For the last 157 years, gay sex was illegal in India. But, on Thursday, September 6th, India’s Supreme Court repealed Section 377, a colonial edict that labelled homosexual intercourse “against the order of nature.” Efforts for decriminalization began in 2001, when activists petitioned the Delhi High Court to reconsider the law. In 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to reassess the issue, and, two years later, gay sex was finally legalized. In addition, the Court’s ruling granted gay citizens all rights and protections enumerated in the Indian Constitution. This verdict is a step forward in both the battle for Indian queer rights and the country’s persisting struggle to move past its colonial history.

India’s population exceeds 1.2 billion people, so this decision constituted an enormous triumph for LGBTQ+ rights—not only in India but throughout the developing world. Indeed, Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called the ruling “hugely significant” because it may prompt other countries to redress their own homophobic laws.

The verdict can, of course, reform only legislation surrounding homosexuality. India remains a deeply conservative nation, and queer people continue to suffer private persecution from their families and households and public persecution in society at large. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court—an agent of the Indian government—demonstrated its commitment to gay rights by reversing this law. Menaka Guruswamy, one of the attorneys who argued and won the case, summarized the implications of the ruling for gay Indians: “This decision is basically saying: ‘You are not alone. The court stands with you. The Constitution stands with you. And therefore your country stands with you.’”

Lifting the ban was not only a decisive victory for equality for queer citizens; it exemplified the country’s gradual departure from the remnants of British imperialism. Much of the narrative surrounding the case has failed to put the issue of queer rights in its appropriate colonial context. Historically, Hinduism—India’s dominant religion—has taken a liberal stance on homosexuality.

Even ancient Hindu temples, let alone erotic texts such as the Kama Sutra, celebrate queer imagery: some myths depict intercourse between same-sex partners, while others include pregnant men. Indeed, the acceptance of androgyny was a central element of India’s pre-colonial attitude towards queer people. Hindu religious texts revere hijras, a term broadly encompassing transgender and intersex individuals, as divine figures worthy of special respect.

With the advent of colonization, however, this tolerance diminished. British imperialists enacted Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which forbade “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” Men who had sex with other men—and, in fact, anyone who engaged in anal or oral sex—faced prison time or even life sentences. Furthermore, the law put queer people at the risk of “[intimidation], blackmail, and abuse.” A survey of colonial history reveals that the British—with their Victorian notions of manliness—were the source of India’s anti-gay legislation. In dissolving Section 377, the Indian Supreme Court broke one of the country’s most stubborn ties to its imperial past.

India’s Section 377 law stood at the intersection of racial and sexual oppression. Its repeal, therefore, represented a victory on two fronts. It is easy to interpret the Supreme Court’s decision as India’s “catching up” to the developed world in the arena of queer rights. But any discussion of homophobia in India would be incomplete without a discussion of the colonial underpinnings of that homophobia. British subjugation—not Indian ignorance—formed the basis for India’s current treatment of LGBTQ+ citizens. Further progress will depend on the India’s continuing efforts to decolonize itself.