India's gays prepare to join the rainbow nation

Government ready to repeal law drafted under the Raj which made homosexuality a criminal offence

The Indian government is considering rewriting a law drafted more than 100 years ago that criminalises homosexuality. The news emerged as the capital, Delhi, held its second gay rights march yesterday and other cities across the nation played host to similar parades.

Reports suggested that senior ministers would meet soon to discuss how to repeal the so-called Section 377 that makes it a criminal offence for couples of the same gender to have sex. "This section is an absurdity in today's world," a government source said. "The government will certainly move to repeal it."

The battle to change the law has been long and slow. The legislation was drafted by Lord Macaulay in 1860 during British colonial rule and states that "whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment".

Campaigners have long complained that the law is outdated and repressive, saying that while there have been few prosecutions during the past 20 years, it has been used to harass gay men. In 2004, a lawsuit filed by Voices Against 377, an umbrella group of non-governmental organisations working on issues from women's rights to Aids prevention, was filed at the Delhi High Court. The matter is still pending.

"Let's not hold our breath on this," said Angali Gopolan, head of the Naz Foundation, one of the groups in the lawsuit. "I am hopeful but I would rather wait until we have a result." She said the new re-elected government led by the Congress Party might have felt it had a greater mandate to act. "Perhaps it is more sensitive," she said. "Let's hope they follow through."

In a country that once produced explicit treatises on the sexual arts only to have emerged as a conservative, buttoned-down society, gay rights have rarely been a priority for the authorities. The rights movement is in its infancy and gay life is driven largely underground. Eunuchs, the so-called third sex and once an essential part of the Mughal court, also face discrimination and abuse. Campaigners say driving homosexuality underground makes it far harder to counter Aids and provide homosexual men with treatment should they become infected.

Few Indian celebrities are openly identified as gay. One of the few, the Delhi-based fashion designer Rohit Bal, who has dressed Uma Thurman and Naomi Campbell, recently told a television interviewer that he knew many ministers, businessmen and society leaders who were gay. He said he also understood the pressures that kept them in the closet. "I wish there were more prominent people who were open about such things," he added. "Personally, I don't give a flying fuck what people think about me. If anyone wants to judge me, judge me for what I am and what I have achieved and not for whom I am sleeping with."

The organisers of Delhi's second gay parade had been encouraged by an unexpectedly large turnout last year. They were hoping for even larger numbers this time and had organised street theatre and a wedding band. Other cities such as Bangalore and Kolkata have been hosting similar marches for years.

Leslie Esteves, a gay rights activist and march organiser, said: "Last time, because it all came through at the last minute, we didn't have enough time to spread the word. But this time we are prepared. There were people not only from Delhi but also from other states in the north."

The move to review the law appears to be driven by the Home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram. His predecessor, Shivraj Patil, was opposed to changing it. Many in the government said altering the law would help end discrimination against gay people and could help fight Aids, but Mr Patil claimed a repeal would encourage the sexual abuse of children. The law is also used to prosecute paedophiles.

The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, asked departments to review the government's position and resolve any differences, as a result of the case being heard by the High Court.

"It should have been done long ago," a government official told The Indian Express. "The provisions are beyond any reason or logic. But now since there is a consensus emerging the decision to repeal is only a matter of time."

Equal rights? A pink guide to Asia

* Pakistan

Homosexuality is still a criminal offence: Islamic law prescribes 100 lashes or death by stoning for sodomy, and Pakistan's civil code requires a minimum of two years in prison. But gay couples in cities such as Karachi and Islamabad are increasingly finding the courage to set up home together.



* Thailand

Bangkok's ladyboys are world-renowned, and Thai society is relatively relaxed about homosexuality, yet under the law it was considered a "mental problem" until seven years ago. But households headed by gay couples lack the legal protection of those headed by heterosexual ones.



*China

China has not been quick off the mark about gay rights: homosexuality was classified as a "hooligan act" until 1997 and a "mental disorder" until 2001. But in the past few years it has been making up for lost time. Gay tourism to the country is growing. The launch of Go Pink China saw the first China-based travel company offering gay-friendly tours, and this month Shanghai celebrated its first Gay Pride week.

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