In a profound decision this week, India’s Supreme Court declined to legalize same-sex marriage, leaving millions of LGBTQ+ couples and advocates disappointed. This verdict comes despite the nation’s significant progress toward LGBTQ+ rights, including the historic 2018 ruling that decriminalized gay sex by overturning the colonial-era law, Section 377.
Notably, LGBTQ+ history in India dates back centuries, revealing a rich tapestry of same-sex love and romantic friendship. Activist Ruth Vanita and historian Saleem Kidwai’s work, “Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History,” showcases this history through translations from texts in 15 Indian languages. Their research conclusively demonstrates that same-sex love flourished in ancient and medieval India without prolonged persecution.
Historian Rana Safvi emphasizes that India has celebrated love in all forms throughout its history. Depictions of homosexuality can be found in ancient temples like those in Khajuraho, showcasing the acceptance of fluid sexuality in Indian society.
India’s Chief Justice DY Chandrachud noted that queerness has been a natural phenomenon in India since ancient times, and Justice SK Kaul added that same-sex unions were recognized in antiquity as relationships fostering love, emotional support, and mutual care.
However, British colonial rule significantly transformed Indian perspectives on sex and love, imposing Victorian ideals of heterosexual monogamy. Yet, evidence from ancient texts suggests that same-sex attachments could last across lifetimes.
Despite legal setbacks, LGBTQ+ couples in India have continued to seek recognition. In 1988, Leela Namdeo and Urmila Srivastava, two policewomen, solemnized what is believed to be the earliest documented same-sex marriage in contemporary India. The media has covered similar weddings in various parts of the country, often involving lower-middle-class Hindu women, who challenge societal norms and expectations.
While the Supreme Court ruled that legalizing same-sex marriage should be addressed by the parliament, it accepted the government’s offer to establish a panel to consider granting social and legal rights and benefits to same-sex couples. Public opinion in India remains divided, but the quest for marriage equality persists, driven by a diverse range of petitioners from across the political spectrum.
India stands at a crossroads in its journey toward LGBTQ+ rights, with the success of this movement contingent on politicians hastening the shift in public opinion and implementing anti-discrimination rules.