Congress’ main rival, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, to endorse the Supreme Court verdict. The B.J.P. won the 2014 general election, and today, after a year and a half in power, its leaders have softened their position on L.G.B.T. rights. At a literary festival in November, Arun Jaitley, the minister of finance conceded, “When millions of people the world over have alternative sexual preferences, it is too late in the day to propound a view that they should be jailed.”
Section 377 remains for now, and as Mr. Tharoor learned, India’s dysfunctional Parliament is still some way from changing it. But the gradual accretion of support for reform from politicians of various persuasions is creating what a wise judicial decision might well have pre-empted: a national conversation about accepting and respecting different sexual lifestyles.
A progressive Supreme Court ruling would have revised the law all at once, but it would have done relatively little to change the social stigma and institutional hostility faced by sexual minorities. When major political parties affirm their support for L.G.B.T. Indians, it sends a different kind of writ to both their supporters and officials under their control.
In the spring, Mr. Tharoor will reintroduce his bill. He hopes that a full discussion in Parliament will be an opportunity to broadcast that L.G.B.T. rights are “not about sex but about freedom.” The chances of the bill’s passing are still slim, at least until the B.J.P.’s more liberal voices prevail over the bigoted ones. Indian politicians can be expected to prevaricate, pass the buck or pander to religious conservatives in their base.
But some elected politicians have already begun to grapple with their responsibility toward sexual minorities, and thanks to the parallel efforts of activists, a small but growing legislative agenda for queer rights has become evident. A new bill protecting the rights of transgenders has passed in the upper house of Parliament and will be presented in the lower house this year. Last January, Madhu Bai Kinnar was elected mayor of Raigarh — the first transgender elected to run any Indian city.
Unlike in the United States, where L.G.B.T. rights are an issue too hot for many politicians to touch, in India homophobia is diffuse, and hardly features in our culture wars. And so the prospect grows brighter that Section 377 will eventually be changed through legislation — through a process that appeals not just to India’s Constitution, but to its society as well.