LGBT Indians Dare to Hope as Supreme Court Rules on Anti-Gay Law

NEW DELHI (CNN) -- When gay activist Ram Rao came back to India from London in June 2014, he was eager to be reunited with his childhood friend.

Instead, he found a cold businessman who didn't want anything to do with him.

He said his friend told him that he couldn't be seen with him because he didn't want to ruin his reputation.

Rao works at the Naz Foundation Trust, a non-profit organization that works on HIV/AIDS issues in Delhi and says he returned to live in a society steeped in fear.

But he's hopeful that a Supreme Court hearing Tuesday could potentially change that.

Landmark ruling

The court will hear a challenge to Section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalizes sex between consenting lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) partners.

It was ruled unconsititutional in 2009, but re-enacted in 2013.

Hundreds of individuals have reportedly been arrested under the law.

Most of those who are charged end up paying a fine, said Anjali Gopalan, founder of the Naz Foundation Trust and one of the petitioners. However, some also end up doing a short amount of jail time.

After India's Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling that Section 377 was unconstitutional, LGBT advocates immediately filed a petition for a review.

Now, more than two years later, they are getting a hearing. The court will start hearing arguments on Tuesday afternoon. They could potentially issue a decision as soon as Tuesday evening.

"Everyone's trying to manage expectations and be cautiously hopeful," said Gautam Bhan, one of the petitioners and an LGBT activist in Delhi.

Societal unacceptance

Fines and jail stays do not make the law dangerous. What makes it so for gay and lesbian Indians is the aura of illicitness that now haunts their every move.

In the course of counseling LGBT people and their families, Rao says he's seen a lot of families who treat their children like criminals.

Just recently a young man from a small town in Chattisgarh, in India's eastern region, reached out to him for help because his family turned him out after they discovered he was gay.

The young man is unable to find anyone willing to take him in.

"After that (2013 decision) people connect LGBT people with (being) criminals," said Kiran, an activist with the Naz Foundation Trust.

India is currently one of 75 countries in the world that makes being gay a crime, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, which tracks how many countries institute such laws.

Kiran, who is biologically male but whose gender identity is female, said that after resumption of Section 377 in 2013, her romantic partner became a lot less willing to meet with her.

He kept on making up excuses, Kiran said. "'Oh, my family is waiting for me'," she recalled. "'Oh, its getting late.'"

He was afraid, Kiran said. He would say, if we are caught by the police, how can we meet, how can we continue our relationship? It's criminal.

"He's a 'phatu'," she said, laughing, using the insulting slang for "coward" in Hindi.

Kiran hasn't seen him now for four months.

Tides of change?

After the Delhi High Court decriminalized sex between LGBT partners in 2009, there was a sense of freedom. Many came out to their family members and friends, Kiran said.

It's unclear what Tuesday's outcome will be.

A decision from the Supreme Court in favor of the petitioners would mean that the court would be open to reviewing their decision. Then, a new hearing would start,

"It is a long shot. We're asking for a lot," Bhan said. "We're essentially asking (the) court to review its own decision."

Still, he said, regardless of the decision, the community has become stronger in the past two years. "They are braced to handle any outcome."

The-CNN-Wire
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