A Statement Supporting the Delhi HC Judgment on Section 377: Ruth Vanita

Guest post by RUTH VANITA, Professor at the University of Montana. This statement was written in the context of the teachers’ intervention in the Supreme Court in the appeal by religious groups against the Delhi High Court judgement on Section 377 . This statement does not form part of court documents. You can read Shivaji Panikkar’s statement here

I belong to a middle-class family of educationists, various members of which migrated to Delhi from Rangoon and Lahore at Partition. I was educated entirely in Delhi, first at Springdales School, and then at Miranda House. I got my Ph.D.  from Delhi University. I started teaching at the age of 20 at Miranda House; I taught there for 18 years and then for two years as a Reader in the English Department, Delhi University, before taking early voluntary retirement in 1997.

While I was doing my B.A. and M.A. in English, teachers regularly told us about the heterosexual love lives and marriages of various authors, but they never mentioned the same-sex loves and unions of major authors we studied, such as W. H. Auden, E.M Forster, Lord Byron and Walt Whitman.  This presented a severely distorted picture of literature and history, and resulted in misinterpretation of poems and novels, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets addressed to a young man were taught as if they were to a woman, we were told that Auden’s poem “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” was to a female prostitute whereas actually it is to a young man, and we were taught Whitman’s Leaves of Grass without reference to its specifically homoerotic ambience. The particular poignancy as well as bonding in poems like these were thus diluted and lost. I was therefore unaware that many major writers and artists throughout history, both inIndia and in the West, have been and are gay.  Our discussions of English literature were outdated and truncated, because at this time, in the late 1970s, gay studies scholars were making a mark in the international academy.

When I began to teach at Miranda House, I came across some major works of scholarship in the Delhi University Library, for example, Louis Crompton’s Byron and Greek Love, a path-breaking book which explores Byron’s love affairs with men, and the way he changed pronouns (from “he” to “she”) in several love poems before publication. Crompton also discovered an anonymous early nineteenth-century poem Don Leon, which is a spirited defence of homosexuality, arguing that it is natural to many people and is a part of life in every culture; Crompton suggests this poem may be by Lord Byron.

In the 1980s, many teachers, especially in women’s colleges, were teaching texts to B.A. and M.A. students with an emphasis on women’s issues. In addition, I also discussed issues of homosexuality in several texts, and found class discussions very enlightening in this regard. Students were open-minded and perceptive in their analyses.  While teaching Shakespeare’s As You Like It, class discussions led me to realize the central role of Celia’s love for Rosalind in this play, which had not at that time been recognized. In 1990, I wrote an article on this which was published in Yearly Review, the journal of the English Department,Delhi University.

I found both students and colleagues in my own college and other colleges very open to such discussions.  In 1992, a colleague and I co-directed Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and produced it at both Miranda House and Hindu College. Colleagues in both colleges were actively supportive of this endeavour. We cross-dressed the sexes in this production, that is, men acted the parts of women and women acted the parts of men. This emphasized the fact that gender roles are learnt, not taught. It also brought out many kinds of eroticism, including homoeroticism, in this play. In our discussions leading up to the production, both male and female students who acted in the play were amazingly open and unembarrassed in talking about sexuality, including homosexuality.  It was an indicator to me of how different this generation was from preceding ones.

At the same time, although gay individuals were tacitly accepted on campus, and were gossiped about, neither they nor others openly acknowledged their homosexuality or their relationships. In the early 1990s, two of my students from Miranda House came to me and started talking in a very indirect way about their fears regarding the future outside the safe space of a women’s college. They said they had talked to a younger teacher but found her oblivious to the issue of lesbianism. Finally, they did tell me that they thought they were lesbian or bisexual and that they really wanted to talk about that. Later, both went on to successful careers in different fields. This showed me that even at this time, homosexual students were not able to be relaxed and open about their own lives, the way heterosexual students were.

My Ph.D on Virginia Woolf was the first from the English Department, Delhi University, to focus on issues of same-sex relationships. My supervisor and my other senior colleagues, who had been my teachers, had no problems with this and were very supportive of my work. When my first book, Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination appeared from Columbia University Press, New York, in 1992, an old teacher of mine, the late Prof. Vinod Sena, was so pleased that he pinned up the jacket to the notice board in the staff lounge at the Arts Faculty.  Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (2001) which I co-edited with Saleem Kidwai, ( a historian and legendary teacher of Ramjas College, Delhi University), was also very well received on campus. I have been invited to speak on the subject at many colleges in Delhi University and also at other universities, such as Jamia Millia Islamia,University of Hyderabad, Pune University, and so on. Most conferences in the humanities and social sciences all over the country now have some courses  on these subjects.

In the 1990s the B.A. and M.A. English syllabi were revised. Among other changes, some texts on the theme of homosexuality, such as Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaf, became part of the syllabi.  An M.Phil course on gender and sexuality issues also began to be taught. Since then, a number of professors in the English Department and colleges have edited collections of essays for students on authors like Virginia Woolf, which discuss same-sex relationships, among other subjects.

For the last decade, I have been regularly receiving email messages from undergraduate and postgraduate students all overIndia, who are working on or want to work on homosexuality-related themes, both in the humanities and the social sciences. Gay studies, gender studies and sexuality studies are now well-entrenched disciplines at universities in all democratic countries. All Indian students who go to other countries to study the humanities and social sciences encounter these disciplines and are expected to understand them.  Every educated person is expected to have a basic understanding of the role sexuality plays in the humanities and social sciences.

At the same time, almost no teacher is openly gay on the campus ofDelhiUniversityor other major universities. Very few students are openly gay either. The illegal status of homosexuality under Section 377 IPC has a lot to do with this. The death under suspicious circumstances of Prof. Siras of Aligarh Muslim University, after the university administration suspended and persecuted him for being gay, is an indicator of the horrific results of treating sex between consenting adults as an illegal activity. I personally know of several older gay and lesbian colleagues at Delhi University who were compelled to hide the reality of their lives, and to pretend that their long-term partners were just friends.

I also know of many younger gay and lesbian colleagues and students who have chosen and are choosing to migrate to more tolerant societies, where they can live a normal life even though this entails losing or weakening ties to their own culture and society. Not only are these individuals being unfairly forced to pay a high price simply for loving other individuals of the same sex, but Indian society is paying a high price for intolerance. Having invested heavily in the education of these creative, intelligent and high-functioning individuals, India, by treating them as criminals, is forcing them to migrate to other countries and contribute to those societies rather than to Indian society.

There is thus a major disjunction between the respectable status of gay studies in the academy on the one hand and the illegality of homosexuality on the other. Section 377 IPC is a colonial law which makes same-sex relations between consenting adults illegal, thereby virtually turning all gay people into criminals. This is based on an irrational prejudice against same-sex love. All scientific evidence now testifies that same-sex love and desire are normal and natural for many individuals; doctors and psychiatrists in all advanced societies agree that these are not illnesses and that they do not inhibit people from living high-functioning and happy lives. Most ancient societies, including India, Japan and China, recognized this and did not persecute homosexually inclined people. Ironically, the irrational prejudice against homosexuality was imported into India by the British colonizers, who had been persecuting homosexuals in their own country for centuries and were surprised to find that there was no such persecution in Indian society.

By declaring Section 377 unconstitutional, the Delhi High Court has recognized the right of adults in a democracy to freely choose their own partners. This is the only sensible, civilized and constitutional way to approach the issue.

3 thoughts on “A Statement Supporting the Delhi HC Judgment on Section 377: Ruth Vanita”

  1. Thank you :)

    I remember looking at news articles which would come by, every so often talking about gay/bisexual celebrities and i would feel a little thrill seeing that i wasn’t alone.

    Then i would wonder if they were doing it for the attention… i just had the news, no internet, no nothing. I wanted the numbers so badly, i wanted the confirmation from someone else so badly. I wanted to know that i wasn’t alone.

    I had to finally tell myself that it didn’t matter, i was me, i am me… and that’s it. Forget the numbers and the company, (though it turns out to be awesome when you DO have like-minded company :) ) be yourself, and stop hurting yourself.

    I know more now, but i still smile when i see the numbers grow.
    Being lonely is terrifying.

  2. one important development of this discussion on IPC 377 and homosexuality is the fact that we in women’s movement in India have to acknowledge that we have not treated homosexuality and transgender relations as a priority till now. this was also recognised at the recently held The New Indian Woman’s day long meet organised by the CII with great role played by Shabhana Azmi in mumbai. the lesbians and the transgender person who spoke there made me sensitive to this issue. though i claim to be a feminist practicing gender advocy, i have not reflected much about these problems.i have always empathised with them but that is it. we need to do more work on that level. but i must once again also point at the negative role of family towards autonomous women here. at this ripe age of nearly seventy I am myself going through a phase whereby I am realising how cruel and unhelpful even the own blood related family members can be to a single and autonomous woman! though I have been educationally privileged and economically totally autonomous I am not recognised by them. now I feel more empathy for the same sex and/or transgender people how they have to suffer for living lives on their own terms.
    let us together reclaim not only the night but also our right to live life on our own terms!

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