Utkarsh Saxena had been secretly planning the proposal for weeks. He had secretly measured his boyfriend’s finger while he was sleeping and bought a pair of matching steel rings from a Delhi market. They had been together for 15 years, having fallen in love on the university debating team, and Saxena felt optimistic that this would be an auspicious moment to ask the love of his life to marry him – the same day that India’s supreme court ruled on whether same-sex couples would be allowed to get married.
However, when the decision was announced on Tuesday, Saxena was devastated. Despite India’s top judge, DY Chandrachud, acknowledging the long-standing presence of LGBTQ+ individuals and their right to equality, he ultimately declared that altering marriage laws was not within the court’s jurisdiction and that marriage was not considered a fundamental right. According to Chandrachud, it was the responsibility of the parliament, rather than the judiciary, to enact changes in this matter.
Standing outside the court in Delhi alongside dozens of other queer couples and LGBTQ+ activists, Saxena was so devastated that he could not bring out the rings. But on returning home, he spilled to his boyfriend, Ananya Kotia, what his plan had been.
Saxena stated, “He expressed his desire for me to have done it, as it would have made this challenging day much more manageable.” Despite this, they ultimately decided to proceed with the task.
After more than ten years of concealing their relationship from certain family members, the couple reunited on the steps of the supreme court on Wednesday. Saxena then knelt down on one knee.
“I found that after meeting Kotia, no matter what challenges we may face, having each other gives us strength and resilience,” he expressed. “This was our way of redefining and reclaiming this moment. Our relationship has brought transformation for both of us and I have faith that one day we will wed in India.”
The fight for acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ rights in India has been a lengthy and challenging process. It was not until 2018 that the supreme court finally decriminalised homosexuality, after twenty years of demonstrations, legal battles, and opposition. This was followed by the Transgender Persons Act in 2019, which marked the first legal recognition of transgender individuals’ rights.
However, over the past five years since the significant decision to decriminalize homosexuality in India, there has been a noticeable increase in societal acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals. Despite ongoing challenges such as harassment and discrimination from authorities and families, particularly in rural and conservative regions, the LGBTQ+ community has become more visible and represented in mainstream media, corporations, and popular culture. Additionally, conversations surrounding gay rights have become more prevalent within households.
In this changing landscape, 20 individuals, consisting of same-sex couples, transgender individuals, and LGBTQ+ advocates, came together to combine their separate lawsuits in order to advocate for the right to marry under civil law. This case reached India’s highest court, where a special panel of five supreme court justices, including several members of the LGBTQ+ community, held extensive hearings from April to May of this year. During these hearings, top lawyers presented arguments for why LGBTQ+ individuals should be granted the same rights in terms of love and marriage as heterosexual couples, as stated in the constitution.
Ruchika Khanna, a 46-year-old advertising consultant from Delhi, expressed her belief that the recent hearings were a significant sign of hope. She found the arguments presented to be highly logical and compelling. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she closely followed the livestreamed hearings and joined in on the national discourse surrounding them. Like others, she had high expectations for Chief Justice Chandrachud, who is renowned for his progressive views.
The ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), strongly objected to the court case advocating for same-sex marriage, citing that marriage should only be between a heterosexual couple in accordance with religious and cultural values. This same government had also objected to a judge’s promotion due to his sexual orientation.
Even though she didn’t have strong personal beliefs about marriage, Khanna was disappointed by Tuesday’s decision. She acknowledged that it may have been too bold in the current political climate where the government is against it, but she remains hopeful and determined to keep fighting alongside her community.
Many members of the LGBTQ+ community expressed the same sentiment, stating that while they were heartbroken by the decision, they refused to be intimidated. This sentiment was shared by older LGBTQ+ couples, some in their 70s, who feared they may not have much time left. Some individuals mentioned plans to participate in protests, while others emphasized the importance of the LGBTQ+ community coming together and using their voices to demand political change.
Parmesh Shahani, the leader of Godrej DEI Lab, a company focused on promoting LGBTQ+ representation in cultural and corporate fields, and also the writer of Queeristan, highlighted the fact that facing legal challenges has been a significant aspect of the fight for the past twenty years.
“Are we disappointed? Absolutely. But will we bounce back and keep going? Most definitely,” stated Shahani. “The societal transformations that have taken place in just the last five years are beyond what we could have ever imagined. Now it is up to all of us to actively work towards changing perspectives and promoting inclusivity in all aspects of society – from civil society to our own homes, families, and workplaces. This way, when similar issues arise in the future, they will no longer be up for debate.”
The LGBTQ+ community expressed a lot of anger towards the panel of judges for placing the responsibility of addressing the issues on the BJP government. Despite being in power for nine years, the BJP has made minimal efforts towards promoting LGBTQ+ rights and equality, and has even taken discriminatory stances.
Zainab Patel, a transgender woman who was a petitioner, praised one of the limited successes from the ruling – that transgender individuals in heterosexual relationships are now able to legally marry – but expressed disappointment in the overall lack of support from the judges for the community.
Many, including her, were doubtful that the government’s proposed high-level committee to review LGBTQ+ rights would bring about any significant changes, possibly just making superficial adjustments.
Some individuals voiced worry that the decision had caused permanent harm to the battle for basic human rights. Rohin Bhatt, a lawyer involved in the case and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, stated that the ruling’s assertion that marriage is not a fundamental right was “extremely risky.”
“The court has shamelessly surrendered to the majority and authoritarian executive,” Bhatt stated, and further mentioned that the ruling will be closely examined and the lawyers involved in the case will file a request for a review.
“We must now make a stand, raise our voices, and protest as queer individuals,” he stated. “Let’s be unequivocal – we will not passively accept this. It may take time, but make no mistake – we will eventually attain these rights.”