In India, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalized sodomy (penile nonvaginal sexual acts) in 1860 during British colonial rule. Under this law and the traditional cultural norms, the LGBT community faced harassment and violence from the police, medical establishment, religious and conservative organizations, and families. The Indian queer movement mobilized in the early 1990s, primarily through activism for legal reform. Criminalization of sodomy prevented the LGBT community from freely mobilizing in public spaces, reporting acts of violence and harassment, and coming forth for testing and treatment of HIV/AIDS, and therefore was an impediment to their health and well-being. LGBT rights groups challenged the constitutionality of Section 377 on the basis of violating the right to equity (Article 14), nondiscrimination (Article 15), freedom (Article 19), and life and privacy (Article 21). Decriminalization of Section 377 has been a long, three-decade battle in the courts involving multiple judicial rulings. In 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalized sodomy and declared Section 377 unconstitutional. The ruling was challenged by conservative and religious groups in the Supreme Court for going against social norms, threatening the institution of marriage, and promoting homosexual practices that would increase the spread of HIV/AIDS. In 2013, the Supreme Court heard the case, overturned the High Court ruling, and recriminalized Section 377. The Court declared that Section 377 was constitutional and applied equally to all persons. Thereafter, the Supreme Court passed three other judgments that directly impacted Section 377: It expanded the rape laws under Section 375 of the IPC to include penile nonvaginal acts (2013), provided legal rights to the transgender community as a nonbinary third gender (2014), and established the right to privacy under the Constitution (2017). The Supreme Court reassessed its decision, and on September 6, 2018, decriminalized Section 377 in a historic judgment. Legalizing queer sexuality was a positive step forward., yet considerable legal reform is still needed. The LGBT community still lack civil rights such as marriage, adoption, tax benefits, inheritance, and protection in the workplace. LGBT rights mobilization through the Indian courts has evolved from a focus on HIV/AIDS and health to broader human rights and privileges as equal citizens.
Francis Kuriakose and Deepa Kylasam Iyer
The question of LGBT rights was first examined as part of gender and sexuality studies in the 1980s, predominantly in the United States. This was a result of the LGBT movement that had articulated the demand for equal rights and freedom of sexual and gender minorities a decade before. Since then, the examination of LGBT rights has traversed multiple theoretical and methodological approaches and breached many disciplinary frontiers. Initially, gay and lesbian studies (GLS) emerged as an approach to understand the notion of LGBT identity using historical evidence. GLS emphasized the objectives of the LGBT movement in articulating its identity as an issue of minority rights within the ambit of litigation and case law. However, the definition of LGBT identity as a homogeneous and fixed category, and the conceptualization of equality rights as the ultimate project of emancipation, was critiqued on grounds of its normative and assimilationist tendencies. Queer theory emerged in the 1990s as a counter-discourse to GLS, using the individual-centric postmodern technique of deconstruction as the method of analysis. This approach opened up scope for multiple identities within the LGBT community to articulate their positionality, and reclaim the possibilities of sexual liberation that GLS had previously obscured. Subsequent scholarship has critiqued GLS and queer theory for incomplete theorization and inadequate representation, based on four types of counter-argument. The first argument is that queer theory, with its emphasis on self as an alternative for wider social interaction, concealed constitutive macrostructures such as neoliberal capitalism, as well as the social basis of identity and power relations. The second argument highlights the incomplete theorization of bisexual and transgender identities within the LGBT community. For example, understanding bisexuality involves questioning the universalism of monosexuality and postmodern notions of linear sexuality, and acknowledging the possibility of an integrated axis of gender and sexuality. Theorization of transgender and transsexual rights requires a grounded approach incorporating new variables such as work and violence in the historiography of transgender life. The third critique comes from decolonial scholarship that argues that intersectionality of race, gender, class, caste, and nationality brings out multiple concerns of social justice that have been rendered invisible by existing theory. The fourth critique emerged from family studies and clinical psychology, that used queer theory to ask questions about definitions of all family structures outside the couple norm, including non-reproductive heterosexuality, polyamorous relationships, and non-marital sexual unions. These critiques have allowed new questions to emerge as part of LGBT rights within the existing traditions, and enabled the question of LGBT rights to be considered across new disciplinary fronts. For example, the incorporation of the “queer” variable in hitherto technical disciplines such as economics, finance, and management is a development of the early-21st-century scholarship. In particular, the introduction of LGBT rights in economics to expand human capabilities has policy implications as it widens and mainstreams access of opportunities for LGBT communities through consumption, trade, education, employment, and social benefits, thereby expanding the actualization of LGBT rights.
The Commonwealth is the international governmental organization of states that emerged from the British empire, and since 2000 it has emerged as a focus for contestation relating to the regulation of same-sex sexualities, gender diversity, and diverse sex characteristics. Following colonial criminalizations focused on same-sex sexual acts, and later formal decolonizations, there have appeared many national movements for decriminalization and human rights in relation to sexuality and gender. The Commonwealth has emerged as a site of politics for some significant actors claiming human rights in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. This has been led by specific organizations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, increasingly with intersex people and allies, but it is also important to consider this in relation to queer people, understood more broadly here as people in all cultures experiencing forms of sexualities, biological sex and genders outside the social structure of heterosexuality, and its associated sex and gender binaries. A range of forms of activist and non-governmental organization (NGO) engagement have occurred, leading to shifts in Commonwealth civil society and among some state governments. This has required researchers to develop analyses across various scales, from local and national to international and transnational, to interpret institutions and movements. The British Empire criminalized same-sex sexual acts between males, and to a lesser extent between females, across its territories. In certain instances there were also forms of gender regulation, constraining life outside a gender binary. Such criminalization influenced some of those claiming LGBT human rights to engage the Commonwealth. Research shows that a majority of Commonwealth states continue to criminalize some adult consensual same-sex sexual activity. Yet the history of struggles for decriminalization and human rights within states in the Commonwealth has led up to such recent important decriminalizations as in India and Trinidad and Tobago in 2018. LGBT and queer activist engagements of the Commonwealth itself commenced in 2007 when Sexual Minorities Uganda and African allies demanded entry to the Commonwealth People’s Space during a Heads of Government meeting in Kampala. Activism has often focused on the biannual Heads of Government meetings that are accompanied by civil society forums. A particularly significant phenomenon has been the emergence of a “new London-based transnational politics of LGBT human rights,” evident in the creation from 2011 of new NGOs working internationally from the United Kingdom. Among these organizations was the Kaleidoscope Trust, which shaped the subsequent formation of The Commonwealth Equality Network as an international network of NGOs that became formally recognized by the Commonwealth. Significant developments occurred at the London Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April 2018; Prime Minister Theresa May expressed “regret” for past imperial criminalizations while announcing funding for Kaleidoscope Trust and other UK-based groups to use in international law reform work. These developments exemplify a wider problematic for both activists and analysts, concerning how LGBT and queer movements should engage in contexts that are still structured by imperial legacies and power relations associated with colonialism, persisting in the present.