Singing hurray for love

More Batman art by Mark Chamberlain here.

(At work my fag-hag identity is so much in the distant background it was hilarious doing the piece about the gay pride marches. Especially when well-intentioned sources lectured me in case I was suffering from a severe bout of homophobia.)

ON JUNE 29, Lakshmi Mathur, a Bangalore-based writer (name changed) was awakened by her mother, a senior government official, calling her, “Are you not excited? Isn’t this your day?” A startled Lakshmi realised that her mother was referring to the Queer Pride marches being organised across the country that day. In the five years since Lakshmi came out to her parents, her relationship with them has been very affectionate but strained. When Lakshmi moved in with her girlfriend, her mother chose to behave as if the couple were just friends. But now her mother was calling to tell her about pride marches. Had she missed a sea change in her parents’ feelings about her sexual choices? Lakshmi walked with hundreds that day in Bangalore. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Hijra, Kothi, Queer. LGBTHKQ, the alphabet soup of sexuality identities, all out on the street, singing and dancing on a cloudy evening. “I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I was just happy.” Later, she called her mother and told her that she’d ducked out of a TV interview. Her relieved mother admitted that her morning call had been a mixture of acceptance and trepidation.

On 28 June 1969, police had raided Stonewall Inn, a small bar in New York, which gay men and lesbians frequented. The violent clashes of that night served as a catalyst for today’s strong queer movement. Ever since Stonewall the last week of June has been marked by celebrations of gender and sexual diversity. Pride marches in some cities are redletter events on the international social calendar, with people looking forward to bigger and wilder turnouts each year from particularly colourful groups such as San Francisco’s Dykes on Bikes — a spectacular contingent of leatherwearing lesbians on outsized motorcycles. This May, Sao Paulo, had its biggest pride march ever, with over three million people participating in the kind of carnivalesque event that Brazil has patented. And June 29, 2008 looks set to be marked as a historical occasion for the queer movement in India.

Queer groups in India have held marches since the release of Deepa Mehta’s beleaguered Fire in 1998. Kolkata’s LGBTQ groups were the first to call their annual event a Pride march. Hijra groups around the country have been bringing issues of violence and discrimination to the public eye for almost a decade. But this is certainly the first time groups in different metros have coordinated their marches, with people turning up in such large numbers. About 700 people marched in Delhi and Bangalore and about 500 in Kolkata. International pride week celebrations emphasise the pageantry, but also advocate issues of queer rights. In India, activists are directing much of their energies towards the repealing of a homophobic law. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is a British legacy who used it to criminalise homosexuality. It was struck down in Britain, but in India, it remains, serving as an instrument for intimidation and blackmail. In 2001, Naz Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO, filed a petition before the Delhi High Court challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377. Coming days before the July 2 hearing in the Delhi High Court, the pride marches this year were well-timed. As lawyer-activist Alok Gupta says, “We want the courts to see that there is a large community supporting this petition. It’s not just a bunch of NGOs.”

In India, our cultural and social productions, from movies to weddings are loud, eye-poppingly bright, over-the-top affairs. They are often read by the West as camp and kitschy. But protests, especially those organised by the urban middle class, are more often than not solemn affairs. Groups seek permission from the police in writing and are told where they can protest. Cities often have designated zones, such as Delhi’s Jantar Mantar or Bangalore’s Banappa Park — quiet urban enclaves where no feelings are hurt and traffic is minimally disrupted. But the pride marches bravely shucked dignity. This, despite the covert acknowledgement that the groups needed to present a face that would be palatable to the public and the courts. Anindya Hajra, of Kolkata’s Pratyay Gender Trust says, “We seriously discussed a dress code for the march. But you know the saying, ‘If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ That’s what happened.” So for every gay man in well-cut pants, there was another in drag. The marches proceeded with short bursts of the wild, pelvic-thrusting, exuberant dancing that the Tamilians call tappankoothu. Masks, spangly sarees, flowers, painted faces, feather boas, babies in prams — all came to show pride.

But such flamboyance is not everyone’s chosen form of political expression. Ranjita Biswas speaks for Sappho, a lesbian, transgender and bisexual women’s group from West Bengal, when she says, “We do not think it is useful to make a public display of our sexuality. Shock is not how we engage with the common people. The march itself is not problematic but the manner in which it is done makes it a ‘how queer are you’ contest.” Biswas clarifies that Saphho’s position is less a traditional Left distaste for bodily functions and more strategy. “We’re glad women’s movements have begun to look at issues of sexuality not just in cases of violence but as an issue of pleasure,” she said.

Susan Sontag once argued “the whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious.” But camp becomes serious when playing camp can get the marches coverage on national television and all editions of the daily press. Several people complained of being asked to kiss or hug for the camera. However uncomfortable with coy romantic poses, or worried about personal consequences, most participants would have been keenly aware that many protests would kill for the same visibility.

“The funniest moment in the Bangalore march was hearing someone say, ‘Oh my god, I’m on TV. Now my parents will know that I’m gay and that I smoke’,” said activist Arvind Narrain. “As much as fun as it was, it is still worrying. What happens to the salwar kameez-wearing, regular lesbian?” asks Hajra.

Most activists say that it has been the hijras and sex workers who have pushed the movement forward in India. But the fate of the salwar-kameez-wearing, regular lesbian and, more particularly, the straight-acting gay man has become a matter of great interest since 1998 to the many NGOs working with sexuality minorities. A key reason has been the enormous funding directed at HIV-AIDS. A few years ago an activist was heard saying bitterly that HIV-AIDS is now a sector. Today the phrase ‘HIV-AIDS sector’ is used commonly and without irony. One can only guess at the consequences.

THE HIJRA communities, however, had preceded the NGOs. “While strongly hierarchical and the object of much cruelty, the hijras have always had what the rest of the queer community hope for. Weddings, divorces, beauty contests, huge social gatherings and even arrangements for healthcare. I don’t see an alternative to the human rights framework that NGOs use but the framework is unfortunately directed at individuals, not at a community,” says Nithin Manayath, a gay rights activist and a lecturer in Bangalore.

While the movement uses the rhetoric of making the invisible visible, visibility can have unpredictable consequences. The average Will and Grace fan may go about the world armed with notions, albeit well-intentioned ones, only to find that not all gay men have great taste in clothes or spend half their income on hair products. For every playful Virgin Mobile ad, there is a Vettaiyadu Vilayadu — the 2006 Kamal Hasan film where two serial killer-rapists are absurdly revealed as homosexuals.

“I am glad for the stereotype of the effeminate gay man. It makes my life easier since I don’t need to tell people,” says Manayath. This is not a common position. Asha Achuthan, a Bangalore-based academic says, “At this stage, we have visibility plus plain, old-fashioned victimisation.” While a short-haired butch woman may have once been mocked, the same appearance today can provoke a more violent reaction. Hajra says that even street slang has changed. “Earlier, a transgender in Bengal would have been called a chukka. Now the word that is constantly used is ‘homo’. The violence is much more brutal and there is an increase in public violence, especially against transgenders, since they are much more identifiable. We ask ourselves whether this is the price that we pay for being more assertive. It is confusing.”

Visibility may ossify stereotypes but for many straight people encountering the queer movement, they may find a sure, clear understanding of their own desires melting. Academic Nivedita Menon says, “The media has underestimated the considerable presence in the march of people who are “straight”. They were there not just to show support to others, but because they believe in some way that it was meaningful for themselves.” Vikram Seth’s lines about bisexuality, “In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight/ What is my status: Stray? Or Great?” could well apply to people first questioning their hitherto unquestioned heterosexuality. •

Read about it here.


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