The past two decades have seen tremendous progress within the queer rights movement in India. The battle has been fought on several overlapping activist fronts, through organizations such as Sangama (Bangalore), which follows a human rights-based approach, and the Humsafar Trust (Mumbai), which focuses on health-based intervention. This has run in parallel with the continuing legal struggle for the modification of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which effectively criminalizes same-sex relationships. Alongside the activism, there has also been a great deal of social change, especially in cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore. The Gay Bombay parties, Delhi’s Nigah Media Festival and Bangalore’s Gay Running and Breakfast (GRAB) club are just the tip of the iceberg—all big Indian cities today have vibrant, active and diverse queer scenes, the listings for which are easily available on the Web, or in some cases, in the local TimeOut. While developments such as these have taken place at a steady pace over the past two decades, 2008 could be considered the tipping point.
This was the year in which the sheer volume of conversation around queer India finally broke through to the mainstream, and sexuality became a topic that was literally on everyone’s lips.
17 November: Gay Israeli couple Yonatan Gher and Omer fly to Tel Aviv from Mumbai with their baby born to an Indian surrogate mother. Jayachandran / Mint
This year witnessed queer pride marches held in four different cities. New Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata simultaneously held pride marches on 29 June, while Mumbai followed with its Queer Azaadi march, held symbolically on 16 August, one day after Independence Day. The several hundred participants in each city also included a large number of straight supporters— parents, friends and colleagues of queer people who marched to show solidarity for the cause. For the people who marched, they were empowering experiences, the chance to be a part of and connect with a larger queer community. For the casual observers who witnessed the marches, it was an indication that queerness exists in India, and not just on TV shows or the op-ed pages of newspapers.
It was also the year that the case filed to modify section 377 finally drew to a close in the Delhi high court, eight years after its original filing.
Developments were closely tracked by activists and the media throughout 2008, and this included the various arguments for the modification of the law made by the lawyers speaking for the petitioners—Naz Foundation India and Voices against 377—as well as the opponents, including the government. The government’s contradictory stance on the issue was well documented.
The pre-release hype around one of this year’s biggest film releases, Dostana, and the conversations that the film sparked post-release served the queer cause immensely. In my book, I talk about how, while waiting for political or legal changes, we often fail to notice that real change is already happening all around us.
Dostana tapped into this current. Even though the film itself was comic, its release provided India a serious opportunity to talk about queerness at workplaces, colleges and homes. Priyanka Chopra’s matter-of-factness, Kirron Kher’s accepting mother character, the dramatic kiss between lead actors Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham and the film’s ambiguous ending are landmark Bollywood moments. The film’s acceptance by the general public is an indication that queerness, like other differences, can be comfortably imagined within the Indian context.
There was, of course, a lot more, and it is heartening to see how the media took up the queer cause and ran with it, throughout this year. The nuanced nature of the coverage was impressive, whether it were well-researched stories that appeared on Tehelka covers, sensitive NDTV reports on the problems queer students face in school, or announcements for the Rajpipla prince Manvendra Singh Gohil’s plans to set up an old age home in India for gay men. To acknowledge and honour the media’s support, the year witnessed the first Queer Media Collective Awards.
The year also witnessed several progressive institutional on-the-ground changes. For example, in May, Tamil Nadu became the first state to grant recognition to the transgendered in its official documents. Applications for admission to educational institutions, government hospitals and ration cards in the state now allow one’s gender to be designated as M, F, or T.
All this is very feel-good, but I want to be guarded as we enter into 2009. The problems of harassment, blackmail and discrimination continued in 2008. In February, the Mumbai police, accompanied by television cameras, raided a gay party in Thane and made several arrests. In March, a homophobic mob in Kolkata attacked and critically injured three kotis who were peacefully walking in the locality. In November, the police in Bangalore arrested, victimized and mistreated several hijras and Sangama activists. These incidents and hundreds of other unreported acts of physical and emotional violence against queer people, remind us that despite all the hoopla, perhaps the queer struggle is only just beginning in our country.
Parmesh Shahani is the editorial director of Verve magazine and the author of Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India (Sage Publications, 2008).