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Indian LGBTQ couples fight for legal recognition of same-sex marriage

LGBTQ people and their supporters march demanding equal marriage rights in New Delhi, India, in January. India's Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a colonial-era law that made gay sex punishable by up to 10 years in prison but has yet to legalize same-sex marriages.

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MUMBAI -- On a windy January evening, Aditi Anand and her partner Susan Dias sit in their Mumbai apartment overlooking the sea, reflecting on the life and family they have built together for 12 years. They have different personalities, hail from different social backgrounds and have different interests. "If we were not queer, we would never have met," says 39-year-old Anand, who runs two film production companies.

They've pushed each other to succeed in their careers, are raising a child together and cannot imagine their lives without each other. Their families are intertwined: Anand's parents and siblings rely on Dias for emotional support and Dias' family leans on Anand, they say.

"Whatever fears I might have had coming out, I live a good life with my family, friends, colleagues, neighbors. There is nobody who doesn't know about me," says 35-year-old Dias, an entrepreneur who is trying to mass-market indigenous liquors from various parts of India. "There is no nervousness."

Anand and Dias are one of four LGBTQ couples petitioning India's Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court accepted the petitions in January, and the Indian government was asked by the court to put their case forward in February. The court will hear the matter on March 13. If same-sex marriage is legalized, it will have widespread repercussions for other Indian laws.

India decriminalized gay sex five years ago

Dias and Anand were born in an India that held onto a British colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality. After decades of grassroots activism and intense lobbying at policy levels, the Supreme Court decriminalized gay sex in 2018.

"I remember changing my Facebook display picture to one of Susan's and mine that day," says Anand.

Small acts like this say a lot about freedoms one can exercise in a country like India, she says. Queer communities poured out into the streets, danced in front of the Supreme Court and held marches throughout the country flaunting pride colors and celebrating the verdict.

The journey from there to seeking legalization of same-sex marriage has been fast.

Dias says she and her partner do everything that heterosexual couples do. They manage finances together, buy property, raise children. But they do not have legal security as a couple, and that makes her feel unequal among her peers. "And I feel the need to ask for [rights]," says Dias.

Anand's reasons are less personal. Ideals of democracy and equality were passed down through generations in her family. Her grandfather was a newspaper editor who staunchly stood for free expression.

"My grandfather had deep faith in Indian nation and Indian democracy," she says.

Anand wants to negotiate her democratic rights with the state, remembering that her grandfather told her: "Every day you do that, democracy becomes dynamic."

One overwhelming reason for the couple to approach the court is their toddler.

"There is no reason that our child should be denied the right to two parents," says Anand. As it stands, the law recognizes only one of them as a legal parent.

Since the law in India only recognizes heterosexual marriages, children of gay couples lose out on legal recognition for both parents. One might be legally recognized as the parent of a child either because they gave birth to the child or because they adopted the child as a single parent.

Indian law is based on a patriarchal concept of a family. The assumption is that the man is the breadwinner while the woman is restricted to household labor, says legal scholar Akshat Agarwal.

"As soon as you recognize same-sex marriages, you reject that idea, right?" That is the crux of the issue, according to Agarwal.

If the Supreme Court grants marriage equality for same-sex couples, it would mean an overhaul of many related Indian laws. Laws governing divorce, alimony, inheritance and parenthood will have to be reimagined. It will be the biggest change in a generation.

"Law often makes pronouncements before society has changed. And perhaps those can be used as tools for society to change," he says.

A powerful right-wing figure has expressed support for LGBTQ rights

Since there is no legal recognition of same-sex marriage, gay couples whose families threaten them with violence because they are opposed to gay relationships have no protection under the law. But high courts of different states in India have taken steps in addressing issues concerning same-sex marriage.

In June 2022, the Kerala High Court ordered that a lesbian couple could live together, despite opposition from their families. In December 2021, the Uttarakhand High Court ordered a gay couple to be protected by the police. In November 2019, the Punjab and Haryana High Court ordered the police to protect a gay couple threatened by their families. In October 2018, the Kerala High Court said that a lesbian couple was entitled to live together.

In January this year, same-sex marriage proponents got support from someone they least expected. Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the most powerful Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, said in an interview that gay people are a part of Indian society and have the right to live the way they want to.

The RSS is an umbrella organization that gives direction to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. However, the central government, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is clear in its opposition to same-sex marriage.

A BJP lawmaker, Sushil Modi — no relation to the prime minister — told Parliament in December that same-sex marriage is a foreign concept, calling it contrary to the Indian ethos, Indian culture and Indian tradition.

If India legalizes same-sex marriage, it would be the 33rd country to do so.

And as they wait for a Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, Anand and Dias each have different dreams about their big fat Indian wedding.

"It is truly her dream that we are doing a choreographed dance," says Dias, "and it is truly my nightmare."

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