Thursday, August 01, 2013

Rainbow on the streets

Clickhappy! Aug '13
Kaushik Gupta and Pawan Dhall present glimpses from the '12th Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk', July 7, 2013, Hazra Crossing to Academy of Fine Arts

Every year around late June or early July, Kolkata sees an annual event called the 'Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk'. The rainbow here is a symbol of diversity in gender identity, sexual orientation or any other aspect of gender and sexuality.

Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
Gender identity is about one's innermost sense of self as a man, woman, both or neither, and it may differ from one’s biological sex (which may be male, female or even intersex). Thus, for example, a biologically male person may identify as a woman. So other than men and women, there are also transgender people in society.

Sexual orientation is about the nature of one’s sexual and romantic attraction – which biological sex or gender one is attracted to. For example, it is not necessary that a woman may be attracted only to men (heterosexual orientation). She may be attracted only to other women (homosexual orientation) or to men and women (bisexual orientation) and so on.

Photo credit: Kaushik Gupta
Photo credit: Kaushik Gupta

The 'Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk' is a coming together of people of different genders and sexualities – male-to-female or female-to-male trans persons, Hijras, Kothis, gay men, bisexual men and women, lesbians – often collectively called queer (a political term associated with sexual and human rights).

Photo credit: Kaushik Gupta
But the walk is not just for queer people. It is also for their supporters, for heterosexual or straight men and women . . . for parents, friends and colleagues of queer people . . . in fact, for all those who want to protest society’s restrictive gender and sexual norms . . . rigid rules that lead to unjustified stigma, discrimination, violence and criminalization of people who transgress these norms and who are deemed “abnormal”.

The walkers question what is normal? Who decides what is normal? What is the link between a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation and their worth as a human being or a responsible citizen? Why should sex only be for procreation? Is it also not about pleasure and self-fulfillment? If yes, then why should it be restricted to heterosexual people? Why should people with non-normative sexualities be criminalized?

The walk is also about celebration. It honours the efforts made by queer people over the years, across the world and in India to fight for their dignity and rights. For example, the 'Stonewall Riots', a landmark event that took place June 27-29, 1969 in New York, USA. They occurred in protest by transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual people against police harassment that was a daily feature of their lives in those days. The riots sparked off what can be said to be the modern movement for queer rights in the West.

Photo credit: Kaushik Gupta

The Indian queer movement that took its first steps in the early 1990s, though not condoning violence, draws moral strength from the 'Stonewall Riots' event. The walk is also a big occasion for the movement to mark the Delhi High Court ruling of July 2, 2009 that declared Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional on grounds that it unjustifiably criminalized queer people. The court was responding to a public interest litigation filed by NGO Naz Foundation (India) Trust in 2001 and supported by co-petitioners like Voices Against 377.

Photo credit: Kaushik Gupta

Though the Indian government did not challenge Delhi High Court’s ruling, it was opposed by a number of religious outfits in the Supreme Court on grounds of social morality. Petitions also in support of the ruling were filed by several parents of queer people across India and mental health professionals (modern medical and psychiatric opinion is firmly against looking at homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender phenomena as diseases or linked to any crime). A final verdict from the Supreme Court is still awaited.

Photo credit: Kaushik Gupta

The participation in the walk cuts across social classes and is not limited to Kolkata dwellers. People from all over West Bengal, other parts of India and abroad also participate. The 'Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk' also believes in building bridges with other human rights movements. This year the theme of the walk was “Yes to Rainbow Pride, No to Violence!” The objective was to express solidarity with the movement to fight sexual violence against women and girls.

While the main facilitator of the walk was Kolkata Rainbow Pride Festival, a collective of individuals, networks and organizations that undertakes cultural advocacy around sexuality, joining in with the larger mass of walkers were also a number of civil society initiatives like Swikriti (a queer support group that took the responsibility for acquiring police permissions for the walk), Sappho for Equality (eastern India’s only exclusive support group for lesbians, bisexual and female-to-male trans persons), New Gender Studies (associated with Kalyani University), Responsible Charity (an education and livelihood focused NGO), SAATHII (an HIV, gender and sexuality focused NGO), and SlutWalk Kolkata (an annual march dedicated to protesting gender and sexual violence).

Photo credit: Kaushik Gupta

Marking a first for the Kolkata walk was also the participation of employees from management consulting firm Accenture. But in a spirit of unity in diversity, all individuals and agencies walked with the banner of only 'Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk'.

The 'Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk' is the oldest of its kind in not just India, but South Asia as well. The first Kolkata walk was organized on July 2, 1999 when only 15 people participated. The 12th edition this year attracted nearly 1,500 people. Since 2008, the Kolkata walk has also inspired similar initiatives in more than a dozen towns and cities as diverse as Bangalore, Berhampore, Bhawanipatna, Bhubaneswar, Chandannagar, Chandigarh, Chennai, Coimbatore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Madurai, Mumbai, Patna, Pune and Thrissur. The first of the pride walks in the world were held in various cities in USA in late June 1970 to mark the first anniversary of the 'Stonewall Riots'.

At the core of the 'Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk' initiative is the message that the march is not a call for special rights for queer people. It is simply about the human rights of queer people – human rights for one and all!

Also under the rainbow arc

The 'Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk' is not a standalone event. In keeping with worldwide trends, every year since 2004, the walk has been accompanied by a host of parallel public sensitization, advocacy and cultural events spread over a week to 10 days. This year Kolkata’s ‘pride season’ was kicked off with a poster-making workshop co-organized by the American Center and Kolkata Rainbow Pride Festival on June 28, 2013. The posters prepared at the workshop were used in the walk on July 7, 2013 (some of them visible in the photographs above).

On the same day as the poster making workshop, Kolkata’s neighbour, Chandannagar town in Hooghly district witnessed its first ever rainbow pride walk. The main organizer was Amitie’ Trust, a queer support group. Two days later, another queer support group Kolkata Rista organized a candlelight memorial in the Kadapara area of Kolkata, near Swabhumi, to remember transgender and other queer people lost to discrimination and violence.

On July 5, 2013, Amitie’ Trust again got into action and staged a dance drama titled Mayajaal at Ramgopal Mancha, Howrah. The play used examples from Indian mythology to question contemporary social hypocrisies and rigidities around gender and sexuality. The events continued on till July 8, 2013 when it was the turn of Madhya Banglar Sangram, a queer support group in Berhampore, Murshidabad district of West Bengal, to organize the 'Ramdhanu Milan Utsav', which included the city’s first pride walk and a panel discussion. Each of these events attracted significant media attention and were a clear pointer at the Indian queer movement fast becoming less metro-centric and more broad-based.

Eastern India was not alone in witnessing rainbow pride action this time of the year. On June 30, 2013, Chennai saw its '5th Rainbow Pride Walk' being organized with much enthusiasm. The walk was followed by a queer film festival ‘Reel Desires’ from July 11-13, 2013, which included a panel discussion on queer-inclusive workplaces.

Kaushik Gupta is a lawyer by profession, a photographer by passion.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

1 comment:

  1. As discussion, research and documentation related to the Indian queer movement grows, hitherto unknown aspects are emerging. According to some sources of information, the 'Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk' organized on July 2, 1999 may not be the first ever queer pride event in the city, India or South Asia. It may well have been preceded by other similar events in Kolkata or elsewhere. We will share information on this as and when more is known in this regard - Editor.