What India’s Politicians Can Learn from President Obama’s Victory Speech

I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or who you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

                     Excerpt from President Barack Obama’s Victory Speech, 7 November 2012

In his eloquent and unifying speech in Chicago following his re-election, President Obama did not fail to mention the gay communities who have strongly supported Obama; and they have every reason to do so. Among the milestones of Obama’s first term is an impressive record of protecting and advancing the rights of sexual minorities: the repeal of the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military; his view that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and would not be defended in court by his administration; expansion of legislation on hate crimes to include attacks based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation; and his public support for marriage equality and adoption. His victory gives hope to members of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities around the world who continue to struggle for justice, inclusion and respect.

In India, sadly, we have no elected leaders who echo similar sentiments. During our efforts to read down Section 377 of Indian Penal Code and decriminalize homosexuality, two ministries—the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and the Ministry of Home Affairs—took contradictory stands in the Delhi High Court. In spite of support for decriminalization from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Additional Attorney General stood by the Ministry of Home Affairs’ affidavit, which justified retention of the archaic law by citing public morality: ‘…Indian society is yet to demonstrate willingness to show greater tolerance to practices of homosexuality.’

Following the judgment of the Delhi High Court to read down Section 377, the matter has been taken to the Supreme Court of India by an coalition of religious leaders across faiths, a rare occasion of the religious diversity of this country speaking with one voice, albeit misguided and bigoted. This time, however, in the Supreme Court, the Government filed an affidavit affirming that it abides by the Delhi High Court judgment. No elected leader has ever made such any statement—in the media or in parliament—so clearly supporting and defending human rights of sexual minorities.

India’s founders had a dream too: to build a nation that promotes, protects and respects civil, political, cultural and legal rights of every citizen irrespective of caste, creed, religion, race, color and sex. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru repealed the odious ‘Criminal Tribes Act’ in 1949 that criminalized the country’s hijra communities, reasoning that the Act constituted a negation of civil liberty. Today, do we have leaders who are so passionate about social welfare of the sexual minorities? Sadly, the answer remains no.

In 2011 during a public meeting, Union Health Minister Shri Gulab Nabi Azad called homosexuality ‘a disease’ and ‘unnatural.’ Shri Lalu Prasad Yadav, chief of the political party Rashtriya Janata Dal, made a similar statement during a debate in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament. He observed that the Delhi High Court judgment ‘degrades’ Indian values, and it demands a serious discussion in the Parliament. Though there was outrage against these parochial and prejudiced views, such statements from our politicians only make us wonder how much longer our fight will continue.

In the recently concluded American election cycle, voters in Wisconsin elected the first openly lesbian senator, Tammy Baldwin, who will represent the state in Washington, DC. She reflects a remarkable change in the United States: the popular election of sexual minorities to office as a routine fact of political life. This progress has been the result of advocacy by generations of LGBT Americans and reflects a growing affirmation of our communities and rights by straight politicians, including President Obama. When will India have a leader with the vision and courage to openly defend our rights with genuine zeal and interest? Though India’s journey to equality still rises ahead of us, we are not disheartened. Social evolution on another side of the world gives us more reasons to make our voices heard. We will continue our struggle, as we share the distinctly American optimism of Scarlett O’Hara: ‘After all, tomorrow is another day.’

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The author of this post, Yadavendra Singh, is Senior Programme Officer: Capacity Building for Alliance India’s Pehchan Programme.

With support from the Global FundPehchan builds the capacity of 200 community-based organisations (CBOs) for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders and hijras in 17 states in India to be more effective partners in the government’s HIV prevention programme. By supporting the development of strong CBOs, Pehchan will address some of the capacity gaps that have often prevented CBOs from receiving government funding for much-needed HIV programming. Named Pehchan which in Hindi means ‘identity’, ‘recognition’ or ‘acknowledgement,’ this programme is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in consortium with Humsafar Trust, SAATHII, Sangama, and SIAAP and will reach 453,750 MSM, transgenders and hijras by 2015. It is the Global Fund’s largest single-country grant to date focused on the HIV response for vulnerable sexual minorities.

 

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