What would this morning's tea-and-newspaper ritual have felt like if the headlines read "SC holds out hope on non-vaginal intercourse"? That would have slightly rattled the saucer, for sure. What then explains the strange consensus among Indian media to report on Section 377 as an exclusively LGBTQ issue?
A day after the Supreme Court agreed to give the issue on decriminalising 'unnatural sex' one last chance in court, several of India's main news organisations reported it as a gay or homosexual issue. For example, their headlines this morning read "Supreme Court agrees to revisit law criminalising homosexuality" or "SC holds out hope on gay rights." The reporting has described the law as one that criminalizes same-sex relationships.
T?he reality of this 'crime' is that Section 377 affects the heterosexual and homosexual communities ?-- 'unnatural sex' is not the preserve of the LGBT community. But this entire issue, from the heights of intellectual debate to the grounds of activism, has run on one assumption -- that 'unnatural sex' is only performed by those within the LGBT community. Even recent press releases from Amnesty International and change.org have used this description.
In the past, some (like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed's foreign editions) have described the section as the 'sodomy-law,' which is a far more neutral and inclusive term. did this too. Human Rights Watch used both descriptions. Shashi Tharoor's petition to the Prime Minister on decriminalisation also uses both descriptions. The petition is signed by nearly 50,000 people and is titled 'Decriminalise homosexuality' although in the explanation he says that "It impacts the LGBTQ community, it even impacts married heterosexual couples."
T?hus, media reporting has been misleading. By using the gay-shorthand, it has reduced the issue and isolated the community. When we read the news, we are made to understand that this is an issue for "that community" that wears bright clothes, parades once a year and does incomprehensible, unspeakable things in private. We understand that this is not something which can or should affect heterosexuals. It excuses us from saying neutral and inclusive things like 'unnatural sex' because that self-reflection makes us too comfortable. What this means is the continued demonisation of the LGBTQ community.
Legally too, it means that the opposition to the curative petition have been filed by religious groups who are also arguing on homosexual lines. What would happen if they are forced to speak more flatly across the board, and not recourse to arguing that homosexuality is prohibited in their religions?
Last year, Al Jazeera came forward to correct their reporting. In a bold statement they said they will no longer use the word 'migrants' to describe the refugee-crisis. They did this on the grounds of inaccuracy and argued that the words we use impact the value of the persons we describe. They explained that reductive terminologies help fester bigotry.
Similarly, in what is hopefully the last stretch of one of the biggest civil rights issues India has seen in recent times, can an editorial change in media reporting affect how the heterosexual masses interact with India's sexual minorities?