A controversial Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday morning that reinstated an archaic colonial law criminalizing homosexuality incited outrage among activists and gay-rights supporters in India. Hundreds gathered at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi’s popular protest hub, to protest the ruling. A truly mixed crowd, many of the protesters were not from the LGBT community. They came in hordes from universities and colleges to champion civil liberties. “This is not about homosexuality but about democratic rights,” said Samita Raj, a 19-year-old student at the protest. “And the right to be.”
The mood at Jantar Mantar resembled a different moment last year, when the youth of India had congregated to demand justice for the gang rape and murder of a young medical intern. It was a comforting sign that from a fringe issue, India’s gay movement has become the subject of mainstream debate and mass support. “Today when I speak to young people in colleges, they say, ‘We know how you feel.’ And that’s a huge achievement for the movement,” Gautam Bhan, a 33-year-old gay-rights activist, told TIME. “The ruling cannot set aside the gains we have made in the last decade, especially after 2009.” The Supreme Court in Wednesday’s ruling had said that changing a law was the responsibility of the government.
Whether the Delhi High Court had overstepped its mandate four years back is a matter of debate. Its historic judgment in 2009, which decriminalized homosexuality in the country, was something of a watershed moment for gay rights in India. Many more young people had come out of the closet. Harish Iyer, a Mumbai-based equal-rights activist, says there was a more than 100% increase in people wanting to come out of the closet after 2009. Iyer says that before 2009 he used to receive around two distress calls a week from people wanting to come out. Now he receives around six calls a day. “What are you doing now? Pushing them right back in?” he asks. “It’s not going to work. People who are out will be out louder and stronger.”
The other surprising takeaway from the ruling was the unexpected show of solidarity from the Indian government. Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh said the ruling flew in the face of a “modern liberal India.”
“The high court had wisely removed an archaic, repressive and unjust law that infringed on the basic human rights enshrined in our constitution,” Congress chief Sonia Gandhi said in a statement. “This constitution has given us a great legacy, a legacy of liberalism and openness, that enjoin us to combat prejudice and discrimination of any kind.”
Law Minister Kapil Sibal, after an initial noncommittal reaction, later tweeted that the government was considering its options to restore the 2009 verdict. “It gives us great hope,” says Anjali Gopalan, founder and executive director of the Naz Foundation, an Indian nonprofit that works on HIV-AIDS and sexual health, who had filed the original lawsuit in the Delhi High Court. “A lot of young people have come out of the closet post-2009. We can’t push them back in.”
While politicians and activists mull their options, India’s LGBT community is emerging stronger from the ruling. “We feel much emboldened by the fact that we are a heterogeneous crowd now,” says Iyer. “Also, what do we have to lose now? You have pushed me down so low that from here on I can only look upwards.”