With its endless tally of deaths, disasters and dramatic reversals, 2016 will not be forgotten in a hurry. You can almost see memes screaming "I got 2016-ed," made with images of unspeakable horror, floating on the Internet for years to come.
For sexual minorities all over the world, the march of the ultra-Right heralded by the spectacular victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections was bad news. But for the LGBTQ population in countries like India, which criminalise sexual minorities, the going got that much tougher.
The Ground Reality
India has the rare distinction of undoing a progressive judgment to push back the lives of a cross-section of its people to the Middle Ages. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), instituted in 1860 by the British, remains well and truly alive, thanks to a judicial flip-flop. Penalising sexual intercourse against the order of nature, this law potentially affects anyone who engages in any form of non-procreative sex but is most commonly misused to harass and intimidate members of the LGBTQ community.
In 2009, Delhi High Court had read down the law and inspired a general air of optimism. It was crushed by the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling re-instating Section 377, which pushed the decades-long struggle for equality back to square one.
Since then, several curative petitions have been filed challenging the SC's order which are being examined by a multi-member bench. A fresh plea filed by celebrities from different walks of life affected by Section 377 was dismissed by the SC in June because of the petitions already pending with another bench. The SC referred this petition to the Chief Justice of India's (CJI) bench.
The Indian government's stance on LGBTQ rights was made amply clear in the country's refusal to vote in the United Nations Human Rights Commission's (UNHRC) resolution to set up the office of an independent expert to end discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Attempts to introduce a bill to repeal Section 377 in Parliament by MP Shashi Tharoor were thwarted by members from across the political spectrum. Another bill to ensure the rights of transgenders met with better luck as it was passed by the Rajya Sabha but it is currently with the Standing Committee and will be tabled in Lok Sabha after all the recommendations are incorporated.
The transgender bill, once passed, will be a huge step forward for the community in India. But for it to have an effect on the daily lives of its constituency, social mindsets and attitudes must changes. Even the law, as it stands, imagines the idea of freedom and rights for the trans population incompletely -- and this failure is inextricably linked, once again, with the existence of Section 377.
The Silver Lining
While the law remained stubbornly resistant to change, 2016 was not a year of unremitting bleakness for the LGBTQ community in India. With the transgender bill clearing one hurdle along the way, members of the community saw it as a step towards gaining their rights and entitlements from the state. We met one of them, Naina, the youngest transgender person to come out in India and heard her incredible story.
While there were reports of violence against transgenders and other sexual minorities in both rural and urban areas, there are also several Good Samaritans steadfastly working away to help the distressed. In urban centres, harassment often came in covert forms, with restaurants refusing entry to gay couples in family sections of their establishments.
In spite of the continuing discrimination, homosexuality seemed to have lost its status of being a hushed-up topic in the public discourse. Two successful Bollywood movies -- Aligarh and Kapoor & Sons -- were remarkable for their positive depiction of gay identities. Director Karan Johar spoke of sexuality, his own and in general, with wit and sass, breaking several taboos in the industry.
In a rare breakaway from convention, parents of LGBTQ people also took up an initiative to crowd-source a movie based on the experience of coming out and being accepted by society. And finally, in a year that saw the death of more global icons and celebrities from the entertainment industry than any other, the recently deceased trio of David Bowie, Prince and George Michael reminded the world of the fluidity of gender and sexuality -- that being sexually different from the mainstream can be difficult but great fun too.
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