What you need to know
India’s Supreme Court has agreed to revisit a previous judgement that upheld a law criminalizing gay sex. The judges say that the issue is a matter of constitutional importance. In Myanmar, a LGBT rights organization also plans to propose a new anti-discrimination law.
Compiled by Bing-sheng Lee
On February 2, India’s Supreme Court has agreed to revisit a previous judgement that upheld a law criminalizing gay sex.
Three senior judges say the 2013 ruling would be re-examined by a larger bench of judges, which is a move that has been welcomed by activists. The judges say that the issue is a matter of constitutional importance.
According to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a 155-year-old colonial-era law, a same-sex relationship is an unnatural offense, criminalizing sex between consenting lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) partners. The statute was ruled unconstitutional in 2009, but re-enacted in 2013 by the Supreme Court.
The decision came after a legal campaign by a coalition of conservatives, including Muslim and Christian religious associations, a rightwing politician and a retired government official turned astrologist.
Since 2013, hundreds of individuals have reportedly been arrested under the law. Most of those who are charged end up paying a fine, yet some also do a short amount of jail time.
Sexual relations have become a battleground in India, often revealing cultural splits between generations, between urban and rural dwellers, and between those who invoke a traditional past supposedly uncontaminated by western influences and those who stress a local history of pluralism and tolerance.
Anjali Gopalan, executive director of an HIV/Aids advocacy organization called the Naz Foundation, filed the petition to strike out the key laws and says that decriminalization is the least that can be done.
Gopalan says, “Section 377 is a remnant of our colonial past. Now even the UK has decriminalized it, so why should we hold on to it?”
Gay rights activists have said the community faces significant discrimination and police harassment, even if prosecutions for same-sex activity have been rare. Criminalizing homosexuality makes them vulnerable to blackmail, they say.
A decision from the Supreme Court in favor of the petitioners means that the court is open to reviewing their position.
The supreme court is known for its broadly progressive judgments that often order politicians or officials to respect the rights of the poor, disadvantaged or marginalized communities.
“Everyone’s trying to manage expectations and be cautiously hopeful," said Gautam Bhan, one of the petitioners and an LGBT activist in Delhi.
However, his belief is that it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will overturn the law.
“It is a long shot. We’re asking for a lot," Bhan said. “We’re essentially asking (the) court to review its own decision."
Still, he said regardless of the decision, the community has become stronger in the past two years.
Krishtulshyan, an activist from a group called the Indian LGBT Community based in Bihar, eastern India, says she knows people who travelled to other countries to get married and others who killed themselves after suffering abuse for being gay.
“It would be like heaven for us if the court rules in our favor,” she says. “No one is open about it. They’re afraid of what society will think. There’s many cases of people getting removed from college for being gay, or not getting jobs because of it. If it’s legalized, all that will stop.”
Myanmar Sees Growing LGBT Rights Movements
In Myanmar, a LGBT rights organization called “Colors Rainbow” is conducting research into the impact of discriminatory law on LGBT people in the country. Based on their findings, they plan to propose a new anti-discrimination law, including a specific provision against discrimination on the grounds of gender expression or sexual orientation.
The organization hopes the country’s liberal government, the National League for Democracy, will be interested in adopting such a law.
Colors Rainbow offers training that discusses gender identity and human rights, and teaches advocacy skills, as well as provides free legal advice, particularly to those who have experienced police violence.
The organization is also training journalists to write more tactfully about LGBT issues, talking to religious leaders about taking a more sensitive approach to LGBT people, and working with the education minister to bring sexuality and gender sensitivity training into schools.
Hla Myat Tun, a member of Colors Rainbow, says, “Since the country has opened up, people have started talking about LGBT rights. But the general society still needs to become aware.”
“Many people misunderstand LGBT communities as asking for special rights, but we are just asking for equal rights as human beings,” Hla Myat Tun adds.
LGBT activists suffering a setback in Russia
While LGBT rights movements have gained some momentum recently in India and Myanmar, on January 18, the minority group suffered a setback in Russia.
A Russian court found a LGBT rights activist guilty of violating the country’s notorious gay propaganda law and issued a stiff fine.
Sergei Alekseenko, director of Maximum, a LGBT rights group, was found responsible for posting certain items on Maximum’s website that violated the law banning the dissemination of positive information about LGBT relationships to children. He was fined 100,000 rubles (approximately US$1,300) for the alleged propaganda.
Tanya Cooper, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, says, “Russian authorities use the gay propaganda law to harass and intimidate LGBT activists into silence. Sergei Alekseenko will be appealing the district court’s verdict and the prosecutors should not oppose Alekseenko’s appeal.”
Edited by Olivia Yang
“LGBT Indians dare to hope as Supreme Court rules on anti-gay law” (CNN)
“Indian LGBT activists hold vigils before court rules on anti-gay law” (The Guardian)
“India Supreme Court reopens case on decriminalising gay sex” (BBC)
“India’s Supreme Court re-opens case on decriminalising gay sex” (Gay Times)
“Myanmar’s transgender people not just chasing rainbows in fight for equality” (The Guardian)
“Russia: Court Rules Against LGBT Activist” (Human Rights Watch)