Indian judges reverse progress on gay rights

Four years ago India’s highest court repealed a 149-year-old law which criminalised homosexuality. Now the ban is back in place. Is progress less assured than many assume?

India has one of the oldest gay communities in the world. For 4,000 years, the subcontinent has been home to a subculture of people known as hijras: men who live and dress as women while having sexual relationships with men.

Until 1860, hijras were largely accepted. Then along came the British Empire with its Victorian values and homosexuality became a serious crime. Under Section 377 of Indian law, same-sex relationships were labelled an ‘unnatural offence’ punishable by 10 years in prison.

The law lasted until 2009. Then, under pressure from India’s growing gay rights movement, the Supreme Court repealed it as a violation of the country’s constitution. After 149 years of persecution, judges had set India on a course of tolerance and progress – or so it seemed.

But yesterday morning the Supreme Court issued a shock verdict on an appeal against their 2009 ruling. The law was constitutional after all, it said: the ban on homosexuality is back in place.

LGBT groups are appalled, while Amnesty labelled it ‘a body-blow to people's rights to equality, privacy and dignity’. If homosexuality is spread evenly throughout the world, 17% of the world’s population have been criminalised at a stroke.

In many parts of the world, liberalisation has dominated the recent history of gay rights. Britain, France, Brazil and New Zealand all recently legalised same-sex marriage, and Vietnam is close to the doing the same. Even notoriously homophobic states like Trinidad and Tobago are softening their stance. In this context, the victory of progress can often seem inevitable.

But that is not the full story: some parts of the world are not becoming friendlier to gay people, but more hostile. Nigeria has passed a string of increasingly harsh anti-gay laws, while Ugandan politicians are pushing to make homosexuality punishable by death.

Then there is Russia, where a law banning ‘gay propaganda’ is about to take effect. LGBT groups around the world are calling for a boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics, which Russia will host. But a recent poll suggested that 50% of Russians feel ‘disgusted’ by homosexuality.

Forward to the past

Optimistic progressives are sure that these negative examples are just a stumble in the inevitable forward march of tolerance and justice. ‘This decision attempts to stem the tide of history,’ said one Indian LGBT group. ‘The only way the LGBT movement will go is forward.’

But not everybody has such faith in the future. ‘If history has taught us anything,’ says the comedian and gay rights activist Stephen Fry, ‘it’s that progress can be reversed.’ The forward march of humanity is a hopeful myth; our hard-won liberties are all too fragile and open to attack.

You Decide

  1. ‘In 50 years, people will think of anti-gay laws the way we think of racist laws today.’ Do you agree?
  2. Throughout history, has human life essentially improved? Why / why not?


  1. ‘The present is almost always a better place to be than the past.’ Conduct a class debate on this proposition.
  2. Plan a brief essay on gay rights in your country. What issues are being debated? Where do you stand?

Some People Say...

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.’Martin Luther King”

What do you think?

Q & A

Gay people aren’t persecuted in my country any more.
Are you sure? The law may no longer discriminate against them in obvious ways, but no country in the world is totally free from anti-gay discrimination. That might take the form of harassment, rejection or stereotyping, for instance, or it might simply mean that it is hard for gay people to adopt.
But why is it so wrong to say homosexuality’s not okay?
Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality, and everyone’s entitled to their own opinions and attitudes. What’s not okay is to be cruel or judgemental about people who are different to you or to make assumptions about someone based on their sexual orientation. Respect other people’s identities as you’d like to be respected yourself.

Word Watch

At some points in history hijras have been treated as holy people with a uniquely close relationship to the gods. But today almost all of them are extremely poor, living in ghettoes and shunned even by their families. Many turn to sex work to survive.
Victorian values
The morality of 19th century Britain was famously rigid, emphasising dignity, courtesy and self-control. Victorians tended to view sex with suspicion and frown on any deviance from conventional sexuality.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Sometimes a Q is added for ‘queer’ to include other people with a gender or sexuality that is not heterosexual.
Trinidad and Tobago
Homophobic attitudes are common in many Caribbean countries, and some have strict laws against same-sex relationships. But the governments of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have recently outlined plans to decriminalise homosexuality.
Gay propaganda
Under the new law it will be illegal to present homosexuality to children in a positive light. Among other things this could make it extremely difficult for young gay people to seek support; in a country where one in four gay teenagers commits suicide, that’s a serious concern.

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