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Why India’s S. 377 ruling is not Stonewall [8 July, 2009]

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India’s Delhi High Court recently issued a ruling about Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code July 2, marking a historic day for the country’s LGBTQ population.  For over a century, S. 377 codified the prohibition of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”  It should be noted that S. 377 has not been overturned; it has been “read down” so that consensual homosexual sex is no longer criminalized.  The law still applies to “non-consensual penile non-vaginal sex and penile non-vaginal sex involving minors.”

This is a triumphant day for India’s myriad queer activists who have been working on this case for nearly a decade, not an uncommon length of time in a country whose judicial system still bears an eerie resemblance to that found in the pages of Dickens’s Bleak House.  Yet, there is already evidence of the ruling being appropriated into a rapidly growing and problematic discourse about a “global gay” identity.  Specifically, the landmark case is being hailed as “India’s Stonewall.”

It may be natural to transmit the verdict’s importance in terms that are legible across borders.  But calling the 377 ruling “India’s Stonewall” assumes an unchanging and ahistorical gay reality across time and place, where all gay struggles are the same and achieve the same logical goals.  And, in the process, we erase the realities of both Stonewall and 377.

This ruling is not India’s Stonewall because Stonewall isn’t quite the Stonewall we would like it to be.  That’s not to take away from its importance but to emphasize that Stonewall was a symptom, not the culmination or the spark, of a long history of explosive moments that includes the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco.  Both events involved mostly trans people, poorer queers, and people of color who were fed up of continual police harassment.  Today, as we mark the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, the history of the state’s continuing brutality over the disenfranchised is being erased.  Most of this June’s celebrations of Stonewall made it seem like the originary moment that sparked a “revolution” moving towards the eventuality of gay marriage.

The 377 ruling is the culmination of a long legal battle, and it comes from a vastly different political terrain.  I spoke to Svati Shah, Assistant Professor of gender and sexuality at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who is also a queer South Asian and an activist with the South Asian Solidarity Initiative and Youth Solidarity Summer, both left/progressive activist spaces.  Shah, who identifies as a “feminist queer secularist,” pointed out that the reading down of 377 came about in a country that boasts of two Communist Parties, both of which have women’s wings.  Many of the members of India’s queer movement have strong ties to the Left in India.  In addition, she said, India is home to a women’s movement that is not as fully entrenched in the non-profit industrial complex as the women’s movement in the U.S.  “not funded, and have the political latitude to say and do things on the edge.  They are, for example, more free to complicate the notion of a liberal model of sexuality, [the kind that rests upon the strict distinction between private and public], and have built strong alliances with queer and trans movements.”

In contrast, LGBTQ struggles in the U.S have been deradicalized in favor of a liberal human rights discourse that prioritises individualized desires over coalitional movement building.  Gone are the collective struggles of the 1960s and ’70s, when gay and lesbian activists emerged from and with labour and feminist struggles.  Gone are the days of early AIDS activism when queers fought for health care alongside the uninsured.  In its place is a notion of “gay rights” focused on individuals seeking to affirm their private relationships in the eyes of the law.

Lastly, the question of class is crucial to 377.  The ruling comes about in a country where the struggles of queers cannot be separated from the realities of class and poverty in a country of over a billion.

You cannot avoid class in India the way we avoid it in the U.S.  In India, it’s impossible to make poverty disappear by coining euphemisms like “the working poor,” or by building shelters to make the homeless invisible at night.  India’s poverty is brutal, grinding, and hits you in the face every time you step out of your door.  Indian queer activists are not all fully engaged with class issues.  The anthology Because I have a Voice, edited by Gautam Bhan and Arvind Narrain, features accounts by Indian queers who write about the difficulties of working across class boundaries.  The stigmas attached to poverty and “lower” class identities mean that English-speaking and upper class queers might refuse to work with or live in buildings where poorer queers can be wilfully excluded.

Despite these issues, India’s queer activists have built strong coalitions across class and caste boundaries to reach this moment, and queers everywhere should rejoice at the dismantling of yet another absurd law that criminalizes us.  In terms of struggle and solidarity, the 377 ruling is ours.  But it also has its own contexts and pathways, and we would be remiss if we made too much of it being “our” history. 

Originally published in Windy City Times, 8 July, 2009.


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