LGBTQ+ couples in India await the Supreme Court's decision on same-sex marriage
MUMBAI — Aruna Desai still remembers the distress call that came in the middle of the night in September.
On the line was a teenage boy who could barely speak through his tears. He had recently moved back to his family home in Delhi, and had come out to his parents. They were threatening to throw him out. They had even taken him to a Hindu faith healer who promised to rid the boy of his homosexuality — by any means possible.
"He said that he could not bear to live anymore and that he was going to take his own life. It was heartbreaking listening to his situation," recalls Desai.
For several hours, until the first light of dawn, Desai counseled the boy, telling him that she would find a solution. After she hung up, her phone rang again — this time it was the boy's uncle, angry after confronting his nephew about whom he had been speaking to.
The next day, Desai organized a meeting over Zoom with the boy's extended family. She answered their questions about homosexuality. After three hours, only the boy's uncle remained unwilling to accept him.
"Then, I had a masterstroke," she says. "I told the uncle that if he was so convinced in the faith healer, then to ask the mystic to turn him gay, too, then heterosexual again. The uncle was outraged and said it wouldn't be possible because he was born this way — only then, finally, did he understand and apologize to his nephew."
Desai's phone has been ringing since 2007. That was the year when her son, Abhishek, then 17, asked her to come home early from work so he could tell her something important. Through floods of tears, he came out to her as gay.
"I remember Abhishek asked me, 'Mum, do you still love me?' and 'Mum, are you angry with me?'" she recalls.
Desai's son had every reason to worry. Until 2018, same-sex relations were criminalized in India and it was common for parents to disown their LGBTQ+ children or subject them to alleged therapy to "convert" them to become heterosexual.But for Desai, such reactions were unthinkable.
"No," she told Abhishek. "I love you even more now."
18 couples have petitioned the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage
Desai's reaction to her son telling her he was gay was so remarkable that her phone number quickly circulated among members of Mumbai's LGBTQ+ community. They continue to call her for advice on how to come out to their parents — and their parents also call her to voice and seek advice about their concerns.
"My son and I have always been close and I thought, given how difficult he found it to tell me, what must children in homophobic and transphobic families be going through? I wanted to keep the conversation open for them," says Desai. "Since then, I have spoken with thousands and thousands of children and their parents. Some parents, they are so stubborn and it takes many phone calls for them to listen — they would insult me and bang the phone down."
She has started a new organization called Sweekar, specifically to support the parents of LGBTQ+ children. Every few months, hundreds attend her workshops, where she provides advice on everything from how to explain their children's sexuality to their wider family to accessing HIV antiretrovirals. She believes attitudes are changing.
"I want to change their mind and make them comfortable, remove that gap and build that bridge between them," she says.
India is believed to be home to the world's largest LGBTQ+ community, according to Indian and international activists who use the globally recognized Kinsey scale to estimate that it numbers around 135 million people — or 10% of India's population of 1.4 billion. Yet the country remains conservative when it comes to matters of love, sex and marriage.
That may soon change in dramatic fashion. In a landmark case, a group of 18 same-sex Indian couples has petitioned the country's Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage.
Their lawyers have presented their arguments, and now the Indian government's counsel is arguing its case in opposition. The hearing is expected to end this week, and a decision is expected this summer. If they succeed, India's LGBTQ+ community will be afforded greater visibility and access to the same societal rights as their heterosexual peers.
Support has grown for same-sex marriage in India
Acceptance of same-sex relations has only emerged within Indian society in the past couple of decades, as visibility of same-sex relationships has grown, internet access has spread and more Indians migrate for education and work, both abroad and within India itself. LGBTQ+ activists note a marked increase in safe spaces and queer events in major cities such as Mumbai and Delhi over the previous decade.
"If you go back 10 years ago, same-sex relations was just something not spoken about in the average Indian household," says Tinesh Chopade, associate director of the Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based organization promoting LGBTQ+ rights. "But now parents are slowly more accepting of their children's sexuality."
Bollywood and broader Indian popular culture have also played a key role. Now, it is common for films or web series to contain at least one openly LGBTQ+ character. Some of India's biggest silver-screen stars have played queer roles, including Rajkummar Rao, who played a gay police officer in the 2022 film Badhaai Do, and Sonam Kapoor, who played a lesbian in 2019's Ek Ladki Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.
In 2020, a Pew Research Center study reported that 37% of respondents in India said that "homosexuality should be accepted by society," up from 15% in 2014.
But discrimination is still prominent in certain parts of the country. LGBTQ+ activists say that while discrimination in the workplace or in renting a property has fallen in urban areas, most queer individuals still face intense stigma in rural India. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people back to their conservative family homes.
"Honor killings still also occur," Chopade says, "or the children get abandoned by their families. [Families] refuse to talk to [LGBTQ children] and won't give them any share of their inheritance."
India's government remains opposed to same-sex marriage
In a country as fixated on traditional marriage as India, activists believe a legalization of same-sex unions would help shift societal attitudes. The Supreme Court has already ruled in favor of the LGBTQ+ community in several high-profile cases in the past decade. It decriminalized same-sex relations in 2018, undoing a colonial-era law that had been in force since India's independence in 1947. In 2014, it recognized India's transgender community as a legal third gender and set aside quotas for them in public-sector jobs.
In the current case, lawyers for the petitioners are arguing that existing legislation permitting citizens to marry someone of a different religion or caste should now be amended to include those of any gender.
For Utkarsh Saxena, the case is personal. He is not only a petitioner but also a lawyer arguing the case. Being able to marry his partner, Ananya Kotia, would entitle them to a host of rights currently reserved for heterosexual married couples — including the right to jointly adopt children, own property together or nominate one another as a surrogate decision maker in a medical emergency.
"We couldn't have imagined back in 2008, when we met, that we'd be here as petitioners and we wouldn't be fearful. There's been a lot of societal change since then," says Saxena.
The Indian government, supported by the country's powerful religious lobby — Hindu groups in particular, but also Muslim, Christian and Sikh organizations — is arguing vehemently in opposition. Broadly, the government says it has previously recognized same-sex relationships in law, but argues same-sex marriage is an affront to Indian custom. Earlier this month, in a written reply to the court, the Indian government argued it is an "urban elitist" concept.
"The social conditions of this country are far removed from the trial and hearing which is underway in the courts," Krishna Saagar Rao, a spokesperson from India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, tells NPR, referring to the Supreme Court case.
The BJP has become increasingly authoritarian since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reelected in 2019 and there is growing pressure on judges to rule in accordance with the party's demands, activists say.
But no matter what the court decides, Desai's advocacy work continues. She hopes the court will rule in the petitioners' favor.
"We realize that not all parents in India accept their children's desires," she says, "but in India, marriage is everything."