REMEMBER the first time I met a person who was openly gay. Like many people, I had a certain mental picture of what a gay man would look like, would talk, and would dress and so on. But this man was unlike any one of those stereotypes. A well educated man, he spoke openly about his struggles as a gay person trying very hard to be heterosexual and along with his parents doing everything possible to get therapeutic help. It is after everything that was tried, failed that he decided to try and come to terms with his situation. And that is where he ran into this massive brick wall called stigma. And alas, a large part of this stigma is fuelled by religion.
In fact religious leaders of different faiths in the country talking united on one voice on any issue is something that does not often happen. But the subject of gay rights and whether homosexuality ought to be decriminalised brought together all of them. Initially, it was the Christian clergy who seemed to be more vocal and was the religious face on television channels but later others joined in too. But is the matter of gay rights, a religious issue? Partly yes, partly no, perhaps.
But there is also the matter of distinguishing between homosexual attitudes and homosexual practice, a distinction that is often not made. Most people do not delve deeply enough to distinguish between some who may be gay by orientation but celibate in practice.
However, even as the Union Cabinet debates about the stand that it will take on the contentious Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, one thing is clear. The fact that there is such a strong and vocal opposition to the move to decriminalise homosexuality obviously proves that the gay and lesbian community has as of now, not been able to create the necessary public opinion to promote their cause. Gay parades held here and there in a couple of cities – and with concepts basically borrowed from the West , only serve to prove that only a bunch of Westernised urbanites are the ones concerned about this and they are airing their concerns in what is essentially an Western idiom.
Although rights may be granted legally, they cannot be enforced unless there is a necessary and conducive social climate. There are enough examples: untouchability has been abolished in India for long; but Dalits are exploited in sufficiently large numbers; child marriages are banned; but every Akshay Tritiya, lots of children gets married in full media and public glare, socially morality ought to be enforced through law or preached persuasively as a lifestyle.
History proves that criminalising anything merely drives people underground.
A century or more of the provision of law penalizing “act of carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal an offence” has obviously not prevented the development of a robust gay movement in the country. Neither has for instance, more than 60 years of keeping Gujarat a dry state done much to keep people from consuming illicit hooch and dying.
So clearly the matter is far more complex. Clearly the government will not find it easy to break this impasse. Obviously, social laws cannot be passed by ignoring religious sentiments when all the major religions have united to raise a chorus of support against the granting of gay rights, because it is against Bharatiya sanskriti or Indian culture.
But we must remember that in 1829, when the practice of Sati was being banned through the efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, William Carey and others, obscurantist elements had sought shelter under the same veneer of culture and tradition. So, in the mean while rather than trying to be God and pass judgment on those individuals, a better option may be to offer prayers to those struggling with their homosexuality and society’s largely hostile responses to them.