Five years ago today – July 2, 2009 – was a historic day for India’s gay movement. On that day, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality. This ruling marked a sea change, a transformative moment when a history of intolerance was at last ended.
Though correct, the judgment was sadly impermanent, being overturned by the Indian Supreme Court last December, reinstating an archaic law from the British colonial era that criminalized homosexuality as “against the order of nature.” A month later, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed the controversial Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill, which bans not only same-sex marriage, but also homosexual behavior, organisations that advocate for gay rights, and even gatherings of members of the LGBT community.
Current laws in both India and Nigeria disregard the basic rights of each country’s citizens. Bisi Alimi, the first Nigerian to come out on national television there, said, “The difference between India and Nigeria is that while in India, it’s the penal code regarding homosexual behaviour that has been reinstated, Nigeria has actually gone through a process of constitutional criminalisation of homosexuality and homosexual relationships.”
While the criminalisation of homosexuality in Nigeria is certainly more sweeping than India, these laws are not confined to simply policing private spaces. The law in India has been often used to justify harassment of sexual and gender minorities in public. India is also experiencing an uptick in cases of violence against the LGBT community, although most go unreported, and for the ones that make news, there is little justice. Nigerian rights activists are already documenting similar injustices and violence.
“The advent of this new law has brought about a system legitimising brutalities. We have seen an increase in witch hunting of LGBT people, accusing them based on assumption. Five people have been charged so far, and many awaiting trials,” Bisi adds.
Some have compared the hatred of homosexuality of Nigerians to their love for football, the only two issues on which the country stands united. A recent public poll in the country shows that 98% of Nigerians think homosexuality is wrong. This contrasts with India where, at least, the educated middle class shows some support for gay rights. A recent poll conducted among Hindustan Times readers showed 80% opposed criminalization of homosexuality.
LGBT activists in Nigeria, like most of their colleagues in Africa, operate in extremely hostile and challenging environments. They remain under-resourced and severely isolated. India’s LGBT movement has greater access to resources and more support, although even some queer rights activists still struggle to be “out.”
“Now with the law, provision of services to LGBT people – including HIV services – is illegal. That means charities doing this work will have to close, and many have started folding up already. This will not only affect HIV prevention services but also treatment. Many men who need antiretroviral therapy will not be able to access it easily, and if they do at all, it will have to be done underground,” says Bisi.
Despite differences in the nature and magnitude of the homophobia, the impact of these laws reaches beyond LGBT communities in both Nigeria and India, impeding the work of civil society, public health workers and human rights defenders. Above all, what is happening in Nigeria, India and unfortunately too many other countries is a severe blow to the momentum of the global LGBT movement and is a huge cause of concern for human rights around the world.
The author of this post is Shaleen Rakesh, a gay rights activist and was instrumental in filing the Section 377 petition on behalf of Naz Foundation (India) Trust in 2001. Shaleen manages the ‘207 against 377’ campaign at India HIV/AIDS Alliance, where he also serves as Director: Technical Support. The campaign brings together the 207 organizations implementing the Pehchan programme on a common platform to undertake advocacy at national, state and district levels to protest against the 11th December 2013 Supreme Court judgment upholding constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code thereby recriminalizing same-sex sexual behaviour.
India HIV/AIDS Alliance (Alliance India) is a diverse partnership that brings together committed organisations and communities to support sustained responses to HIV in India. Complementing the Indian national programme, Alliance India works through capacity building, knowledge sharing, technical support and advocacy. Through our network of partners, Alliance India supports the delivery of effective, innovative, community-based HIV programmes to key populations affected by the epidemic.