By Kahini Iyer
On September 6, 2018, Section 377, the British-era law that criminalised homosexuality in India, was struck down to widespread celebration from the country’s LGBTQIA+ community. Finally queer India became free to live their truth without being considered offenders. And no one was happier than the two lawyers who had fought the Supreme Court to overrule the law – Dr Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju.
Section 377 had been on the books for over 158 years before it was struck down for good. The wording of the draconian law was such that it clubbed homosexuality with horrific crimes like incest and bestiality, positioning the consensual act of same-sex love as an unnatural disorder. After the September verdict, Guruswamy and Katju became national heroes and rightly so. They even made it to the 2019 TIME 100 Most Influential People list, and their landmark win has since been cited as precedent in the battle against anti-LGBT laws in Kenya.
And yet, nearly a year on, Guruswamy and Katju have shed new light on why the repeal of Section 377 was especially profound for them. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria earlier this month, Guruswamy and Katju revealed that their victory was personal as well as professional. For the first time, they came out as a couple, telling him that they are in a relationship with each other while giving us all a new understanding of #couplegoals.
In the snippet of the interview doing the rounds on the internet, Guruswamy, 44, tells Zakaria about the 2013 SC verdict that walked back the Delhi High Court’s earlier declaration in 2009, which had deemed portions of Sec 377 unconstitutional. Describing the hearings as very difficult, she said, “It’s one thing to have an old colonial-era sodomy law. It’s another thing to have that law being upheld by your court in contemporary times.” With the weight of her own identity and personhood being questioned, it’s sobering to imagine how she and 36-year-old Katju soldiered on for years to ensure the law was struck down.
In the interview, Guruswamy, an accomplished Rhodes Scholar who teaches at top universities abroad and works with the United Nations, is quick to identify what she saw as the fatal flaw in the 2013 hearings. She confides in Zakaria about the moment when she knew the month-long case was lost, relating how a senior judge asked a law officer whether he himself knew any homosexuals. According to Guruswamy, the officer laughed and claimed he was “not that modern”. In hindsight, we know that even as Guruswamy realised the judge had no conception of who gay Indians were, she was standing before the bench.
While Guruswamy speaks with the poise and clarity you’d expect from one of the best lawyers in the country, it’s hard to miss the heartbreaking irony of her situation. As she and her partner campaigned for equality, they were themselves invisible to the judges, and to the many supporters of Section 377 who stigmatised homosexuality as a mental illness imported from the West. Like LGBTQIA+ people all over the country, Guruswamy and Katju remained in the shadows only to gear up to fight for their rights.
For the 2016 re-examination of the case, Guruswamy and Katju presented LGBT Indians – Katju tells Zakaria about the struggle to find the five petitioners who were brave enough to show up despite their criminal status – to the Court. By putting a face to the monolithic, outdated idea of the LGBTQIA+ community, the lawyers felt, they could convince the judges that with Section 377, the dignity of these citizens hung in the balance.
As she and her partner campaigned for equality, they were themselves invisible to the judges, and to the many supporters of Section 377 who stigmatised homosexuality as a mental illness imported from the West.
And they were right. The historic verdict struck down the most egregious parts of Section 377, affirming the right of homosexuals in India to live how they want and love whom they please. Looking back, it’s hard to deny that Guruswamy and Katju imbued the Section 377 proceedings with humanity. And, now that they’ve boldly come out as the lesbian power couple who have carried the LGBTQIA+ rights movement on their shoulders, it’s impossible to ignore that the fight was personal.
In post-Section 377 India, this is the love story that India needs. It only helps that their romance also boasts of the classic romcom trope of a meet-cute at work, between two high-powered professionals who find love in the most tense times. But the reality of Guruswamy and Katju’s relationship is much better than the movies. They’ve extended their love to include the entire country, and all its queer inhabitants. How can we not adore them as they are? Kabir Singh can step to the left, because Guruswamy and Katju have shown us that in 2019, a fairytale romance doesn’t require a sulky, angry “hero” at all. All it takes to win our hearts is a pair of queens.
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