By Kahini Iyer
Walking into Mumbai’s first Queer Azaadi march since Section 377 was struck down, and its biggest ever with 15,000 attendees, I was expecting an electric atmosphere of celebration. What I got was a maidan covered in saffron flags and political posters, and a banner declaring “Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha”.
For a moment, I wondered if there was going to be a clash of factions at Queer Azaadi. Then I remembered that an election year calls for prominent campaigning, and that homosexuality is no longer illegal. When I found the starting point of the march, there was no sign of discord — only throngs of colourful people chatting excitedly, faces painted, rainbow flags held aloft to signal to friends. A giant bunch of golden balloons, spelling out “YAARIYAN”, was bouncing off elaborate glittery updos and unicorn horns, before coming to rest on the ground.
All around, attendees wore gorgeous, spangled dresses, massive wigs, and platform heels that put my serviceable sneakers to shame. Leading the drag charge was one of India’s foremost LGBT+ activists, Harish Iyer, onstage in a space-queen tutu, rallying the crowds before we marched. Through his outreach programmes in schools and colleges, Iyer has inspired countless gathered students to show support, and to come out to their families.
Some, like 21-year-old Trupti, believe that parents will not change overnight. “When things are interconnected, they take time,” she points out, when I ask her if last year’s SC ruling has changed reluctant minds. Next to her, Shanu, 21, agrees, saying, “When I saw the BJP signs, I thought I’m going to get beaten up or something.” When only six months ago, party leaders like Subramanian Swamy attacked the SC’s decision, his caution is not unfounded.
Twenty-nine-year-old Manav, however, dismisses any such fears, and claims the BJP will likely try and take credit for Queer Azaadi as much as the 377 ruling. “You can’t leave any group behind,” he says, echoing the government’s sentiments when they announced this year’s budget. He and his friend Sonu are Pride veterans, and they recall how, in years past, people wore golden masks to conceal their identities. Today, there is not a mask in sight.
As with Pride movements around the world, there’s a capitalist imperative to speak to the growing numbers who march, and its proved to be a formidable force for change.
Manav is past hiding, just like he’s done with celebrating the end of Section 377. While many of the college students who’ve grown up watching Modern Family and Glee hope for same-sex marriage (“That’ll take another 30 years,” remarks 20-year-old Yamini), the seasoned activists know that there are more pressing concerns. There is last year’s inaccurately named Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, which passed in Lok Sabha and all but mandates sexual reassignment surgery, places transgender individuals without family into “rehabilitation” centres, criminalises begging, and encourages medical surveillance.
The next step for LGBT+ rights is ensuring the regressive bill, that would push the transgender community further into the margins, does not pass. Also on the agenda is enshrining anti-discrimination policies into law, and before same-sex marriage, the government needs to address the scourge of forced marriage and conversion therapy — as much in urban settings as rural and backward areas. One engineering student from a nearby college confides that his father tried to send him to a “baba” for treatment when he came out as bisexual, while another girl’s father threatened to disown her if she does anything “gay”.
For 26-year-old Ankit Bhuptani, these were the attitudes that made him attempt suicide when he was a schoolkid coming to terms with his identity. Now a stalwart activist and Queer Azaadi organiser, Ankit found a safe space at Pride. A fair, diminutive man in a white kurta and massive glasses, Ankit’s wide smile and chirpy, rapidfire delivery is perfect for his main goal: educating kids on gender and sexuality. He believes that change begins with empowering youth, who are already more accepting and informed than previous generations. Part of that, he says, is doing away with the popular misconception that homophobia is an essential part of Indian culture.
Many others said that “centuries-old” mentalities are hard to change, but Ankit insists that we need to become truly post-colonial and embrace our LGBT history. Still, he’s far from naive. He draws my attention to the Queer Azaadi posters, covered in big corporate names. The Canadian Embassy has long sponsored the event, and rainbow flags featuring the maple leaf are everywhere. Mirror Now’s own Faye D’Souza marched, resplendent in a rainbow sari. The Lalit, owned by out-and-proud hotel heir Keshav Suri, hosted Iyer before the event, and even family brands like Godrej have shown their support. As with Pride movements around the world, there’s a capitalist imperative to speak to the growing numbers who march, and its proved to be a formidable force for change.
Until now, Pride protesters have been united in their aims to decriminalise the LGBT+ community’s existence. Fewer people showed up in drag, unwilling to announce their outlaw status. Now, you see the flamboyant diversity of Pride in all its glory — and with that comes a different rights battle for each person. But the war remains singular: dignity, freedom, and equality, regardless of orientation or gender identity.
As the Mumbai Police usher the laughing, utterly fabulous masses through traffic, signs rise up for all to see. “Eat butts not butter,” declares the vegan activists’, as wide-eyed kids spin pinwheels and watch, fascinated. Along the march, spectators click pictures and point with good-natured curiosity, and there is a sense of harmony in the chaos. It’s only when a slim, dark man in a fluffy skirt struts by, bearing a sign that proclaims he is a princess, that a couple of guys on a motorcycle read it aloud and jeer. The man in the skirt rolls his eyes and walks on with a practised calm. Unlike the naysayers and rubberneckers who view Queer Azaadi as a sideshow, he’s marching ahead, looking to the future.
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