Homosexuality in India: What data shows
The tide within Indian society is already turning. The Supreme Court’s Section 377 verdict will hopefully further propel acceptance of homosexuality in India
Chennai: As the Supreme Court of India has finally put an end to the criminalization of homosexuality under Section 377 in India, data from opinion polls indicates that societal acceptance might still be some way off. While the majority remains opposed to same-sex relationships, Indians’ views on homosexuality have become less rigid over time.
Just one global survey documents the change in views about homosexuality over time. The World Values Survey (WVS ) is a global survey project that has attempted since 1980 to periodically poll nationally representative samples in nearly 100 countries on people’s values and beliefs. However, the sample size is small—in 2014, the India sample was composed of just over 1,500 people, but it claimed to be demographically representative.
Between 1990 and 2014, the share of Indian respondents in the WVS who believed “homosexuality is never justifiable” fell from 89% to 24%—from an overwhelming majority to a clear minority. This change seems to have taken place largely independently of legal challenges to the law. The fastest decline in views against homosexuality came in the late 90s, while the Naz Foundation judgement by the Delhi high court decriminalizing gay sex came only in 2009. The Supreme Court might have, however, read the writing on the wall.
Across the world, countries are moving towards growing acceptance of same-sex relationships, often forcing the law to play catch up. (See Chart 1A and 1B). With 30% of Indian respondents broadly supportive of homosexuality in 2014 (the rest range from somewhat opposed to completely opposed), the WVS places India towards the liberal top of the distribution of 60 countries. Most developing countries have more conservative views on homosexuality than India. The US and western European countries have far fewer respondents who believe that homosexuality is not justified. Pakistan and western Asian countries have far stronger opposition to homosexuality. Compared to India, opposition to homosexuality is also higher among several other Asian countries such as China, Singapore and South Korea.
Another indirect estimate of views on homosexuals comes by asking the question: “could you mention a group that you would not like as neighbours”? In 1991, 91% mentioned homosexuals; in 2014, fewer than half (42%) mentioned homosexuals. In 2014, unmarried couples and people from a different religion or part of the country were less desirable as neighbours than homosexuals for survey respondents.
Yet, this does not mean that many believe that homosexuality is “justifiable”, to use the awkward phrasing of the original question. The share of those who think that it is “always justifiable” is just 3.5%, and the majority of Indian views remain on the side of the spectrum that is against it rather than the side that is for it. For comparison, fewer people thought that cheating on taxes or avoiding a fare on public transport was never justifiable than those that thought homosexuality was never justifiable.
A 2017-18 survey of people in eight states by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Azim Premji University found that 28% agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement that sexual relationships between two men or two women should be accepted by society, 46% disagreed, and the rest had no opinion.
A 2016 survey of young people (between the age of 15 and 34) in 19 states conducted by CSDS and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung found that just 24% of young people approved or somewhat approved of same-sex relationships, roughly the same levels as their approval or disapproval of live-in relationships. More religious young people were actually more approving of same-sex couples than young people who were not religious, even if not by a lot. People in villages were again slightly more approving than those in cities and towns.
But the direction the world is moving in is clear, and India is no different. Younger people across the world tend to be more accepting of homosexuality than older people, and acceptance of gay marriage has sharply accelerated in the western world. In India, too, there is a broad move towards more liberal values—the CSDS youth survey found that more young people were accepting of inter-religious marriage, affirmative action, and pre-marital dating than they were 10 years ago .
The tide within Indian society is already turning. The Supreme Court verdict will hopefully further propel the acceptance of gay people as equal citizens.
Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.
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