Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The penile code

His open letter to the Indian government appealing against Section 377 of the IPC is perhaps the worst piece of writing Vikram Seth has ever produced, but the most courageous. His recent appearance on NDTV’s We The People, in which he said that he was gay, or at least partially gay, was even more so: if it takes a lot to come out to one’s own loving and supportive family, think about what it takes to come out to a billion hypocritical prudes who reproduce like rabbits but are scandalised by sleeveless tops, let alone sodomy.

The case against 377 put forward by organisations like Naz Foundation and NACO is primarily couched in terms of public health: a law that drives homosexuality underground makes it difficult to educate people about safe sex. This seems a valid and relevant argument, but mainly a strategic one, since it’s harder for the government to ignore the terrifying HIV/AIDS crisis currently staring India in the eyeballs than to giggle over the irrelevance of a few limp-wristed activists.

At the end of the day, however, the argument is about a citizen’s constitutional right to equality and privacy. Assuming that the parties directly involved are agreeable to it, where I put what in whom is really none of Parliament’s business; consensual private sex between adults, whether heterosexual, gay, bisexual, lesbian, or otherwise, is a personal choice that does not impinge on anyone else’s rights. That its legality should depend on the vague barometer of ‘public morality’, filtered through the electoral jitters of our politicians—those paragons of public morality—seems, at best, absurd.

If public censure is the benchmark, then plenty else should qualify as criminal behaviour: intercaste marriage, women in short skirts, non-missionary heterosexual sex, having children out of wedlock, choosing not to have children, getting a divorce, remarrying. And if the benchmark is public sanction or tolerance, then lots of other things should be not just legalised but celebrated, including casteism, dowry, child labour, and child marriage.

The constitution of India is designed to protect fundamental individual rights regardless of what the neighbours have to say about it. Lawmakers have taken the lead before, on principles of human justice, to protect oppressed and marginalised constituencies such as women and children, without waiting on public morality. They also pass plenty of bills that do not necessarily reflect public opinion (note: pay hike to self). Why, then, this pussyfooting around people with non-traditional sexual orientation? They exist in large numbers, whether one likes it or not, and face a social battle every day. Why should the law make it harder?

The other day one particularly cold-eyed sympathiser to the cause of scrapping Section 377 opined that the government will never act unless people take their cause into the streets. In the west, he said, no substantive piece of legislation has ever been passed without huge popular agitation. Even though it’s a lot easier to say when one is heterosexual and not subject to social stigma, and even though you shouldn’t have to shout about your sexual orientation from the rooftops unless you really want to, there is something to this. The fight for visibility and equality—whether of race, gender, sexuality, religion—is never easy, and particularly not when you’re being asked to put your privates on parade, but the particularly high stakes of doing this in Indian society only reflects the particularly great need to do it.

In the first Gay Pride parade in India in 2003, a few dozen people walked around Calcutta telling people who they were. By some estimates, they represented about fifty million other men and women in India. What we’ve got now is government stonewalling activism; it’ll be interesting to see if activists end up Stonewalling the government.

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