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Mumbai gays' long fight for recognition

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News, Mumbai

Gay rights activists celebrate the ruling in Mumbai
The Delhi ruling was greeted with joy in Mumbai

There is jubilation in Mumbai's (Bombay's) vocal gay community. The Delhi High Court verdict decriminalising gay sex is being hailed as a landmark.

Nitin Karani, who's associated with Bombay Dost, a gay magazine, was almost lost for words he was so ecstatic.

"It's a historic decision," was all he could say before he regained composure.

But Mr Karani believes the fight is far from over.

The ruling might be challenged in the Supreme Court. But most of all he says the fight to get recognition in the society is far from over.

"The stigma attached to gay people in the society must be removed," Mr Karani said.

Long fight

Momentum may be on the side of the gay community.

Gay men can now go to doctors and get medical attention, police will stop harassing them and parents and relatives will stop threatening them
Gay rights activist Nitin Karani

Last year actress Dolly Thakore, a supporter of the gay cause, addressed a gay parade saying the time was not far away when "gay marriages and couples would be as normal as love marriages and inter-caste marriages now".

It was a bold statement. But she knew about the momentum, because she had witnessed the robustness of the gay movement in Mumbai.

The city has been at the forefront of India's gay movement. It's India's own San Francisco.

Here gay men hold parties, go out holding hands and sometimes display their affection publicly.

This is because the city has long had a largely tolerant culture which meant it became the epicentre of India's gay movement.

Even so, Thursday's ruling is a far cry from 20 years back, when gay activists began their movement for equal rights.

Mumbai openly hosted India's first gay conference some 15 years ago. At the time such meetings were pretty much unthinkable.

But the fact that it was held gave gay men the courage to organise themselves and launch a serious push to get Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code repealed.

The archaic law defines homosexual acts as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature".

Growing confidence

But still a large part of their activity remained underground.

Indian gay rights activist
Homosexuals still face discrimination in India

Gradually things began to change. Six years ago a book celebrating forbidden love between homosexual men led the country's largely invisible gay community to hope it might come out of the closet.

The book was seen as a symbol of the growing confidence of Indian gay men, best exemplified by their public behaviour.

The city had become the place to go for gay parties and discos. Regular gay parties in bars and pubs were being organised. Voodoos, a night club in South Mumbai, has a gay night every Saturday.

When I went to a well attended gay party for a BBC feature in 2003, I was surprised to see how scared they were of the authorities. Many refused to talk on record.

But in tradition-bound India - where homosexuality is either ignored, covered up, or treated as a disease - the openness of the Bombay gay night was unusual.

In many other parts of the country it was still not possible for gay men to come out of the closet.

Again the Mumbai gay community showed how one could test the legal boundaries.

Gay organisations, such as Hum Safar and Gay Bombay, began sending out messages that it was okay to be gay.

Magazines and websites created platforms for gay men across the country to interact. The movement gathered momentum and gay parades began to be organised not just in Mumbai but in other big Indian cities as well.

There's a general belief among gay men that many closeted gays will now come out in the open.

"It's not that we will start public displays of affection, the court verdict means much more than that," says Nitin Karani.

"Gay men can now go to doctors and get medical attention, police will stop harassing them and parents and relatives will stop threatening them with article 377 if gay men declare their sexual orientation."

But religious groups are already gearing up to oppose the ruling. It seems the fight is far from over, but the ruling has certainly given gay men a hope for a "free" tomorrow.



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