Will India Stand Up for Gay Rights?

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Rajanish Kakade / AP

A rainbow flag flies during a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender parade in Mumbai on Jan. 28, 2012

The Indian government on Tuesday clarified its view on gay sex, saying that it accepts the 2009 High Court order that decriminalized homosexuality. The move came after P.P. Malhotra, a lawyer for the Home Ministry, told the Supreme Court that gay sex was “immoral.” The ministry quickly distanced itself from the stance, noting that it “had not taken any position on homosexuality as is being reported in the media.” Tuesday’s clarification may have appeased some critics, but it has also highlighted the extent to which India is stuck on the issue of decriminalization. Is it time for the Indian government to take a more assertive stand on gay rights?

The repeal, in 2009, of the colonial-era law that made gay sex punishable by up to 10 years in prison marked a significant shift in official attitudes to homosexuality. India “now recognizes sexual orientation as a human right,” Ashok Row Kavi, editor of India’s first gay magazine, Bombay Dost and chairperson of the Humsafar Trust, an Indian LGBT-advocacy group, told TIME. “The mobilization around the antisodomy law has made [India] aware of the existence of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, and it is coming up again and again in government discussions,” he added. Since then, according to subsequent studies, the judgment has spurred a rise in social acceptance and “led to increased self-confidence and self-acceptance amongst the respondents.”

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However, while Malhotra’s claim that “homosexuality is against nature and spreads HIV” might not have been in tune with New Delhi’s position, it does seem to reflect popular opinion in India. In many places, especially rural areas, homosexuality is still considered taboo. As many as 73% of Indians believe that homosexuality should be illegal, according to a survey last year by the CNN-IBN television news. In 2009, when gay sex was decriminalized, many political and religious leaders openly complained. Lalu Prasad Yadav, one of India’s most prominent politicians, vehemently opposed the decriminalization of gay sex, saying that “such obscene acts should not be allowed in our country.”

Either way, the need to keep on top of HIV/AIDS should spur New Delhi into action. Countries that protect gays from discrimination “had better records of protecting them from getting infected by the diseases,” Jeffrey O’Malley, director of the U.N. Development Programme on HIV/AIDS, told the AFP in 2008. “Unfortunately, in India the rates of new infections among men who have sex with men continue to go up. Until we acknowledge these behaviors and work with people involved with these behaviors, we are not going to halt and reverse the HIV epidemic.”

Activists say the government and civil society must do more to create an environment in which the rights of India’s LGBT communities are respected, rather than grudgingly tolerated. “There needs to be more civil-society action on the part of the community, and I think there has to be a greater acceptance on the part of society at large, said Suneeta Singh, CEO of Amaltas, a New Delhi–based development-research and consulting organization. “Change will come, but only through great persistence and perseverance.”

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