Anjali Gopalan: Getting same-sex marriage legalised our next goal 

For Anjali Gopalan, founder of Naz Foundation, decriminalising homosexuality is a major milestone but equal right’s for India’s same-sex couples isn’t over yet

Anjali Gopalan: Getting same-sex marriage legalised our next goal 

Dhairya Maheshwari

For Anjali Gopalan, founder of Naz Foundation, one of the original petitioners in the legal challenge to Section 377, the Supreme Court’s September 6 verdict decriminalising consensual same sex relations is a major milestone for India’s LGBT movement. But 61-year-old Gopalan is certain of one thing. The legal battle to guarantee equal rights for India’s same-sex couples isn’t won yet. She says that Indian society is yet to accept homosexuality, even as she notes that there have been encouraging signs since the turn of the millennium. Gopalan sat down for a short interview with National Herald’s Dhairya Maheshwari, in which she spoke about the way ahead for the LGBTQ movement, Indian society and the apparent resistance within the government to the idea of same-sex marriage, among several other crucial topics.

Q. Has the battle been won? What’s the way forward for the LGBTI movement?

A. I see this as just a part of the battle being won. All that’s happened now is decriminalisation, which means consenting adults of the same sex are not within the purview of Section 377.

What this actually means is that the law is still on the statute books, which means that the law hasn’t been removed, which is a good thing. Because rape laws are not gender neutral. So, we need Section 377 for male-on-male rapes. We also need it for cases involving sexual abuse of animals.

But even after the judgment, we can’t rest assured since the rights of the community have been fully guaranteed. Even though the courts did say that everyone does have rights in this country, yet we do not have a situation where people from this community can take for granted the rights everyone else takes for granted, including the right to get married. People of the heterosexual community don’t even think of marriage as a right. So, that is what we see as the next phase of battle in the movement. We must start looking to ensure rights of the people. Everybody in this country has the same rights. That’s the way I look at it.

Q. So, is getting same-sex marriage legalised the next goal of the movement?

A. The way I look at it, everyone, irrespective of their sexual preferences, should have the right to get married. Everyone should have civil rights. It doesn’t matter if you are straight or not.

Q. There have been indications now that if there is a push for law on same-sex marriage, the government may intervene against it. What do you make of this resistance within the government to same-sex marriage?

A. Look, people are going to say what they have to say. But the important point is that courts have decriminalised homosexuality and spoken out in favour of rights. So, just because someone says that somebody can’t have equal rights doesn’t matter much now. The fight has to continue. If a homosexual couple asks for their rights tomorrow, I don’t see no reason now why that right should be denied to them.

What’s problematic here is trying to understand if the courts can guarantee the right to marriage, or if the right must be granted through Parliament. Because we have multiple marriage laws, with every religion having laws of its own. So, obviously, changing marriage laws is not going to be easy. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen.

Q. You mentioned every religion having separate marriage laws. What would you make of the religious backlash against the Supreme Court ruling, including reactions from prominent Hindu, Muslim and Christian leaders?

A. I would just say that it takes time for societal attitudes to change. We can’t expect change to happen overnight. Just because a certain law has been modified doesn’t mean that attitudes would change overnight. What’s important is that a law has come into place and the need for a strong law to protect the rights of sexual minorities.

Yes, religious groups have the right to say and believe in what they want. But that doesn’t mean that you could deny a whole set of people what is rightfully theirs. Let the religious leaders take their stand. It doesn’t matter. It is a question of constitutional morality. The Constitution is guaranteeing these rights. It doesn’t matter what the religious groups are saying. I believe that as was the case with Sati, people and religious groups would start seeing through the mindless opposition to homosexuality.

If you ask me, I have seen a tremendous change in societal attitudes over the last 20 years as far as homosexuality is concerned. The way it is portrayed in media, in movies and looked at in general has undergone a great deal of change.

Just look at the judges who delivered the ruling. There was a huge difference between the way judges reacted this time around and 2013, when Section 377 was reinstated in the statute books after being scrapped. But other things have happened as well, like the transgender judgment has come in and you also have the privacy judgment that has come in. I think that courts, sometimes, are a reflection of change in societal attitudes too.

Anjali Gopalan: “Just because the [Section 377] judgment has come out doesn’t mean that attitudes are going to change overnight”

Q. There has been a debate around the way the media has covered the judgment. Civil rights backers have accused some media organisations of reducing the Supreme Court verdict to just being about legalising of same sex relations. Would you say that there is a problem of media misrepresentation here?

A. There are a couple of things we must remember about this judgment. Firstly, it was not about gay sex. This whole discourse around gay sex being decriminalised makes it sound as if homosexuality is just about sex. It is not.

Just like heterosexuality is not just about sex, the same way there is more to homosexuality than just sex. It is about loving and caring, wanting to be someone, wanting to build a life with someone. Does it mean that people would have only one sexual partner? No, just like it often is the case with heterosexual individuals.

Secondly, I see many media outlets reporting that Section 377 has been scrapped. It hasn’t been scrapped. It is very much on the books. We need it on the statute books. People like me don’t want Section 377 to be scrapped (in its entirety). Because our rape laws are not gender neutral. So, for male-on-male rape, we need Section 377. For sexual abuse of animals, we need Section 377. We have a huge problem of sexual abuse against animals. We don’t talk about it much as a culture, but it does exist. So, we need Section 377. We can’t just get rid of the law. Thank god, the court saw this.

Q. One of the judges, Justice DY Chandrachud, delivered a separate opinion along with the judgment in which he essentially said that the government should have taken a definitive stand on the constitutionality of Section 377. Would you concur with him?

A. Listen, the fact remains that the government wasn’t. They just said that they would follow what the court said, which I feel was better than the government sticking with the 2013 judgment. So, in many ways, I am glad that the government didn’t take a stand (laughs). But I also feel that it is the duty of courts to guarantee rights.

Q. Personally, how has the journey for you been? You were the original petitioner in the case, only to be joined by a clutch of other petitioners. How has the experience affected you?

A. A fantastic thing to have happened for me is to see how a strong community has been built over the years. When we had started out, there was just one other organisation, Humsafar Trust (Mumbai-based NGO), working in the same realm. There was absolutely no community voice.

Just look at it today. There is a 180-degree community change. I believe a significant credit goes to the 2009 Delhi High Court verdict, which was a brilliant judgment. It just opened the doors, because I remember at the time a number of people had come out and spoken about being gay.

Q. During the litigation process, you may have come across many cases of same-sex couples scared of coming out because of societal pressure. Have there been any stories that will stay with you forever?

A. I think of Professor Siras (the gay AMU professor who committed suicide because of his sexuality) all the time. When the whole incident happened, I went there to spend time with him as I was really horrified at what he was being made to go through.

Ever since this judgment came out, I have been thinking that there would be so may others like him. Just because the judgment has come out doesn’t mean that attitudes are going to change overnight. People are still going to be discriminated against. People are still going to be afraid. It doesn’t mean that there is going to be acceptance.

There has to be acceptance from families, which is the most important thing. But I am sure that there are a lot of others like Professor Siras who have lost along the way. There have been people who have been forced into marriages that they didn’t want to be in. It is not a nice situation to be in. But, this judgment is a big step forward.

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