Sagnik Dutta Posted online: Tuesday , Jun 16, 2009 at 0048 hrs
Come June 28 this year and the “queer” community shall throng the bustling streets of major Indian cities once again; this time Chennai will join Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata. Timed to coincide with the anniversary of the historical Stonewall riots — a vehement 1969 protest by New York City’s LGBT community following a police raid at a gay bar in Greenwich Village — the Indian gay pride parade attempts to counter prejudice against the queer community through an enthusiastic and strident — some would say paradoxical — celebration and affirmation of sexual diversity.
A post in the official blog of Delhi Queer Pride reads: “Queer Pride is a celebration. It is about loving who we are, whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, hijra or straight, and affirming everyone’s right to be respected.” Celebration of what is still perceived by some moralists as “deviant” sexuality is indeed a unique form of protest. Also, a closer examination of the preparations for the parade and the subtle symbolism associated with it gives us a window into the complex concerns of the gay rights movement in India.
Consider the parade’s organising committee. It tries to reflect the heterogeneity of the queer community, as well as the diverse concerns that are inextricably linked to the gay rights movement in India. Members of the committee are associated with several other organisations; and yet there is a conscious effort to organise the event as a collective effort of various individuals rather than as tied into any specific organisation. That could be seen as an attempt to voice the movement’s varying concerns without prioritising one concern over any other. As one committee member, Ponni Arasu, also a researcher with the Alternative Law Forum observes, “Each of the causes that these organisations are fighting for is equally important for the larger movement. While Nigaah is initiating discussions on representations of sexuality in the media in the intellectual social space, Sangama and Naa [work] closely with hijras and kothis. It is important to see that none of these voices of dissent are marginalised.” The decision to organise the first LGBT pride march in Chennai — preceded by a series of events to increase community awareness, including the launch of a Human Rights Watch Report on sodomy laws on June 20 — also implies a gradual expansion of the horizons of the movement. Arasu again: “The plan is to gradually reach out to even the small towns of the country where the exposure to the media and therefore to contemporary debates about sexuality is limited.”
The organiser’s ambitious aspirations notwithstanding, the pride parade has to be firmly grounded in contemporary reality. This is amply borne out by the choice made by several participants last year to wear a mask that conceals their identity. Isn’t the donning of a mask in a procession which aims at affirmation in a sense self-defeating? One activist, Aditya Bandopadhyay, thinks otherwise: “The mask can emerge as a poignant symbol of protest, a concrete representation of the claustrophobia that homosexuals feel.” Besides, some straight men sympathetic to the gay cause could also prefer to wear masks while taking part in a pride parade. After all, says one organiser, Rahul Singh, “the comfort level of individuals with their orientation varies considerably, which is why we respect the decision of people preferring to wear a mask.”
Another prominent area of debate within the queer community has been around the distribution of HIV leaflets, condoms and lubes in a gay pride parade. True, there are multiple implications as well as symbolic associations of this act of distribution, in this specific social context; and putting safe sex front-and-centre can counter any stereotypes about the promiscuous in the queer community and its vulnerability to HIV-AIDS. However, it could also be read as an act of sensationalism, instead reinforcing the fallacious notion that the LGBT community is primarily responsible for HIV’s spread.
Thus the problematic nature of specific aspects of, and concerns within, the gay rights movement can be seen to surface during the organisation of the pride parade. There’s criticism of public “bandying about” one’s orientation, something which is essentially “personal” to an individual. But in the context of the queer community, the pride parade is an effort to gradually reclaim public social spaces that have been historically denied to a marginalised community.
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