Indian Supreme Court Justice Dipak Misra quoted Shakespeare as he read out the unanimous ruling of five judges to legalize gay sex.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Misra said, borrowing a phrase from “Romeo and Juliet,” as he overturned the colonial era Section 377.
“The said phrase, in its basic sense, conveys that what really matters is the essential qualities of the substance and the fundamental characteristics of an entity but not the name by which it or a person is called,” Misra added.
Hearing the familiar words from the play set Danish Sheikh’s heart racing.
Sheikh, a law professor at the Sonipat-based Jindal Global Law School, is one of many LGBT Indians who have fought for years to overturn the country’s draconian anti-gay laws, inherited from the former British colonial government.
As he listened to the ruling, he said he experienced a “sense of delight … which slowly turned to relief and headiness as they continued to read, and I absorbed just how significant this decision was.”
Sheikh’s political awakening came in part due to another Supreme Court ruling in 2013, which reversed a landmark ruling by the Delhi High Court that a ban on gay sex violated citizens’ fundamental rights.
“After 2013, there was a lot of energetic activism in the country,” he said. “The kind of outrage that was felt resonated across civil society, outside the LGBT community … society started to tolerate, and even accept, queer persons.”
For Sheikh, the issue of acceptance was one which cut far closer to home: in 2012, he had come out to his parents.
“They reacted with anger and sorrow, then took me to a psychiatrist who informed all of us that homosexuality was a mental disorder, possibly the result of a tumor in my hypothalamus, which he could cure with aggressive instant treatment,” he recalled in a Facebook post. “I stormed out of the doctor’s office, and their house. Something broke between us that day.”
While his mother made efforts to repair their relationship, Sheikh’s father didn’t talk to him for years, but in July when the court began hearing the case again “he called, and in a shaking voice asked if I’d like him and my mother to come to the court, if that would help, if I might need their support at this time?”
“It took me a while to find my voice,” Sheikh wrote. “Things can change.”
Members of India’s LGBT community partied late into the night Thursday, even as torrential rain fell in Delhi and elsewhere.
“Justice has finally come our way,” said Edwin Thomas, a 22-year-old gay man who works in the social sector. “We’ve been out and front and center for a really long time. It’s just that we needed the rest of society and our legal structure to catch up with us.”
While the ruling was expected to strike down the law, Thomas said he and many others were nervous that it might go the other way.
Born and raised in Dubai, he moved to India at the age of 17 to go to university. While the country has a reputation as a conservative society, it was in India where Thomas came out and “found the courage to express my sexuality.”
“I came to India in 2013, when they recriminalized gay sex, and five years down the line things are looking up and that gives you hope. Hope is what keeps everyone going and that’s a good feeling,” he said.
Like others, Thomas feels the ruling now paves the way for the start of a new Indian LGBT rights movement and as an “open avenue for newer ways of protection and justice.”
Dhrubo Jyoti, a 29-year-old journalist and LGBT activist who identifies as queer, said there was a sense of “catharsis” with the new ruling for those “who were at the Supreme Court in 2013 and had their hearts broken.”
“It not just affirms one’s faith in the Constitution but it also means that the gloom and the despair in this atmosphere of abuse for many of us, hopefully, for a new generation of queer people, it won’t be there,” he said.
While Jyoti recognizes that changing prejudiced mindsets will take a long time, he emphasized that changing the law was a vital first step in building a new society where LGBT people are protected and respected.
“Without decriminalization, a further fight for rights cannot happen,” he said.
‘Relief … and sadness’
Prevailing attitudes against homosexuality were on show Thursday even as the ruling made gay sex legal. Indian media connected the issue to bestiality in coverage of the ruling, and even some of those celebrating were still fearful of being quoted by name as they may face prejudice for being openly LGBT.
“My first reaction was of immense relief. My second reaction was the sadness that I felt for everybody who’s had to go through life thinking they’re criminals. Their entire identity to be reduced to ‘Oh, this person is gay or a lesbian’ and suddenly that doesn’t matter anymore. At least legally, that sanction now exists,” said a 57-year-old man who asked not to be identified.
“It’s not something one should be ashamed of but because of cultural norms, there is discrimination.”
He said that while he does not overtly hide his sexuality, it is also not something he makes an effort to speak about or highlight.
“I say this with caution, social change in India takes a very long time to come,” he said. “We may depend upon law to change certain aspects in the way we live but it is actually social norms, which really bring about that change, and that change is not going to come immediately.”
While he has lived most his life in the shadow of discrimination, he was optimistic that those who come after him will have different experiences.
“I accept the fact that change won’t come in my lifetime. What has happened is going to benefit the future generations, but I really hope to make the most of it.”
As the fight now turns to the broader issues of acceptance and legal protections for gay couples – and potentially the issue of same-sex marriage – many in India’s LGBT community are still reveling in their victory.
“This is the beginning of a new phase … for LGBT rights but that is in the future, today is a day of celebration for us,” said lawyer Arundhati Katju, who represented the petitioners at the Supreme Court. “We’re celebrating the petitioners, we’re celebrating our court, and ultimately our Constitution.”