NEW DELHI – Utkarsh Saxena and Ananya Kotia’s love story began just like any other college romance. Except no one else knew about the gay couple’s relationship.
It was 2008. Homosexuality was yet to gain a degree of acceptance in deeply conservative India, with many gay couples facing stigma and isolation. So Saxena and Kotia took their time, watching from a distance how people’s acceptance of homosexuality was changing.
“We were actually quite scared about the consequences,” said Saxena, a public policy scholar at the University of Oxford. “We were very fragile and vulnerable, a young couple figuring out ourselves, and didn’t want, you know, something as drastic as this to break us in some sense.”
Over the years, as Indian society became more accepting of homosexuality and much of the country’s LGBTQ community began celebrating their sexuality openly, the couple decided to make their relationship known to their friends and family. Most of them were accepting.
Now, 15 years into their relationship, they have set out for a bigger challenge and filed a petition to India’s Supreme Court that seeks the legalization of same-sex marriage. Three other gay couples have filed similar petitions that will be heard by the country's top court in March.
If legalized, India would become the second economy in Asia after Taiwan to recognize same-sex marriage, a significant right for the country’s LGBTQ community more than four years after the top court decriminalized gay sex. A favorable ruling would also make India the biggest democracy with such rights for LGBTQ couples but run counter to the ruling Hindu nationalist government’s position, which opposes same-sex marriages.
“Our relationship has been, in a social sense, undefined for so long that we would like it to now be embraced in the same way as any other couples’ relationship,” Saxena said.
Legal rights for LGBTQ people in India have been expanding over the past decade, and most of these changes have come through the Supreme Court’s intervention.
In 2014, the court legally recognized non-binary or transgender persons as a “third gender” and three years later made an individual's sexual orientation an essential attribute of their privacy. The historic ruling in 2018 that struck down a colonial-era law that had made gay sex punishable by up to 10 years in prison expanded constitutional rights for the gay community. The decision was seen as a landmark victory for gay rights, with one judge saying it would “pave the way for a better future."
Despite this progress, legal recognition of same-sex marriage has been met with resistance by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
In a court filing last year it said same-sex marriages would cause “complete havoc with the delicate balance of personal laws in the country.” Sushil Modi, a lawmaker from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, told Parliament in December that such marriages would be “against the cultural ethos of the country” and a decision on that should not be left to “a couple of judges.”
India's Supreme Court has, however, signaled it could challenge the government's position.
In January, its collegium — comprising the Chief Justice of India and two Justices — said the government was opposing a gay judge’s nomination in part because of his sexual orientation. India’s federal government did not respond to the allegations.
Gay couples and LGBTQ activists argue that by refusing to recognize same-sex marriage, the government is depriving homosexual couples of their right to equality enshrined in the constitution and opportunities enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.
“Basically, you need to be treated the same as any other citizen. It’s not special rights that are being asked for, it’s just the right that every other citizen has,” said Ruth Vanita, an expert on gender studies and author of “Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West.”
In India, marriage is governed by a set of different laws tailored to the country’s religious groups, and a secular law for interfaith couples called the Special Marriage Act. All limit marriage between men and women.
With no legal backing for same-sex marriages, many couples say they have faced a host of hurdles.
Indian law restricts owning and inheriting property to LGBTQ individuals. Gay and lesbian couples are not allowed to have children born with the help of an Indian surrogate mother. And LGBTQ persons can only apply for adoption as single parents.
Many such couples believe that legal recognition of same-sex marriage would not just be a vital step toward equality but also result in more people coming out as homosexuals and strengthening their relationship with the state.
“We would want the state to recognize marriage as an institution also for same-sex couples … for acceptance at a social level,” said Kotia, an economics scholar at the London School of Economics.
Homosexuality has long carried a stigma in India’s traditional society, even though there has been a shift in attitudes toward same-sex couples in recent years. India now has openly gay celebrities and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues. According to a Pew survey, acceptance of homosexuality in India increased by 22 percentage points to 37% between 2013 and 2019.
But many same-sex couples continue to face harassment in many Indian communities, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian.
In December, India's LGBTQ community found support from an unexpected quarter.
The head of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group that is the ideological parent of Modi’s party, said LGBTQ people are “a part of the Indian society” and that Indian civilization has traditionally acknowledged the community. Mohan Bhagwat's comments, which could force the government to reassess its position, were a departure from the group’s long-held views on homosexuality, which has a tangled history in India, even though some of Hinduism’s most ancient texts are accepting of same-sex couples.
“In the West, right up to the 19th century, people were executed for same-sex relations, or they were put in prison. India has, as far as we know, no such history. We have always written about it (homosexuality), talked about it, and discussed it,” said Vanita.
Without the legal right to marriage, many LGBTQ couples have still been participating in commitment ceremonies, particularly in big cities. Such marriages are not legally binding under Indian laws, but it has not stopped them from having traditional Indian wedding rituals.
Saxena and Kotia said they were planning one as well, preferably if the court rules in their favor.
“I think we would like a big wedding. Our relatives and our family and friends would like an even bigger wedding," Saxena said.