Marching for LGBT rights in India

August 25, 2009

ON AUGUST 16, over 1,500 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and straight folks took the streets in Mumbai, both celebrating gay pride in India and demanding an end to political inequality. By all accounts, it was the largest pride march in India to date.

As the mainstream media reported, it was a diverse crowd that defied a swine flu scare to march for LGBT rights and recognition. Singing, walking and dancing to drums and loud music, drag queens in fishnet stockings and high heels mixed with men and women in traditional saris and mundus. Same-sex couples, freely walking arm-in-arm, were joined by their relatives, parents and coworkers.

Underlying the carnival atmosphere was a hard, political edge. Every aspect of the march was clearly designed to reinforce the message that LGBT individuals are an integral part of the Indian fabric, that they ought to be treated as equal to all other individuals and that they are organized and ready to win their rights.

In terms of symbolism, the organizers directly linked their calls for democracy and equality to the anti-colonial struggle against the British. The event was dubbed the "Queer Azadi March" by activists ("azadi" or "azaadi" is the Urdu/Hindi word for "freedom"). The annual march takes place on the day after India's Independence Day (August 15), contrasting the celebration of political freedom with the marginalization of the LGBT community. This year, the route began at the historic August Kranti Maidan, where Mohandas Gandhi called for the British to "quit India" in 1942.

Moreover, Sunday's march was a celebration of a hard-fought political victory. On July 2, the Delhi High Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a holdover from British colonial law of the 1860s that criminalized homosexuality. Leading up to July, Hindu, Muslim and Christian organizations--united at last!--had led a public campaign to defend 377 against the repeal movement that had been growing in strength for a number of years.

As the Times of India reported, veteran gay activist Ashok Row Kavi underlined the importance of the court's decision at the start of the march: "This is for the first time in India that the LGBT community is marching not as criminals, but as citizens with equal rights."

March participants felt the same way. D. Smita told The Indian Express, "It's liberating that I can come out and stand proudly with my daughter."

BUT ORGANIZERS and activists are not resting on their laurels; they are using this victory to press for greater change. As the press release for the Queer Azadi March recognizes, there is a need to fight against the appeals to the supreme court to overturn the high court's decision and to take a stand against the open homophobia and hate being preached on TV by fundamentalist organizations.

Activists' demands include: provisions in the constitution dealing with discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexuality; the extension of all rights to transgender people, currently not recognized in society or law; the re-education of the medical community to be sensitive to LGBT needs and to cease attempts to "cure" gays; and the active prevention of forced heterosexual marriages of gays.

The slogans at Sunday's march reinforced the organizers' idea that "the Queer Azadi March is not just for queer people." One woman carrying a sign that read "Proud Mother of a Gay Son" came to Mumbai from a long distance in order to send the message that parents need to be supportive. Other messages like "Hetero Homo Bhai Bhai" and "Queer Hua To Darna Kya?" humorously refered to old political slogans and even Bollywood cinema to emphasize unity and fight fear.

The fight for LGBT equality is on the move in India. This kind of organizing will help prevent the religious right's attempts to reinstate Section 377 and turn the clock back.
Pranav Jani, Columbus, Ohio

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