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Indian Supreme Court Overturns Ban On Gay Sex

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

India's Supreme Court struck down one of the world's oldest laws criminalizing consensual gay sex. The law was passed in 1861, when India was controlled by Britain. One-hundred-fifty-seven years later, it's gone - thrown out by a court that called it irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary. NPR's Lauren Frayer was at the courthouse in New Delhi today. She's on the line.

Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: How was this law applied in Indian life?

FRAYER: Unevenly. One of the plaintiffs is a man who was jailed on this law, arrested for handing out condoms to gay men, charged with abetting a crime. But much more often, this law was used to harass and blackmail homosexuals, mostly gay men. Think about it. If you're gay and you're a victim of a crime, in India you're afraid to go to the police because you could be arrested for being gay.

INSKEEP: And so who challenged the law?

FRAYER: Dozens of plaintiffs took this to the Supreme Court. They include Bollywood film stars, business leaders. It's been decades and decades of activism but nine years mired in the legal system. In 2009, the Delhi High Court struck down this law, but that ruling applied only to the National Capital Region. It was a little bit ambiguous. Then the same court, in 2013, changed its mind, reinstated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. So it's been going back and forth. And finally, it got to the Supreme Court earlier this year.

INSKEEP: There'd be a degree of risk involved even in challenging this law publicly - wouldn't there? - because you'd have to stand up and say, I'm gay; I've been affected by this. And that might put you at some kind of risk, conceivably.

FRAYER: Absolutely. I mean, for all of the people who are celebrating this ruling today, I have spoken with many people who don't want to be photographed, who don't want to be interviewed, who are still so frightened to say those words, I am gay. And so, you know, this ruling is a big step for them. But to fight those years and generations of discrimination will take some time.

INSKEEP: OK. So what did you hear from the people who are willing to talk about this?

FRAYER: Right. So I spent the morning on the lawn of the Supreme Court, where activists have gathered from around the country. And when judges announced their ruling under the court's big ivory dome, here's what it sounded like outside as people got news of the decision.

(CHEERING)

FRAYER: So you hear cheers there and celebration. I also saw quite a few tears of joy. I spoke with a lesbian who had traveled from far northern India. Her name is Alice Changsan (ph). She's 21 years old, and she was weeping through our interview.

ALICE CHANGSAN: I'm really happy. I can't really contain myself. That's why I just broke out into tears. We've fought for this for such a long time, and it's about time. Like, this crap - and it's finally happening in serial (ph) because it's like - I don't know. It's just a lot to take in. But yeah, I'm so happy about this.

INSKEEP: Really emotional moment there. I do have to ask, though, Lauren Frayer - is there a large part of Indian society that approved of this law, that doesn't approve of homosexuality, that is feeling very differently today?

FRAYER: Good question. Polls are hard to come by. There has been a drop in opposition to homosexuality in recent years. But it's not at all clear that a majority of Indians support this decision. I interviewed one of the opponents of the decision who said he feels like India is under onslaught by the West. He thinks homosexuality is a Western import. He lost his case. Homosexuality has been decriminalized in India today.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lauren Frayer.

Thanks very much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.