Repeal of 377 - Queer in India (Part 1 - Celebration)

Authored By:

Charlie W.

I remember when same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, how my friend happened to be in Washington DC stumbling upon the celebration commencing, how so many people were surprised it’d happened so fast, one decision of the Supreme Court rather than state by state. How so many people thought it hadn’t happened fast at all. I remember the complications of that “victory,” the debates between assimilationists and leftist radicals. Others who were relieved the white upper middle class marriage crusade was over, now with the renewed hope that maybe the privileged queers could acknowledge the life expectancy of trans people, the murder of trans women of color, the prison industrial complex, the rate of queer homelessness, the number of people who don’t have suitable healthcare, or any number of seemingly more pressing issues. I remember reading Dean Spade and talking about how law does not change culture, how getting rights and using the criminal justice system to punish people for discrimination will not address how problematic and racist so many U.S. institutions are.

A different sort of weight passes over me landing in Hyderabad, India. I have studied the histories of Western queer politics. I am unfamiliar with those politics here, but still I feel the weight of 377, the weight of illicit, the weight of fear. Section 377 was a part of India’s law that criminalized sex “against the order of nature.” Ambiguously written, the law mostly has been used to criminalize queer sex between consenting adults, with punishments of up to ten years in prison. I remember the first week I was here, when the high court was first discussing striking down this section of the law. I would check the news daily but no verdict was coming soon. I would research the enforcement of 377, wondering about the names of the hundreds of people in prison. I checked the news often, but after four days of updates, there wasn’t any information about 377 for some time.

Meanwhile I asked around. I joined a society and sexuality class, hoping to meet people “in the know.” I asked if there were queer groups on campus to which everyone shrugged and said no. My professor introduced me to some trans people and I got added to a WhatsApp group of over 100 queer and trans people in Hyderabad. It’s hard to keep up with the 30+ notifications a day but I like seeing what it’s like here, among a group of queer activists. They message about political action and send clips of problematic movies, Hijras getting harrassed in the streets, Kerala flood relief information, and more.

It is through them I learn when the high court will finally release a decision on 377, scheduled for the next day by 12pm. I try to practice tabla the next morning but check the time every few minutes. Then around 11:40 I start getting the messages. “Scrapped” and “IT’S DONE” with celebratory emojis. I try to practice singing but have 10 incoming messages every minute, of congratulations and celebration. “My boyfriend and I were on a date and came home to this news. I am crying I’m so happy!!” The joy is tangible, bustling from my phone and I play piano with improvisatory delight. Within two hours, the queer contingent on WhatsApp has scheduled a celebration, pride circle, candlelit vigil for those who gave their lives in facing 377, a meeting with someone interviewing for a talkshow, and a party.

I go to school nearly dancing, biking across campus with the “queerly beloved” playlist a partner made me and I want to belt to the clouds about it, wondering who else is celebrating. My friend from the States, whose parents immigrated from India, is also texting me, saying “it’s such a basic thing but damn it’s so nice.” It’s not a basic thing, I find myself responding. We can talk about how law doesn’t change culture all we want but the relief of this being revoked is tangible and so needed. We can’t dismantle patriarchy, heteronormativity, and capitalism before the end of this week, but we can celebrate the existence of queer people in India being at least legal.

After class, I sit through rush hour traffic to get to a cafe an hour away, where there are speeches with queer people describing what this means to them. Rush hour being rush hour traffic, we miss the speeches but they invite us to the after-party. “This is our first legal gay party!” people say in hushed tones as we wait for the elevator. One person tells me his friend texted him saying “I’m going to go have legal sex with my girlfriend.” He says, “Does that make it less fun?” And we all laugh.

I think back to the two straight cis white men in my program, talking about how they were trying to meet girls by going to a place that only allowed couples. They told the bouncer they were gay but the bouncer didn’t believe them and turned them away. Only a cis white straight man would get away with lying about being gay, think he could get some fringe benefit and back track into heterosexuality if he had to, I thought. “Yeah being gay is illegal here,” I told them. “We won’t do it again,” they assured me, as if I was the social justice police rather than viscerally aware of their unchecked privilege.

I remember bringing up 377 a few weeks ago, to some other international students, and them asking about when same sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. It can’t be a point of comparison though. There is no comparison. I don’t know what it feels like for my desire to be illegal. I will easily jump on marriage abolition discourse but the discourse with this holds a different kind of gravity, one that I can feel into, sense the atmosphere of, but never know through lived experience.

I check back in with the 100 WhatsApp notifications and the discourse is familiar to me. “Celebrate today, work tomorrow,” is the general message, though for them it seems “work and celebrate today” has already commenced, given the number of people taking interviews with news outlets. It feels like the work of a queer activist, reminding me of the times I have found resilience in trans community, celebrated with them in all our beauty, and gone right back into the actions we take to change the world the next day. It is inevitable. There is no resting. Maybe for a night, maybe we can escape just for a few songs, but we are interpellated back every time.

“I just want to experience joy with you,” a new love tells me, simultaneously lamenting how he can’t hold my hand in public lest all his classmates think he’s gay. I kindly remind him that in three months I go back to a community that sees me and three years from now, he will still be in class with peers who might never see him the same way if they discovered he loved a trans person. It’s a nice thought though, the yearning for untouchable joy, possible in fragments. Yet I can barely stand alone in my bedroom without the world intruding, rendering my body wrong, my desire perverse, my existence invisible.

This is why these queer activists will return to Work the same day. Not capitalist work, but capital W, Work in shaping the world to our unimaginable futures. We have to.

The day before the verdict, one of them wrote, “When #Section377 goes in another 14 hours (there, I let it slip – the cursor is blinking, challenging me to change the ‘when’ to ‘if’, but I am not going to), this whole era would have come to an end. This dark cloud will have been lifted. The endless black tunnel will be gone, and we will have to squint and make our way in the bright sunshine. Am I ready? I think I am. I think we are.”

It’s been five years since 377 was in place. It’d been revoked before, between 2009-2013. In this joy, I wonder if they anticipate a tinge of betrayal, if they wonder how long it will last. Perhaps that is why the activism goes on and on. I only wish them one night of rest.