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The 15-year-old boy was seen by a neighbor in a park with his male partner. News spread, and teasing and harassment followed. Humiliated, he locked himself in his room for two days. On Sunday, he doused himself with diesel fuel and set himself on fire. "He is unable to speak properly,” the boy’s anguished father said. “The doctors say he is out of danger but I will only believe it when my son will talk to me."

Gay rights activists hold placards as they shout slogans during a protest against a verdict by the Supreme Court in New Delhi December 15, 2013.  © 2013 Reuters

The boy’s suicide attempt is the latest, tragic reminder that much work needs to be done in India to change public attitudes and reduce hysteria over so-called traditional values. In 2010, Srinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor at Aligarh Muslim University, committed suicide after being vilified for his consensual gay relationship.

The most urgent need is repeal of India’s archaic law criminalizing same-sex relations. Even if rarely enforced, the law, section 377 of the penal code, reinforced the idea that discrimination and other mistreatment of LGBT people was acceptable in Indian society. The law had been struck down by a Delhi High Court, but the Supreme Court overturned that decision in 2013, ruling that altering the law should be the remit of the legislature. Currently, there appears to be little political will to take on the issue. Parliament recently refused to even put forward a bill proposing to review section 377.

LGBT people suffer widespread discrimination in India. A 2006 study of men who have sex with men in India and Bangladesh, conducted by the sexual health organization Naz Foundation, found that 50 percent had endured harassment by fellow students or teachers in school or college because they were perceived to be effeminate. In addition, 45 percent said that their sexual preference had limited their employment opportunities, while 28 percent said that they had considered or attempted suicide. In a recent report, the United Nations education organization, UNESCO, found that LGBT students in schools often have to endure violence and discrimination. In India, there are reports of harassment and extortion by police as well as by private individuals.

India is now at a crossroads where the rights of LGBT people are openly discussed. Senior politicians across the political divide have said that section 377 should go. That view now needs to prevail to send a strong message to all Indians that discrimination, harassment, and other abuse of LGBT people have no place in modern society.

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