The Decision to Overturn Section 377: A Queer Language of Legislation in India

An opinion piece by Manil Suri came out in the New York Times last week called “India’s Riotous Triumph of Equality.” For those who do not yet know, India recently did away with section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—a colonial era law that rendered queer sex illegal throughout the country. In effect, the ruling has decriminalized queer sex by way of negating the relevance of the colonial era British law, a law which has been used to police, punish, and silence LGBTQ+ people for well over a century. In the op-ed, The City of Devi novelist highlights not just the practical implications of this supreme court decision for LGBTQ+ citizens of India, but also the rapturous and radical writing of the ruling itself. Manil Suri, a mathematician as well as a writer, whose past fiction has explored the spiritual process of dying and nuclear apocalypse, seems decidedly optimistic in his recent Times piece. Suri, born in Bombay and now a professor in Maryland, is thrilled by this democratic decision and encourages us readers to share in this ecstatic moment that sheds a new, queer light on our global future.   


Suri cites the judgement multiple times throughout the article, even referring to the court’s attention to the inherent poetics of LGBTQ+ rainbow symbolism: “different hues and colors together make the painting of humanity beautiful.” It is with this kind of intentional rendering of beauty that the ruling achieves a transcendent and cathartic significance, activating a kind of hope or horizon line that gestures toward the future, “the herald of a new India.”

I am no expert—nowhere near an expert—on India’s laws or political landscape. Nor am I well versed on the nature of colonial era sodomy laws that exist, or have existed, across the world. That said, I am taken by the literary and earnest writing India’s supreme court has fashioned in this legislative ruling. Human rights, postcolonial, and world literature scholar J. Daniel Elam has stated in his essay “Ambedkar in 377″  that the ruling “included an unprecedented apology for past injustices,” and that “the judgement is far more visionary than those made by previous courts and countries that have decriminalised homosexuality in its scope and its concept of justice. It is, additionally, a judgement made by a visionary court: The Supreme Court has taken juridical initiative in setting forth legal guidelines in advance of and as a precedent for social justice.” This visionary attention to both the wrongdoings of the past and the framework for future healing and justice, that Elam describes, seems to be the powerful potentiality Suri gravitates toward in his own reaction to the legislative action. I hope to honor it here.

It’s worth noting that one of the “previous courts and countries” to have decriminalized queer sex, that Elam speaks of in his essay, is The United States. The U.S. only officially decriminalized queer conduct, nation-wide, in the 2003 opinion, Lawrence v. Texas.  Furthermore, it is hard not to associate the Indian court’s usage of this kind of humanizing language  with what is going on right now in the high courts of The United States. Rightly, much of the media attention has focused on what Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. supreme court could mean for Americans’ access to reproductive health as well as what his confirmation could mean for the protections of unions and workers. Given the recent testimony in which Blasey Ford articulates the sexual violence Kavanaugh inflicted upon her as a teenager, the stakes are as high as ever. Kavanaugh’s confirmation also has real world stakes for LGBTQ+ Americans, LGBTQ+ immigrants, and citizens of the world.

It is important not to underestimate the power that the supreme court holds to acknowledge, neglect, or assault the lives of queer people. That power pertains to housing, employment, healthcare, protections from interpersonal and/or state violence, equal civil rights, and other matters. Personally, I am deeply moved by the kind of language India’s highest court used in its decision to remove section 377 and feel as though we should listen to its resonances, here in America, as we protest Kavanaugh’s appointment. Responding to the argument of India’s supposedly “small” LGBTQ+ population, the court writes that “(the idea of population size) in this context, is meaningless; like zero on the left side of any number.” On the prescience of upholding democratic values, they state: “Discrimination of any kind strikes at the very core of any democratic society.”

It is in these moments of unabated and compassionate certainty as it pertains to the presence and worth of marginalized citizens, that the language of India’s ruling radiates with hope and potentiality for countries across the world and our own. For Americans, and other citizens across the world who are facing increasingly racist, nationalist, and phobic regimes, the language of this ruling should serve as a kind of lesson, or blueprint, for a humanizing performance of democracy. The acting out of which is the stuff of queerness itself.





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