“I take what I am, so take me as I am,” said the Chief Justice of India as he struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in a unanimous vote. That day, September 6th, 2018, signifies a great victory for the LGBTQ+ community in India. Section 377 was a 157-year-old law that rendered all sexual activities “against the order of nature” punishable by law. The British enacted the law during their colonial rule, allowing them to penalize the LGBTQ+ community. For too long, Section 377 remained a large anvil simply hiding above the heads of the community, waiting for the right time to strike.
This monumental decision would not have been possible without the leadership of India’s most prominent lawyers. Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju are no strangers to court cases involving the LGBTQ+ community and practicing law as a way to help those in need. Guruswamy and Katuju’s lists of accomplishments are long and continue to grow. Both attended the National Law School before going on to other highly regarded institutions. As a Rhodes Scholar and a senior advocate at India’s Supreme Court, Guruswamy has recently taken up many cases for couples wanting recognition for same-sex marriage in India.
Similarly, with her specialized law degree (LL.M) from Columbia, Katju has been heading her own law office since 2011 and was a public defender with the Delhi High Court Legal Services Committee for over three years, where she argued for nearly 100 appellate cases. When they aren’t winning court cases, both lawyers also teach law students in schools such as NYU and Columbia. In 2019, Guruswamy and Katju were also named Time’s 100 Most Influential People for their contribution to the LGBTQ+ community in India.
Their list of accomplishments continues to grow, but the pair’s most influential work was in the Navtej Singh Johar and other v Union of India case. Although many petitions had been filed repeatedly over the years to overturn Section 377, it wasn’t until these two prominent women joined the fight that the court began to see reason. Guruswamy and Katju used writ petition in this case as a strategy to change the court’s mind when it came to their decision. Writ petition is the process by which people can make claims directly to the court. These testimonies from members of the LGBTQ+ community were able to change the minds of the court. Guruswamy and Katju realized that the law would only change “when LGBT people shared their stories” because the court “had no imagination of who was a gay Indian.” It was this strategy that allowed them to win this one battle in a centuries-long war. The different claimants included prominent Indians in the community: a classical dancer, a journalist, a chef, and 20 graduates from India’s elite university, the Indian Institute of Technology.
Despite the fear that publicly declaring their sexuality could warp their careers and transform their life paths, the petitioners decided that it was worth it if they could live freely without the weight of the law holding them down. When the court finally recognized the LGBTQ+ community as humans and not just a label, it made it that much easier to grant them the rights they deserve. After winning the case, Guruswamy and Katju revealed
they were a couple in an interview, making this case even more personal!
Through their work in the 2018 case, Guruswamy and Katju proved that “the right to life under the Constitution includes a right to sexuality and choice of sexual partners.” Although significant progress was made on September 6th, 2018, the fight is never truly over. We need to do our part to ensure we continue to move forward and that equal rights are granted to the LGBTQ+ community.