Section 377 verdict is another victory for Anjali Gopalan in a long crusade

Decriminalising homosexuality is the first step, the law now needs to ensure sexual minorities are protected
For Anjali Gopalan, India's foremost champion of LGBT rights and the face of HIV/AIDS activism, the Supreme Court’s verdict on Thursday to strike down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and decriminalise homosexuality must feel like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a slightly jaded, faded rainbow.

Her 17-year-long crusade to overturn the archaic law that makes homosexuality illegal and punishable has finally reached its goal. However, for many, this epic victory may ring hollow — for they have spent most of their lives in the shadow of their closets, and may not be able to come out even now. 

As a pioneer in the field of HIV prevention and care in India and founder of Naz India Foundation, which works on sexual health issues, Gopalan’s early grouse against Section 377 was simple. Early on in her career, she met a young boy who was given shock treatment to cure his “homosexuality”. 

At that time, she realised that there were very few support groups he could turn to, and fewer role models he could look up to. Then, she and her cohorts discovered that HIV/AIDS patients who were gay (the more politically correct term she uses is men who have sex with men, or MSM), tended to not access the free life-saving health care the government provided, fearing that they would be prosecuted for their sexual orientation. 

Later, a few months after the Supreme Court upheld Section 377 in 2013, Gopalan found an even more bizarre anomaly. In 2014, it recognised transgenders as the third sex. “What does the court think the transgender community does for sex? It has criminalised the very gender it has recognised!” she said in a 2014 interview. 

Naz India Foundation founder Anjali Gopalan. 
Eventually, Naz India, along with seven other civil rights and LGBTQ groups, filed a batch of curative petitions against Section 377 — the last judicial resort for redressal of grievances in Supreme Court. In the meantime, a five-judge Bench of Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Dipak Misra, began hearing another set of petitions by Navtej Johar and others, which have resulted in the historic judgment on Thursday. 

The road ahead, however, is a long one. Decriminalising homosexuality is the first step, the law now needs to ensure sexual minorities are protected. Gopalan has been advocating for a rape law that is more gender-neutral, so that it brings the rape of males clearly under its ambit. Also, better medical facilities which are sensitive to the needs of the LGBT community need to be set up. 

Naz India Foundation has been seeing a worrying rise of new HIV/AIDS infections amongst MSMs, which needs to be tackled on an urgent basis. On the bright side, however, Gopalan has noticed that after the 2009 overturning of Section 377 by the Delhi High Court, even though the Supreme Court reinstated it in 2013, many more young people have started to come out of the closet, and display their identity proudly. 

Gopalan’s diminutive figure has stood tall through all the ups and downs of India’s journey towards acceptance of sexual minorities. Featured in the Time magazine’s 2012 list of world’s top 100 influential people; awarded France’s highest civilian honour, Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur; and nominated (and shortlisted) for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, her passionate fight against the draconian Section 377 has finally drawn to a close. 

For many HIV/AIDS patients who did not access government facilities for medical aid fearing punishment, perhaps it has come too late. But for the countless others, Gopalan’s good fight has paved the way for a kinder, gentler and a more inclusive tomorrow.

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