Gay sex became legal in India two years ago, but attitudes change slowly

Published: May 30, 2011

The day the high court in Delhi ruled that being gay was no longer a crime was the day that Krishna Gurram Kouda finally came out to his family.

Despite having set up a state-wide network for gay men in Andhra Pradesh, the 39-year-old had never told his relatives about his sexuality. "I live with my parents," he explains as the fan above whirs in an ineffectual attempt to stave off the 40C Hyderabadi heat. "I have a good relationship with my brothers and their children." He looks at me. "I thought they would accept me," he pauses, "but I was a little afraid."

I first met Kouda in 2008 when I was reporting on how discrimination puts gay men at greater risk of HIV in Andhra Pradesh (which has one of India’s highest rates of the virus) for the Guardian’s international development journalism competition. At that time, section 377 of the Indian penal code made gay sex illegal, and strong social stigma drove gay men underground. Now the law has changed, I wanted to know whether their lives had also altered course.

For Krishna, the answer is yes. On the day of decriminalisation – 2 July 2009 – Krishna went public, spending hours on local TV and radio, talking about gay issues and rebutting religious leaders. When he got home at 10 o’clock that night, his mother and brother congratulated him. "You speak about your community’s problems so well," they said, recognising for the first time that they knew he was gay. Since then, Krishna and Avinash, his partner of seven years, have received joint invitations to family parties and an annual couples-only Puja [prayer].

But for most of the gay men I met, decriminalisation had made little obvious difference. Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, is 1,500km and a cultural leap away from middle-class activism in Delhi, where the case was won.

"There is no change," says Satish, an outreach worker at a drop-in centre for men who have sex with men in Secunderabad, Hyderabad’s twin city. "Same harassment by police, same harassment by society, same harassment by goondas [thugs]."

"It’s like this," another chips in. "Section 377" – he kisses his teeth and flicks his hand dismissively "only high level people who are going on websites and reading the paper know about that. Not the medium-class people, not the lower class."

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