If someone told Sindhuja in the dying moments of 2009 that a decade later, she would be standing as a full citizen and garnering the adulation of her family and friends, she would have laughed it off.
At the time, the 14-year-old was facing rejection at home for not being heterosexual, hadn’t seen anyone like her in books and movies, and was criminalised under Indian law. “I would have never believed life could get better, but here I am today, happy,” she said.
Sindhuja’s journey — from a lonely teenager growing up in a small Karnataka town to an out, confident professional — encapsulated a remarkable decade for the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people across the globe in a decade that saw the United States and United Kingdom affirm same-sex marriage and repeal discriminatory laws, countries such as New Zealand and France confirm financial and adoption rights for the queer community, and others such as India scrap colonial decrees that criminalised entire populations.
Even countries such as Pakistan, long considered a human-rights backwater, passed a progressive legislation for the rights of transgender people. Today, an openly gay candidate has a credible shot at becoming the next president of the United States, and queer persons currently preside over governments in Belgium and Iceland.
How did this happen? And how did it happen so quickly?
As recently as the 2000s, queer rights were the third rail in most social and political conversations even in the West. There was little representation of LGBT folk outside enclaves of fashion and art, and everyday life was peppered with discriminatory attitudes and biases that ensured queer people remained at the margins. The stigma and burden of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, which claimed millions of lives and threw a long shadow on queer populations in many countries, seemed too heavy to lift.
To fight this, activists mounted a four-pronged fight.
The first was legal. The primary battle for queer rights was fought in the courts, be it inheritance (Edith Windsor US, 2013), Marriage (Obergefell, US, 2015), full citizenship (Johar, India, 2018) or civil rights (Nalsa, India, 2015) as advocates pushed courts to advance equal rights for LGBT persons. This had the benefit of shielding it from hostile public opinion and pivot constitutional arguments, but sometimes backfired, like in India where the top court ruled against LGBT persons in 2013.
The second was political and legislative. In country after country, advocacy groups financed and backed LGBT candidates and politicians friendly to the queer community on the (almost correct) bet that they would smoothen the way for legislative protections and built a new generation of leaders for whom LGBT equality was ordinary and everyday.
The third prong was social, premised on popular culture, conversations, books, movies and television. Activists recognised that social attitudes need to change, but this couldn’t happen without positive portrayal in popular culture.
As a result, campaigns were run that placed queer people as mothers, brothers, the friend next door, as engineers, soldiers and doctors, and as the person you say hello on the street, or meet at the local carnival. Queer people were the illustrous couple you follow on reality TV, but also the everyday ordinary couple you run into at the supermarket.
Large cities hosted spectacular pride parades complete with floats, colourful costumes and tens of thousands of people dancing in the streets – and corporates unfurled new rules meant to protect their LGBT staff. All this was crucial in dispelling hostility about queer people in the US and drove popular referendums that favoured same-sex marriage in Ireland.
This was complimented by a fourth element: the rise in scientific literature and papers that forever banished the idea that homosexuality was unnatural and a disease. The research showed that homosexuality existed across a spectrum of species, and was neither an aberration nor an ailment. Though spurious practitioners continue to peddle claims of “curing” homosexuality, they are increasingly not taken seriously and medical professionals in a number of countries, including India, have called for penalties against them.
This push triggered a backlash that was swift and severe in equal measure: Remember the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016 that left 50 queer Latin people dead, or the oppressive laws in Uganda and Chechnya that was only short of state-sponsored repression of LGBT people.
A lot more remains to be done. Murder rates of poor people and transpersons continue to ring alarm bells across the globe and many activists have expressed concern that the movement is sliding on its primary commitment to education and employment in the pursuit of marriage and inheritance rights. There has also been pushback on legal and legislative fronts — the controversy around the transgender rights bill in India, and the rights of businesses to refuse LGBT customers in the US being two prominent examples.
But in all, this was a remarkable decade for equal rights that transformed the lives of LGBT persons. What made it so special was that this happened in such a short time, barely 50 years after the first stone was thrown at police outside New York’s Stonewall Inn. The riots that broke out after police tried to storm and arrest an iconic meeting space for LGBT folk is often noted as the birthplace of the modern queer rights movement.
This has been aided by the wildfire spread of the Internet that enabled activists to reach smaller towns and villages in Asia and Africa. In India itself, the spread of pride parades to 35+ cities, many of them in remote regions and with small populations, stands testament to the resilience and rise of the equal-rights movement. As Sindhuja puts it, “No one is ever going back into the closet again.”
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