For many gay men in India, a law criminalizing homosexuality has a chilling impact on their lives. They remain vulnerable to blackmail, extortion and sexual assault. Many also live in fear of being outed.
It's a muggy evening in Lucknow's dimly lit Chandrashekhar Azad Park. Groups of men lounge around on park benches, anonymous in the shadows. There is a feeling of tension in the air.
The place is a popular cruising site for gay men who come to find sexual partners — an activity that can get them arrested and imprisoned in India under a colonial-era law that criminalizes homosexual sex. The men are, literally, flirting with danger.
"This is where we come to fulfill our hidden desires," said Rahul laughing nervously. The 36-year-old sports a fake diamond stud in his ear. A T-shirt stretches tightly over his chest and his jeans hang loosely on his thin frame.
Rahul dropped off his 12-year-old daughter at her evening tutoring classes before coming here. Today, he has two and a half hours to "be himself," as he puts it.
Lucknow is the capital of India's northern and most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. The city has a population of nearly 3 million. The LGBT community here is largely underground. There are a few cafes that are known to be gay-friendly. And, since last year, the city has seen a few pride marches.
However, Uttar Pradesh is a conservative state and many gay men are forced by their families to marry and remain closeted. Like Rahul, they lead double lives. Some crack under the pressure.
"It's making their lives hell. A high number — almost 40 percent according to our research — commit suicide just because of the fear that they can be outed by the police or by the community because it's still seen as a criminal thing," Arif Jafar, a gay rights activist in Lucknow, told DW.
Fear is a constant companion
The fear of being exposed isn't the only danger gays, lesbians and transgender people face. Since they're seen as criminals in the eyes of the law, the police have a powerful tool to threaten them with — and they often get away with it.
Vishal, a sex worker, remembers going to a hotel a few years ago. He was called there by a new customer. But, when Vishal arrived, there were two policemen in the room with the man.
"The cops abused me and called me all kinds of names. They then raped me, took away my phone and money. They said they could arrest me and threatened to call my family and tell them I was gay," Vishal said. "I couldn't do a thing. I was so terrified that my family would find out and disown me."
Like Vishal, many of the men have stories of blackmail, extortion and sexual assault by the police or sometimes even their sexual partners. If it hasn't happened to them, they know of friends or acquaintances who've experienced it. The one thing all of them have in common is a pervasive fear.
"I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. Even when I'm at home or at work," said Adil, who works in a mall. "I try to play it safe. Even when I meet new people, I'm wondering if they would tell the cops," he said.
No access to justice
Activists say the law criminalizing homosexuality, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, is often used as a cover to harass the gay community. Victims of blackmail or sexual assault often hesitate to inform the police, fearing they will be arrested. There are few channels for legal recourse.
"When the police themselves are perpetrating the violence and using the law as a pretext to blackmail, rape and extort money, then how can you approach the same system to make a complaint?" Arif Jafar questioned.
Jafar himself felt the full force of the law back in 2001. Police shut down his HIV outreach programs for gay and transgender people. They threw Jafar and his colleagues into prison and booked them under Section 377 and other laws. They were charged with conspiracy to commit sodomy. The police said they were accepting funds from Pakistan to turn Indian men gay. The case is still dragging on in court.
Social stigma and hope
For many, the existing law also exacerbates a deep-seated stigma and bias towards gay and transgender people.
Raj, who has a master's degree in marketing, says he was unable to get a well-paid job because of his homosexuality. "I worked for a few months at a private company but I just couldn't bear the mocking and bullying. They called me effeminate, a eunuch and even a criminal. Some of my colleagues wouldn't even sit down at the same table as me for lunch," he said.
The 29-year-old finally quit and now works at a charity that champions gay rights.
Despite the daily harassment and humiliation, there is a surge of hope in the gay community that India's top court may finally throw out the law that has had such a devastating impact on their lives.
Jafar, who is one of the petitioners challenging the law in the Supreme Court, said it violates their fundamental right to exist and needs to go.
For many men in Lucknow, the scrapping of the law is a chance to finally step out of the shadows.
"Right now, we have to hide ourselves. We're invisible. And, we're scared of the police," Rahul says. "But, if the law changes, we might actually be able to stand up for ourselves. I could speak out if someone abuses me."
The names of the men in this story, with the exception of Arif Jafar, have been changed to protect their identity.