Zero Hour | Same-sex marriage: Queer Indians fighting the good fight

The petitions for same-sex marriage are not demanding special rights. They are only asking for the right to marry for those who want it, one other citizens already enjoy.

Even before I became a Member of Parliament, I was a signatory to a petition in 2006 seeking to strike down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Among the 100-plus signatories of that document were Jhumpa Lahiri, Shyam Benegal, Vikram Seth, and Kaushik Basu, to name a few. In 2018, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court unanimously decriminalised consensual sex among adults of the same sex.

The story of Vikram and Alok: Last week, while the hearings on same-sex marriage (or more correctly “marriage equality”) were on in the Supreme Court, I spoke with many friends from the gay community. Among them were Vikram Doctor, a keen quizzard and journalist, and his partner Alok Hisarwala, a lawyer.

This is their story. “When we met, being gay was illegal and we couldn’t imagine an India where we could live openly as a couple, pretty much fully accepted by our families. Twenty-four years later, that’s what we’re doing in Goa. It’s both so amazing, yet also seems so normal, we have to keep reminding ourselves of where we were when we started and how lucky we are to be here.

In all this, marriage never seemed even a remote possibility, so it was never something we contemplated. But we’re well aware that this doesn’t and shouldn’t apply to queer people today. Why on earth does a young queer person have to do the slog we did for 18 years to come to the point that we are at now? The whole point of decriminalisation was never special rights, but just the normal rights that everyone enjoys, which should include marriage rights for those who want them.

Perhaps the silliest of all the arguments presented against marriage equality was that homosexuality will mean the end of the human race because we won’t have children. The lawyer raising that seemed oblivious that he was doing so in the same week when India became the most populous nation in the world!

We respect the fact that many queer people genuinely want to raise children, and again this underscores the normality of this urge. It seems obvious that adoption is an answer, with the safeguards that should apply in adoptions of any kind — and yet adoption is what seemed to get people on the opposing side charged up.

The one thing that also seems totally bogus is the government’s contention that this was a matter for urban elites. In our experience, it is exactly the opposite. Over the years we were fighting for decriminalisation, the demand for marriage always came from the less economically privileged people. Those with the means can always take care of themselves, but it is exactly those who cannot who need the legal protections.”

Not about urban elites: This is not about urban elites. Far from it. Take the well-documented story of Leela and Urmila. They were two policewomen stationed in Bhopal, who decided to get married in 1987. They were immediately suspended and also locked up for 48 hours. This is emblematic of the prejudice and persecution that LGBTQ+ people have to face in society. Even today, reports of couples from the community committing suicide are widespread, mainly due to emotional or physical violence inflicted on them, and the inability to lead a life with the person they love.

Nivedita Menon, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, adds, “the stories of violence against inter-caste/religious marriage and lesbian suicides” are not part of separate histories of inter-caste marriage and lesbianism in India, but a common “history of compulsory heterosexuality and [with] marriage as the institution that best represents it”.

Extend Special Marriage Act to queer Indians: The petitions for same-sex marriage are not demanding special rights. They are only asking for the right to marry for those who want it. Using the word “spouse”, instead of “husband” or “wife” in the Special Marriage Act of 1954, will be a promising first step.

Siddarth Dube, writer and development expert, and a gay friend of mine who has fought for these rights along with countless others told me, “I know with certainty that same-sex marriage will become the law across India very soon. I say this because we have genuine jurists still. They know what justice means and will override unvarying and obscurantist bigotry. And I say this also because at my age of 60-plus, I know that the overwhelming majority of Indians are resolutely decent-hearted and not bigoted. They want an India where all Indians can love and live freely as equal citizens”. I take heart from his optimism.

The legislature in any democracy is the pulpit which is supposed to echo the voice of its citizens. But politics often prevents legislatures from upholding the essential rights of the people. In the 1960s in the USA, interracial marriage was a vote loser. So the courts had to step in to repeal the ban on interracial marriage. A similar scenario can be seen playing out in India. This is why the Supreme Court has had to step in.

An important fall-out of this debate is that a section of India’s LGBTQ+ individuals, who clung on to the hope that they could flourish in an India ruled by the Sangh Parivar, have woken up to a harsh reality. They were deluding themselves. It’s foolish to imagine that a party that thrives on demonising all kinds of Indians — whether Christians, Dalits, Muslims, free-thinking women or others — will somehow act humanely towards any minority. Of course, they should have realised this from the outset but then some people are fooled until it becomes a matter of self-interest.

I can also sense the simplicity of “loving”. My wife Tonuca and I, a Bengali Hindu and an Anglo-Indian Roman Catholic, were married under the Special Marriage Act in 2006, an impossibility were it not for this radical piece of legislation which we cannot wait to be extended to queer Indians.

[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Friday, April 28, 2023]