With the Supreme Court scrapping Section 377, can India's queer movement imagine a life beyond it?

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 25 July, but has been reproduced in light of the Supreme Court of India's landmark ruling scrapping Section 377 and decriminalising gay sex.

For the queer movement, as the Supreme Court of India announced its verdict on Section 377, it was not a particular legal case but a life that hung in balance. For the queer movement, Section 377 has remained a matter of life and death; it is not merely related to the movement but is its political and cultural identity.

The vaunted section, dating as far ahead in the historical past as 1861, has itself had a long life. It is to be remembered, lest we forget in the anticipation of its scrapping as a harbinger of LGBTQ+ emancipation, that the section was intimately tied to Victorian conceptions of chaste, unblemished sexual activity – that which is between men and women, penetrative in the right physiognomics, and without exception, in the confines of the marital union. It is a conception which makes a social arrangement into a natural truth, implying that that which is asocial and atypical must therefore be unnatural. Therefore, it is not only the homosexual’s sex that Section 377 criminalised, but every un-Victorian sexual transgression that even heterosexual individuals make.

 With the Supreme Court scrapping Section 377, can Indias queer movement imagine a life beyond it?

Participants at a Pride March. File Photo/REUTERS

This is not a pedantic distinction, because the framing of Section 377 as affecting only the homosexual reinforces the trope of homosexual sexual activity or the homosexual more generally as unnatural or “against the order of nature.” Asserting that all of us are atypical and unnatural sweeps the carpet from under nature’s veritable feet, precluding the need to illustrate, as is being done in the hearings, that homosexuality is found in so-and-so species and has abundant natural evidence. Here, the queer movement has evidently not learned its lessons, for the homosexual was central to the making of AIDS as a cultural phenomenon, and in operating with that frame of centrality, the queer movement did its subjects considerable damage. Justice Nariman and Justice Chandrachud may now seem progressive in placing the prevalence of AIDS in heterosexual migrants as well, but they, too, operated with the same conceptualisation of AIDS as an externality found in the external outsider – the homosexual and the migrant.

To the queer movement, the abolition of Section 377 has for long remained the symbol of liberation that lay in the future.

It has seized 377 from transgressing heterosexuals, making it less law and more dream. The way to LGBT liberation goes through the court, and it is led by an elite class of cis-gendered public figures whose efforts in raising a ‘proud’ public jilted by the liberal state have been exemplary. So significant has a fixture of law been to the movement that another imagination has seemed inconceivable, let alone possible. For one, the movement, if there is one, given its male, cis-gendered, upper-caste, and upper-class social position, has systematically erased the intersexed, the transgender (who remains erased in the hearings on 377 and much else), and the hijra who do not live their lives of gender and class.

In its powdered, televised glee, the movement has willingly, and merrily, looked the other way from the painful work of addressing the trauma and violence that being queer can and does entail. In its celebratory conviction of being a sexual minority, it has ignored the political existence of other minorities, let alone acknowledge the challenges that applying those cleavages – of class, caste, race, region, ethnicity – would do to the movement’s politics. The movement’s recent valourisation of privacy, premised, undoubtedly, in the Puttaswamy judgement (2017) which makes privacy a fundamental right, ignores that privacy can only be a fundamental right if it is enjoyed by all. In a society of devastating inequality, privacy is a privileged creature whose enjoyment accrues from property and to the few for whose uninhibited enjoyment Section 377 had to go.

For too long has Section 377 captivated the imagination of queer politics in India, and its passing will be the end of imagination, and effectively, the end of the movement built around and on it. Queer students in schools and universities will continue to bear quotidian harassment, hijras will continue to trudge through an existence between life and death, and the transgender will remain a figure of dark silence. Will there be a life for the movement after the death of law? If the death of 377 may mean a new birth, then it must be the siring of a new imagination – one that looks beyond the law and at politics, which does not fantasise the ashamed enjoyment of the private but embraces the struggles of the public, and one that prefers critical solidarity over unthinking celebration, effortful grief, violence, and trauma over effortless, manicured delight.

How the SC verdict on Section 377 unfolded. Follow the updates here.

Updated Date: Sep 06, 2018 14:36:23 IST