Organizing Delhi's Pride: A Conversation with Gautam Bhan

It was late June in Delhi and the monsoon had come two weeks early. The city turned into one large steam bath on alternate days and there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air, at least for several hundred gay, lesbian, bisexual, hijra, kothi, and transgender Dilli-walle and their allies. For the first time in history, India's capital city Delhi, along with Kolkata and Bangalore, was to hold a Queer Pride parade.

The day, June 29th, would mark the most recent of many milestones for India's burgeoning queer rights movement which started decades ago. In the early 90s gay publications such as Bombay Dost in Mumbai and Naya Pravartak in Kolkata had provided forums for information sharing and social networking. As the years passed, organizations blossomed in dozens of cities and several university campuses. Some focused on education and social support, some responded to human rights violations, and yet others tackled issues such as media representation or legal reform. Films, plays, books and TV and newspaper coverage on topics of queer sexualities in India, once rare, could now fill a small and growing library.

Yet, despite such achievements significant challenges and threats continue to confront queer people in India. Social mores still emphasize the importance of heterosexual marriage, forcing many queer people to take their lives underground. This year, a lesbian couple in Chennai committed suicide together amidst strong family pressure for them to separate. Recently, police in Bangalore beat, humiliated and arrested five hijras on false charges. And, despite the Health Minister's appeal to decriminalize homosexuality, the Indian Home Ministry has insisted it is immoral and criminal, stiffly opposing any legalization.

As in any country as large and diverse as India, struggles for queer rights have countless regional and community-specific flavors. Thus, it is not surprising that pride marches would too. In Mumbai, for example, a large coalition of organizers decided to hold their march, called QueerAzaadi (or queer freedom), a month and a half later on India's Independence Day. The choice of date was meant to be a commentary and critique that India's queer citizens are not yet free. Specifically, the organizers denounced colonial era Penal Code 377 which criminalizes all kinds of sexual activity that is not procreative and heterosexual, but the law is primarily used against queer people. Kolkata, on the other hand, was India's first city to hold a "pride walk" in 1999, an event that has historically been organized and attended largely by the city's gay male, hijra, kothi and panthi communities. However, not everyone turned out. In a telephone interview, Samita, a member of Kolkata's LBT group, "Sappho for Equality," explained that Sappho supports Kolkata pride and its organizers but felt that the media treated Kolkata queer pride parade as more of a spectacle than anything serious. Instead, Sappho opted to support queer rights using other methods, such as organizing film festivals and participating in International Women's Day marches. By the time that Delhi organized its first pride march this summer, nearly a decade had passed and myriad queer groups and activists were well-established. The planning process unfolded in a grassroots, coalitional nature resulting in a diverse set of participants.

A few days before the historic event was to occur, I met up with Gautam Bhan, co-editor of the successful, queer anthology "Because I Have a Voice," and a queer activist involved in planning Delhi Queer Pride. At a favorite queer haunt near Connaught Place, we sipped fizzy drinks and nibbled at soggy potato chips. I asked Gautam to chat with me about Delhi queer pride and the larger social and global factors which have influenced India's queer movement.

* * *

Amber Vora: Could you tell me how Delhi Queer Pride came to be this year? Or... since it is also happening in Kolkata and Bangalore, is it being thought of more as an India-wide pride?

Gautam Bhan: Well, we do think of it as Delhi queer pride. I think it's wonderful that we have been able to integrate across three cities, but it has been each city autonomously linking up. One thing we did was we issued a joint national press release because we wanted it to be apparent that we are choosing to do this on the same day. Kolkata has been doing pride for a couple of years now, and so every year there's talk of, "Oh, we should as well." This year somehow the elements just somehow fell into place for Delhi and for Bangalore.

What essentially happened was that some of us sent an e-mail around saying, "Friends in Kolkata are saying we should join—let's call a planning meeting for Monday at 6 [p.m.] and see what happens." This group of people became the group that planned the logistics. What was really good about it is that no organization called it, no individual called it. It actually was a community effort, a bunch of random people who came on Monday evening and are now the pride committee. And people kept joining every day, so it's been completely open.

AV: What specific elements have created the environment so that things fell into place, as you say, to make queer pride happen this year in Delhi?

I think it is the culmination of a longer process, you know, an idea whose time has come. I think in the last five to 10 years, queer spaces in urban India have expanded incredibly: film, books, Internet, social spaces, physical spaces. You can sense people's attitudes changing. Delhi now has four gay club nights a week—ten years ago, you would not have imagined the spaces that there are in the city today.

We also knew the media would be positive and supportive, we knew that we had enough numbers of people who would show up, and the fact that 40 people showed up [to the planning meeting]... I mean, the first pride to walk in Kolkata was 15 people, and there were 40 people just at the planning meeting!

So, I think it represents a certain coming of age of the community, I think we have come to a point where we have enough of a foothold and enough security to say "We have something positive to say." Because earlier what happened is that our public presence was protesting an arrest, a violation... so you only came in these very specific instances. And what we wanted was a sort of claim to the everyday public life of the city, a claim to an everyday demand for dignity, nothing extraordinary, nothing related to violation, but just an everyday space.

Also, for a certain generation of queer people growing up to say "Delhi has pride every year," that means something. That means there's a space, a visual image, some kind of claim. Growing up in the 80s there was nothing. There was no film, no book, no reflection of your life—you had to make it up on your own. And that's totally not true today. I think this is a culmination of that.

AV: So in India queer rights have come a long way recently. Some of this is due to changes inside of India. Are there also factors outside of India, global forces that have had an influence?

It's interesting. Part of it is global shifts—the country is very attuned to what's happening across the globe and across the border. Nepal's declaration of the new constitution and its outlawing discrimination on sexualities is an enormous step, right?

But also there's an openness of attitude about all kinds of sexualities, not just queer sexualities, all kinds of sexualities. A preponderance of the young who are willing to question and change and move, a changing economic climate where more people have economic independence, where they are able to take risks that they wouldn't take [previously]; a change in the media, at least the English language media, which has been so supportive of queer causes in the last five of years. Newspapers have taken editorial stands. People step up to volunteer. [There's also been] a great expansion of non-queer support spaces [for queer people]—non-queer groups and activists and individuals who have really made a difference.

And I think we are part of a larger change. I don't think there's any particular thing that we as activists did that made it happen, but we were part of it, [as well as] all of those things: cultural, economic, media influence, globalization movements. And I say globalization very lightly, not in the sense of "Oh, we've been exposed to the West and so we've learned." I don't think it's that at all. I think we've seen it grow within, internally and we've seen it take positive and negative aspects. One of our problems was that we were constantly told 10 years ago that we were Western imports, that homosexuality was Western. So globalization actually hurt us much more than it helped us for a long time.

Now at the same point, the money and funding that came in from abroad was not for sexuality it was for HIV. So the biggest problem was, in a country where homosexuality and HIV were not linked like they were in the West, funding made those links for the first time. So, we were in this very complicated relationship with the West. [Also, it's important to] realize that the queer movement in India has come from very different places [than in the West]. Partly because it's come from deep within the labor and feminist movements, it's come from a very left progressive space. It's a very different understanding of what it means for liberation, for freedom, and what the movement wants. So, you know I think it's taken its own journey.

AV: Earlier you mentioned that you were talking to a reporter from San Francisco who assumed that pride in India would be like a lot like pride over there. Can you tell me a little bit more about the differences?

The biggest difference is that pride in India is still part-protest, part-celebration, part a call for dignity, part a claim for public space, part-assertion and part-fear. It's not a good time—you can think about earlier prides. You can think about the early 70s in New York and San Francisco. That would be comparable. Pride is on Sunday. I still think on Saturday night all the people who [plan to] go will take a deep breath and fight a sleepless night and be scared, all of us. There is still so much to do. There are still laws over your head, there's still no protection. And no matter how much we are fighting and our spaces are growing, I think of them as these expanding bubbles that are still really fragile, and every once in awhile something will happen to remind you about how fragile they are. We don't see pride as a party or a celebration, we see it very much still about that basic claim to public space.

The second thing that's really important about it is that it's really important for us that Pride be community-run and community-funded. I don't know what will happen in 10 years or 20 years. But I think for us, it's important that the community know that it can do it by itself. The process of organizing Pride is actually as important as pride itself. The time for that has passed in the States—the battles are different, the spaces are different, the moments are different, the need for Pride is different. And so it has evolved into something else, and it's not something good or bad or better or worse, it's different moments and different needs and different forms.

AV: There was, though, the decision to have Delhi Pride or India Pride on the same weekend as many of these other global Pride parades—can you speak to that?

For Delhi, it was not that we were matching New York or Paris or Lisbon. We were matching Kolkata. It was important for all the Indian cities to have pride at the same time. I think Kolkata pays allegiance to Stonewall [the famous uprising at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City bar, against police harassment that sparked the gay rights movement in the U.S. on June 29, 1969.] And I think it does and does so rightly. I think as a global Queer history that can be claimed—it's not an unquestioning or uncritical claiming, it's not that "Stonewall is our history." We know Stonewall is not our history. It is a history that we have a certain allegiance to and a history that we want to claim in certain ways, but we know the battle is very different.

I think there is a certain need to ally without mimicking or ally without being dominated and I think it's wonderful that Indian queer spaces feel the ability to draw not just from the States. Queer history is everywhere. I mean I think that Nepal has had more of an impact, the decriminalization in China, Thailand's efforts, Ecuador's constitution, South Africa's constitution etc. To us, they are closer battles. And you will hear this reinforced when the judges in our courts will say, "Forget the U.S., what has Nepal done? What's China done?" You sense those affinities.

AV: Have there been any differences of opinion or criticism within Queer communities about the decision to have a pride march? If so, what is your response?

Actually not so much. We were talking about this the other day. The meeting we organized the other day was one of the happiest meetings we had in so long because no one had died, no one had committed suicide, no one was arrested, no one was in jail. Nothing immediate had gone horribly wrong. And people clapped at the end of the meeting, they were so excited. The whole discussion was [about] badges or banners or flyers or what or who. And it was kind of this happy excited time. It was actually one of those spaces where people are so excited about it.

The non-activists are involved and the community is involved. People wanted this space, they want to celebrate. People want to be happy. It was important for us to take that sexuality discussion and bring it out of the mire of human rights violations. People aren't depressed and ready to kill themselves at every moment; they are happy. It was so good to see these younger boys and girls say, "I'll do the badges" and "I do the party," "What will you wear?" "What will I wear?" "Who's going to come?" Mix with that a sense of tension... "Can I wear a mask?" "Can I hide my identity?" "Will I be able to do it?"

And then people have been writing in emails, dozens a day, saying, "I'm so happy. You can't imagine how happy it makes me." People who are in the diaspora. Someone wrote in and said, "I'm a fourth year student at this university. I live in a hostel. I can't do this now. I graduate in May. I'll be there next year." It's been a while since you had that kind of energy and excitement. Actually, this is the ideal of Pride where it brings people together. It makes people happy, makes people feel like they have a sense of belonging. So it's been really good.

* * *

A few days later, I attended the parade and it was really good. That's what I also heard back from the dozens of people I interviewed. I arrived early at the site of the march, and the buzz of excitement blended with fear permeated the crowd of several hundred. Friends greeted and hugged one another giddily, rainbow flags and placards in Hindi and English were circulated, while those who preferred anonymity donned rainbow-colored masks.

One young man in masquerade who exclaimed, "When I heard there would be this kind of platform in Delhi, I was so excited! But I'm so scared as well because, just over this bridge, you see? That flyover over there? My family is just there, and I don't want them or any up our neighbors to see, that is why I'm wearing this mask."

The masks provided a modicum of protection from the overwhelming media presence. One quickly got dizzy dodging cameras. Several friends tried to protect those who preferred not to be caught on camera with their bodies, while I (increasingly ashamed to be wearing my journalist hat) pulled the pushy cameraman aside to have a word.

The gathering was remarkably diverse and I interviewed lesbian and bisexual women, gay men, transgendered people of varying stripes and a large number of straight allies who had come to support friends and family members. Although many spoke in crisp English, a significant number preferred or spoke only Hindi.

As Gautam explained earlier, the event was in part a claim to public space. And yet, there also seemed to be a paradox of visibility. Although swarmed by TV and print media, many passersby remained confused about the nature of the march, despite the placards and large numbers of people whose gender expression, I thought, easily read as queer.

The route ended on a street commonly designated for political marches and encampments where I interviewed a group of observing laborers. When asked if they knew what the march was about, they speculated amongst one another before one suggested, "Something about China?" Perhaps they were unaccustomed to issues regarding sexuality, let alone queer sexuality, coinciding with organized demonstrations. As consumers of Hindi language media which, until recently, had not covered queer issues as frequently or sympathetically as the English-language media, perhaps they had also had less exposure to the issues.

When I explained the nature of the parade, one nodded in recognition muttering the word "Samlaingik" and responded disapprovingly. Yet, his attitude seemed to convey that changing times were inevitable. "This is wrong," he said. "And what is wrong is wrong. But this is the new generation and it's their way of thinking... but still, it is wrong."

During media interviews, several people emphasized linkages between larger issues of gender and sexuality which transgress the narrower identity politics that dominate North American queer movements. They explained how the discrimination and challenges faced by single mothers and sex workers, for example, were linked to queer struggles.

As the march proceeded, the large numbers of stone-faced policemen dispatched to walk with the crowd were often caught joking and laughing with participants. Such warmth was, perhaps, somewhat of an illusion. As one hijra I interviewed remarked scornfully, "Today, they protect us because all the cameras are here, but tomorrow they will abuse and harass us again."

Although heavy monsoon clouds began to fill the late afternoon sky, with each passing block the crowd's mood brightened. Excitement prevailed over fear and many participants took off their masks and threw their voices wholeheartedly into the songs and chants. One slogan struck me both for its simplicity and ability to excite those yelling it. It was simple proclamation of sexual identities, rhythmically declaring: "Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender." A group of mostly women became increasingly giddy, laughing and grinning at one another as they chanted, yelling a little bit louder each time.

Pramada Menon, a sexuality rights activist, commented that she was pleasantly surprised that there wasn't more backlash. Later, a newspaper article reported a senior leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP party had decided not to "give more importance" to the march by protesting it. Perhaps, this was a lesson learned from the Fire debacle a decade ago when the conservative Shiv Sena had launched a campaign of attacks against Deepa Mehta's film for its depiction of a lesbian relationship. The protest had ignited not only counter-protests, but also a national conversation on the topic.

One of the central themes of the march was the call for the repeal of the Indian Penal Code 377. Months later, the issue is before the courts and the outcome remains uncertain. While the Home Ministry has been fighting to keep 377 on the books, the High Court has scolded the government for talking about homosexuality as a disease. The contradictory feelings of the court and government are undoubtedly reflective of the mixed feelings in society at large. What is certain is that demands for human rights, dignity and tolerance for people of varying sexualities and gender identities in India have reached a critical momentum. As one of the chants from the parade promised, Queer Andolaan Zindabad!, this movement has finally reached the public discourse and will continue to engage a changing India in the years and decades to come.

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