The Supreme Court of India’s historic verdict to decriminalize gay sex earlier this month was met with celebration among the the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community of neighboring Pakistan.
However, the Pakistani LGBT community must continue to live with Section 377, the 157-year-old British colonial era law criminalizing homosexual sex that lives on in the Pakistan Penal Code.
Unlike their Indian counterparts, the Pakistani LGBT community has long faced stiffer opposition to their very existence. This is because of the prevalence of Sharia law in the shape of Hudood Ordinances which were added to the Penal Code under the Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1977.
Under Hudood laws the punishment for homosexual sex is stoning until death. This is why almost all LGBT members keep their sexuality a secret and usually connect with other homosexuals through the Internet, where most use pseudonyms to hide their identities.
In interviews with Asia Times, LGBT members expressed jubilation over the Indian Supreme Court verdict, saying that the decision allows the local movement to “dare to dream”.
“I know we’re still ages away from having our existence recognized, let alone being accepted as who we are, but decisions like the Indian Supreme Court decriminalizing homosexuality or the US Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage across the country gives us hope,” says Ayesha, a communications professional who has been living with her female partner in Lahore for the past five years.
“Ironically, it is easier for us to live together than a heterosexual unmarried couple, but the fact that our love isn’t recognized as such hurts us. But moves like the one in India allow us to dare to dream that one day hopefully Pakistan will legalize same-sex marriages as well.”
Pakistan’s resistance against homosexuality is not just domestic. The state has opposed all moves at the United Nations to recognize LGBT rights.
In 2003, Pakistan was among the five Muslim countries that derailed the United Nations bid to take up its first ever resolution on homosexual rights. In 2008, a 57-state bloc that included the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation members opposed the resolution again.
In 2011, when the first ever resolution for LGBT rights was passed 23-19, Pakistan was among those that voted ‘No’. The state also voted against LGBT rights in 2015.
“These resolutions asked for recognizing the basic rights of the LGBT, and not to legalize same-sex marriage for instance,” notes Asim, a professor at a top university, who has only come out as gay in front of a few trusted friends.
“Pakistan’s vote against the UN resolutions basically is a refusal to recognize LGBTs as human beings. That in turn is because so many among the population hold such venomous views against us,” he adds.
A 2013 Pew survey revealed that 87% of Pakistanis want harsh punishments for homosexuality. LGBT activists maintain that the prevalence of such sentiments, fuelled by the spread of Islamism, means that it would take a considerable amount of time for the local community to overcome the radical inertia.
“We’re decades away from such developments owing to the rising radicalization. We don’t even have an established LGBT movement. We don’t campaign openly and actively against Section 377, we [have to focus on] human rights abuses,” says Salman, a Karachi-based journalist and activist.
Salman adds that the Pakistani LGBT movement was established with the help of their Indian counterparts. “I’ve seen Indian activists and their sacrifices. The movement behind 377 was decades old. The most beautiful thing about it was that it was led by the community and [supported by] allies.”
Activists maintain that fissures within the LGBT community are further damaging their cause. These have become more prominent after a landmark transgender rights bill was passed in May this year. Despite it, discussion of homosexuality remains taboo.
“We have veteran trans activists like Almas Bobby coming on TV criticizing us and saying that gays are using their movement to come forward. Unfortunately, there are elements within the trans movement who oppose gay rights,” Salman maintains.
However, there are prominent activists urging the LGBT community to stick together and derive strength from one another. Among these is Aradhiya Khan who maintains that the transgender rights law should be a springboard for gays and lesbians in Pakistan.
“We should remain at peace with ourselves and not let others get to us. We can’t discriminate against people within our LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer/questioning and intersex) circles, just because of age, color, race, class or religion. We can’t impose restrictions and shun those who we think don’t belong with our groups,” she said while talking to Asia Times.
“For the Pakistan LGBTQI community this is high time to be who you are and resist the forces that are out there to stand against your love and your feelings,” she added.
Some names have been changed to protect the individuals.