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India's LGBTQ Activists Await Supreme Court Verdict On Same-Sex Intercourse Ban

Despite a ban on same-sex intercourse, India has a discreet gay scene in cosmopolitan centers, including at the Lalit hotel, where Rani Ko-He-Nur attends a drag night.  The hotel's executive director is one of the plaintiffs in a Supreme Court case seeking to overturn the ban.
Furkan Latif Khan/NPR
Despite a ban on same-sex intercourse, India has a discreet gay scene in cosmopolitan centers, including at the Lalit hotel, where Rani Ko-He-Nur attends a drag night. The hotel's executive director is one of the plaintiffs in a Supreme Court case seeking to overturn the ban.

India's LGBTQ Activists Await Supreme Court Verdict On Same-Sex Intercourse Ban

For 30 years, health counselor Arif Jafar has been handing out condoms at the sprawling Charbagh train station in his hometown of Lucknow, a midsize city in northern India.

His clients are males who have sex with males, and the train station is a spot where they feel safe, he says — a public area, bustling with people, where they can blend in with the crowds. A few times a week, Jafar, 48, holds counseling sessions right next to the train platforms. He hands out condoms and flyers with cartoons demonstrating how to use them. Many of his clients cannot read.


But in India, showing men how to use a condom for sex with other men can land you in prison. Section 377 of the Indian penal code outlaws any sex — even consensual — that goes "against the order of nature." The law dates back to 1861, during British colonial rule. It has mostly been used by police, criminals or blackmailers to harass men for having same-sex intercourse.

That is what happened to Jafar in July 2001. He was arrested and charged with "promotion and abetment of crime" and criminal conspiracy under Section 377. He ended up spending 47 days in jail.

A history of harassment

Police ransacked the office of Jafar's health charity, Bharosa Trust, and dragged him and three colleagues out into the city's central Hazratganj traffic circle. They called the press and waited for TV cameras to assemble — and then beat the men.

"They were saying, 'These people are homosexuals, and that is why we are trying to punish them,' " Jafar recalls.


No passers-by intervened.

Jafar is a gay man in a country where homosexuality is controversial. His close friends and family knew his sexual orientation, but that day, it was broadcast live on national TV.

"It was kind of a forced coming out to the whole nation," he says.

During his month and a half in jail, he says the prison guards denied him all but dirty water from drain pipes. His teeth fell out. He developed kidney stones. But he also met kindness from fellow prisoners. One day, when the guards came to beat Jafar and his colleagues, other prisoners formed a human chain around them. The guards relented.

Jafar was eventually released on bail. His case never went to trial. He remains free on parole but is required to appear before a judge every month.

It took Jafar nearly 17 years to tell his story. He is doing so now, as one of dozens of plaintiffs challenging Section 377 of the Indian penal code before the country's Supreme Court.

A ruling is expected any day now.

A long legal battle

Advocates and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities have been campaigning for Section 377 to be overturned for many years. In 2009, the Delhi High Court ruled that the law could not be applied to consensual sex. But that ruling technically applied only to the New Delhi region. In 2013, a conservative Hindu astrologer filed a motion to overturn the Delhi High Court ruling and keep what amounts to a gay ban in place.

The Supreme Court agreed, reinstating Section 377. The current case, which the Supreme Court began hearing July 10, challenges that.

Up a dank cinderblock staircase in a New Delhi suburb, Hindu astrologer Suresh Kumar Koshal receives clients in a tiny office with an adjacent broadcast studio, where he records YouTube videos. He wears sacred beads and chants mantras. His office is decorated with photos of himself with the Dalai Lama. He once met the Buddhist leader for three hours, he says, and read him his horoscope.

Koshal, who is in his 50s, considers himself a "medical astrologer." He says he is opposed to homosexuality because he believes the human body has seven chakras, or energy centers, one of which is located in the rectum and can be destroyed by anal sex, he believes.

"Its killer instincts get aroused, and it leads you on the path of death," Koshal explains.

He predicts that if sex between men is decriminalized in India, it will lead to more male prostitution and child rape. He says India should not be swayed by acceptance of homosexuality in the West.

"Your society is totally different," he told NPR during a lengthy interview at his office. "Our society, in spite of a total onslaught by Western culture, we have a deeply religious society — and homosexuality is seen as undesirable."

Gauging public opinion

Some polls show a majority of Indians agree with Koshal, though precise data on attitudes toward this sensitive issue is difficult to find.

In its survey on global attitudes toward homosexuality, the Pew Research Center omitted India, citing concerns over how to accurately administer such a poll in the field. According to a World Bank report, data from 2006 found that 64 percent of Indians thought homosexuality was "never justified," down from 93 percent in 1990.

Last year, a much smaller poll of Indian youth found only 24 percent of respondents between the ages of 15 and 34 "approve or somewhat approve of" homosexuality.

"Many people [in India] believe that homosexuality is imported from the West, and that [Indians] never had it," says Ruth Vanita, a historian and gender studies expert who teaches at the University of Montana. She splits her time between there and Delhi.

Same-sex love in Indian tradition

Vanita says there are many references to same-sex love throughout Indian history, in art, literature and law. She cites centuries-old Urdu poems that refer to a woman's burning desire for another woman.

Even the world's most famous sex handbook, the ancient Indian Kama Sutra, says there are two types of men: those who desire men, and those who desire women. It devotes a whole chapter to explicit descriptions of massage, sex and consent between men.

Rather than homosexuality being a Western import, Vanita says her research shows that homophobia is. Section 377 of the Indian penal code reflects British Victorian mores, not Indian ones.

India's underground gay scene

Despite Section 377, India does have a gay scene. It's mostly discreet, in urban, cosmopolitan areas like New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. While Section 377 explicitly outlaws same-sex intercourse, it does not outlaw being gay or identifying as LGBTQ — though many openly gay people in India report widespread discrimination.

One of the centers of gay life in the capital New Delhi is at the high-end Lalit hotel, which hosts drag queen parties in its basement a few times a week. When NPR recently visited, drag queens, including some who have starred on RuPaul's Drag Race, strutted on a catwalk, singing a 1990s Hindi pop song, "Made in India," for an audience of a couple hundred people, mostly young men.

The executive director of the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, which runs the Delhi hotel and several others across India, is an openly gay man. Keshav Suri, a vocal LGBTQ advocate, acknowledges that wealth and power shield him. He recently filed a petition to the Supreme Court against Section 377, joining the group of plaintiffs in the current lawsuit.

"Even though everyone is speaking about this as a human rights issue, which it is, I'm also bringing in the capitalist economic aspects," Suri says.

Suri, 33, was one of the first Indian business leaders to offer health care and benefits to same-sex partners of his hotel employees. Other Indian businesses, including the powerful Godrej Industries conglomerate, have followed suit.

"It just makes business sense. ... The power of the 'pink economy' is too huge now across the world to ignore," Suri says. "Listen, in a country like India with 1.3 billion people, you can just imagine. We've got the maximum of everything, including gay people! It's just simple math."

Hope for change

More Indian cities have also been holding gay pride parades in recent years. Lucknow, where health worker Arif Jafar was arrested in 2001, is one of them. It held its first pride parade last year. Jafar recently took his mother on vacation to another gay pride festival in Thailand.

Because Jafar's case never went to trial and charges were never dropped, he is still required to appear in court every month. For 17 years, it has often been a degrading experience. Judges, he says, have called him a "curse on society."

But the last judge he faced was different.

"This time, the judge wanted to know about my story, and he directed the officials to get the case over quickly," he says. "I take that as a sign."

A sign, he says, that attitudes toward homosexuality in India may be changing — and that possibly, India's Supreme Court may rule in his favor.

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