Yes, Nepal can!

So California couldn’t manage it; Proposition 8 – a ban on gay marriage – was passed, and the California Supreme Court will now examine whether the ban is constitutional or not.

And India is still mulling over it; the Indian Supreme Court is yet to give its final verdict on Section 377, which criminalises gay sex.

But Nepal leads the way: in a historic judgement, delivered on 17 November, Nepal’s Supreme Court not only reiterated that LGBTIs are ‘natural persons’, entitled to equal rights, identity and expression, regardless of their sex at birth, but has also set up a commission that will recommend a same-sex marriage act for the Nepal government.

What made this extraordinary moment possible? One reason is clearly the tireless activism of LGBTI groups in Nepal, led amongst others, by the first openly gay member of Nepal’s constituent assembly, the Communist Party of Nepal (United) representative Sunil Babu Pant. Another factor seems to be the participation of LGBTI in campaigns for a democratic, secular Nepal, a process that led to the relinquishing of the monarchy by King Gyanendra in April, and a new constituent assembly in which the Maoists have the majority.

As Sunil Pant himself said, on a recent visit to India:

In Nepal, the LGBTI communities were part of the campaign for garnering votes for the Communist Party of Nepal. They approached me to campaign and I managed to secure 15,500 votes. It makes a statement that LGBTI people are interested in matters of politics and governance and not just sex. The campaign not only gave LGBTI issues visibility but a platform to negotiate for rights.

And a final interesting possibility raised by a Global Voices commentator from Nepal, is that the country’s predominantly Hindu culture is more accepting of gay rights. She quotes an excerpt from Ruth Vanita’s essay on Homosexuality and Hinduism, in support:

In 2004, Hinduism Today reporter Rajiv Malik asked several Hindu swamis (teachers) their opinion of same-sex marriage. The swamis expressed a range of opinions, positive and negative. They felt free to differ with each other; this is evidence of the liveliness of the debate, made possible by the fact that Hinduism has no one hierarchy or leader. As Mahant Ram Puri remarked, “We do not have a rule book in Hinduism. We have a hundred million authorities.

However, while this argument should surely have traction in India – and is used by sexuality rights advocates – the Indian government’s stand has been, rather ironically, more Victorian than Vedic. Whether the courage of Nepal’s jurists inspires their colleagues in India, remains to be seen. This is one case of cross-border trafficking that I would welcome.

Section 377 and Proposition 8

Here in California, both advocates for and against are calling it the second biggest battle after the Presidential elections on November 4: the fate of Proposition 8 on the ballot, or the move to ban gay marriages. In June this year, same-sex marriages were made legal in California (the second state after Massachusetts, and then Connecticut followed); over 11,000 couples have got married in the few months since. In fact, pioneering lesbian rights activist, Del Martin, died in August at the age of 87, after having married Phyllis Lyon, her companion of over 55 years, on June 16, the first day of legalisation. Sexuality rights activists are worried that well deserved celebrations in June are starting to feel somewhat premature: proposition 8 is the first time an attempt is being made to eliminate a civil right already achieved.

Back home in India, an even more fundamental – and equally critical – battle is being fought over Section 377, the section of the 1861 Indian Penal Code that criminalises ‘unnatural sex’. Ironically, the British – under whose reign the Indian Penal Code was created in pre-independent India – rejected such criminalisation in 1967. And various scholars, including Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai in Same-Sex Love in India, have demonstrated fairly unequivocally that same-sex love and relationships have existed and been represented in Indian art and literature for over two thousand years.

In 2002, the Naz Foundation (India) filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Delhi High Court to challenge Section 377, with growing support from across the country. In recent hearings on the PIL, the Additional Solicitor General PP Malhotra has sounded more than mildly Victorian himself while trying to defend the section against incisive judicial questioning: “Gay sex is against the order of the nature. We will disturb the nature by allowing them to do so. In the compelling circumstances the State has to take the help of the law to maintain the public morality.” The government’s stand itself is somewhat confused: the Ministry of Health believes that legalising homosexuality would help in its efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, while the Ministry of Law is against it on ‘moral’ grounds.

Last week, over 30 Rhodes Scholars from India wrote to the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh – who has often served on the Selection Committee for the Rhodes Trust – and asked him to repeal Section 377. In the letter, we said:

Ever since the prestigious Rhodes Scholarships were first given to Indian students in 1947, its recipients have contributed in many different ways to the progress of India, in education, the civil service, science, and business. We, the undersigned, belong to this diverse community of Indian Rhodes Scholars but write in our individual capacity as Indian citizens with a commitment to public service and the fundamental principles of the Indian constitution — liberty, equality, justice, and the dignity of the individual. We believe that it is clear what these principles demand of us today: to join the growing body of concerned citizens that calls for the decriminalisation of consensual sex between adults of the same sex by the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

As the historic case over the constitutionality of Section 377 now awaits the attention of the Delhi High Court, we write to register our profound disagreement with the language of the Additional Solicitor General P. P. Malhotra, who, in articulating the government’s stance, has argued that reading down the section could ‘open the floodgates for delinquent behaviour and be misconstrued as providing unbridled licence for homosexual acts’. He has argued, in addition, that strong social disapproval and the ‘right to health of society’ is sufficient reason to justify the treatment of homosexuals as criminals.


The health of our society, our democracy, and our polity, requires that we recognise the historic nature of this moment. Section 377 is a colonial relic, an imposition of un-Indian Victorian attitudes towards human sexuality that even the United Kingdom rejected in 1967. The government today has the unique chance to extend the fundamental right to equality and freedom to Indians who have long been discriminated against. This discrimination is real and manifests itself in police arrests, the threat of blackmail, and brutal violence, among other things, relegating India’s sexual minorities to second-class citizenship. We recall the courage of earlier governments in putting principle above immediate popularity in fighting for an end to institutionalised caste- and gender-based discrimination. We urge this government, a government committed to the cause of social and political justice, to seize the moment and make the historic decision to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The full text of the letter is here. The Telegraph reported that a couple of days after the delivery of the letter, the Prime Minister asked the Ministers of Health and Law to “sit together”, and “sort out” the matter:

Singh’s directive to his colleagues came two days after 30-odd Rhodes scholars from India wrote to him requesting “an end to a law” that they said went “not only against fundamental human rights” but also worked “sharply against the enhancement of human freedoms”.

Earlier this year in an article in Frontline, Rakesh Shukla of Voices Against 377 said: “The petition is important but not enough. We need to continue to lobby with political parties, the legal fraternity, the police and mental health professionals and to raise awareness among the public.” This is absolutely true; repealing Section 377 is not going to ensure dignity and security for hijras, kothis, lesbians or gays in India, but it is an urgently needed first step, and our government needs to take it.

Image courtesy Sangama.

Transgendering science: mind the gap

Former President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers may – once again – need to eat his (in)famous words – that innate differences between men and women lead to fewer women than men in the top rung of scientists. This time, he may have to chew them fairly soundly. Because Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, is uniquely placed to refute his argument: he used to be Barbara. In Shankar Vedantam’s piece on Barres in the Washington Post, he quotes Barres:

After he underwent a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”

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Vive le difference, le debate, le dissent…

Around the time Ashwin and I decided to set up this space (Ashwin with energy and enthusiasm, and I somewhat diffident and uncertain… I mean how self-indulgent can one get, I thought??!), I was sent the link to a raging debate around the (possible) racist implications of the cover to a book edited by Shamillah, Kristy and me: Defending our Dreams. Without going into too much detail about the book – of course you have to read it – it was a wonderful privilege putting together what is possibly the first anthology of its kind. A collection of young feminist writing from across the world, representing a range of issues, with contributors from eleven countries and all the populated continents, including a piece by male feminists (yes, they exist; if you don’t think so… you got it. Read the book.).

Coming back to the debate on, Defending our Cover turned out to be a strangely joyful task: infuriating and inspiring at the same time. Infuriating, because initially it seemed perverse that Southern (read: black, brown and white from South Africa and India) feminists should be defending the cover of their – international – book against a bunch of Northern (read: possibly white) feminists. Inspiring, for exactly the same reason. When I got past the upside-down-ness of it all, I was amazed by the range and depth of the debate around race, racism and its implications. A debate conducted on a bulletin board by a dozen women (of different ages, I suspect): serious, funny, passionate. And I could pop right in with my comments around our interpretations and intentions, including the fact that the cover was inspired by a great self-portrait by Jasmeen, a young woman from Bangalore whose art and activism are beyond doubt. A book that had been created almost entirely virtually (that’s another story) continues a life beyond its covers in exactly the same way: through virtual communities who share its convictions, debate its contents and hopefully, live its ideals in real, tough, worlds.

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