BE­YOND THE RAIN­BOW

There are now pride marches in Bhopal,

Hindustan Times (Lucknow) - - Think! - Lav­ina Mulchan­dani lav­ina.mulchan­dani@htlive.com

Lucknow and Panaji, Nag­pur, Guwa­hati and Chandi­garh. These pa­rades fea­ture tra­di­tional wear and folk dance. The tone is not one of re­bel­lion, but a re­minder: we’re here, we’re part of the com­mu­nity too

In Lucknow, they march in silk saris and pagdis. In Chandi­garh, they dance the gidda. Guwa­hati’s gay walk is silent. In Nag­pur, they wear kur­tas, pa­ja­mas — and masks.

The LGBTQI move­ment is mov­ing to smaller cities and towns, and tak­ing on in­ter­est­ing new avatars. Signs in re­gional lan­guages, lit­er­a­ture care­fully trans­lated to avoid shock or of­fence, meet­ings held at chau­ra­has — the ef­fort is to in­clude the com­mu­nity rather than rebel against the main­stream.

“When I at­tended the march in Delhi last year, I was shocked by the dif­fer­ences,” says Mao Debojit Gogoi, 20, a stu­dent from Guwa­hati, laugh­ing. “Delhi’s was loud, there were out­ra­geous cos­tumes and so much make-up. Guwa­hati’s was quiet and calm, like a smoothly flow­ing river.”

In the met­ros — Delhi, Mum­bai, Kolkata and Ben­galuru — the pride marches are be­tween 8 and 18 years old, and have grown big­ger and louder in that time. Gi­ant flags, rain­bow-coloured wigs, self­ies with tongues stick­ing out and cos­tumes that range from uni­sex rain­bow drapes to uni­corn hats.

Big city marches are al­most as­pi­ra­tional — they look like marches any­where in the de­vel­oped world; peo­ple straight, gay and from across the sex­ual-iden­tity spec­trum par­tic­i­pate; it’s a big bash open to any­one who is, or wants to seem, lib­eral / en­light­ened / woke.

In Mum­bai, 14,000 par­tic­i­pated in the 2017 march. Bhopal, Lucknow and Panaji hosted their first LGBTQ pride marches in 2017. Chandi­garh hosted its fifth, Guwa­hati its fourth and Nag­pur its third. Each of these drew be­tween 50 and 300 peo­ple.

As with the cos­tumes, the marches have names that in­voke a sense of re­gional iden­tity and pride. The Lucknow pride pa­rade is called the Awadh Gau­rav Ya­tra; Nag­pur’s is called the Or­ange City Pride March; Chandi­garh’s, the Gar­vot­sav. The cos­tumes, signs and lan­guage are all part of an ef­fort to re­mind on­look­ers — we’re one of you.

Ac­tivists from Mum­bai and Kolkata have been help­ing or­gan­ise the marches, and they’re hav­ing to do things very dif­fer­ently here.

“In the smaller cities and towns, there is a con­scious ef­fort to move away from the Western im­age of the cause. We re­alised that we needed to por­tray this as a desi move­ment if it was to gain mo­men­tum or ac­cep­tance,” says Pallav Patankar, a gen­der and sex­u­al­ity con­sul­tant from Mum­bai. “In these ar­eas, the em­pha­sis is on re­mind­ing on­look­ers that it is the bias against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity that is a Western im­port; that our myths and epics, our his­tory, em­braced the sex­u­al­ity spec­trum long ago.”

REACH­ING OUT

In smaller cities, the move­ment has found that it ben­e­fits from be­ing as­so­ci­ated with other so­cial groups and ini­tia­tives — via as­sorted NGOs, po­lit­i­cal out­fits and ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions. “That’s how we get an au­di­ence to be­gin build­ing a crowd,” says Dhananjay Chauhan Mangalmukhi, di­rec­tor of the Chandi­garh gay-rights NGO Sak­sham Trust.

The head­quar­ters of the gay rights move­ment in Nag­pur, a dimly lit room next to a chai-ka­chori stall, has posters of the god­dess Laxmi and BR Ambed­kar on the walls.

In Chandi­garh, Sak­sham Trust tied up with Pan­jab Uni­ver­sity ahead of last year’s march. On the ban­ners, in large print, was men­tion of col­lab­o­ra­tions with the Cana­dian em­bassy, and Ro­taract Club of Chandi­garh. “We are con­tribut­ing to the Swachh Bharat Ab­hiyan too, help­ing clean up the streets. It’s helped us get a good im­age,” says Mangalmukhi.

The dif­fer­ence such al­liances make is huge, in terms of num­bers, reach and the ac­cep­tance that the com­mu­nity is aim­ing for. In Chandi­garh, for in­stance, only about 100 peo­ple par­tic­i­pated in the first pride march, in 2013. “Af­ter we started work­ing with the com­mu­nity, stu­dents — es­pe­cially mi­grant stu­dents from other states — started to join our marches,” says Mangalmukhi.

Last year, some of the rain­bow flags used in the march bore the uni­ver­sity logo on the ban­ner, and there were over 500 par­tic­i­pants in all. “For this year’s march on March 18, we’re get­ting sup­port from the Cana­dian em­bassy and Chandi­garh Mu­nic­i­pal Cor­po­ra­tion along with Pan­jab Uni­ver­sity,” Mangalmukhi says.

ONE STEP FOR­WARD

As with most kinds of marginal­i­sa­tion, com­ing out of the closet is even tougher for women. There are no les­bians among the mem­bers of Nag­pur’s Sarathi Trust.

“Most ei­ther never come out of the closet, or move to one of the met­ros,” says Sarathi founder Anand Chan­drani, 40.

At the one-room NGO of­fice, gay and bi­sex­ual men meet over chai and ka­cho­ris ev­ery evening. “We dis­cuss our prob­lems and re­la­tion­ships, coun­sel each other, play car­rom,” says Chan­drani.

While the com­mu­nity has gone pub­lic, via its marches, the in­di­vid­ual mem­bers are not. Which is why they march in masks. “Even be­fore host­ing our first march, in 2016, we had to be sure that the city was ready,” says Nikunj Joshi, project man­ager at Sarathi Trust.

“We held sen­si­ti­sa­tion work­shops at col­leges and at po­lice sta­tions. We held pub­lic sem­i­nars. We still wear masks at all our marches be­cause it isn’t easy to come out in a con­ser­va­tive town.”

As the marches and the marchers be­come part of the land­scape, the move­ment is go­ing be­yond the mes­sage of ‘we’re here’, and be­gin­ning to fo­cus on ex­plor­ing and invit­ing oth­ers to ex­plore as­pects of their iden­tity and sub­cul­ture.

So the sec­ond Lucknow pride march, on Fe­bru­ary 11, has worked with Mum­bai’s Hum­sa­far Trust to or­gan­ise plays, read­ings of queer lit­er­a­ture and po­etry. “We have also started host­ing film fes­ti­vals, flash mobs, and coun­selling ses­sions for the com­mu­nity through the year,” says Darvesh Singh Yad­ven­dra of the Faridabad-based NGO Pa­hal Foun­da­tion.

A SEC­OND COM­ING

It can all feel a bit like tak­ing two steps for­ward and one step back.

Take Guwa­hati. It hosted its first pride march in 2014. “But we re­alised the city was not ready for it,” says Bi­topi Dutta, founder of the NGO Xukia. “First, the po­lice shooed us away, say­ing we didn’t need per­mis­sion for such a march be­cause As­sam has no LGBTQ peo­ple. We had to pull down our Face­book page af­ter a back­lash from lo­cals. We hosted a pride walk any­way and about 50 peo­ple par­tic­i­pated. The me­dia didn’t cover it at all.”

Guwa­hati didn’t have an­other march un­til 2016. But mean­while, the gay com­mu­nity be­gan to co­a­lesce; they now had a place to go, at least metaphor­i­cally.

“Af­ter the first pride walk, peo­ple started talk­ing to us. They didn’t know there was a gay com­mu­nity in the city. Now NGOs were telling them it was okay to be dif­fer­ent,” says gay rights ac­tivist Milin Su­tra. “We started meet­ing in small groups, host­ing sem­i­nars in col­leges, and even an LGBTQ film fes­ti­val.”

Last year, 200 peo­ple walked in the pride march. “There were peo­ple from Shil­long and Tezpur too,” says Dutta. This year’s Pride Pa­rade - Guwa­hati is on Fe­bru­ary 9. Po­lice per­mis­sion was not a prob­lem.

The chal­lenges smaller cities face when gear­ing up for move­ments can be­come se­vere, says Vivek Anand, CEO of the Mum­bai-based NGO Hum­sa­far Trust. “You get mocked, face prob­lems book­ing venues to host events. They can use sup­port from big cities who have been do­ing this longer, and we en­sure they get it.”

This kind of as­sis­tance is see­ing still more cities added to the pride cal­en­dar.

“Am­ra­vati and Ya­vat­mal in Ma­ha­rash­tra, Bard­haman, Hugli and Howrah in West Ben­gal, Bareilly in Ut­tar Pradesh and Shil­long in Megha­laya are set to host their first-ever marches ei­ther this year or the next,” says Anish Ray Chaud­hari, an LGBTQ ac­tivist from Kolkata.

“We help open com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties like the po­lice, mu­nic­i­pal­ity, col­leges and univer­si­ties. We also help trans­late lit­er­a­ture on gen­der laws and health aware­ness into lo­cal lan­guages.”

“We are a huge net­work of sex­ual mi­nori­ties now,” adds Anand of Hum­sa­far. “The voices are get­ting louder.”

SUBHANKAR CHAKRABORTY / HT PHOTO

Lucknow hosted its first pride march in 2017, called the Awadh Gau­rav Ya­tra. Last Sun­day, the com­mu­nity or­gan­ised an aware­ness drive at a city square, of­fer­ing free hugs in rain­bow­tinged selfie cor­ners as a way of reach­ing out. LUCKNOW

▪ (Clock­wise from above) Young­sters in Guwa­hati march with signs in As­samese that say ‘Love is a revo­lu­tion’.

KARUN SHARMA/HT

Chandi­gargh in­cor­po­rates the dhol and gidda folk dance. In Nag­pur, they wear masks be­cause, they say, it’s still too hard for in­di­vid­u­als to come out of the closet.

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