In the 1980s Aditya Advani left India for America. His sexuality was not the reason he left, but it was certainly part of the reason he stayed back in America as it was for countless others like him. Aditya remembered the exhilarating freedom of the first gay pride parade he attended in San Francisco. He could not imagine a life as a gay man in India. He didn’t even know others like him here.
Last year Aditya and his partner Michael packed up their house in Berkeley and moved lock, stock and barrel to India to raise their new-born twins. Aditya wanted the twins to be closer to their grandmother in India. It was easier to raise children here. There was more help. Being a gay couple has not been an issue, people love kids here he told me. The nannies are quite happy to work for two men and not to have to deal with memsahibs, he joked. India had moved on and they were delighted to be back.
Last month Aditya and Michael were at the Queer Pride in Delhi. I took a picture of them in the setting sun, Aditya kissing Michael on the cheek against the background of Jantar Mantar as hundreds of men and women of all sexual orientations danced around them. They looked totally at home.
But the Supreme Court just effectively told Aditya and Michael and thousands of others like them that their love was not welcome here. No homosex please, we are Indians.
We should not have been that surprised. Just one day ago President Obama reminded us at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service that the world stubbornly resists change even as it pays lip service to changemakers.
Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love. That is happening today.
Barely hours later the Indian Supreme Court proved Obama right and yanked the carpet from under gay and lesbian citizens by re-criminalising their love lives.
What does this stunning, stinging regressive verdict from the Indian Supreme Court mean for millions of Indians? I want to say nothing really in many ways.
Gay and lesbian Indians have grown up, lived and yes, loved under the shadow of Section 377. Many of us did not even know what Section 377 meant. The brief Delhi Spring after the High Court verdict might have just been jackbooted out. But it does not mean gay life has suddenly been snuffed out in India.
In fact, in the years since the Delhi High Court verdict, gay life in India has just blossomed. It has not just been about cruising on Planet Romeo sites or gay parties. If Justices Singhvi and Mukhopadhyay have never encountered a gay person they have just been willfully blind.
After the Queer Pride parade in Delhi, a few weeks ago, a group of us boarded an auto from Connaught Place. One friend, in high spirits, asked the rickshaw-wallah if he knew about this “gay business.” The rest of us squealed in horror at his forwardness. “Oh you mean, like Dostana with Amitabh Bachchan’s son?” said the rickshaw driver, completely unfazed.
Even a faux-gay Bollywood film is a marker of a changing India that these Supreme Court judges firmly refused to acknowledge.
What the judges do not realise by lobbing the ball back to a Parliament that has no appetite, especially before an election, to legislate about such hot button social issues, is that you cannot turn the clock back to 2008 anymore than you can squeeze toothpaste back into the tube.
This is a different India now.
Every major Indian city seems to have an LGBT film festival. Soap operas have gay sub plots. Gay characters show up on Bigg Boss even if the host ridicules them. Filmmakers and writers have become far more open about their sexuality instead of hiding behind the fig-leaf of “private.” Ahmedabad just hosted its first Pride March this 1 December. The Delhi pride parade was given permission to march on Janpath this year. There are news shows on television featuring the parents of LGBT Indians.
When Manil Suri was touring India with his new book The City of Devi, which has a gay love story as one of the central themes, he was stunned at how blasé everyone seemed to be.
"I don't know if it’s an act and they are all seething inside,” he said. “Or everyone in India has become real poker players and are puffing on a cigarette and saying Ok, now tell us something that will really shock us.”
We are a long way away from those occasional gay life in India stories we’d see in newspapers – with the silhouetted lesbian and a quote from Ashok Row Kavi, the only gay activist brave enough to have his name out there. Now Ashok has plenty of company. Heck, there are stories about gay life in India that do not even include quotes by him.
The other day in Delhi, I met a young PhD student who told me he was part of the generation that came out after 2009. For him and his friends, they have accepted life without 377 as a fait accompli. It’s the only life they have ever known.
Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, they are not going to go back into a world of shadows where gay men once met secretly in coffee shops with a red rose on the table as a code to others in the know. That story is for the archives.
It would have been one thing to just live on in a country where Section 377 hung around like a bad smell from a law that was way past its expiry date. But the loftily worded Delhi High Court verdict has given us the taste and fresh air of a freer India. It had not read down 377 on the grounds of pity or some medical exigency, but on the grounds of what it called "the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual."
It has given a stigmatised minority a taste of what it meant to be full-fledged citizens of India. Without shame. Without apology.
That sense, once given, however briefly, is impossible to take back. Supremely impossible.