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India's Gay Sex Legality Debate Creates National Confusion

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INDIA GAY PARADE
A participant wears a mask during a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender parade in Mumbai. | AP

NEW DELHI -- A sensitive debate over gay sex in India was thrown into farcical confusion Thursday after a government lawyer urged the Supreme Court to ban it – only for the government to contradict him hours later in a statement accepting a recent ruling that made it legal.

Television channels reported that the lawyer may have gotten confused and read out the wrong statement in front of the Supreme Court reflecting an old government opinion.

Additional Solicitor General P. P. Malhotra told the court that "gay sex is highly immoral and against social order and there is high chance of spreading of diseases through such acts," the Press Trust of India reported.

The Home Ministry quickly issued a statement saying it was not challenging a 2009 Delhi High Court order that struck down a colonial-era law making sex between people of the same gender punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The statement said that the Cabinet had decided not to challenge the 2009 ruling and that the ministry "has not taken any position on homosexuality."

Conservative groups have asked the top court to overturn the lower court's order, and Supreme Court judges are currently hearing opinions from a range of people – including conservative groups and gay rights activists.

Gay rights activists celebrated the 2009 ruling, hoping it would be followed by courts across the nation and end widespread police harassment and lead to gradual acceptance of homosexuality in this deeply conservative country.

The high court had said that treating consensual gay sex between adults as a crime was a violation of fundamental rights protected by India's constitution.

Sex between people of the same gender had been illegal in India since the 1860s, when a British colonial law classified it as "against the order of nature."

While actual criminal prosecutions were few, the law frequently was used to harass people.

Over the last decade, gays have slowly gained a degree of acceptance in some parts of India, especially its big cities. Many bars have gay nights, and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues. The last two years have also seen large gay pride parades in New Delhi and other big cities, including Mumbai and Kolkata.

Still, being gay remains deeply taboo in most of the country, and many gays and lesbians hide their sexual orientation from friends and relatives.

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