A court in India ordered state and federal officials on Monday to draw up plans for sweeping reforms to respect LGBTQ rights, in a ruling that went far beyond the narrow terms of a case brought by a lesbian couple who said they had been harassed by police.
Judge Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court ruled in favor of the couple, who complained that police had subjected them to harassing questioning after their parents filed a missing persons report.
But the judge also used the opportunity to issue a broad ruling that called for the elimination of what he described as illegal discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. He ordered state and federal government departments to report back with steps they intend to take to comply.
His recommendations included awareness training for police and government officials to ensure they respect LGBTQ rights, and revoking licenses of medical practitioners who claim to be able to “cure” homosexuality.
Schools and colleges should make gender neutral restrooms available, and gender-nonconforming or trans prisoners should be housed separately if needed to protect them from sexual assault, said the judge.
“Ignorance is no justification for normalizing any form of discrimination,” Venkatesh wrote in his order. Educators should reach out to parents, to help “sensitize parents on issues of LGBTQ+ community and gender nonconforming students, to ensure supportive families,” his order read.
Activists hailed the order as a major step towards equality for marginalized groups. Although the court cannot by itself impose such widespread change with a single ruling, government departments also can’t ignore the order to report back on the steps they plan to take to comply. The arguments raised by the judge could also serve as precedent for future cases.
“This is the first major order that addresses most challenges concerning the whole LGBTQIA+ community and issues specific directions,” said L Ramakrishnan, vice-president at SAATHII, a Chennai-based public health advocacy group.
“I am hopeful of change given the judge has indicated he would follow up on the directions on a regular basis,” he said.
In reaching his ruling, the judge said he had sought information on same-sex relationships from a psychologist. The judge described himself as not “fully woke” and said he belonged to the majority in India, who are “yet to comprehend homosexuality completely.”
Activists and those in the LGBTQ community have fought for years to overturn the country’s anti-gay laws, many inherited from the former British colonial government. Social attitudes remain largely conservative, though there have been steps of progress in recent years.
Gay sex was finally legalized in 2018 in a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court; another law was passed in 2019 to protect transgender rights, though it drew criticism for a provision requiring that transgender people get a certificate to confirm their status.