India's top court expected to rule on gay sex

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An Indian supporter of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community takes part in a pride parade in Bhopal in July: the supreme court is about to pass judgement on laws outlawing homosexuality

India's Supreme Court is likely on Thursday to deliver an eagerly awaited judgement on colonial-era legislation criminalising homosexuality, lawyers said.

Section 377 of the Indian penal code, a relic from 1860s British legislation, bans gay acts as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" punishable by jail terms of up to life.

The top court began hearing petitions against the ban in July, beginning an emotional debate in the world's largest democracy over the right to freedom and privacy.

Tripti Tandon, a lawyer for one of the petitioners in the case, confirmed to AFP the judgement was listed for Thursday.

Her client Aris Jafer was arrested and sent to prison for 50 days in 2001.

"We have high hopes from the Supreme Court," said Rituparna Borah, a co-director of Nazaria, which describes itself as a queer feminist advocacy group.

"This law should not have been there in the first place. This should have gone long back. We are asking for our basic human rights, nothing more," she told AFP.

Utsav Maheshwari, a 20-year-old gay college student, said he was "super excited" and hoping the "court will legitimise the community by acknowledging their existence".

The Delhi High Court effectively decriminalised gay sex in 2009, but the Supreme Court reinstated legal sanctions in 2014 after a successful appeal by religious groups.

Gay sex has long been taboo in conservative India -- particularly in rural areas where nearly 70 percent of people live -- and homophobia is widespread. Some still regard homosexuality as a mental illness.

According to official data, 2,187 cases under Section 377 were registered in 2016 under the category of "unnatural offences". Seven people were convicted and 16 acquitted.

Section 377 "is a law that propagates homophobia", said Keshav Suri, one of the petitioners, who has used his family's luxury hotel chain to promote gay rights by improving conditions for staff.

"In rural areas it is a harassment tool, used by cops, used by authorities for extortion for glorifying rape and molestation," said Suri.

A transgender man was killed in Hyderabad in June by a mob who accused him of being a child kidnapper.

- Suicide note -

A lesbian couple committed suicide in Gujarat the same month, leaving a note stating: "We are leaving this world to live with each other. The world did not allow us to stay together."

About a third of lesbian women have reported physical abuse including rape by their own relatives, according to a recent survey.

"Because of this law, there are a lot of people in the LGBT community outside of India who are afraid to travel to India because of this sense of paranoia that they might get arrested," said Suri.

Many Indian professionals have moved to Canada and Europe where gays are more accepted, he added.

Section 377 has been at the centre of court battles in India since 2001. In 2009, the Delhi high court ruled that it breached the constitution, bringing long-sought relief to the LGBT community until the Supreme Court quashed the decision in 2014.

Indian choreographer Navtej Johar launched a new petition in 2016 which was joined by Suri and others.

Religious groups of all kinds fiercely oppose ending Section 377. Government lawyers have however said they will leave it up to the "wisdom" of the court to decide on Thursday.

And India has quietly made some strides in sexual rights.

A transgender judge, Joyita Mondal Mahi, presides over courts in West Bengal state, Indian passports now state whether a holder is "male", "female" or "other" and the city of Raigarh, with 139,000 people, has a transgender mayor.

"Gay sex is criminalised here, but at another level, there is an intrinsic acceptance of difference," said New Delhi choreographer Mandeep Raikhy who has used his dance troupe to highlight the experiences of gays even at the risk of making audiences feel "uncomfortable".

Former students from the elite Indian Institute of Technology have also joined the battle against Section 377 while other professionals such as doctors have felt more emboldened to come out.

Suri said the Indian economy could make "billions" from pink tourism and investment if it lifted the ban on gay sex.

But he and others see marriage between two men or two women as the ultimate prize and ending Section 377 as only part of the struggle.