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Queer azadi

By Siddharth Narrain

The Pride marches in Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai this year marked the coming of age of a more confident and open queer community in India. It has taken many years of patient organising to reach this far. Whether it is mobilising the community, working on legal reform, speaking out in the media, or advocacy efforts with the government, the LGBT movement has gradually worked towards making this an issue that people cannot ignore any longer

Bangalore's first-ever Pride march"How did the march-past go," asked a friend's mother, enquiring about her son's recent trip to Bangalore. The 'march-past' she was referring to was Bangalore's first-ever Pride march, held on June 29, 2008. Christened the Bengaluru Pride by its organisers, the event was a landmark in the history of the queer struggle in the city, and, together with parallel marches in Delhi and Kolkata, became a national 'coming out' for the country's queer population. These three marches were followed by a Queer Azadi march in Mumbai, a day after Independence Day this year. Estimates of the number of people who participated in the march vary from 2,000 to 2,500. Covered extensively by regional, national and international media, the Indian Pride marches marked the coming of age of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement in the country.

The three marches on June 29 coincided with Stone Wall Day, commemorated globally to mark the anniversary of the Stone Wall riots where, for the first time, queer people who frequented Stone Wall Inn in New York rioted protesting against police harassment. While the cultural significance of this event may not be immediately obvious to queer people in India, queer activists in the country tapped into the global nature of the events and media attention to make their local demands heard. Besides the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) some of these demands include legal recognition of sex change operations, prevention of violence against sexual minorities, and social entitlements like voter IDs and ration cards.

The cheeky slogans and posters, as well as some of the more innovative demands that queer activists made during the Pride marches, were lapped up by the media. In Kolkata, organisers distributed rainbow-coloured sweets during the march. In Delhi, marchers carried a massive rainbow flag. In Bangalore, people marched on a 4 km stretch beginning in the more conservative southern part of the city and ending in a symbolic show of strength at the city's Town Hall. In Mumbai, queer activists demanded an apology from the British government for introducing Section 377 on Indian soil. They said that the colonial legislation, framed by the British in 1860, introduced Victorian discomfort with same-sex desire, thus destroying earlier traditions of tolerance towards same-sex love and desire.

Reactions to the Pride amongst the queer community ranged from joy to sheer disbelief. Many of those who did not manage to participate were on the telephone with friends who were marching or monitoring their telephones. Many of the older generation of queer activists felt that an event of this kind would not have been possible even 10 years ago.

A lot of those participating in a public rally for the first time felt that it was an opportunity to meet others from the LGBT community. For many heterosexuals, the Pride was a chance to show their solidarity. Describing the enormity of the occasion, Akshay Khanna, a queer activist said: "Large mobilisation and excellent liaising with media folk has created a huge splash, the waves of which travel not just to the Delhi High Court (hopefully), but across the world as mass media juxtaposes images of Delhi, Bangalore and Calcutta alongside San Francisco, Rio and London. Even now, every time I watch clips of the marches on YouTube I find my skin spontaneously raising its follicles in unison with your voices. There is a sense of enormity to the moment and sitting here in Edinburgh I imagine the world has changed."

Demanding law reform

The timing of the Queer Pride marches coincided with the ongoing arguments in the Naz Foundation case in the Delhi High Court, where the validity of Section 377 of the IPC -- the law that criminalises homosexuality in the country -- has been challenged. The marches have been followed by statements from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss indicating that there is a strong view from within the government that Section 377 needs to go, as it is impeding HIV/AIDS prevention work.

Instances of discrimination, violence and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons in India would not be possible without the overall framework of the law that criminalises "unnatural sexual offences" -- Section 377 of the IPC. Introduced by the British in 1860, this law criminalises "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" interpreted by courts to include all non-penile-vaginal sexual acts, even if they are between consenting adults.

While Section 377 has been used very rarely to prosecute sex between consenting adults, it has been widely used to perpetuate violence and discrimination against LGBT persons in India, and effectively brand them criminal, deviant and unnatural. This law is not just about sexual acts committed between LGBT persons. In effect, this law criminalises romantic love, relationships and intimacy between people of different sexual orientation and gender identities.

In 2001, following a police raid on its office in Lucknow, Naz Foundation (India) Trust, an NGO that works in the area of HIV/AIDS prevention, challenged the constitutionality of Section 377 in the Delhi High Court. Naz argued that Section 377 violates the constitutional rights to life, liberty and non-discrimination, and has a devastating impact on efforts to prevent HIV/AIDS.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual participation

Earlier this year (May 2008), almost seven years after the Naz Foundation case was filed, the Delhi High Court began hearing final arguments in the case challenging the legality of Section 377. So far, the central government is speaking in contradictory voices -- while the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), a wing of the Union health ministry has said that Section 377 should go because it impedes HIV/AIDS prevention work by preventing homosexuals from accessing condoms, the Union home ministry wants the law to remain. In its affidavit, the central government has said that the government should be allowed to retain the law in the interests of public safety and "the protection of health and morals".

There are three interveners in this case -- Joint Action Council (Kannur) (JACK), which has challenged the link between HIV and AIDS, former BJP Rajya Sabha member B P Singhal who has argued that homosexuality is 'unnatural', and Voices Against 377, a coalition of child rights, women's rights and LGBT rights groups that has focused on concrete examples of instances when Section 377 has been used to discriminate against the human rights of LGBT persons.

The Pride marches have added to the attention around the case, sending out the signal that the demands in the petition are being strongly supported by a wide variety of rights groups.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual participation

A unique feature of the Pride marches this time around was the large number of gay, bisexual and lesbian men and women who joined their hijra, kothi and transsexual counterparts in occupying public space. While much has been written about the issues faced by the kothi and transgender community, there are serious issues that the gay, lesbian and bisexual community faces.

The participation of queer women in the Pride marches went a long way in addressing the 'invisibility' of this section of society. One of the major issues queer women face has been the abduction of partners by parents, and the increasing number of lesbian suicides. The lack of public spaces to meet other women, the pressure to get married early, and the possibility of violence from within the family add to the nature of the discrimination they face.

A classic case is that of Christy and Rukmani. On May 17, 2008, Christy Jayanthi Malar (38) and Rukmani (40), two married women from Chennai, died hugging each other after setting themselves on fire in Chennai. Christy and Rukmani had studied in the same class at school, and met again after both of them had got married. They had been lovers for the past 10 years against the wishes of their families and husbands. The day before their deaths, Rukmani's family, realising that she had gone to Christy's house, had abused her.

For gay men, issues of immediate concern include tackling homophobia in medical establishments and at the workplace. Psychiatrists continue to prescribe shock therapy to change the orientation of homosexuals, and many gay men are reluctant to talk about their sexuality at the workplace, fearing discrimination and the risk of losing their jobs. Demands from gay men are bound to extend beyond Section 377 to equal opportunities in a wide range of areas including adoption, inheritance, partnership rights, and possibly even same-sex marriage.

However, the real battle lies in societal change. Even now, only a minority of gay men have 'come out' to their families about their sexuality. 'Coming out' remains a difficult, painful process, sometimes taking years of effort. Many gay men succumb to the pressures of getting married, leading to messy divorces and situations where the women they marry find themselves in unfair positions.

The participation of a large number of gay, bisexual and lesbian persons in the Pride marches is a sign that the community is getting more confident and organised, ready to challenge existing societal stereotypes and prejudices.

The way forward

Reflections on the Pride marches from within the queer community have been varied. Some look at the Pride as an opportunity to mainstream queer issues, and to say, "We are no different". Others look at this as an opportunity to say, "We are different and proud of it". Whatever the message, it has become much harder for anyone to claim that homosexuality does not exist in India. While the Pride marches are the face of a more confident and open queer Indian community, it has taken many years of patient organising and brave work to reach this far. Whether it is mobilising the community, working on legal reform, speaking out in the media, or advocacy efforts with the government, the LGBT movement has gradually worked towards making this an issue that people cannot ignore any longer.

If the success of the Pride marches is anything to go by, chances are that the marches are going to become annual events in a number of cities across India. For the organisers of the event, its institutionalising will bring with it a new set of questions. Do they accept corporate sponsorship? Should they concentrate on building participation or getting more publicity? How do they get more people involved with the kind of media coverage that is anticipated? How do they consciously avoid the Pride marches from overshadowing other forms of activism and queer celebration and becoming the only standard by which queer activism in a city is judged?

In countries across the world, queer rights activists feel that the radical potential of such events is often co-opted by sponsors, resulting in the events becoming one big sponsored party. What remains to be seen is whether the energy that is generated in the Pride can be channelised towards strengthening the queer movement, while at the same time being as colourful as possible.

(Siddharth Narrain is a lawyer and queer rights activist working with the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008