Decriminalisation: An important next step
How a young law student brought the conversation of decriminalising homosexuality out of the closet
“Decrim is really not about decrim alone. It is really about a right to a future and a right of hope. It is about a larger dimension of what it means to be human. It is about the right to dignity in its deepest sense.”
When Arvind Narrain began law school in Bangalore, India, a decade or so ago, discussions about LGBT+ people and their rights did not even feature in the corridors.
The only by-the-way utterance – was a reference to the provisions of the Indian penal code: “Interestingly enough, skipping Section 377 (which deals with homosexuality or so-called unnatural acts),” he shared in Swakopmund, along the Namibian coast, just before his departure from the global convention on the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
The convention saw world-renowned activists and human rights’ lawyers take stock of where the globe finds itself pertaining to this contentious issue. Narrain was one of many who shared not only their own stories but also shed much needed light on how best the way forward could be navigated past discrimination, particularly homophobia, patriarchy and heteronormativity.
Of the over 400 provisions in that piece of Indian legislation, most of the emphasis in their lecture rooms was reserved for the crimes relating to murder, rape and offenses against the state. He remembers: “The unnatural offense was not even touched on.” So it came as a surprise, Narrain says, when a visiting professor – whose forte was human rights – spoke about gay rights during a lecture. This, it would later unfold, was a milestone visit.
At the time, the 22-year-old law student was still deeply entrenched in the closet and had told no one. Following that lecture, Narrain found the courage to speak to a straight-identifying friend of his, Sanjay Bavikatte, about the possibility of writing an academic article on gay rights.
According to Narrain, his motivation to Bavikatte for raising this topic was that it would be a good project to help boost their CVs and to get a foot in the post-law-school door. As they were reading their way through Harvard journals attempting to enhance the quality of the article, Bavikatte, seemingly out of the blue, wanted to know from Narrain: “Can you imagine sleeping with another guy?”
Narrain responded, “I said: ‘Yes, I can.’”
Sanjay asked Narrain: “Are you gay? I said: ‘Yes, I am.’ He said: ‘Let’s organise a seminar on gay rights on campus.’” This not only deepened a lifelong friendship but gave rise to serious mobilisation and relentless activism on their law school’s campus.
Narrain remembers that the banner for that very first gay rights’ seminar was the biggest the national law school of India in Bangalore had seen up until that moment. “It was the most heavily covered law school event at the time. That was the beginning point and it was how everything had been established.”
Narrain says Sanjay became an almost bigger champion of the underdog than him. To this day, Narrain says Sanjay “can articulate the [LGBT] issue better than I can.”
Narrain believes his friend’s compassion is the result of an inherent ability to put himself in the shoes of others, especially those who bear the brunt of discrimination and stigma in society. He adds:
“you have to have the notion that one can sympathise with the pain and suffering of the other. We should not get stuck on the idea of identity. The remarkable thing about human beings is our capacity to empathise.”
Reflecting on the global journey of the decriminalisation of homosexuality and what it sought to achieve and in fact accomplished, Narrain says: “In Durban [South Africa at a 2016 decriminalisation convention], the question was ‘should we litigate?’ Now we have a decision and the question has shifted to ‘how should we litigate?’ That is a significant step. Every presentation (at the Swakopmund global convention) was strong and powerful.”
It is imperative, he said, that decriminalisation should not be dealt with or treated in isolation. “Decrim is really not about decrim alone. It is really about a right to a future and a right of hope. It is about a larger dimension of what it means to be human. It is about the right to dignity in its deepest sense.
”According to Narrain the way forward is multi-pronged and should be strategic. “It is embodied in these conversations, the inspiration, the passion, the strategies,” he says.
To achieve meaningful results and to make a sustainable impact especially in those hostile environments where being gay remains a criminal offence, Narrain says it is imperative that “people take [the conversation] to their jurisdictions. And it is important that it involves the sharing of a range of strategies and ideas and not just a question of preaching to the converted.”
Source: Key Correspondents