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Is Indian Politics Finally Ready to Come Out of the Closet?

(Illustration by Mir Suhail/News18)

(Illustration by Mir Suhail/News18)

Indian politics took a decade to come out of the closet. What remains to be seen is how long Indian politicians will take to come out and get elected as out and proud leaders of our country.

One year after the Supreme Court’s historic verdict striking down Section 377, Indian politics has finally come out of the closet.

From initial murmurs of support in urban constituencies to a Lok Sabha election that saw record numbers of LGBTQ+ candidates, from blanket bans on discussions around gay rights in Parliament to passionate speeches on the exclusion of the queer community in the Lok Sabha, India has come a long way in the struggle towards equal rights.

Political parties - like the Instagram accounts of corporations during Pride Month - seem to have put on their rainbow filters this past year. We now have Apsara Reddy as the General Secretary of the Mahila Congress, Disha Pinky Sheikh as the first trans spokesperson of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, Priya Patil as the first trans member of the NCP’s state working committee, and Harish Iyer as the first out and proud gay member of the Indian National Congress.

Across South Mumbai and Domariyaganj, on social media and at media conferences, the LGBTQ+ community is finding unprecedented support across the political spectrum. The question is: will this translate into more rights and acceptance for all queer Indians?

Floodgates to equality

Milind Deora’s 2009 editorial in the Times of India boldly advocating for gay rights - the first of its kind in India - opened the floodgates for others across the political spectrum to voice their support for the community.

The then Law Minister, Veerappa Moily, and Health Minister, Ambumani Ramadoss, managed to leverage the decriminalisation of same-sex relations to boost HIV prevention measures. NACO, under K. Sujatha Rao, started working proactively with LGBTQ+ organisations across the country. All this came crashing down after the Supreme Court put Section 377 back on the statute books in 2013.

For the political class, while unadulterated support came hard, outrage came easier. Party presidents - from Sonia Gandhi to HD Deve Gowda - issued statements against the Supreme Court verdict. Leaders across party lines, from Pinaki Misra to Arun Jaitley, condemned the rolling back of equal rights. When it became increasingly evident that the courts would not take any action, those like Tathagata Satpathy and Shashi Tharoor raised decriminalisation of Section 377 in Lok Sabha debates or moved private member bills to the same effect.

A decade later

By the time the Supreme Court finally struck down Section 377 last year, the discourse around LGBTQ+ equality had evolved beyond simple support or condemnation.

Today, Members of Parliament like Dr. Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Supriya Sule have raised concerns of same-sex couples during debates on the Surrogacy Bill and pushed for the inclusion of sexual minorities in the Human Rights Bill. Inspired by Tiruchi Siva’s Rajya Sabha private member bill on transgender rights, many others have raised their voices after the introduction (and subsequent passage) of a regressive version of the bill in the Lok Sabha.

In fact, the conversation on equality has gone far beyond your usual suspects. In May, 76 candidates contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections found a spot on The Pink List for publicly coming out in support of LGBTQ+ rights. And just three months later, we added 15 elected Members of Parliament who had raised their voices for queer azaadi.

Most came from smaller towns and villages, many advocated for equality in languages other than English. And that’s what lies ahead for the LGBTQ+ community in India - a path that must embrace our country’s diversity, one that must acknowledge that our fight goes beyond the cities.

Double-edged sword

While statements of support look good on Twitter, they don’t mean much unless they’re backed up with concrete support on the ground.

Of course, some politicians like Karnataka MLA Sowmya Reddy have spent years working with queer communities at the grassroots level and even marched at Bangalore Pride. But a majority have failed to walk the talk on LGBTQ+ rights, preferring to support equality in New Delhi while remaining silent in their own constituencies.

What’s more concerning is that many have used their support for queer rights to pinkwash regressive stances on other forms of marginalisation across caste, class, or religion.

The bogey of gay rights has been used, most recently, by those like Jay Panda, who justified the removal of Article 370 as a victory for the LGBTQ+ community. His statement was factually incorrect: Kashmiris gained equal rights on 6 September 2018, just like everyone else. Yet that didn’t stop gay rights from being hijacked and used as a tool of political propaganda to wash over concerns surrounding human rights violations.

The future of freedom in India is incomplete if the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights does not embrace the struggles of other marginalised communities. The future of freedom in India is also meaningless unless the LGBTQ+ community is truly empowered - and elected to municipal corporations, Vidhan Sabhas, and even the Lok Sabha itself.

Indian politics took a decade to come out of the closet. What remains to be seen is how long Indian politicians will take to come out and get elected as out and proud leaders of our country.

Anish Gawande is a Comparative Literature graduate from Columbia University and the founder of The Pink List.