Gay Pride Delhi-Style

For a city of 14 million people, a gathering of a couple of hundred may seem minuscule. But for Delhi’s gay community, the turnout at their first-ever Queer Pride this Sunday was beyond belief.

Over 500 marchers carrying rainbow-colored flags and "Queer Dilliwalla" banners marched to bhangra beats, breaking into Bollywood-style pelvic thrusts and bust-heaving from time to time. Starting from Barakhamba Road in the heart of the city’s business district – at which point the media seemed to outnumber the marchers – they walked 2 km to Jantar Mantar, an 18th century astronomical observatory that has become the unlikely hub of sundry protests in India’s capital.

Along the way, they were joined by NGO workers and advocates of all causes, droves of tourists and resident expatriates, and a handful of curious onlookers, all shouting "British Law Quit India!" They were evoking the famous slogan from India’s freedom struggle, but referring here to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which was introduced by the British to criminalize sexual acts "against the order of nature." Perhaps even more unexpectedly, few marchers wore masks – which the organizers had provided for those who haven’t come out – and there were no protests from religious or socially conservative groups. "This is amazing," said Ranjit Monga, a public relations executive, "No one would’ve believed 10 years ago a gay parade was possible in Delhi."

Sunday’s march was a landmark, especially for a city long accustomed to sexual repression, and now grappling with a newfound permissiveness brought about by economic liberalization, and aided in no small measure by satellite TV and the Internet. Other metro cities like Kolkata and Bangalore have been holding Queer Pride marches for a couple of years now, but this was the first in Delhi, considered more conservative than some of its metro sisters. Unlike the mostly university-educated, urban crowd that marched in Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore’s marches attract people from all classes as well as rural areas.

It took years of activism and advocacy – particularly fervent over the last few years – to make Delhi’s Queer Pride possible. In 2004, Voices Against 377, an umbrella group of 12 NGOs working on a range of issues from women’s rights to HIV/AIDS, was formed to file a case in the Delhi High Court against Section 377. (The case will have its final hearing on July 2 this year.) In 2006, celebrated author Vikram Seth wrote an open letter against Section 377, which was signed by the likes of Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen. "We just felt the time was right and Delhi was ready," says Gautam Bhan, a city planner and gay activist, "We have come a long way from the ridiculous attitude that there are no gays in India. With this march, we hope to move from saying ‘Hey, we exist!’ to issues like respect and dignity." A steady gay scene has slowly evolved in most metro cities including Delhi, and mainstream magazines like Time Out list gay socials. "Even smaller cities have a thriving gay scene today," says Monga, "It happens on the quiet, but it’s there. Attitudes have definitely changed. If you don’t wave your sexuality in people’s faces, they let you be. There are jokes sometimes, but no organized anti-queer violence as in the West." But, as Bhan admits, there may be greater resistance in future as the movement becomes more widespread and successful.

On Sunday, though, the mood was euphoric. "It’s been great fun," said Mather George, an anthropologist from San Francisco. "I missed the dykes on bikes, the naked people and the music, but I guess they’ll get there!" There was much back-slapping and an ecstatic sense of accomplishment. "Delhi has come out and spoken about the kind of people we want to be," said Bhan. "This is not just about queer rights, it’s about women’s rights, about Dalits, about justice for everyone." But the enthusiasm wasn’t shared by the passersby, many of whom looked on perplexed or peeved. Passengers in a bus that stopped near the marchers said they had no clue what the rainbow flags stood for or what the marchers were doing. Even the three men beating the bhangra drums for the marchers – Monu, Mahesh and Inder Bhat – said they had no clue what the march was about. "We came to play so everyone could dance and have a nice time. That’s all we know." The march was clearly only a beginning.

Madhur Singh, for TIME Magazine

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