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India: Why gay rights should matter to the rest of us

by sacw.net, 24 September 2009

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The Times of India, 23 September 2009

Editorial

It’s About Choice

What could cause the Darul Uloom Deoband and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind to join forces with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad? Answer: homosexuality, which according to all of the above should be severely punished by the law. Sikh and Christian bodies are also negative about repealing the parts of Section 377 which criminalise homosexuality. Joining them is a motley group of godmen, astrologers, politicians and now even a child rights group, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

Such a grand alliance is bound to make any move to decriminalise homosexuality a political hot potato, even if that is what the Indian Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights to all citizens demands. Not surprisingly the Union cabinet played safe and lobbed the ball back to the Supreme Court, when asked for the government’s position on whether gay sex ought to be legalised or not, following landmark legislation by the Delhi high court which declared much of Section 377 unconstitutional.

When India, in general, is keen to protect minorities of all sorts, what is it about this particular minority the homosexual community that presents seemingly intractable problems? It’s that homosexuals snap the bond between sex and procreation, invoking the spectre of individual pleasure that exceeds any collective, utilitarian ethic.

The interesting thing about Section 377 is that it outlaws not just homosexual behaviour, but most forms of heterosexual activity that even lawfully married couples engage in. The only kind the law permits is that with direct procreative potential. Canute-like, Section 377 attempts to lock sex into a utilitarian grid.

Historically, most societies have sought utilitarian control over sex. Religions, especially proselytising ones, would like to multiply their numbers. Thus the biblical injunction to go forth and multiply. Socialism enforces an all-embracing altruism. According to its calculus individual pleasure can open the floodgates to selfish bourgeois vices. That’s why most communist countries brutally suppressed homosexuality. Ditto for fascist states. Authoritarian societies, in general, tend to see homosexuality as disruptive of social order and cohesion, a quality they prize above anything else.

Early industrial capitalism, too, would like to expand the labour force to multiply production and profits. That gives it an interest in encouraging procreative heterosexual behaviour and driving homosexuality underground. It’s only in late 20th century, post-industrial capitalism predicated on consumption as much as it is on production that the equation begins to shift. With the modern consumer, individual pleasure matters and choice comes into play. Procreation and perpetuation of race/religion/society/nation aren’t everything. Add to that the green imperatives of the early 21st century, and growing populations with expanding ecological footprints even begin to look menacing.

The principle of choice can also extend to sexual lifestyles. Homosexual activity has been around for ages. But the notion of ’lifestyle’, a peg on which one hangs one’s very identity, emerges only under modern consumer capitalism. One can ’consume’ alternate sexualities. In that context the emergence of sexual minorities is a marker of ongoing globalisation. It’s no accident that with liberalising and globalising tendencies washing up on Indian shores, the question of gay rights has come to the fore as well.

Take the gay pride parades which are being held in more and more Indian cities, reaching Bhubaneswar and Chennai this year. The annual parades are held in sync with similar events in cities across the world, and commemorate the Stonewall riots that took place in New York’s Greenwich village in 1969. On June 27 of that year police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in the area. While such raids had been routine, on that occasion the crowds fought back and the neighbourhood erupted in riots and protests for the next few days. That event sparked the worldwide gay liberation movement. No wonder that Bhim Singh of the Jammu and Kashmir Panthers’ Party describes the movement to legalise homosexuality as an "American invasion".

It’s the 1960s that mark the shift to post-industrial capitalism, spurred by the global communications revolution which began that decade (causing Marshall McLuhan to quip, famously, that electronic technology was contracting the world into a "global village"). According to social thinker Anthony Giddens the communications revolution dating from the 1960s ushered in a more radical and thoroughgoing modernity than that of the Enlightenment, touching the core of private life and incorporating what he calls ’emotional democracy’. This is associated with the rise of new social movements that emphasise life politics (to do with private life) rather than emancipatory politics (to do only with public institutions).

When Vikram Seth and others wrote an open letter addressing the government and judiciary, urging the overturning of Section 377 which "punitively criminalises romantic love and private, consensual sexual acts", quite apart from the utilitarian value of combating HIV/AIDS, it’s also the private rights of the citizen that they are concerned to defend. It’s time for the state to treat Indian citizens as adults, moving away from the patron-client relationship preferred by our political and bureaucratic elites.