Homosexuality now legal in India

It is 42 years since homosexual acts were legalized in Britain. A Labour government did that, of course, but now even the Conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon.

It is 42 years since homosexual acts were legalized in Britain.

A Labour government did that, of course, but now even the Conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon.

The current Conservative leader, David Cameron, who will almost certainly be prime minister within a year, declared recently that just as his party gave Britain its first woman prime minister (Margaret Thatcher), so “we are bound to have the first black prime minister and the first gay prime minister.”

That remains to be seen, but things are moving on in the rest of the world, too. In India, they have finally done what the British did in 1967 and legalized homosexuality. But then, it was the British who criminalized same-sex relations in India in the first place.

For a century and a half, Section 377 of the Indian penal code, originally imposed by the country’s British rulers, prohibited “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal.”

Nobody was gone to jail for breaking that law for years, but it made life difficult for Indian gays and lesbians.

Now Section 377 is gone. On July 2 the Delhi High Court handed down a 105-page decision that said: “The inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognizing a role in society for everyone. Those perceived by the majority as ‘deviants’ or ‘different’ are not on that score excluded or ostracized.”

It is no longer against the law to be gay in the world’s second biggest country, and the best thing about the ruling was the reason the judges gave for their decision. They didn’t let themselves be drawn into any foolish arguments about whether this or that kind of sexual behaviour was good or bad.

They simply said that Section 377 was at odds with the equal-opportunity provisions in the Indian Constitution.

It’s a useful reminder of what the politics of the past two centuries has really been about: the ever-widening application of the principle of equality until it includes every citizen of the country, even all the people in the world.

The very first people in the Western world to abolish discrimination against homosexuals were the French revolutionaries, in 1791, and wherever the revolutionary armies went, the new policy went with them.

But the French Revolution was ultimately crushed, and during the 19th century, when European empires ruled almost the entire world, Europe’s own anti-gay laws were extended to most of the imperial possessions in Asia and Africa.

Even a country like India, with its long tradition of tolerance for a wide variety of sexual preferences and practices, was forced into the same anti-gay legal regime.

Now it is emerging from that long darkness, only a few decades after Europe itself did.

Moreover, the Delhi High Court has shown a clear understanding that what is at stake here is not sexual practices but human rights.

Creating legal systems that genuinely respect human rights is a huge undertaking, and it may be another century before all people everywhere live under such legal regimes.

It may be even longer before the police everywhere respect the law, and private citizens everywhere have really accepted the notion of equal rights for people who are different. But the lives of millions of people are changing for the better, and that matters.

Half a century after the collapse of the European empires, almost all the former colonial territories in Asia, apart from the Muslim countries, have revoked the laws that discriminated against homosexuals. Indeed, the only remaining bastions of discrimination are the ex-imperial territories of Africa, most of the smaller West Indian islands, and most Muslim countries.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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