Decriminalisation: bringing the conversation out of isolation

29 April 2019

In the latest in our new series of guest blogs from citizen journalists in southern Africa, Denver Kisting talks to lawyer Arvind Narrain about his early days of LGBT campaigning and where we’re at with decriminalising homosexuality.

Image of Arvind Narrain for KC news blog

‘Decrim is really not about decrim alone. It’s really about a right to a future and a right to hope. It’s about the larger dimension of what it means to be human. It’s about the right to dignity in its deepest sense.’

I caught up with Arvind in Swakopmund, on the Namibian coast, just before he left The Global Convention on Strategies Towards Decriminalisation of Homosexuality. Arvind was one of many, including world-renowned activists and human rights lawyers, who shared not only his own experiences but also put forward strategies on how best to navigate through and beyond discrimination, particularly homophobia, patriarchy and heteronormativity.

When Arvind began law school in Bangalore, India, a decade or so ago, LGBT+ rights didn’t feature, even in the corridors. Of the over 400 provisions in the Indian penal code, the emphasis in Arvind’s law school lecture halls was reserved for crimes relating to murder, rape and offences against the state.

The only reference to Section 377 (which criminalised homosexuality or so-called unnatural acts up until September 2018) was a quick ‘by the way’ utterance. So it came as a surprise, when a visiting professor – whose specialism was human rights – spoke about gay rights during a lecture. This was the catalyst for significant personal and institutional change.

At the time, the 22-year-old law student was deeply in the closet and had told no one. Following that lecture, Arvind found the courage to speak to a friend of his, Sanjay Bavikatte, about writing an academic article on gay rights together.

Arvind explained his motivation by proposing that it would boost their CVs and help them get a foot in the post law school door. Sanjay agreed and then, seemingly out of the blue, said: ‘Can you imagine sleeping with another guy?’

‘Yes, I can,’ Arvind said.

‘Are you gay?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Let’s organise a seminar on gay rights on campus.’

This not only deepened their friendship but gave rise to some serious mobilisation and relentless activism on campus. The banner for that very first gay rights’ seminar was the biggest the law school had ever seen. Arvind remembers: ‘It was the most heavily covered law school event at the time. That was the beginning for us and it was how everything was established.’

Arvind says Sanjay became an almost bigger champion of the underdog than him. To this day, he says that Sanjay can articulate [LGBT] issues better than he can. He believes his friend’s compassion comes from an inherent ability to walk in the shoes of others, especially those who bear the brunt of stigma and discrimination in society: ‘You have to go with the idea that one can feel the pain and suffering of the other. We shouldn’t get stuck on the idea of identity. One of the remarkable things about human beings is our capacity to empathise.’

Reflecting on the decriminalisation of homosexuality and what it has accomplished globally, Arvind says: ‘In Durban [South Africa at a 2016 decriminalisation convention], the question was: “Should we litigate?” Now the question has shifted to, “How should we litigate?” That’s a significant step. Every presentation [at the Swakopmund global convention] was strong and powerful.’

Arvind continues: ‘Decriminalisation should not be dealt with or treated in isolation. The way forward is multi-pronged and needs to be strategic. It’s embodied in conversation, inspiration and passion. It’s imperative that people take [the conversation] to their jurisdictions.

‘And it’s important that it involves the sharing of a range of strategies and ideas, rather than just preaching to the converted.

‘Only then can we achieve meaningful results and make a sustainable impact, especially in hostile environments where being gay either remains a criminal offence or where LGBT rights are under threat.’  

Image: Key Correspondents

Author: Denver Kisting
Denver Kisting, 34, is a final year student of the intricacies and fallacies of the law, and hopefully makes such strides, to be a better version of himself. Born and bred in a small town 87km south of the Namibian capital, he breathes, works and has fun in Windhoek. He is committed to offer kindness and compassion to fellow humans, sending out as much love as possible.