Global Issues

A giant step backward: Fellows Friday with Nitin Rao, who speaks out on India’s recriminalizing of homosexuality

Posted by:


In a major setback last week for the LGBT community, an Indian Supreme Court ruling upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code — a 153-year-old law criminalizing gay sex. This act overturned a 2009 Delhi High Court ruling that this should not apply to consensual acts and, essentially, recriminalized homosexuality. While the Indian government filed a petition to the Supreme Court asking it to review its decision just today, it felt like the perfect time to talk to entrepreneur Nitin Rao, a 2009 TED Fellow from India. While he now lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area, he tells the TED Blog about the general cultural attitudes about homosexuality in India, how this ruling affects him personally, and how people are responding to the move.

Tell us about your experience as a gay man growing up in India.

While I knew that I was attracted to other men from a young age, it took me a while to come across the vocabulary for it, even the word “gay.” During college, none of my classmates publicly identified as being LGBT. In fact, according to a CNN-IBN poll [from 2009], only 6 percent of Indians said that they have a friend who is homosexual.

In response to my sexual orientation, my father asked me,”Could you wait until we die? Think about us.” His deep fear was that I would publicly identify as an Indian man who is attracted to other men. For years since that conversation, and after coming out publicly, I’ve worked to explain to my family that being gay is not a medical problem, that I value my own life enough to make thoughtful choices, and that they could not ask me to put their pride above my individual right to love a person of my choice.

What is India’s cultural stance on relationships and sexuality?

Growing up in what would otherwise be considered a relatively progressive and well-read family, we never ever spoke about topics like dating or sex. In a country where 90 percent of marriages are arranged, romantic relations are seen as a decision made by families, rather than by individuals. In that context, the idea of finding a same-sex partner is still seen as somewhat shocking, though that is changing.

How was the 2009 ruling decriminalizing homosexuality received at the time?

It was highly lauded, but the public response was subdued.

And had the December 11, 2013, ruling on Section 377 been in the works for some time?

No, it was unexpected. At a time when countries like the US and UK have passed gay marriage laws, it’s unfortunate that India took a step backwards in overturning the 2009 ruling.

How is the law used in practice?

It encourages police harassment and rent-seeking – police accepting bribes to not enforce the law. As the law criminalizes all sexual acts apart from heterosexual vaginal intercourse, even straight people who don’t conform are at risk. More importantly, it’s an issue of legitimacy. Indian citizens should be able to exercise the right to life and liberty without fear.

Nitin Rao (left) attending a candlelight vigil in front of the Indian embassy in San Francisco, California. 13 December 2013

Nitin Rao (right) attends a candlelight vigil last week in front of the Indian embassy in San Francisco.

What is the response of the LGBT activist movement in India?

Organizations like Naz Foundation and Humsafar Trust, and smaller local groups like Chennai’s Orinam and Bangalore’s Good as You, have done incredible work in providing support and resources to the LGBT community, and challenging Section 377. Events like the December 11 ruling bring these groups — as well as South Asian LGBT diaspora groups like Trikone — together.

There has been an outpouring of support for the Indian LGBT community via the I, Ally campaign. What is it, and how did it start?

As an initiative from the Equal India Alliance, Tushar Malik (now at the Human Rights Campaign), started the “I, Ally” campaign in 2013. Inspired by the support that straight friends showed Tushar as an “out” college student, he decided to go across India and find more such voices, recording video messages of support.

Why has this been important?

Not everyone can find support in their immediate surroundings, so for an LGBT or questioning young person in India, it is extremely important to see regular, day-to-day people who look like their friends, parents and grandparents — and who speak their language — to come out in support and tell them that they are not wrong, they are not different, and that they’ll always find a friend who loves them for who they are.

People in India and abroad can just upload their videos on YouTube and have “I, Ally campaign” in the tagline, and send a notification to or tweet the link to @iallycampaign, so that we can include it in the channel. If possible, they should draw the equality buddies on their fingers too!

How else can people help the cause?

Within India itself, the next time there is a survey, we should move closer to 30 percent of Indians saying that they know a friend or family member who is gay. For everyone around the world, have the conversations others may not, and speak to your friends across age groups about why the Section 377 ruling strips Indian citizens of basic rights, and why it’s a dangerous precedent for many others who don’t conform.

What happens next? How difficult will it be to reverse the reversal?

I frankly don’t know, but what’s encouraging is that some senior politicians, Indian brands and ordinary citizens, particularly youth, are taking a stand and being visible in their dissent.

How do you compare this to the Supreme Court decision of Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld anti-sodomy laws in Georgia and therefore the US?

It’s scarily like Bowers v. Hardwick. The difference is that we simply cannot wait 17 years for justice. That wouldn’t be the India we deserve.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

After I published an article on, “India Moves In the Wrong Direction on Gay Rights”, making the case that nobody should ever be asked a question like “Could you wait until we die,” many straight friends reached out to share they had very similar experiences and could relate. For one person, it was the shock from a father when she loved a Muslim man. For another person, it was identifying as an atheist. As my friend Ramki Kazhiyur-Mannar puts it, “I want to treat India as what it could be and it is a place where everybody can feel free, and I am going to do my best for that.”