LGBT Activists March, Pull off Masks in India

Deepali Gaur Singh

LGBT rights activists marching in Gay Pride Parades in India argued that criminalization of homosexuality is a remnant of colonial rule, and that Hindu mythology recognizes sexual minorities.

Amidst the riotous colors of rainbow-colored
flags, boas and saris, the beating drums and slogan-shouting and an atmosphere
of defiance and celebration, sexual minorities made themselves heard
in the three cities of Bangalore, Delhi and Calcutta at the Gay Pride Parade
on June 29 — a first-time for many, a decade old for some. This day was
chosen by representatives of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
community to commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969
in New York, sparking the gay rights movement nationwide. In possibly
the largest display of gay pride of its kind in India, LGBT activists chanted
for their rights, to end discrimination and push for acceptance in a
society where intolerance is widespread and where homosexual acts are
illegal. As thousands of people in another part of the world
celebrated the slow, state-by-state legalization of same-sex marriage,
in India the fight is for the decriminalization homosexuality itself.

Activists waved banners stating "377 Quit India," calling for the removal of Section 377 of the Indian
Penal Code
that continues
to make homosexuality illegal in the country, 145 years after it was first criminalized under the British rule. The banners referred to the anti-colonial Quit India movement and implied that Section 377 is an unneeded colonial leftover. And Hindu mythology, replete with references to transgenders and
sexual minorities, points to evidence of, if not the acceptance but,
at least the existence of these sexual minorities. Despite the concepts
of masculinity and virility, Arjun, a great warrior of the Mahabharat,
is known to have disguised himself as Brihannala, a
transgender dancer
(and
an accomplished one at that) during exile. Ayyappa is the son of Shiva
(a male God) and Vishnu (another male God but in the incarnation of
an enchantress). Shikhandi was
the warrior in the epic Mahabharata that no one could kill because he
was ‘neither man nor woman.’ The 15th
century Hindu epic, Krittivasi Ramayan, refers to "children of two wombs,"
believed to be born to two women.

The significance of the march is even greater, coming at a time when the Delhi High Court was expected to hear
arguments on overturning the law that forbids homosexual acts and carries
a punishment of up to 10 years in prison. The high court subsequently
directed the central government to clarify its stance on homosexuality
considering that the home ministry favors punishment (in line with
the current law), while the health ministry, looking at it from the
perspective of health monitoring, opposes enforcing this law. The law is rarely enforced, but its very existence institutionalizes discrimination and exploitation in every sphere of
life, professional and personal.

Calcutta has been organizing the Rainbow
Pride Parade since 1999. That it has taken almost a decade for it to
catch up in other cities speaks to the insulation that the LGBT community lives in. And this was amply
reflected in the myriad masks, rather than faces, that made up the group
of marchers. While many did unmasked themselves
and announced themselves to the public, the symbolism cannot be
missed here for those who understand the dynamics of survival for sexual
minorities in Indian society. The reality of discrimination and the
fear of ostracism continue to dog every attempt members of the LGBT community make to become a part of
mainstream society.

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More urbane, educated groups are able to find their support networks even if they operate more clandestinely. Urban support, through movie screenings and newspaper editorials
and petitions calling for revisions in the law by prominent writers
and activists, is quite evident; it is those, particularly in the transgender community, from less privileged
backgrounds who find themselves vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds
from the administrative system and society as well. Ghettoized and invisible, they live their lives
on the peripheries of society, forced to eke out their living through
traditional methods: they are viewed as harbingers of good fortune if they turn up at your threshold before major family functions like marriages, child births or other auspicious occasions (though these were probably disguised methods of giving up a child
of ‘uncertain’ gender by his or her family to the community of transgender people). Revered and
feared simultaneously, as it is culturally believed that their curses
are as potent as their blessings, survival has taught them to use the
society’s discomfort with them by developing their own style of aggressive
begging.

But it is their lives as sex workers which are marked
by exploitation and vulnerability with no access to any support, information
or even available health care facilities. This is particularly
important given that the HIV infection rate among gays has been on the
rise with Bangalore, reporting every
fifth gay as positive

according to a report from the National AIDS Control Organization and
the National Institute of Health and Family Welfare. In 2004 it was
already high, at ten percent, a trend that is being reflected in many
cities across the country.

The change, albeit slow, is palpable.
In 1996, conservative right-wing groups demanded
the ban of the film ‘Fire,’ because of a lesbian relationship between
two sisters-in-law. Over
a decade later, while the march itself was condemned by the same right-wing
leadership, no opposition surfaced during the event itself. And yet you have the poignant
tale of the gay prince of Rajpipla disinherited by his family due to his sexual
orientation.

The march itself, whether under the
banners of ‘Bengaluru Pride 2008′ or ‘Queer Dilliwalla’ (The
Queer of Delhi), was not just protesting social rejection but also the
discrimination faced particularly by transgenders in getting voter identity
cards, ration cards, passports, driving licenses and other official
documents. Marchers were also demanding better housing, education, employment,
savings and credit facilities, insurance, old age pension and shelter
homes. Ironically, the state of Madhya Pradesh, which has not witnessed
a march of this kind, has already had a member from the LGBT community in
the state assembly, an indicator of the impact proactive measures
of assimilation into the mainstream can have on groups. Over time she
was recognized not just as a representative of the sexual minority community
but someone working for the local community issues as well.

The government
in Tamil Nadu, in southern India, will soon undertake a census of transgenders in the state to facilitate the distribution
of identity cards for them. The government will also include
the category of transgender under sex in application forms for education
institutions.

Laws in civil society play an
important role in channeling the manner in which issues are handled
both administratively and socially, but a law can be rendered ineffectual
if society does not engage proactively towards this change. While the
onus has been on LGBT individuals to "come out of the closet,"
and their visibility in the mainstream is responsible for moving discussion forward, the crucial question is
how much are we, as a society, moving towards complete assimilation
and acceptance, and not merely tolerance?

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