A ‘pride’ that roared on the streets of Kolkata yet again
On a muggy July afternoon in 1999, 15 people gathered at Park Circus Maidan in the heart of Kolkata dressed in bright yellow T-shirts that said Friendship Walk on one side and ‘Walk into People’s Heart’ on the reverse.Updated: Jun 29, 2019 22:12 IST
On a muggy July afternoon in 1999, 15 people gathered at Park Circus Maidan in the heart of Kolkata dressed in bright yellow T-shirts that said Friendship Walk on one side and ‘Walk into People’s Heart’ on the reverse.
They walked around the field, and then down Gariahat road distributing pamphlets, before splitting off to talk to activists and officials. By the time darkness descended, they had accomplished India’s first queer pride march.
Twenty years later this Saturday, those 15, along with members of Kolkata’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community came together to mark the anniversary of the landmark event with a bright show that stood in stark contrast to the more demure original, a befitting acknowledgement of the colossal strides made in recent years.
“It is really a special occasion in more ways than one. No one would have imagined 20 years ago that we would see such a day, when such judgments could come in India,” said Pawan Dhall, founder of Varta Trust, in a reference to two Supreme Court judgments decriminalising homosexuality in 2018 and affirming transgender rights in 2014.
A symbolic walk inaugurated the two-day celebrations as people danced on the streets in bright colours, waving the rainbow flags and shouting slogans. Sunday will mark the seventh edition of the LGBT pride march in the small southern Bengal town of Chandannagar, underlining how swiftly pride walks have mushroomed in smaller towns, now at around 30 across India.
For Dhall and others, planning the 1999 event came with a lot of consternation. There was little visibility of queer sexualities at the time, and a section of the budding movement had coalesced a year before during right-wing protests against the Hindi movie, Fire, that depicted a lesbian relationship. The planners exchanged many anxious emails even as planned participation from other cities petered out. “Finally Kolkata was chosen for its history of sociopolitical movements. The name itself, Friendship Walk, was also somewhat safe; at the time, saying LGBT rights was a bold thing,” explained Dhall.
A strong judicial challenge to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized homosexuality, was still two years away (a previous petition filed in 1994 had languished in court with no movement), the nascent internet was making possible queer interaction, dating and conversation in anonymised chatrooms even as people met for sex or companionship in public toilets, bus stands, parks or railway stations. “I remember many people asking us what the walk was about,” said Aditya Mohnot, a participant.
The team had identified the West Bengal Human Rights Commission as a potential ally, but met with hostility when they reached the office. “The official we met was aghast and asked why we had come to them. We tried to explain that LGBT people suffer human rights violation but he just couldn’t imagine such a thing could happen,” said Dhall.
At the time, the only support structure for LGBT people was small groups or clubs existed – such as Humsafar Trust in Mumbai or Counsel Club in Kolkata – where people went or wrote letters to, often from small towns and villages.
The letters enclosed a multitude of emotions, from loathing of the self and family, and fear of forced marriages, to hope about the future and desire for love. “We were at a very different stage then. Today we can say no one will go back to the closet; at that time, going out on the streets was unnerving. We didn’t know what would happen,” said Dhall.
The celebrations gave way to reflections about the way ahead for the LGBT community that continues to battle violence, bias, unemployment and homelessness even after the reading down of Section 377.
Activist Raina Roy pointed out that a year before the Friendship Walk, transwomen and sex workers took to the streets and asserted their voice – thought it was not a pride walk. “The contribution of working class, transpeople, and sex workers is in danger of being forgotten,”she said. Sintu Bagui, another activist, said she was not sure how much such celebrations reached grassroots LGBT people, whom, she said, were driven by dire livelihood concerns.
Still, others argued about the importance of marking LGBT history. To Sukhdeep Singh, an IT professional and editor of Gaylaxy Magazine, the 1999 event gave him the confidence to be out as a gay man. “It made me feel safe,” he said.