Beyond the rainbow: Gay pride is going regional, in interesting new avatars

In Lucknow, they march in silk saris and pagdis. In Chandigarh, they dance the gidda. Guwahati’s gay walk is silent. In Nagpur, they wear kurtas, pajamas — and masks.

The LGBTQI movement is moving to smaller cities and towns, and taking on interesting new avatars. Signs in regional languages, literature carefully translated to avoid shock or offence, meetings held at chaurahas — the effort is to include the community rather than rebel against the mainstream.

“When I attended the march in Delhi last year, I was shocked by the differences,” says Mao Debojit Gogoi, 20, a student from Guwahati, laughing. “Delhi’s was loud, there were outrageous costumes and so much make-up. Guwahati’s was quiet and calm, like a smoothly flowing river.”

In the metros — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru — the pride marches are between 8 and 18 years old, and have grown bigger and louder in that time. Giant flags, rainbow-coloured wigs, selfies with tongues sticking out and costumes that range from unisex rainbow drapes to unicorn hats.

Big city marches are almost aspirational — they look like marches anywhere in the developed world; people straight, gay and from across the sexual-identity spectrum participate; it’s a big bash open to anyone who is, or wants to seem, liberal / enlightened / woke.

In Mumbai, 14,000 participated in the 2017 march. Bhopal, Lucknow and Panaji hosted their first LGBTQ pride marches in 2017. Chandigarh hosted its fifth, Guwahati its fourth and Nagpur its third. Each of these drew between 50 and 300 people.

As with the costumes, the marches have names that invoke a sense of regional identity and pride. The Lucknow pride parade is called the Awadh Gaurav Yatra; Nagpur’s is called the Orange City Pride March; Chandigarh’s, the Garvotsav. The costumes, signs and language are all part of an effort to remind onlookers — we’re one of you.

Activists from Mumbai and Kolkata have been helping organise the marches, and they’re having to do things very differently here.

“In the smaller cities and towns, there is a conscious effort to move away from the Western image of the cause. We realised that we needed to portray this as a desi movement if it was to gain momentum or acceptance,” says Pallav Patankar, a gender and sexuality consultant from Mumbai. “In these areas, the emphasis is on reminding onlookers that it is the bias against homosexuality that is a Western import; that our myths and epics, our history, embraced the sexuality spectrum long ago.”

Reaching out

In smaller cities, the movement has found that it benefits from being associated with other social groups and initiatives — via assorted NGOs, political outfits and educational institutions. “That’s how we get an audience to begin building a crowd,” says Dhananjay Chauhan Mangalmukhi, director of the Chandigarh gay-rights NGO Saksham Trust.

The headquarters of the gay rights movement in Nagpur, a dimly lit room next to a chai-kachori stall, has posters of the goddess Laxmi and BR Ambedkar on the walls.

An evening meeting of the LGBTQ community at the headquarters of the NGO Sarathi Trust in Nagpur. (Satyabrata Tripathy / HT Photo)

In Chandigarh, Saksham Trust tied up with Panjab University ahead of last year’s march. On the banners, in large print, was mention of collaborations with the Canadian embassy, and Rotaract Club of Chandigarh. “We are contributing to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan too, helping clean up the streets. It’s helped us get a good image,” says Mangalmukhi.

The difference such alliances make is huge, in terms of numbers, reach and the acceptance that the community is aiming for. In Chandigarh, for instance, only about 100 people participated in the first pride march, in 2013. “After we started working with the community, students — especially migrant students from other states — started to join our marches,” says Mangalmukhi.

Last year, some of the rainbow flags used in the march bore the university logo on the banner, and there were over 500 participants in all. “For this year’s march on March 18, we’re getting support from the Canadian embassy and Chandigarh Municipal Corporation along with Panjab University,” Mangalmukhi says.

One step forward

As with most kinds of marginalisation, coming out of the closet is even tougher for women. There are no lesbians among the members of Nagpur’s Sarathi Trust.

“Most either never come out of the closet, or move to one of the metros,” says Sarathi founder Anand Chandrani, 40.

Chandigarh incorporates the dhol and gidda folk dance.

At the one-room NGO office, gay and bisexual men meet over chai and kachoris every evening. “We discuss our problems and relationships, counsel each other, play carrom,” says Chandrani.

While the community has gone public, via its marches, the individual members are not. Which is why they march in masks. “Even before hosting our first march, in 2016, we had to be sure that the city was ready,” says Nikunj Joshi, project manager at Sarathi Trust.

“We held sensitisation workshops at colleges and at police stations. We held public seminars. We still wear masks at all our marches because it isn’t easy to come out in a conservative town.”

As the marches and the marchers become part of the landscape, the movement is going beyond the message of ‘we’re here’, and beginning to focus on exploring and inviting others to explore aspects of their identity and subculture.

So the second Lucknow pride march, on February 11, has worked with Mumbai’s Humsafar Trust to organise plays, readings of queer literature and poetry. “We have also started hosting film festivals, flash mobs, and counselling sessions for the community through the year,” says Darvesh Singh Yadvendra of the Faridabad-based NGO Pahal Foundation.

Lucknow hosted its first pride march in 2017, called the Awadh Gaurav Yatra. Last Sunday, the community organised an awareness drive at a city square, offering free hugs in rainbow-tinged selfie corners as a way of reaching out. (Subhankar Chakraborty / HT Photo)

A second coming

It can all feel a bit like taking two steps forward and one step back.

Take Guwahati. It hosted its first pride march in 2014. “But we realised the city was not ready for it,” says Bitopi Dutta, founder of the NGO Xukia. “First, the police shooed us away, saying we didn’t need permission for such a march because Assam has no LGBTQ people. We had to pull down our Facebook page after a backlash from locals. We hosted a pride walk anyway and about 50 people participated. The media didn’t cover it at all.”

Guwahati didn’t have another march until 2016. But meanwhile, the gay community began to coalesce; they now had a place to go, at least metaphorically.

“After the first pride walk, people started talking to us. They didn’t know there was a gay community in the city. Now NGOs were telling them it was okay to be different,” says gay rights activist Milin Sutra. “We started meeting in small groups, hosting seminars in colleges, and even an LGBTQ film festival.”

Last year, 200 people walked in the pride march. “There were people from Shillong and Tezpur too,” says Dutta. This year’s Pride Parade - Guwahati is on February 9. Police permission was not a problem.

Youngsters in Guwahati march with signs in Assamese that say ‘Love is a revolution’.
‘When I attended the march in Delhi last year, I was shocked by the differences. Delhi’s was loud, and there were outrageous costumes and so much makeup. Guwahati’s was quiet and calm, like a smoothly flowing river,’ says Mao Debojit Gogoi, 20, a student from Guwahati.

The challenges smaller cities face when gearing up for movements can become severe, says Vivek Anand, CEO of the Mumbai-based NGO Humsafar Trust. “You get mocked, face problems booking venues to host events. They can use support from big cities who have been doing this longer, and we ensure they get it.”

This kind of assistance is seeing still more cities added to the pride calendar.

“Amravati and Yavatmal in Maharashtra, Bardhaman, Hugli and Howrah in West Bengal, Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh and Shillong in Meghalaya are set to host their first-ever marches either this year or the next,” says Anish Ray Chaudhari, an LGBTQ activist from Kolkata.

“We help open communication channels with local authorities like the police, municipality, colleges and universities. We also help translate literature on gender laws and health awareness into local languages.”

“We are a huge network of sexual minorities now,” adds Anand of Humsafar. “The voices are getting louder.”

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