Indu Vashist on Queer India and Co-Existing Diasporic Identities – NMP

Audio File: Intro to Queer Issues and Activism in India
By Indu Vashist


NMP: In July 2009, India’s High Court issued a ruling on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code essentially decriminalizing consensual homosexual sex. Can you explain this ruling in further detail and tell us where it stands now?

Indu Vashist: Basically, the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The judgment is based in constitutional morality, which emphasizes a fusion of moral philosophy and constitutional law. Essentially, that means that tenets of the constitution are prioritized over religious or social morality. So, when the constitution says that all people are created equally and have equal rights, it really does apply to all people. For example, it means that gays are natural people and thus should not be discriminated against because of their sexuality.

The Delhi High Court judgment was written in this language. This is a far better judgment than activists expected; they were not even campaigning with the expectations that they would receive a judgment based on this logic. Currently, this judgment is being challenged in the Supreme Court by a whole host of religious organizations. As we know, these types of cases can go on for years, so it is hard to say when a decision will be rendered. However, the fact that the constitution was invoked by the Delhi High Court puts the queer movement in a fairly good place for the Supreme Court case.

NMP: In an article you wrote for 2B Magazine [1] you quoted Ponni Arasu explaining that decriminalization has allowed for an increase in public discourse and access to public space. How is this space being held by the LGBT movement? Has there been any major backlash or is this a welcome change?

IV: India is a very diverse country with an enormous range of cultures, languages, and a huge gap between the rich and the poor, the rural and urban. It is difficult to generalize because of the enormity of the country. That said, within the English speaking (read: urban, educated, elite) there have been enormous shifts in attitudes towards queers. This can be evidenced by the way that queers are treated by the English press, television, and within the mainstream Hindi film industry. In most of the major metropolises, there are active queer organizations that host Gay Pride marches, and many queer club nights. This is, of course, is in addition to organizations that provide individual support services. Within this milieu, the queers are out in full regalia.

The Hindi media is also now warming up to queer issues, but that is slower battle. Within regional media, there is still very little support. This is reflective of the urban/rural or educated/uneducated divide. The resources and organizations are concentrated in the cities and are primarily in English, and thus the result is that within the regions and regional languages, the support for the queer movement is less than in the metropolises.

In terms of backlash, it is uneven. On one hand, the Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad recently remarked that “homosexuality is a disease.” He then had to retract his statement because of pressure from HIV/AIDS activists as well as from the queer movement. In another instance earlier this year, TV9, a local TV station in Hyderabad, aired a piece about gay life in Hyderabad in which they had entrapped young gay men through an internet dating site. The station aired footage of these men without their consent, thereby outing them to the world. After pressure from the queer movement, the Standards Authority determined that TV9 had “needlessly violated the right to privacy of individuals with possible alternate sexual orientation, no longer considered taboo or a criminal act,” and ordered the channel to pay a fine and broadcast an apology.

In essence, there is a backlash that is occurring against the queer movement; however, the movement to gain rights and counter these types of incidents is very strong.

NMP: Is the fight for LGBT rights in India tied to other struggles for social justice? Are there many differences in the movement throughout the country?

IV: The fight for LGBT rights was born from health-related activism, namely work on HIV/AIDS and the feminist movement. The work around HIV/AIDS provided resources for addressing the concern and provided visibility to a range of different people and identities that was previously unimaginable. These identities/communities include Hijras (historical MTF trans community, for the lack of a better translation), kothis (lower class effeminate men), MSM, and gay men. These groups are complimented by ongoing feminist movements, particularly by those feminist groups that embrace queer lives and struggles as part of opening up discourses of sex and sexuality. These two factors became very significant in making space for various queer people to come out and to claim their space in the public sphere, be it in the courts, in the media, or on the streets. In many ways, the queer movement is still very much tied to these broader movements. Many of the key actors are still active in both the feminist and HIV/AIDS movements, so much so that it is often difficult to distinguish the two. The queer movement has yet to make any significant or meaningful connections outside of those identity-based movements.

Moreover, the queer movement is quite varied across the country. In my experience, each metropolis has its own dynamic or culture within the queer movement. Of course, the movements in bigger cities like Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore, to an extent, tend to work on “national” level issues, such as high-profile legal cases. In other cities, there is more localized organising which is slightly disconnected from national level organising.

NMP: In an interview with Dykes on Mykes radio, you brought up some of the challenges of the Parents’ Petition. Can you explain what this petition is and how it has been playing out in both a legal forum and within the LGBT movement?

IV: The Parents’ Petition is a group of 19 parents of LGBTs who have petitioned the Supreme Court in support of the Delhi High Court’s landmark decision in 2009 that decriminalised homosexual relations between consenting adults. The Parents’ Petition argues:

It is Section 377 which is a threat to family values, as it directly affects the rights of the Applicants to safeguard their families from illegal and arbitrary intrusion from the state authorities. Section 377 invades the sanctity of the family, home or correspondence and allows for unlawful attacks on the honour and reputation both parents of LBGT persons as well as LGBT persons themselves.

The Petition itself is brilliant because it uses the right-wing language of family values to make a point about decriminalised same sex activity. Yet, there are fears that this type of language undermines the feminist movement’s aim of decentralising the family from the way that individuals are viewed. It was a strategic choice that has come under some criticism from people who are working to think of structures of support that are beyond the heterosexual, nuclear family.

NMP: You recently launched the project GlobalQueerDesi – a global South Asian queer webspace. Can you tell us about this project?

IV: Yes, this is a project that I started at the beginning of this summer. The aim of the project is to counter the isolation of many queer South Asians in the diaspora, as well as to share resources and provide support across borders within the region and across the world. Essentially, I have found in my travels that there are many interesting resources being produced on the subcontinent that would be of great use here in the diaspora. In many ways, the diaspora is cut off from the gains that the queer movements have made in the homeland; this is a way to bridge the gap across borders.

NMP: What have you been able to uncover about the movement in India through this project?

IV: Over last few years, I have travelled and worked in India fairly extensively. I have found it to be much more developed there than here in terms of resources and support mechanisms for queer people. I was fascinated by the fact that people could easily integrate their queerness with their desi-ness. For example, one of my most memorable moments happened soon after I arrived in Bombay, when I went to a meeting of the queer organization Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action (LABIA). After the meeting, we went to a local resto that served greasy Chin-jabi food and cheap drinks. I was there with all of these lesbian feminists, eating and drinking long into the night. At one point, I realized that we were all wasted and being incredibly loud and the whole resto was watching us being big old queers. At the end of night, one woman started singing old Bollywood songs and all of us gay-ified the songs and sang loudly together.

In the diaspora, if you are queer, the first thing that comes under attack is your relationship to your culture, family, and homeland. I found that by exposing myself to queers in India, I could gain confidence that it is possible to inhabit both identities. It was incredible to see so many friends’ parents love them unconditionally. It gave me great strength to have seen that it is possible for queer desis to have functional, love-filled lives. I felt the urgent need to expose diasporic South Asians to this idea that our identities need not be fragmented, but can co-exist.


[1] Vashist, Indu. “Gay Sex in India: Decriminalization and Backlash”. 2B Magazine. Vol. 9, no. 4.

Indu Vashist is a queer feminist, community activist, and an independent scholar. She currently works as a freelance journalist in both India and North America. Her work has featured in 2B Magazine, New Indian Express, and Kafila. She is on the editorial collective of SAMAR magazine (South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection) and hosts a weekly radio show on CKUT 90.3 FM called Desi Dhamaka. Her research interests include: the events and impacts of 1984/1985 in the Punjabi diaspora and in India; queer movements in South Asia; and rifts and bridges between diasporas and homelands. She has taught courses at McGill University, and currently is a research assistant at Concordia University.