Anjali Gopalan, founder of the Naz Foundation, has been fighting since 2001 to overturn the law that criminalized gay sex in India. On Thursday, that battle finally came to an end when India’s top court unanimously overturned the country’s 157-year-old ban on gay sex.

“I can’t find the words to express my happiness,” Gopalan said in the courtroom just minutes after the verdict.

“It’s been an unbelievable journey. I can’t believe this day came in my lifetime.”

A panel of five judges issued the unanimous judgment striking down the provision and affirming the right to equality and dignity.

“Respect for individual choice is the essence of liberty,” Dipak Misra, India’s chief justice, told a packed courtroom. “This freedom can only be fulfilled when each of us realizes that the LGBT community possesses equal rights.”

Activists have struggled for more than a decade to invalidate Section 377 of the Indian penal code, a provision that dates to the colonial era. The law prohibited consensual “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”

While the statute was rarely used as a basis for prosecution, its presence meant that gay people faced threats, harassment and blackmail. It also served as a constant reminder to the gay community that the state considered their sexuality illegal.

Supporters of the LGBT community celebrate in Mumbai after the Supreme Court's verdict of decriminalizing gay sex and revocation of the archaic Section 377 law. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)
Supporters of the LGBT community celebrate in Mumbai after the Supreme Court's verdict of decriminalizing gay sex and revocation of the archaic Section 377 law. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

Section 377 served as a pretext for extortion and continued prejudice, said Harish Iyer, a gay rights activist in Mumbai. Thursday’s ruling “is a landmark judgment for democracy as a whole,” he said. “People cannot be diminished, and their identities cannot be disregarded because they are few in number.”

The judgment reflects rapid social change in India, where only five years ago, the top court upheld the same law. Since then, campaigners have mobilized a movement to spread awareness about gay rights. In recent years, more than 30 Indian cities have held their first gay pride parades, and public protests against Section 377 have spread across the country.

It’s no wonder, then, that Thursday’s ruling sparked jubilation among members of the LGBT community. News channels showed people in cities across India weeping and embracing as they celebrated the historic decision.

The ruling is also a boost for gay rights around the globe. India was the most populous country in the world that still had a law on the books criminalizing gay sex. As of last year, more than 70 countries had such laws, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

In court on Thursday, one of the judges acknowledged the long injustice of the provision. “It is difficult to right the wrong of history, but we can certainly set the course for the future,” said Justice Dhananjaya Chandrachud.

Judges in India have gone back and forth on Section 377. In 2009, Delhi’s High Court struck down the law.

Four years later, a Hindu astrologer named Suresh Kumar Koushal teamed up with Christian and Muslim religious organizations and challenged the order in the Supreme Court, arguing that homosexuality was immoral and could even threaten national security. A two-judge bench at the time recriminalized homosexuality. That judgment stood until Thursday.

The Supreme Court decision is expected to be celebrated across India throughout the day and into the night. Activists pledged that the ruling was just the beginning. They vowed to continue to seek legal protection from violence and abuse and seek the right to marry and adopt children.

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