Pink politics?

May 17, 2012, 07:25 IST | Sudeshna Chowdhury

While the President of the United States, Barack Obama has come out in support of same sex marriage, activists believe that in India, politicians are still non-committal when it comes to LGBT issues

Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage could be a game changer in the US Presidential elections. While various election watchdog groups claim that Obama’s stance might end up hurting him, as he runs for a second term, many gay and liberal groups have welcomed the announcement. In India many gay rights activists have applauded Obama for making such a statement. “Obama is a statesman. He looks into the future. He is not just a politician. The wonderful thing is Obama is looking ahead and he is seriously bothered about burning issues in our society. He is somebody who can foresee the future and logically take decisions. Obama is making an attempt to restructure America. It is important to note that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights are also part of restructuring society,” said Ashok Row Kavi, founder and executive editor of the magazine Bombay Dost and a gay rights activist.

Demand: People march in protest of the recently passed Constitutional Amendment One in the North Carolina primary on May 14, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina, US. The activists were asking for a repeal of the Amendment, which defines marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, becoming the latest state to prevent same-sex marriages. PIC/AFP

However, R Raj Rao, a writer and Head of Department, English, University of Pune emphasized that, Obama’s statement is too simplistic. “It assumes that the entire gay community wants same-sex marriage. In fact, one must realise that the community itself is divided over the issue of marriage. The naivety of the statement is what struck me when I heard this announcement. Marriage cannot be the panacea to every problem related to the community. In fact wanting same-sex marriage amounts to a replication of the heterosexual paradigm.”

For Obama: Cuban Director of the National Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX), Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro, participates in a march against homophobia, on May 12, 2012 in Havana, Chile. Pic/AFP

When it comes to lending some sort of political support to the LGBT community in India, activists are not too optimistic. Rao said, “In India, politicians are non-committal about LGBT issues. Politicians are not supporting or opposing rights related to the LGBT community. In fact, many politicians in India believe that homosexuality is a western thing and doesn’t exist in India at all. Given this scenario, there is a lot of ignorance among the political class about homosexuality. Finally it is the Supreme Court (SC) that has the power to bestow rights on the LGBT community.”  Politicians though feel that there are various societal constraints that prevent them from openly supporting the LGBT community. Minister of State for Communications and IT, Milind Deora elaborates, “It will take many years before we start to accept our religious and cultural diversity.”

It takes courage: Sunil Babu Pant from Nepal participating in the Delhi Queer pride Parade 2010

However, “when I welcomed the Delhi High Court verdict on Section 377, I did it without thinking of the political impact, because I think it is wrong to target any community and not grant them their fundamental rights,” added Deora. Shaina NC of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) believes that it is the younger politicians who are sensitive towards the community and their demands. “While politicians have to stick to their party ideology, they also have an opinion, which might be different from the party’s opinion and they have a right to express their views. I don’t see a lot of support from politicians for the LGBT community in the future, but younger politicians are more open to such issues,” said Shaina. She further added, “In the end, it is their choice as adults and there is no sense, whatsoever, in branding them as criminals. To each his own. Live and let live.”

Event: Barack Obama arrives to speak at the Democratic National Committee's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Leadership Gala in New York on June 23, 2011. Pic/AFP

Talking of politicians supporting LGBT issues, one name that comes to mind is that of Sunil Babu Pant, the first openly gay politician in Nepal. In an interview with MiDDAY during the Third Delhi Queer Pride Parade in 2010, Pant had said, “But compared to Nepal, India is still intolerant when it comes to such issues. Not only people from normal walks of life but some religious fundamentalists here are roadblocks when it comes to LGBT rights.” Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal of Poor-Box Productions, which has produced the play ‘The Vagina Monologues’ agrees. “I have known people from the bureaucratic society who are gay for so many years. But they haven’t come out of the closet yet. The moment one admits such a thing, discrimination is guaranteed. As a society, I believe that our minds are shut,” said Mahabanoo.

Battle:  Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivers the keynote address at Liberty University's 39th Annual Commencement in Lynchburg, Virginia, on May 12, 2012. Romney spoke to America's largest Christian university to court young religious conservatives and push family values in the wake of the gay marriage endorsement by  Barack Obama. PIC/AFP

Many believe that the announcement by Obama is more than just a goodwill gesture. “As far as politics is concerned, I am a cynic. I believe that Obama’s announcement is very timely, given that the LGBT community is the US is quite big and rich. So, lots of funds will flow in from there. The LGBT community may not be a part of vote bank politics in India because they may not be a very rich community in our country,” said Mahabanoo. Rao feels that Obama has been late in endorsing same-sex marriage. “Some individual states in the US are already quite liberal when it comes to same-sex marriages. Obama should have come out in support of the community much earlier,” said Rao. Kavi refutes, “Given that the announcement has come before elections, I believe it is a huge risk he has taken by making such an announcement. He is sending out a message to members of the LGBT community—there is a place for you in our country.”

What is Section 377?
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is a piece of legislation introduced during British rule that criminalises sexual activity 'against the order of nature.' The section was read down to decriminalise same-sex behaviour among consenting adults in a historic judgement by the Delhi High Court in 2009. This section continues to apply in the case of sex involving minors and coercive sex.

Who is Sunil Babu Pant?
Sunil Babu Pant is the first openly gay politician in Nepal. He is one of five members from the CPN(U) in the constituent assembly, and is also head of the Blue Diamond Society, the only gay rights group in Nepal. At the meeting for The Yogyakarta Principles held in November 2006, he was one of 29 experts. He also heads an LGBT-positive travel agency, Pink Mountains, which provides honeymoon packages for LGBT tourists from abroad. 

Obama supports same-sex marriage
President Barack Obama has become the first president in US history to come out in support of the same-sex marriage, injecting one of the most contentious issues into political debate ahead of the November poll. Obama too once opposed gay marriage. He later indicated his views were "evolving." 


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