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Indian court raises LGBT hopes of finding home in traditional faiths

Members of the LGBTQ community dance in Bangalore, India, on Sept. 6, 2018, to celebrate after India's Supreme Court struck down a colonial-era law that made homosexual acts punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The court gave its ruling on a petition filed by five people who challenged the law, saying they are living in fear of being harassed and persecuted by police. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

NEW DELHI (RNS) — It has been nine years since a Delhi High Court ruling decriminalized sex between consenting adults of the same gender. Sukhdeep Singh — today a 30-year-old software engineer from Kolkata — came out as a gay Sikh after that court decision.

“The verdict gave me ammunition to assert my identity,” he said. “I could claim I’m Sikh and homosexual in the same breath.”

But four years later, India’s Supreme Court overturned the Delhi High Court order and reimposed the ban on homosexuality, legitimizing again the stigma associated with sexual orientation and gender identity.

It was only last week, when the Supreme Court overturned Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, lifting a colonial-era ban on gay sex, that Singh felt he was free to claim his faith again.

As news of the verdict spilled out of the courtroom on Thursday (Sept. 6), Singh and other LGBTQ members waiting outside brandished rainbow flags and broke into an impromptu celebration. “We were euphoric not only because popular morality would no longer suppress constitutional rights, but also because we could now claim our rights in the religious sphere,” said Singh.

Singh recounts how gay Sikhs have been repeatedly shamed on social media for practicing their faith. “They say we’ve gone against the teachings of the Sikh saints and brought a bad name to our community. They demand we take off our turbans.”

Fearing social and religious censure, LGBTQ members have kept away from mainstream religious spaces in India. Gender nonconformists are made to feel unwelcome at formal places of worship, and religious orders reject them as deviants. When they turn to their own families for help, they are often shunned or taken to priests for “psychological cures.”

Increasingly, LGBTQ people have turned to alternative interfaith solidarity networks to seek answers for their internal and social dilemmas.

The court has now given the LGBT community some ammunition to claim its rights, but many gay and transgender people say it is still up to them to push for change.

Tashi Choedup, a 27-year-old queer Buddhist monastic from Bodh Gaya who grew up in the Hindu tradition, said: “The Supreme Court verdict is just a tool that needs to be used appropriately by the government and faith and queer communities to change social attitudes. Otherwise religious othering will continue.”

Andy Silveira, a 38-year-old from Hyderabad, was training to be a Catholic priest for 11 years but left the order in 2009. “My critique against the Catholic Church is that it has to be relevant, it has to be more inclusive,” he said.

Silveira said he’s still inspired by Christ, because he was a rebel who critiqued oppressive institutions. “Similarly, sexual minorities should use this newly won legal right to fight marginalization.”

Badges protesting against Section 377 of the India Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexuality, lie on a table in Mumbai, India, on Sept. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

The ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party seems to be in little rush to help. It essentially abdicated its position on Section 377 to the “wisdom of the court” — neither criticizing the decision nor particularly welcoming it.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organization of the party, was similarly lukewarm in its statement on the ruling: “People learn from experience, and so this issue needs to be handled at a social and psychological level,” it said.

For LGBT believers, this makes all the more crucial the question of how faith leaders will respond to the decision, which affects questions of marriage, civil partnership, adoption rights and inheritance. The climate of conservatism is growing in India and the space for fringe voices is shrinking.

“This verdict will help us sensitize faith groups about the need for dialogue with sexual and gender minorities. More queers will come out as believers if there are inclusive spaces,” said Ankit Bhuptani, founder of the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association, a Hindu group in Mumbai.

Bhuptani organizes meetups every month to sensitize LGBTQs about Hindu scriptures and discuss Hinduism and sexuality. He also spearheads interfaith conferences where queer groups talk to spiritual leaders about their faith dispositions.

Choedup said: “Religion teaches us about inclusion, not violence and discrimination. If godmen exclude queers from religious spaces, it’s a sign of their own failing as spiritual leaders.”

Conservative clerics and politicians disagreed broadly with the decision, in which Chief Justice Dipak Misra, who headed the five-judge hearing, wrote: “Respect for individual choice is the essence of liberty; The LGBT community possesses equal rights under the constitution. Criminalizing gay sex is irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary.”

Moulana Mahmood Madani, general secretary of Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind, one of the leading Islamic organizations in India, said the verdict will lead to more sex crimes and push society into “sexual anarchy and moral decadence.”

Christian groups such as the Apostolic Alliance of Churches, Utkal Christian Council and Trust God Ministries also opposed the decision. They argued that the idea of a person being born with a specific gender orientation is not supported by science.

Yet the court clearly galvanized LGBTQ members of India’s kaleidoscope of religions to practice their faith more openly.

Ranjita Sinha, a transgender rights activist from Kolkata, plans to celebrate the annual Hindu festival of Durga Puja in October with fanfare. Instead of upper-caste gods, her community festival will boast idols of oppressed gods and goddesses, and a priest will chant prayers for sexual and gender minorities. “We want to break the identity politics embedded in public festivals. No one can stop us from expressing our faith, not even those who shame us,” she said.

The fight for a greater voice in faith traditions had begun before the court’s order. The Queer Muslim Project, a digital advocacy platform for members to share their dilemmas and experiences, has garnered over 6,500 social media followers since last year. A film on the lives of queer Sikhs and their faith trajectories is in the works.

And skeptics say the impact of the decision on religion is being overstated.

Malobika, co-founder of Sappho for Equality, an activist forum for lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights in eastern India, said the verdict is only a moral boost. “Active engagement in religious life is a far cry because social prejudices remain. Some faith leaders may even exploit the newly empowered queer groups to reap benefits.”

But in the heady days since the court ruled, LGBTQ believers have greeted its action as a new lease on life.

“We needed to be affirmed of our faith journeys. Faith, after all, is about the spirit of a person. It has nothing to do with gender or sexual orientation,” said Singh.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Priyadarshini Sen

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