How Victorian Morality Still Screws Over Gays in India

Upholding a colonial law whose wording is nothing short of medieval, the Indian Supreme Court on Wednesday banned gay sex, or  "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman, or animal." Violators of the law, Section 377 of the Indian penal code, will face up to 10 years in prison.

The ruling, which overturns a decision from Delhi's high court to decriminalize gay sex in 2009, caused an uproar in the country and within its political establishment.

"I think these matters should be left to the individuals. These are personal choices. This country is known for its freedom, freedom of expression. So let that be," said Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Indian National Congress, the country's majority party.

The Supreme Court ruled that the decision to overturn the law belongs to Parliament, and not to the Delhi High Court. But whether the politicians decide to decriminalize homosexuality remains an open question. "I hope that Parliament will address the issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those directly affected by the judgement," said Sonia Gandhi, mother of Rahul and head of the Congress party.

But analysts say that with the rise of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party before India's national elections this spring there's no good news in store for India's LGBT community, which understandably decries the ruling as a significant backward step for gay rights. The law wasn't strictly enforced before the 2009 Delhi ruling, but the past few years have seen progress for gay rights in India with a blossoming of gay pride parades, film festivals, and gay campus groups.

The law comes from a colonial statute, introduced in 1861, when India was part of the British empire.  Many former British colonies have similar hundred-year-old laws prohibiting gay sexual relations -- including Jamaica, Malaysia, Uganda, and Belize.

According to Jeremy Seabrook, the author of Love in a Different Climate: Men Who Have Sex with Men in India, these anti-sodomy laws stem from the Victorian uneasiness about homosocial behaviors traditional in many  local cultures. That uneasiness became codified in colonial laws in societies that prior to colonization had a more condoning attitude toward homosexuality. "To label customary and complex relationships as 'homosexuality,' as colonial officials did, was the work of characteristic and arrogant reductionism" Seabrook wrote in 2004.

To root out the homophobic laws imported by the British to India may take a long time. As a start, the high court judges of India, who like to take their cues from the laws of their former empire, could follow the example of another relic of the past -- Queen Elizabeth II, who gave her official stamp of approval to gay marriage earlier this year.

Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages


Edward Snowden's Statement to FP on His Selection as a Global Thinker

Edward Snowden, who has become the public face of an international debate over surveillance, tops the list of Foreign Policy's Global Thinkers for 2013. The former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed the inner workings of the U.S. intelligence operations has been living in Russia since June and is currently wanted by U.S. law enforcement authorities and faces charges in federal court. In lieu of attending a reception in Washington on Wednesday for this year's Global Thinkers, Snowden sent the following statement:

It's an honor to address you tonight. I apologize for being unable to attend in person, but I've been having a bit of passport trouble. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras also regrettably could not accept their invitations. As it turns out, revealing matters of "legitimate concern" nowadays puts you on the list for more than "Global Thinker" awards.

2013 has been an important year for civil society. As we look back on the events of the past year and their implications for the state of surveillance within the United States and around the world, I suspect we will remember this year less for the changes in policies that are sure to come, than for changing our minds. In a single year, people from Indonesia to Indianapolis have come to realize that dragnet surveillance is not a mark of progress, but a problem to be solved.

We've learned that we've allowed technological capabilities to dictate policies and practices, rather than ensuring that our laws and values guide our technological capabilities. And take notice: this awareness, and these sentiments, are held most strongly among the young--those with lifetimes of votes ahead of them.

Even those who may not be persuaded that our surveillance technologies have dangerously outpaced democratic controls should agree that in democracies, surveillance of the public must be debated by the public. No official may decide the limit of our rights in secret.

Today we stand at the crossroads of policy, where parliaments and presidents on every continent are grappling with how to bring meaningful oversight to the darkest corners of our national security bureaucracies. The stakes are high. James Madison warned that our freedoms are most likely to be abridged by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power. I bet my life on the idea that together, in the light of day, we can find a better balance.

I'm grateful to Foreign Policy Magazine and the many others helping to expose those encroachments and to end that silence.

Thank you.