The Supreme Court of India hears our views on Section 377 again, genuinely listening for the first time. We may soon have legal acceptance – or at least not be considered criminals for engaging in consensual relationships as adults. We owe this anticipated success to people who came out and fought for our rights when it was not safe to do so.
Decriminalisation would increase social acceptance and improve our safety to open up conversations with our communities, but it cannot replace the community engagement with the mainstream. It is imperative that we as LGBTIQA+ communities come out and speak if we have the ability and privilege to do so1.
Social psychologist Bibb Latané explains that immediacy, number and strength of the people determine social impact, defined as any influence on individual feelings, thoughts or behaviour that is created from the real, implied or imagined presence or actions of others.
The Supreme Court ruling would have the strength, but it will lack the immediacy and number that we can potentially bring by engaging with those around us. The kind of intimate relationships that we have with our family, friends and colleagues are irreplaceable. It is time for those of us who have remained, thus far, as silent spectators, to participate in our movement.
Nothing captures this sentiment better than Harvey Milk’s campaign and his famous quote, “coming out is the most political thing you can do”. He encouraged people to come out when he campaigned for “No” vote on California Proposition 6, which would have banned gay and lesbian people, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California’s public schools. This lead to the first victory against Anita Bryant’s hate campaign in the USA.
We tend to believe that queer rights struggles in India are a lot different from those in the USA. We don’t realise that the US may be more similar to India than to other western liberal democracies. The gay liberation movement was difficult in the USA when compared to Canada and the UK. The USA Supreme Court struck down the sodomy law only in 2003, whereas the UK did so in 1967 and Canada in 1969. Anyone who has followed the history of the queer communities in countries where decriminalisation and equal rights legislation has passed would know that the openness and relationships of openly queer people with their families, friends and colleagues played a significant role in the acceptance they are experiencing today. When I realised this, I wanted to come out to my family, but I was scared. And I had every reason to be so: losing my ties to family was highly possible.
A couple of months ago, a cousin to whom I had previously come out, started threatening that she and her father would out me to my parents if I did not intervene in their favour in a family matter. I couldn’t allow someone to weaponise my sexual identity against me, and that was the push I needed. I first came out to my younger brother, a college student. The first thing he asked me was “when did you decide to be gay?” but he listened as I explained to him that sexual orientation is innate. At the end of our conversation, he told me that he would support me and stand by my side if my parents reacted poorly. His support gave me the courage I needed to come out to my parents.
I have been trying to remember how I explained to my mom what it means to be gay, but everything is now a blur. It felt like an eternity as I spoke those words and waited for her to respond. But the first sentiment she expressed was her concern for my life and well being; nothing else mattered to her. I have to say I have been incredibly lucky to have a mother like her. We decided that we would talk to my dad the next morning. My mother, who has never kept a secret from my father, blurted it out to him the next morning, before I woke up. He didn’t say much, besides announcing that he had booked an appointment with a doctor. Fortunately, the doctor was not out to exploit my dad’s concern for monetary gain by offering conversion “treatments” as many in the medical fraternity still do. He spoke to me alone and subtly made sure that I knew what I was talking about. He then explained to my dad that sexual orientation is determined at birth2 and is not a disease that requires a cure.
Two incidents that happened after my coming out to parents inspired me to share my story.
One day, during lunch, my dad asked me to go back into the closet and get married to a woman. Before I could respond, my mom asked my father if he would be okay with marrying his daughter to a gay man. That strong response from her was all it took to convince my father. Since then he occasionally asks me about my plans for the future, and often tells me that he would support me through my decision.
Quite recently, my brother told me that when his friends spoke about beating up a gay guy, and he intervened. They had a conversation where my brother explained to them that orientation is determined at birth. He also used the opportunity to come out to his friends about having a gay brother. This conversation concluded with his friends expressing support for me.
These experiences are why I believe awareness is key to building acceptance in our society.
Most people hate us because they think we have a choice in the matter, and that we made a decision that threatens our society. A common myth across countries and cultures is that queer people are a threat to the institution of (heterosexual) marriage. The Netherlands legalised same-sex marriage in 2000, and it did not destabilise their society. In fact, they rank better than most countries in happiness and mental health.
It is easier to dehumanise people one has never met, and delegitimise the relationships one has never seen. This can change only when we give them an opportunity to interact with us. Some of my queer friends argue that it’s the 21st century and people can educate themselves from the internet. We need people to empathise with us, not study us.
I know it may not easy for everyone, and each family reacts differently, but I believe they deserve to know. They may not accept us, but they would still be rejecting the real us. At one point, I grew tired of wondering if my friends would still remain if they knew about my sexuality. A few years ago, I decided to find out. I lost so many of my friends as I started coming out. There was a period of loneliness that followed, but now I have friends who passionately fight for my rights, our rights.
We are among the most populous countries in the world: surely we will meet people who will accept us for who we are. Those who rejected us initially may also come around. Change is not easy, and they need time too.
1. Author’s note: Please do consider your personal safety, economic independence, and other factors that may be relevant to you before coming out. We also recognise that being ‘in the closet’ itself is a luxury available only to some: others of us have no choice but to be ‘out’ because of our visible gender non-conformity.
2. Editor’s note: Theories of the origins of sexuality have not “proved” that sexuality is genetic, as some of the studies of the 1990s could not be replicated. It is possible that genotype-by-environment interactions and epigenetic factors play a role in determining sexual orientation. Some people experience their sexuality as immutable: others experience it as fluid. It is, however, clear, that one’s sexual orientation is not amenable to attempts at conversion, and it is both unscientific and unethical to attempt to do so.