Over the years as numbers have dramatically increased— the count crossed 1000 last year— so has the nature of participation changed. Right from 2003, queers from various districts of Bengal outside Kolkata have been present in large numbers, says Sthira Bhattacharya
“…but the shouting was terribly loud and we were no more than a handful, there were fifty of us to at least fifty thousand of them, the odds were overwhelming, but we fought a desperate fight, for the whole first stanza we thought we wouldn’t make it and our singing would go unheard, but then a miracle occurred, little by little more voices broke into song, people began to realize what was going on, and the song rose up slowly out of the pandemonium in the square like a butterfly emerging from an enormous rumbling chrysalis.”
From Milan Kundera’s ‘The Joke’
Kolkata’s pride march is the oldest in South Asia. Currently organized by the Kolkata Rainbow Pride Festival (KRPF), the march began in 1999 with hardly fifteen participants – around half of them coming from other cities in India. Pawan Dhall, one of the few people from Kolkata present in the first march, who now works at SAATHII, a collective of NGOs working for the eradication of The HIV Infection in India recalls how their bright yellow t-shirts with graphics of footsteps and a caption reading “Walk on the Rainbow” drew curious glances on the streets. An old lady inquired what they were marching for and when told, remarked that what people do in their bedrooms is no business of the government! – “a typically Bengali comment,” Pawan notes laughingly. It was Kolkata’s history of movements for human and political rights that had made them choose it for that first march that was nearly national in character. Anis Ray Chaudhuri, gender rights activist and another veteran who joined the next march held in 2003 (organizational and financial problems having caused an interruption) thinks that the political awareness characterizing the everyday of the average Kolkatan might have made it the ideal city to host the walk. “It also takes a lot of courage to march in one’s own city. At least some people in Kolkata must have been prepared to take that kind of risk back then.”
Over the years as numbers have dramatically increased— the count crossed 1000 last year— so has the nature of participation changed. Right from 2003, queers from various districts of Bengal outside Kolkata have been present in large numbers. And although in ‘99, the entirely self-funded walk had relatively well-placed individuals, the presence of middle class residents of Kolkata has strengthened in recent years. So has that of women. Last year the number of women was large enough to delight Pawan. He observes that the movements for women’s rights and queer rights have not yet merged in India, although individuals like Nivedita Menon and the late Maitreyi Chatterjee have been and continue to work in solidarity with the queer community. Feminists and bisexual and lesbian women themselves haven’t had too happy a marriage. Initially the latter’s issues were not very welcome in the All India Women’s Conference. But as Anis says, both are struggling against the deeply entrenched hetero-patriarchy that drives institutions like the state, religious organizations, the family, schools etc. and against the gender norms that oppress and exploit women on one hand and sexual minorities on the other. Then why the divide?
It is mostly due to particular kinds of conditioning, insists Pawan. “There is a popular image on the TV and in cinema of the gay man being effeminate. But within the gay community effeminate gay men are in fact, frequently ridiculed and urged by others to be a man. There is a reluctance to collaborate with women for a common cause. It ultimately depends on whether for you, being gay means merely being in a same-sex relationship or whether you regard your location in society politically and identify with others oppressed by the same structures that hold you down.” Among women on the other hand, there is a common misconception that gay men are women-haters. But things have been improving. “There was a lot of overlap between the two communities during the Slut Walks and ‘Take Back the Night’ campaigns triggered by the December 16 gang-rape in New Delhi.” Participation of women in the march is expected to rise even further this year, since the people walking in it will be protesting against violence inflicted on women and sexual minorities. The common literature (banners and leaflets) will all be centred on this theme.
“The spectator-participant divide during the pride march might easily form an essentialised understanding of the LGBT community in the minds of many which works against the interests of the LGBT, but the larger public can hardly be blamed.”
The composition of the march has also changed with regard to the various communities within the larger umbrella of LGBT. While the initial years saw mostly male-to-female transgender people (or transwomen) marching, since 2008 more and more gay identified men from Kolkata, hijra individuals, transmen and queer women have started joining in. As Pawan notes, this is a hugely significant development, since gay identified men for the longest time, were deeply uncomfortable walking side by side with transgenders. Since the latter dismantle conventional male/female binaries, their presence was often considered to work counter to many gays and lesbians’ intention of assimilating with the mainstream society and its customs. But the transgender people’s struggle is a much fiercer one. As this year’s theme indicates, for sexual minorities violence is a startlingly all-pervasive presence– within the family, in schools, in legal and health settings (doctors often want to ‘cure’ queers) and public spaces. Transgenders have to face an inordinately large proportion of this violence, which often works in insidious ways, not the least of which is, through attempts to invisibilize them. “Being a trans is not easy,” says transgender activist Amitava Sarkar (Amrita). “We face discrimination and harassment at every step of life. I know of people who’ve committed suicide, unable to bear discrimination by their families, there are so many who drop out of school because of discrimination. We do not have access to basic services like medical or legal aid – doctors often refuse to treat us and physical harassment in public spaces is a daily experience for many.” Passports and voter identity cards may have made space for the ‘Other’ (in itself an intensely problematic marker) but society is light years away from doing so. Living a life more perilous than most, transgender people are understandably, much more skeptical about the march. For a community widely misunderstood— most people instinctively identifying them as sex-workers— Amitava says that the march has given them a much needed visibility before the larger public through media coverage. But considering how the issues plaguing them relate directly to survival itself, marching can hardly be expected to do much.
The spectator-participant divide during the pride march might easily form an essentialised understanding of the LGBT community in the minds of many which works against the interests of the LGBT, but the larger public can hardly be blamed. The media coverage often precludes any efforts to grasp the complex politics underlying the walk. Rudra Kishore Mandal, a freelance artist comments, “While responsible journalism can actively help us bust myths about our community and reach out to more people, some of the articles penned about the march betray shocking ignorance on the part of the writer – it is often described as a ‘Gay Pride March’ though it encompasses diverse communities. Again, in order to sensationalize the march, the media specifically pick people with overt mannerisms and loud clothing for coverage. Two guys simply walking hand in hand for instance will never feature in their photographs. This only strengthens stereotypes about the community as a whole and acutely affects people trying to come out to their family. They face greater resistance at home because their parents know the LGBT only through such clichéd representations. For them, if being gay/lesbian/transgender means being like that, they are not prepared to accept it.”
A staunch refusal to shed their complacency characterized the media’s attitude throughout the first few years (of the pride). Anis remembers that in 2003 when the participants requested a photo-journalist to sensitively cover the march in the media, he took offence and threatened that it was well within his power to paint a very negative picture. The march had to be stalled for a few minutes due to the altercation. The question of whether the public was at all getting sensitized through the march, given its representation in the media, irked the participants themselves and around 2006-07 there were proposals for having a specific dress code. But it was turned down since, for a lot of people especially the transgenders, the act of dressing up as they wanted, wearing make-up if they liked and walking through the streets of their city carried a deeply symbolic power. Many of them were denied this basic freedom in their daily lives – much like women, observes Pawan. Anis emphasizes that this is their way of asserting their rights, and not a bid to build up a sensational image as the media would have its audience believe. The situation seems to have improved in recent years, however. “We have built up a friendship with the media. These days they provide much more sensitive coverage.”
If such improvement seems to be a constant refrain in this piece, it is because many believe some genuine progress has indeed been made. Pawan feels that no matter what, the pride march is something that has worked in the midst of this ‘great Indian tamasha’ as he calls it. It has created enough space within itself to accommodate the diverse strands among the LGBT. It has undoubtedly helped the community gain greater visibility and as Anis adds, has broken the studied silence surrounding the question of non-normative sexualities – “no one talked about it back in 2003.” But limitations remain, perhaps the most substantial being its restriction to big cities alone. A few places like Chandigarh, Patna, Bhawanipatna have launched their own marches, but many more, less pukka roads remain to be walked down. For instance Barasat which has been so much in the news lately is an area where Pawan tells us transgender people face massive violence and harassment at the hands of goons. “When Counsel Club, a queer rights support group tried setting up branches throughout West Bengal in 1999-2000, the maximum trouble used to be reported from the Barasat branch. So while it is important for us to march with certain political objectives in the big cities and attract attention from the media, there is a pressing need to move into these smaller places and take the local community with us on the walk.” To say it has worked of course, is to immediately hint at the need for qualifying this success with ‘where’ and ‘for whom’, and the fact that the march has served as a ‘leveller’ within the LGBT community and helped them find common grounds for fighting together must not eclipse the tensions that continue to work within it. Acknowledging and duly addressing these tensions, listening to every snatch of music that rises out of the pandemonium is our only hope if we are to settle for nothing less than unalloyed equality.
7 July is approaching, and KRPF will once again organize the LGBT Pride March in Kolkata in triumphant celebration of sexual diversity and the freedom of self-expression. But as we rejoice in this march and its power to transfigure city-streets into the inclusive spaces we dream of, it is important to remember that the perfect rainbow always lie is a little further away.
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171295 (The title of this piece is taken from a poem by Audre Lorde)