Promoting a Culture of Decency and Respect

Shalini Nataraj


Shalini Nataraj


As an LGBTQ ally and human rights activist, for me, the issue of rights for sexual minorities has always been one of basic humanity.  Yes, the laws that discriminate against certain people based on arbitrary markers have to be fought in the courts and the judicial systems, but in the end, it is a question of looking deep within ourselves and acknowledging our own prejudice and biases.  And acknowledging the humanity and dignity of every human being.


According to an NBC report after Section 377 was overturned:


“India’s government, a broadly right-wing, Hindu nationalist coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, has indicated it will support the Supreme Court in its ruling but will oppose any attempts by activists to push for further rights. Gay people in India are currently not allowed to marry, adopt children or inherit their partner’s wealth should they die.”


The above illustrates the long battle that still lies ahead.


Progressive laws that protect rights are put in place to codify what should be norms emphasizing decency, respect and tolerance towards others.  Now that Section 377 has been overturned, the work of changing attitudes and behaviors takes on renewed urgency.  Decriminalizing certain actions does not guarantee that how people are treated on an everyday basis and how their access to jobs, housing, and healthcare improves.  It does not guarantee acceptance by their own families.


The stories of persons harassed, tortured and even killed for being “different” are heartbreaking.  Homophobia runs deep in societies across the world and is most horrifying when it manifests in human rights and women rights movements.  Things are beginning to change, but change needs to happen faster – to literally save lives. Being “different” – in this case not hetero-normative, can be deadly, as the homicides and suicides of gays, lesbians and transgender persons around the world continue.


Bringing about societal change is hard – just look at the numbers of caste-based atrocities that are reported across the country even though the caste system has been abolished in India.  Women still face tremendous challenges in all spheres of life, despite laws that ostensibly protect their rights.  The rise of the internet has brought positive change but has also resulted in bubbles where tribalism, sexism and homophobia can thrive.


Social acceptance and tolerance are not just about being nice – its imperative for societies to treat every human being the same for their own survival and progress.  A society that fosters hatred and divisiveness eventually will implode.


I have been reassured about the potential for creating a society that is imbued with the values of love, tolerance and human dignity when I hear about families like that of my cousin, Nikhil Aziz.  As he stated in a post recently:


The first person I came out to in my family was my sister. Her immediate and unquestioning love and support, and that of my brother-in-law gave me the strength to come out to my parents. And after my parents, to the rest of my extended family on both sides. All of them were unqualified in their love and support, including my own niece and nephew, and the children of my cousins.


If we believe in a better world, we need to engage in the difficult conversations with our parents, relatives and members of our communities.  What use is it to join protests and rallies when we have not talked to our own parents and families about why we feel it is important to fight these battles?  Even the most educated and liberated person in India (or of Indian origin) is not above saying things like, “I eat beef, but I dare not tell my parents” or “I really like that girl, but she’s not from my community”.  In India particularly, it is all about “what will people think/say” and the honor of your family or community is held like a sword above your head.  Once we get beyond this trap, and each of us feels comfortable in expressing ourselves without reservation, the culture will begin to change.  To feel safe in doing this, we do need strength in numbers and allies across movements.


We need to move beyond labels to see the potential of each human and treat them as we would want to be treated ourselves – with love, respect and humanity, and we each need to set ourselves the task of changing attitudes and behaviors.


Shalini Nataraj is currently Vice President of Programs with the Ing Foundation, a private philanthropy focused on advancing human rights.  The views expressed in this piece are her own.

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