Growing up queer in India wasn’t very easy. My teenage years were filled with confusion, doubt and uncertainty. I always knew that I was different. But I didn’t know how or why.
So when I finally found out, it felt like I had been slapped so hard that my ears rang with pain and my whole body felt numb. I had heard people around me make fun of non-straight men all my life. “Arrey hijre” was the most common way to tease any boy who didn’t do the regular boy things – playing sports, wrestling with classmates, spending hours playing video games. And boy, was I teased and bullied!
When I Wondered, ‘Why Am I Different?’
Being surrounded by an orthodox extended family made me internalize homophobia without even realising it. The thought of having to live the rest of my life as a gay man felt like a curse. I thought I was sick. I thought I needed to be cured. I thought I was alone. I have never loathed anything as much as I loathed myself at this point in my life. I’ve spent numerous nights crying myself to sleep.
Why am I different? Why can’t I be like others? Why was I being punished?. It took a lot of energy and courage to fight the depression dementors. I have often wondered – how many queer people must have considered ending their lives, especially the ones who have no access to the right kind of information on sexuality and orientation? But, I found my refuge in the internet.
If I hadn’t encountered the LGBTQ+ organisation PFLAG, if I hadn’t found out that there were others like me, I would have given up a long time ago. These people may not have been in my immediate vicinity, but they were out there, somewhere.
However, while I was able to read that people like me existed, I couldn’t find any Indian resources. So I told myself, like any naive adolescent would have, that this isn’t a part of ‘our’ culture.
As a result, I stopped being myself. I stopped doing things I liked. I stopped doing things I was naturally good at, only to protect myself from bullying, shame and humiliation.
The Delhi High Court judgment came out in 2009. I vividly remember the day, 2 July 2009. I was in my 12th standard. On the day after the judgment, we had a free period. The whole class was sent to the library. I picked up a newspaper and seated myself in a corner. The minute I got to reading it, I saw the main headline. Homosexuality had been decriminalised.
I was too young to fathom what this meant. But, I used this opportunity to read up on it as much as I could. Things were finally looking up. Over the next few years, I mustered the courage to come out to my friends. I lost some on the way, but those who stayed are the ones I know will stay with me for the rest of my life. I even started meeting other queer people.
Seeing all these openly queer people, proud and successful, gave me the strength to be my own person. Things hadn’t changed much with the world yet. People still mocked gay men. Movies still used queer people and references for comic effect.
When the SC Stripped My Self-Respect Away
But, I was fighting a different battle now. I was turning the world into a less homophobic place, by coming out to it, one person at a time. The 2009 judgment played a huge role in me becoming the person I am today. Strong, confident, independent and just comfortable in my own skin.
By 2013, I had graduated from college. I knew that there were petitions filed in the Supreme Court to overturn the 2009 Delhi High Court judgment. But, like everyone else from the community, I thought that this was a no-brainer – they would be rejected. I was shell-shocked when the judgment came out.
It felt like I had been stripped of my respect and dignity in front of the whole world. For a while, I just couldn’t believe it. I was in denial. How could this happen? I had come out to most people in my life. How was I supposed to hide it now? Was I supposed to go back into the closet? Did this mean I could no longer be an equal citizen of this country? I was livid. But, more than anything else, I feared for my life.
For those of you who are unaware, Section 377 criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. This could be any kind of non-penovaginal sex.
So yes, as Akhil Katyal puts it in his poem, “Girl, when you blow your boy, or boy, when you go down on her, or when both of you use a toy, and all the world’s a blur, I know it feels like heaven, you too violate 377”.
However, it is never used to persecute straight people. Historically, Section 377 has been used to blackmail gay men and transgenders. The 2013 Supreme Court judgment set us back by years. But, more than anything else, it crushed the emotional wellbeing, self-acceptance, confidence, hopes, dreams and aspirations for queer people across the country. I started to live constantly under the fear of being caught, blackmailed, and harassed. I think a lot of us have had to make changes to our life and career plans. We didn’t feel respected or safe in our own country.
I Am Coming Out to the World Today
But today is a different day. The Supreme Court has made it one, by finally decriminalising homosexuality.
For a long time now, I have been waiting, with bated breath, to be able to say this publicly, without having to worry about violating the law, or getting persecuted - I am a proud gay man.
So, thank you, Supreme Court, for recognising me today as an equal, law-abiding citizen of the country.
To be honest, Section 377 was never about sex. The battle we’ve fought isn’t just for our right to have consensual sex with a partner of our choice. It’s about the right to be treated as equals and with fairness, with respect and dignity, under the Constitution and the law.
This is just the beginning though. As Robert Frost says, “there are miles to go before I sleep”, we have a long journey in front of us.
“Trust me, it gets better. You are not alone,” I hope this is the message that goes out to every queer person in this country. And to those who still can’t seem to accept us, here’s something – “We’re queer. We’re here. We won’t disappear!”
(Sanjay Deshpande is a 26-year-old resident of New Delhi.)