On October 22, my colleague Chelsea Ricker and I went to a very inspiring panel organized by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), “Litigating Human Rights Series: The Task and Implications of Decriminalizing Homosexual Sex in India.” The recent decision by the Delhi High Court to repeal Penal Code 377 has been by far the single greatest event that has happened in my lifetime, and it was fascinating to hear the reflections of those who were closely involved in this historic event.
The event featured distinguished panelists including Anand Grover, Project Director of the HIV/AIDS Unit of the Lawyers Collective in India and recently appointed UN Special Rapporteur to Health. Grover first filed the challenge to 377 on behalf of the Naz Foundation in Delhi High Court more than eight years ago.
My friend, Mario D’Penha, a queer feminist historian was also on the panel. Mario is a founding member of two organizations who are part of Voices Against 377, a coalition of progressive organizations that intervened in the case against Section 377. I felt so proud seeing him on the panel, and fondly reminisced about how I used to see him at Voices meetings, where he was one of the most active members, when I was living in India.
Panelists shared fascinating insider tidbits about the struggle to overturn 377. For example, Mr. Grover explained the original reasoning for filing the petition in Delhi. For one, explained Grover, they knew if they failed, they still would have the option of taking the case to the Supreme Court. They also chose Delhi because its Tihar jail had stopped distributing condoms due to 377, which provided a concrete example of how 377 impairs AIDS prevention.
While the panel topic was focused on litigation, all the panelists agreed that the single biggest factor that resulted in the repeal of 377 was the change in mentality of judges, parliamentarians and everyday Indians since the petition was filed in 2001. Activists in India have led painstaking efforts in India to increase awareness about how HIV/ AIDS cannot be addressed in a punitive environment and to increase support for the rights of LGBTQI people. I would have loved to hear more about how women’s groups, child rights, human rights groups, and LGBTQI all came together so effectively and emphatically on the issue.
My friend, Caroline Earle, who works at Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action, or CREA, did a brilliant job discussing a very inspiring question asked by Carole Vance, an anthropologist and activist who specializes in sexuality, human rights, health at the Mailman School of Public Health. Vance asked how movements can be brought together around shared issues that impact everyone such as discrimination, privacy, consent, dignity, and the freedom to make choices. Caroline pointed out that one of the greatest factors that led to the Delhi High Court’s decision was the fact that so many diverse groups and interests came together to oppose the law, which impacted them all.
Moving forward, I hope that this collaborative spirit amongst diverse groups will ensure further victories for civil and political rights in India, particularly for women and sex workers.