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Pride and prejudice

Observations on Indian Gay Pride

Last year, beating drums and impromptu song and dance sequences gave India’s first Pride parades a distinctive desi flavour. This year, the stage is set for two new Indian cities – Chennai and Bhubaneshwar – to join Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai in the ranks of the global queer community.

However, the masked faces that dot India’s Pride marches signify a grave underlying problem. In the world’s largest democracy, homosexuality is still criminalised, punishable by lifetime imprisonment.

Kalpana, a 32-year-old lesbian, recalls the painful experience of growing up in a society that treats homosexuality as an aberration: “I was subjected to medical treatment aimed at ‘curing’ my homosexuality. I felt hollow inside. My friends ridiculed me and neighbours taunted me, calling me a hijra [eunuch].”

Kalpana’s is one of many untold stories now finding expression. Buoyed by the country’s rising queer movement, gay Indians are beginning to fight back against homophobia. The social group Gay Bombay focuses on providing gay men with a safe space to interact and communicate while, on the east coast, Kolkata’s first support group for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women has branched into an activist forum, Sappho for Equality. In New Delhi, a coalition of NGOs has filed a public-interest lawsuit for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. From the former health minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, endorsing their appeal to the production of a mainstream Bollywood gay film, the movement has found unlikely but influential support.

“Though decriminalisation is central to the queer movement in India, a lot of work has to be done to eradicate homophobia and change people’s attitudes,” says Malabika, a founding member of Sappho for Equality. “We recognise that we need to engage the heterosexual majority to effect social reform.” The group is reaching out through film festivals, awareness campaigns and community programmes.

Preparations for this year’s Pride began online in early May. Ambitions for this second event are high, with plans to include friends and family after last year’s successful events.

Though progress has been slow, there is a conscious shift in India’s attitude towards homosexuality. “My family and friends were amazing about my being gay,” says 18-year-old Aparajita. “Over time they became more open and began asking me questions they’d always wanted to know the answers to but had never been able to ask. I learned that a large part of the problem is awareness, and that the lack of knowledge is one of the main causes of homophobia in India.”

As awareness percolates through Indian society, the movement cannot be satisfied by decriminalisation alone. Lesley Esteves, a queer activist, says that “as a next step, we will push for same-sex marriages, adoption rights, anti-discriminatory laws in the workplace, health-care benefits for partners and inheritance laws – to name a few”.

Achieving gay equality in India seems an insurmountable task. But members of the Indian queer movement have no illusions of an instant remedy; they are just determined to shed the security of invisibility and stand
up for their rights.

Names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape