Friday, January 03, 2014

That ‘90s show!

Vartanama, Jan '14
By Pawan Dhall

That Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is draconian, colonial, archaic and unconstitutional has been said umpteen times over. More adjectives can be used, perhaps 377 of them or even more to condemn this law. Why, there could be a new alphabetical sequence for English learning inspired by this law – A for ‘ass’, B for ‘barbaric’ and so on.

Similarly, the Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 377 should be and is being criticized in myriad ways. Scores of public meetings and rallies with hundreds of slogans and posters, street plays, TV talk shows, beauty contests with protesting banners, review petitions – all very natural outpourings of aggrieved minds against an irrational law in a vibrant democracy.

The good thing about all these happenings is that a million unheard voices are now out there. Voices more and more accompanied with bright faces, unmasked faces. But here’s one ‘miniscule minority’ that not just the Supreme Court but everyone else also seems to have missed out on. It’s called the ‘1990s LGBT activist’. LGBT as in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. LGBT was one of the first umbrella expressions used for diverse genders and sexualities beyond the so called social norms, and is now gradually giving way to ‘queer’.

Counsel Club, eastern India's first LGBT support group
celebrates its 5th birthday on August 15, 1998.
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
Protest against Supreme Court's verdict on Section 377
at Simpark Mall, Kolkata, December 15, 2013.
Photo credit: Kaushik Gupta

Pre-queer in label, pre-Facebook (but not quite pre-Internet), even pre-pride walk in their early experiences and learning-by-trial and Fire, many members of this species are still around, but fast outnumbered by younger queer activists. Call it India’s demographic dividend, the success of the country’s queer movement or the impetus provided by the courts of law (first the Delhi High Court brought on the cheers, and then the Supreme Court the jeers), the face of Indian queer activism today is decidedly younger, usually with rainbow war paint on.

There’s every reason to celebrate this progress, but post-Supreme Court verdict, what has been the 1990s LGBT activist going through? For many of the species, it is almost yesterday once more, but not in a happy sense. The memory of two decades of work, trying to explain to the world that ‘being LGBT’ in India is not a crime, rather some sexual acts are criminal . . . but then yes, in effect the law does criminalize LGBT people because their sexualities can’t entirely be delinked from the sexual acts concerned . . . and in the popular and biased mind, often these sexual acts are them, the LGBT people . . . oh, but wait, these sexual acts are also practiced by straight people . . . so then who is not a criminal?

The thought of having to live and explain this twisted logic for another 20 years can’t be welcome. The memory of so many intimate dreams vapourised for the sake of achieving decriminalization, equality, dignity . . . now assaulted by re-criminalization! And where did all the years go? The thoughts turn inward, to the personal . . . where did all those people one met and spent time with go? Whatever happened to one’s loves, flirts and lusts? What transpired of life’s secret yearnings for a romantic and secure future? Why was 15 a crowd in the first rainbow pride walk in 1999, why does one walk alone even among 1,500 today? Do any of these ruminations merit even a passing mention in any court of law?

Maybe 2014 will be different! The flame of hope flares up every New Year. Maybe the Supreme Court will have a rethink about Section 377. Maybe there will be happy new memories of friendships and more this year. If anything, the 1990s LGBT activist is a survivor and an optimist. Three cheers to the New Year, three cheers to that ‘90s show!    

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. Superb write Pawan. All the Best to your dreams of being a rainbow journo!

  2. 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.