India court legalises gay sex in landmark ruling

In a historic decision, India’s Supreme Court has ruled that gay sex is no longer a criminal offence. The ruling overturns a 2013 judgment that upheld a colonial-era law, known as section 377, under which gay sex is categorised as an “unnatural offence”. The court has now ruled discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a fundamental violation of rights. Campaigners outside the court cheered and some broke down in tears as the ruling was handed down. Although public opinion in India’s biggest cities has been in favour of scrapping the law, there remains strong opposition among religious groups and in conservative rural communities. But this ruling, from the top court, is the final say in the matter and represents a huge victory for India’s LGBT community. The law punishes, in its own words, “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”. While the statute criminalises all anal and oral sex, it has largely affected same-sex relationships. Human rights groups say police have used the statute to harass and abuse members of the LGBT community.

Even though it was rarely invoked when it involved consenting adults, section 377 could be – and was sometimes – used as a tool for harassment. It is not surprising then that campaigners are describing the verdict as a “new dawn for personal liberty”. But in a largely conservative India, where leaders of all religions have consistently opposed gay sex, it will still be a while before attitudes change and the community finds full acceptance. But laws almost always play an important role in changing mindsets, and by recognising the community’s right to love, the Supreme Court has restored the dignity denied to them for a very long time.

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