Being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer (LGBTQ) in America is hard, but being LGBTQ in a traditionally conservative country is harder.
In Western societies especially, it is very easy to think that LGBTQ individuals no longer face discrimination, given the gradual increase in the general public’s acceptance of their identities. Yet, many people are so blinded by the glitz of Pride Parades and the authority of the law that they cannot see the truth.
Simply put, the reality is this: homophobia remains rampant everywhere in today’s world. From offhand comments to acts of violence—homophobia can take on any form at any time. This holds especially true in countries like India, where a LGBTQ person can be legally executed for their sexual orientation.
Nonetheless, the future for the LGBTQ community in conservative countries looks bright.
On Jan. 6, India’s only openly gay prince, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, announced plans to renovate and open his fifteen-acre palace as a safe space for LGBTQ individuals. As of now, he plans to build many facilities, such as a healthcare clinic, living spaces, and training in different vocational skills to help people find jobs. With these resources, disinherited LGBTQ people can learn to provide and support themselves. Currently, two people reside in his center: the manager, who identifies as a gay man, and an American transgender woman.
It would be no surprise if many LGBTQ individuals turn to Gohil’s palace for safety. Because children are raised to be dependent on their parents in India, many LGBTQ kids are subjected to homelessness, no financial support, and even violence after coming out of the closet.
Yet, Gohil was luckier than most. After coming out in 2006, he faced immediate backlash and ostracization from his friends and family. In fact, his mother even bought an ad in the newspaper to publicly announce his disownment. Nonetheless, he was still able to continue to live a life of wealth. As the years passed, he organized the Lakshya Trust, a foundation that aims to help LGBTQ people and raise awareness about HIV/Aids. Over ten years later, now utilizing his financial privilege and status, Gohil wants to help less fortunate LGBTQ individuals live the life he was able to lead. In short, Gohil is one of the most influential champions for LGBTQ rights in Indian history.
However, despite Gohil’s efforts, he cannot change the biggest challenge to the Indian LGBTQ community: the law. More specifically, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is the colonial-era law that, in essence, serves as the justification for the criminalization of homosexual activities. While it is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court, it is important to note that, due to the prompting of several religious groups, Section 377 was reinstated in 2013 after being overturned in 2009. While its potential repeal in 2018 insinuates progressive change, the fact that such a law was reestablished despite its clear violation of human rights, is a definitive sign that society has a lot of work to do before we can truly call ourselves “accepting.”
Furthermore, many people believe that, if the Supreme Court decides to repeal Section 377, many more people may be prompted to “come out” as LGBTQ. As a result, there will be an even greater need for safe havens such as those proposed by Gohil because the law will not change the homophobic mentality possessed by many.
While the damage has already been done, it is possible that homophobic attitudes can be reversed to a certain degree. Take the United States, for instance. 100 years ago, the majority of the population condemned homosexuality. However, the movement towards acceptance gradually gained momentum, especially following the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Now, we live in a society where Pride Parades are held freely, gay marriage is legally recognized and there is more LGBTQ representation than ever before. Of course, homophobic attitudes still exist, but the truth of the matter is that we are in a much better place than where we were 100 years ago.
India is already beginning to see these changes. In addition to LGBTQ figures such as Gohil, major cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi host Pride Parades and are much more accepting of different identities. Nonetheless, it is the small, rural towns, such as Gohil’s hometown, where, according to Gohil, the homophobia is greatest.
Surprisingly, India did not always possess such conservative and traditional ideals. In fact, it was found in the ancient Indian Hindu text, Kama Sutra, that homosexuality was widely accepted prior to the British Imperial Rule of the country. Additionally, the Quran itself has many ambiguities in gender. With that said, it is entirely possible that, just as the Indian mindset changed with British colonization, such an ideology can also move in a positive direction.
While we are nowhere near the full acceptance of the LGBTQ community in any part of the world, we are certainly heading in the right direction. However, the law can only do so much to prevent homophobia. As Prince Gohil once said, “Our rights cannot be just won in the courtrooms but in the hearts and minds of the society we live in.”