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A welcome address on IDAHOT 2016

Kaushik Basu's picture

I am honored to address the World Bank event celebrating IDAHOT 2016; and to join the activists, scholars and Bank staff, who have gathered here to celebrate inclusion. The LGBTI community ought to be part of society in every sense and be included socially, economically, and politically.

I have to begin with an apology. This is not an area in which I have expertise. If despite that I wanted to speak, it is because I feel an emotional and moral compulsion to do so. That in the 21st century, with so much progress in science and society, we still have to speak out against the bigotry that the LGBTI community faces is a matter of collective shame. No minority should be made to feel left out and excluded just for being who they are. And I hope the day will come when minority groups are so much a part of society that this topic will cease to be important.

I grew up in a traditional Hindu household and went to a Jesuit school in Calcutta and a Christian college in Delhi. At home, school and college, I was taught the importance of universal humanism and compassion. For me, the principle of inclusion, and in particular the need to embrace and treat the LGBTI as part of society is an extension of this moral principle that I learnt early.  

I became engaged in this topic because of the experience of friends, from tragic stories of exclusion and depression, to those of joy and celebration. An example of the latter was the marriage of a friend in New York City. She was an Indian Christian woman, marrying a Jewish American woman.

At that time same-sex marriage was not recognized in New York. They had to work hard to find a church that would host the ceremony and a rabbi who would preside over it.

It was a wonderful evening of hope, with the reading of some poetry of Tagore, who was known for his philosophy of universalism. The crowning moment was when the young rabbi, aware that this marriage did not have recognition in the eyes of law, said, “We may now declare this couple married in the eyes of all” he paused a bit, “enlightened human beings.”

I have had some engagement with this topic from when I lived in India, since I argued for the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexual acts. I tried to remind Indian leaders that this law is actually a colonial legacy. It was introduced during British rule in India in 1860; and so there should be no national pride in holding on to this law.

In 2009 the Delhi High Court revoked the law, but in 2013 the Supreme Court overruled the Delhi High court, arguing that this law can only be revoked by parliament. The only good news in this disappointing situation is a judgement passed in India in 2014, which recognized the identity of trans-gendered people and ruled that they have all the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution. 

However, the situation on the ground still remains dire for the LGBTI people. As the Indian news-magazine, The Wire, noted in a recent article, transgender people are frequently harassed and attacked and they quoted the activist, Raina Roy: “People are getting assaulted and ridiculed on the street [for being trans-gender]. If I walk into the police station after being attacked, it is I who will be criminalized by the police officers.”

We have to pause and ask: Where does this inhumanity come from? I urge all of you to resolve to put an end to this, no matter which religion you belong to and even if you belong to no religion, because inclusion and compassion are basic precepts of humanity.

I am pleased that there is effort in the World Bank to study the economic, health and social costs of LGBTI exclusion. The few studies there are show there are considerable costs associated with such exclusion. Nations where homosexuality is treated as criminal, which is true for more than 70 nations, the treatment of HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases has been hampered. Exclusion also affects GDP adversely.

While recognizing these I must urge you not to make a fetish of GDP. If removing discrimination against a minority group increases GDP that is good news. If enhancing justice and equality across human beings promotes GDP that is reason for celebration. But we must not argue that removing discrimination against minorities is good because it promotes GDP growth, that justice and equality are important because they lead to a higher GDP.

Removing discrimination and promoting greater equality and justice are good in themselves. If research reveals that removing certain kinds of discrimination—against women, or the LGBTI or some other group—lowers GDP a little, I would take the line that, so be it; we will live with a little less GDP in order to achieve a more just and equitable society.   

Finally, I have a message for the LGBTI community. You also have a responsibility. There is a lot of bigotry that you have to fight against, true; but, at the same time, you have to try to understand the other side. There are many traditional, good people, who are genuinely puzzled by this phenomenon. They stay away from this topic not out of meanness, but some out of ignorance. You have to reach out to them.

Nearly two decades ago, a male gay couple, close friends of my wife and me, invited us for dinner to their home. I asked them if I could bring my mother along since she was visiting us from India.

When the day came I was worried. I had never discussed homosexuality with my mother and had no idea what her views were. She was getting on in years; and we all know that, after a certain age, political correctness vanishes from speech.

The gay couple in question happened to be an Asian and a Latin American. My mother was a bit puzzled by the regional diversity in the household and lack of gender diversity. But she was an innately friendly person and got chatting with them. With the courage that comes only with age, she said she wanted to see their apartment and said she was pleased to see that they were such good friends that they shared a bedroom.

As the evening drew to a close, I was proud of my mother; her behavior had been impeccable. She told them how happy she was to see them leading such nice lives; all they now needed, she added helpfully, was two young women to join them. 

As it happens, my mother became a friend of my friends. And till her last days in Calcutta would ask me how my friends were doing; as did my friends about her. For this friendship I was grateful to all of them for their understanding and human warmth.