Between Fetters and Freedom: The Case of LGBT Rights

The LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community has had a long and eventful history of struggle for acceptance in mainstream society that continuously marginalises and ostracises them because of the dominant notions of sexuality and physicality. The cult of standardised bodies and normalised sexualities leaves no space for what are perceived as ‘deviations’ and ‘diseases’, thereby making it extremely difficult for the gendered minorities to enjoy even the basic rights of citizenship, despite the on-paper, surface-level equality accorded to them in some democratic societies.

lgbt-flagThe inculcation of patriarchal and homophobic notions of gender and sexuality in young minds from the very beginning translates into a cultural conditioning wherein we are socialised into thinking adversely of anyone who appears to be an ‘aberration’. Popular culture, including films, advertisements and songs, often capitalizing on the hegemonic perceptions of gender, body and sexuality, fuel the insensitivity displayed towards the ‘queer’ community. The homogenisation of sexuality and the naturalisation of heterosexuality as the only acceptable and ‘normal’ sexual orientation paves way for the sneers, hooting and the derogatory language that homosexuals and transgender are subjected to. This daily humiliation of being ridiculed is heightened by the systematic torture and oppression by the police and other repressive organs of the state, thereby pushing them to the socio-economic peripheries. The French feminist Luce Irigaray explains the phenomenon of heteronormativity and homophobia by exposing its patriarchal basis; according to her a patriarchal society has to be heteronormative for the ‘phallus’ to retain its power.

Viewed through the myopic lens of homogenisation, wherein all ‘deviations’ are quickly dubbed as a single category, the LGBT community, nevertheless, is diverse and disparate, accommodating within itself a wide range of sexual orientations and preferences. Like the recent reclamations of ‘shame’-words like slut by feminist groups, the LGBT community has personalized the word ‘queer’ that was earlier used by others to refer to them. Denoting ‘strangeness’ and ‘abnormality’, the word queer, in the hands of the LGBT community has been transformed from an exclusive word conveying ‘otherness’ and disgrace into that celebrating queer pride.

The recent verdict of the US Supreme Court legalizing same-sex relationships and marriages, is a welcome progressive step, in the direction of the larger, on-going struggle for basic human rights, including the freedom to love. The judgement, a culmination of relentless litigation and activism, paved way for jubilant celebrations hailing the verdict, which was not limited to the US, but quickly spread to other places starting trends like painting Facebook profile pictures in rainbow hues, as a mark of support and solidarity. The 2015 verdict of the US Supreme Court, is but one milestone in the on-going struggle for liberty and justice for the LGBT community; this major step should serve as an inspiration for other countries. This verdict, however, has been preceded by a history of reactionary activities on part of the opponents of LGBT rights, including the church orthodoxy, and other conservative groups, as well as members of the two major political parties of the US. The Supreme Court LGBT judgement 2015, has also sparked off a series of protests by the same groups opposing the verdict for the perceived threat it poses to family, religion and the traditional social set up. Protestors went to the extent of threating self-immolation and suicide, thereby trying to arm-twist the Court into going back on the verdict. The church in the USA has been the strongest adversary of LGBT rights, opposing all positive steps taken in the direction of ensuring equal rights and freedom for the community, as its vested interests are antagonistic to queer rights. Legal action therefore has to be coupled with laws and gender sensitization initiatives, aimed at ensuring social acceptance of those belonging to the community, thereby weakening the case of the opposition.

The US is not the first country to give a legal sanction to same-sex marriage; this progressive step has already been taken in twenty countries including Canada, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Portugal, and Denmark. The Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage followed by Belgium and Spain. Other countries recognizing gender-neutral unions are Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal and France. Various other nations like Chile, Hungary, Ecuador, and Germany offer broad based protection including many rights to same-sex couples without validating their marriage.  Mexico provides same-sex couples with regional protection, although the struggle to enlarge the domain of this safeguard so that it is applicable nationwide and serves not only as a shield but as a legal right that people are entitled to, has been taken up by gay right activists. Other countries working for the legal recognition of gender-neutral unions include Australia, Slovenia and Columbia.

In India the freedom to love is subject to various impediments arising from systems of stratification and division like caste and religion, complicated by regional and linguistic barriers in a society with an enormous, constantly widening gulf between the haves and haves-not. It is in this context that the case of LGBT rights in India has to be studied. Laws recognizing gender-neutral unions seem a distant dream in a country where inter-caste and inter-religion marriages result in the so-called honour killings. However, it would be naïve to lay the entire blame on the anomalies and inequalities of the Indian socio-economic fabric. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that delegitimises and criminalises homosexuality, introduced by the British colonial government in India, remains the biggest obstacle in the struggle of the LGBT community. The slavish will to embrace colonial laws and legacies and the reluctance to do away with the same was made evident in the December 2013 Supreme Court judgement which upheld the regressive Section 377, thereby over-ruling the 2009 Delhi High Court verdict that had struck down this section from the IPC.

In India too, the stance of the mainstream political parties on homosexuality and LGBT rights has been dubious, mostly inclined in favour of Section 377. The homophobic and insensitive remarks of the Indian political class including public figures like Baba Ramdev, who feels that Yoga can ‘cure’ homosexuality, have been aimed at tilting the general opinion overwhelmingly against LGBT rights. That these statements have also raised public ire, point out to the proliferating culture of dissent and discord, strengthening the case of queer rights in the country. Recent events in India like the ‘Queer Pride’ and the ‘Kiss of Love’, celebrating the freedom to love, socially and culturally constructed barriers notwithstanding, mark the rich culture of activism of the Indian LGBT community and its supporters.

An opulent and diverse culture of activism, combining public litigations and sensitization programmes to create a pro-active space for dialogue, debate and deliberation on the issue of LBGT rights is not totally absent from countries that do not seem to be positively inclined towards any radical action in this direction in the near future. However, it is only a small part of the queer community, comprising the urban, educated, upper-middle class that is consciously fighting for its rights; class and other socio-economic factors problematize the situation so that the already marginalized members of the LGBT community face further alienation. The movement of the queer community therefore has to be inclusive, cutting across social, economic and cultural borders, in order to be more meaningful and consequential.

The legal and social acceptance of queer rights is a big blow to not only heteronormativity but patriarchy itself for it means breaking the absolutes and violating the norms of gender and sexuality. Purging the society of homophobia is a significant move in the fight against patriarchy as the oppression of women and that of homosexuals, transgender and other members of the community has the same cult of patriarchal masculinity at its base. Most importantly, the recognition of LGBT rights is a major progressive move in the on-going struggle for the recognition of the humanity of all humans.

Apoorva Dimri


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