How a ‘pink book’ paved the way for equal rights for LGBT community
“Many people deny that homosexuality exists in India, dismissing it as a phenomenon of the industrialised world. Others acknowledge its presence but condemn it as a capitalist aberration, a concern too individualistic to warrant attention in a poor country like ours. Still others label it a disease to be cured, an abnormality to be set right, a crime to be punished. The present report has been prepared with a view to showing how none of these views can stand the test of empirical reality or plain and simple common sense.”
This is how a small, 70-page booklet with a pink cover titled “Less than gay: A citizen’s report” on the status of homosexuality in India starts. Published in 1991 by a collective called the Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), the report was the first document of its kind that broke the silence around the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT).
“What struck me about the Less than Gay report was its rigour and how it drew on historical and theoretical discourses. Less than Gay was the first such document on gay and lesbian lives in India,” said Jaya Sharma, an activist who knew Siddharth Gautam, a young advocate who co-founded ABVA, and worked extensively on the report with the group. A film festival in his memory was started in 1993.
One of the most powerful aspects of Less Than Gay was its detailing of LGBT stories from around India — from Mizoram in the Northeast to Siliguri in north Bengal to Virar in Mumbai. It spoke to a wide range of LGBT experiences, from violence, heartbreak, loneliness, to the thrill of discovering finding companionship.
“Less than Gay, which we call the Pink Book, broke the silence around homosexuality. It tempted you to come out,” said Maya Sharma, a 68-year-old Baroda-based activist.
The 1990s were a tumultuous time for the public expression of gender and sexuality in India. The ABVA filed a petition against Section 377 in 1994 in the Delhi high court but it lay in cold storage. Outside the courts, though, the world was changing.
In 1991, Delhi-based activist Giti Thadani started a network called Sakhi where lesbian women could communicate via letters. In the same year, Delhi-based women’s group Jagori started a research project on single women (Ekal Aurat). Several of them would met informally in each other’s homes. “Some of us were not open to using English terminologies, preferring to use ‘sakhi’ which pertains to female friendship, and which allowed women to address their sexual identity while retaining privacy,” recalled Maya of her association with Jagori.
Pratibha Parmar, a London-based filmmaker of Indian origin was prolific at this time, making short films that dealt with women’s sexuality.
Riyad Wadia’s Bomgay and A mermaid called Aida were released in 1996. Both short films dealt with queerness, the latter was a film about a famous trans-woman called Aida Banaji, a well known personality in the Bombay of the 1980s. Contemporary artist Bhupen Kakkar routinely depicted same-sex intimacy on canvas.
Organisations such as Kolkata’s Counsel Club, Mumbai’s Humsafar Trust and Delhi’s Sangini would receive letters Expression of diverse sexuality also flowered in smaller towns filled with curiosity and questions surrounding same-sex desire.
Notions of what it meant to be trans and public were also changing. “When we were young, we saw older transpeople sitting in small circles, spending their evenings in adda at Esplanade, at Curzon park. We didn’t have big celebrations like now, but our festivities were in the everyday. We would go for picnics, run away from home for trips, bunk college for picnics. We didn’t have the internet and our everyday celebration was like oxygen, we couldn’t live without it,” said Raina Roy, a Kolkata-based activist.
“The word transgender was not very familiar for us. I remember the first time I was inspired was at a sex workers’ rally.”
In the later half of the 90s, films such as Fire and Darmiyan also moved the needle on portrayal of queer and intersex characters. “For the first time, people like us were shown on the screen. The halls would be empty but we would go again and again,” said Roy. The impact of Less Than Gay lives to this day. Rakesh, a 27-year old resident of Nadia district in West Bengal (he goes by only his first name) remembers reading the report as a lonely adolescent. “The place I grew up, there was no one who looked like me. The report changed my life. I learnt there were people other than me, who felt like me.”
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