Openly gay man runs for office in India, as cultural change intensifies

by on July 7, 2009  •  In Criminal law

From the Washington Post, following up on last week's decision by the High Court of Delhi declaring India's sodomy law unconstitutional:

Popping out of an auto rickshaw, Manohar Elavarthi unloaded a backpack stuffed with protest posters. Soon he would be rushing to a street demonstration, one that would bring together low-caste Dalit activists, Gandhians, cross-dressers and members of domestic workers unions.

Elavarthi aspires to be the first openly gay man elected to a major political office in India, like Harvey Milk in the United States. Elavarthi is credited with being the first gay figure in India to build a mainstream political coalition across a wide spectrum of historically marginalized groups.

"Our dream for Indian politics is to build a common front of lesbians, untouchables, eunuchs and low-paid workers — people who really need a voice in this country," said Elavarthi, who has received death threats for his views, largely from right-wing religious groups and police. "India — the new India — is really changing. We need to build a party around social justice for minorities. It would be a sign that India is a true secular democracy."

India, a nation of 1.1 billion people, is in the midst of an unprecedented debate over homosexuality, part of a wave of social change led by the younger generation in this traditional society. Modern India's youths are more economically mobile and independent than any generation before. Across the country, there is growing political pressure from a diverse coalition of college and law students, activists, artists and even mainstream politicians to overturn laws banning homosexuality.

In a groundbreaking ruling issued Thursday, the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality[;] celebrations were held in the streets of major cities….

In a major shift, the government recently called a meeting of top officials to talk about the 150-year-old statute, known as Section 377. New Cabinet ministers appointed after the recent elections could bring "new thinking" on the law, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said last week, the Indian Express newspaper reported. Those in favor of amending the law argue that it violates human rights enshrined in the constitution. They also say that keeping gays closeted limits awareness about safe sex. HIV/AIDS affects an estimated 2.5 million people in India.

In the last weekend of June, hundreds of gay rights supporters danced and marched in the sweaty summer heat of New Delhi and in the southern cities of Chennai and Bangalore. One parent held up a sign that read "Proud Mother." Some young Indians chanted "Long Live Queeristan." Others sang "Gay Ho" to the tune of "Jai Ho," the megahit from the Oscar-winning movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

Cross-dressing men were decked out in sparkling saris and nose rings. It was the second year for the pride parades, and more people attended this time around. A fresh crowd of younger gay activists and heterosexual supporters of the cause reportedly organized the event.

In Bangalore and outlying rural areas, Elavarthi organized a week-long slate of events in the run-up to the marches, including the country's first gay cricket match, a dialogue with Dalit leaders, a seminar on religion and sexual minorities, and several film screenings and mixers in villages. The gay rights movement in India was once dominated by artists and members of the upper castes. But the movement now seems to be breaking down class divisions and uniting youth culture around human rights concerns….

In daily life, gay Indians suffer forced marriages, high depression rates, physical assault and blackmail — often by police and underground rings on the Internet. In this nation where most families with the means hire domestic help, middle- and upper-class gay Indians wake up early to move separately into different rooms before household staff arrive. In much of India, parents still choose their children's future spouses, taking into account factors such as caste, skin tone, class and religion. But in some pockets, young Indians — especially professionals living away from their parents — have the freedom to decide for themselves.

Elavarthi was born to a farming family in a village in southern India. By the time he finished high school, he said, he knew he was attracted to men. He later realized he was bisexual. "But I dared not tell anyone," he said. After moving to the sprawling city of Mumbai, Elavarthi found a male lover and started living with him.

Elavarthi quickly became an activist and started a counseling center. He also founded a group called Sabrang, which means "all colors" in Hindi. The group reaches out to people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and from lower castes. Elavarthi said he hopes to run for office in next year's local elections and encourage other young gays and lesbians to do the same.


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