Need for a synergistic alliance

Queer individuals and their allies must ensure that issues like the implementation of horizontal reservations for transgender people and the ban on anti-queer conversion practices find a place in political party manifestos, writes Kanav Narayan Sahgal.
Last Updated : 13 January 2024, 23:17 IST

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Marked by unfulfilled promises and disheartening setbacks, 2023 proved to be a disappointing year for the queer community. The year commenced with the dashed hopes of Advocate Saurabh Kirpal’s potential appointment as India’s first openly gay judge. In January, the Supreme Court collegium reiterated its decision to appoint him as a judge of the Delhi High Court, a historic move that never materialised due to objections from the law ministry regarding his homosexuality.

Later in March, Ravenshaw University in Cuttack abruptly cancelled a film festival moments before it was scheduled to begin. The cancellation was attributed to a “threat call” specifically connected to the screening of two movies, one of which was titled Gay India Matrimony. This incident raised questions about the implications for free speech, artistic freedom, and censorship within the context of queer rights.

Despite these challenges, there was optimism that 2023 would be the year that India finally legalised same-sex marriage. On April 18, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud, began hearing petitions seeking the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. However, the optimism was quickly dashed when the final judgement was delivered on October 17. All five judges held that the Indian constitution did not confer the right to marry, and the majority further asserted that the legislature was neither obligated to recognise same-sex unions nor grant queer couples adoption rights. Subsequently, two review petitions were filed challenging the verdict, but their status remains uncertain.

If the disappointment from the marriage equality verdict wasn’t enough, the year concluded with the tragic suicide of a 16-year-old queer child, Pranshu on November 21. A class 10 student at Ujjain Public School in Madhya Pradesh, Pranshu used to share makeup-related posts and reels on Instagram since the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite garnering a significant following on their Instagram handle, they (pronoun) faced hateful and homophobic comments in the comments section after a Deepavali reel of them wearing a saree went viral. This incessant queerphobic bullying prompted them (pronoun) to take their life.

Rallying for change

As we enter 2024, there is a lot that we can learn from the year gone by.
For starters, the marriage equality verdict demonstrated that relying on courts for the protection of rights may not be the most effective strategy for the queer community going forward. The Supreme Court’s hesitation to encroach upon what it deemed the legislative domain raises questions about the future of other issues that the queer community is fighting for through legal means. These include the implementation of horizontal reservations for transgender people and the ban on anti-queer conversion practices. Since legislative, and not judicial action is now key, queer individuals and their allies must ensure these issues find a place in political party manifestos, especially given that 2024 is the year of the general elections. So, if 2023 was the year of legal challenges, then 2024 needs to be the year of political mobilisation.

Second, the shift this year must be towards changing people’s hearts and minds; if the queer community can shape the public narrative, then the law may also change. And data shows that change is possible.

According to a 2023 global survey on same-sex marriage by the Pew Research Centre, 53% of surveyed Indians either strongly or somewhat favoured legalising same-sex marriage, while 43% opposed it. While surveys like these should be approached with caution, given India’s vast and diverse population, these findings are still useful, for they provide valuable insights into prevailing sentiments and indicate that building a nuanced public understanding of same-sex marriage is possible.

Something to cheer

Similarly, on the issue of glass ceilings, if Saurabh Kirpal couldn’t become India’s first openly gay judge due to homophobia in 2023, Padma Lakshmi broke barriers in March by becoming India’s first transgender woman enrolled as an advocate with the Bar Council of Kerala. This achievement marks a significant step forward in inclusion for the legal fraternity; If not on the bench, then at least at the bar, and that’s a start.

2023 also saw the première of Amazon Prime’s Rainbow Rishta, a docu-series that depicts the lives of eight queer individuals from across India who traverse the diverse landscapes of love, belonging, acceptance, and more. The series portrays these journeys with sensitivity, dispels stereotypes, and centres on the queer experience for the audience. Such representations are important because they not only normalise queerness but also remind viewers that it is neither an “urban-elite” phenomenon nor a Western concept, as contended by the ruling government during the marriage equality hearings in the Supreme Court. In the final judgement, the court clarified its position on these contentions, finding them baseless.

Queerness is as normal and natural as any other aspect of life, and it is crucial that in 2024, the media play a more proactive role in amplifying diverse queer narratives like these in a sensitive and nuanced manner.

With the general elections just round the corner, political excitement is palpable. Given that the top court has clarified its position on the issue, the power is now back with the people. Political leaders — both the government that will come into power at the Centre and the Opposition — will now have the power to shape the destinies of queer rights in India. Hence, 2024 has to be the year of intense mobilisation, sustained advocacy, and collaborative allyship. Queer rights activists will also need to shift away from litigation and focus more on on-ground engagement.

Civil society organisations, government functionaries, and corporates must also be roped in these efforts. While it is unlikely that 2024 will be the year of marriage equality, incremental work towards that goal can be accomplished, paving the way for a brighter and more inclusive future in the years to come.

(The author is a Communications Manager at Nyaaya, the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and can be reached at sahgalkanav@gmail.com)

A special mention

Kanav Narayan Sahgal won the Likho Award for Outstanding Print Story for ‘Seeing the Environment from a Gender Lens’ which appeared in DHoS in June, 2022. The Likho Awards for Excellence in Media, as instituted by The Humsafar Trust, recognises exemplary works by the Indian media that have a fair and inclusive representation of the LGBTQ+ community. 

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Published 13 January 2024, 23:17 IST

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