It was 1996. Susanta Pramanik, then 23, a gay man working in Kolkata, had just one thing on his mind: how to locate Pravartak, a gay magazine he had read about in the Anandabazar Patrika. Discreet enquiries led him to a lane off Park Street where, having parted with Rs 20, he was soon clutching this new publication. The black-and-white newsletter, produced by the Counsel Club, a gay support group in Kolkata, had among other things, a pen-friend section. Pramanik dashed off a letter to one of the men mentioned there. A few weeks later the man showed up at his home to meet him. “That day,” he says, nearly 20 years later, “I fell in love.”

A few years before that, in faraway Qatar, Owais, was extracting a slim black-and-white newsletter called Trikone from an ordinary looking envelope. It was 1988. He had just emerged from a failed marriage to a woman and was gradually beginning to understand his sexual identity.

He published his coming out story, then pseudonymously, in the San Francisco-based publication aimed at diasporic South Asians. “If not for writing that,” he says, 27 years later, “I wouldn’t have had the courage to come out.” The magazine was gradually building a space for queer voices. “Acceptance of myself was in the aftermath of that,” says Owais, now 52, who lives in Bhopal.

Magazines for men

Magazines such as these were the first springboard for gay men and women across the country hoping to forge connections. Aside from segments on pen friends and coming out narratives, there was poetry, fiction, articles on health and gay rights. “For the first time,” says Anupam Hazra, 36, a Kolkata-based activist who came of age in the 1990s, “People could read about lives like their own.”

Middle-aged gay men, recall with glee, accessing “smuggled” copies of Trikone or haunting “seedy book stores” to lay their hands on queer newsletters. Before the dawn of the internet, these publications, often swapped clandestinely, and passing through multiple eager hands, were the only means of accessing the idea of a larger queer community or reaching out to a wider network. “They were revolutionary,” says Vikram Doctor, a journalist who edited one edition of Bombay Dost. “They reached closeted people with no access to anything gay.”

Bombay Dost – the oldest such registered publication, which turns 25 this year – was launched in 1990 and produced by a small team that later set up the non-profit group Humsafar Trust.

“The idea was to mobilise the community,” says Suhail Abbasi, 56, one of the founder members along with Ashok Row Kavi, who also sits on the Humsafar board. “Informal groups existed but there was nothing structured.”

It would be sold in select locations, but a single magazine might have been read by as many as 15 people. Starting life as a black-and-white quarterly, sometimes struggling to gather funds, the periodical even shut down in 2003 before it was relaunched in 2009.

It now covers a wider range of issues, has put prominent celebrities on the cover and is seeking to engage a larger, non-queer audience as well. "It started off with advocacy and activism, now it's more of a lifestyle magazine covering fashion, films, relationships," said Shibu Thomas, who edited the past three issues. "It's no longer just for the community. It's also accessible for a mainstream audience."

Evolving publications

In 1998, eight years after Bombay Dost, LABIA – A Queer Feminist Collective, which was then Stree Sangam, launched Scripts, a publication for lesbian and bisexual women. It will bring out its 15th issue later this year – and has largely hewed close to its original mandate as a black-and-white paperback style publication containing fiction, poetry and other contributions in English and other regional languages. Editorial team member Shals Mahajan pointed out that it had expanded in terms of form – with more illustrations and drawings, and inputs from a wider array of contributors.

Similarly, Pramanik, who later went on to set up the Dum Dum Swikriti Society, another rights group, now produces Swikriti Patrika, an annual bilingual publication launched at the Kolkata Book fair every year since 2004. This too has expanded from 30 pages to 70, and with a wider range of subjects covered in its pages.

Most older magazines have however faded, or evolved into different things. Freedom, a magazine for gay men produced out of Gulbarga, a small town in Karnataka, a little after Bombay Dost, shut down before being relaunched. Pravartak produced by Kolkata’s Counsel Club, became Naya Pravartak, and later folded. Darpan and Naz Ki Pukar, produced out of Delhi, no longer exist, and neither does Friends India, a Lucknow-based newsletter. Sanghamitra, from Bangalore’s Good As You, started out in 1997 as an annual publication, but has not had been published for three years.

The older publications were not always brought out on a regular basis, and were invariably hampered by production costs; these were largely volunteer-driven efforts done alongside regular jobs. “We tried to make Sanghamitra a fortnightly or monthly,” says Vinay Chandran, who edited a few issues. “But finding people to do it and arranging funds was always difficult.”

Those surviving from the earlier wave of publications are working on coming to terms with the advent of the internet. Sanghamitra put its last issue exclusively online and Bombay Dost can also be bought online.

“It’s time for us to think if we want to stick exclusively to print,” says Mahajan, 44, a LABIA member. “This is something we are grappling with.”

The online boom

In the past few years, especially since the Delhi High Court judgement (later overturned) decriminalising consensual same-sex acts, there was an efflorescence of new publications online. The Pink Pages, a quarterly e-magazine in PDF format came out in July 2009, Gaylaxy followed soon after in January 2010. Gaysi launched in 2008, and is online but also releases an annual Gaysi zine, a 100-odd pages coloured publication to “connect with people in a tangible way” says founder Priya Gangwani.

The earliest newsletters focused on building connections and awareness, forging a network and essentially marking out a queer space. The newer magazines dwell on a range of issues, through the queer lens; from news and personal stories to lifestyle trends, travel and culture – making their scope broader than that of their predecessors.

People no longer need to seek out a pen-friends column, they have Grindr, a networking application for mobile phones, geared towards gay and bisexual men.  Stories of coming out proliferate on blogs and online spaces, and people can access information from the queer community globally. The liberating privacy and anonymity the internet confers also means people no longer need furtively comb through book stores or depend on friends for hand-me-down copies.

“The internet offers more privacy, whereas print might hold back people from buying in public,” says Sukhdeep Singh, 27, who launched Gaylaxy in 2010. The magazine started off in a PDF format, but in 2014, the e-magazine transformed completely into a website and in 2014 added a Hindi section after feedback from visitors. It gets about 50,000 unique visitors every month. “It’s not like I never thought of a print issue,” said Singh, who lives in Delhi. “But that involves more money, more distribution issues and means access is less.”

Similarly, Tarshi, a group working on sexual and reproductive rights, produced In Plainspeak between 2005 and 2009, which has now “reincarnated” entirely as an online publication.

As with other print publications, and LGBT publications elsewhere, the internet has overall eaten into the print domain. “This is true of such publications across the world,” says Vikram Doctor. “Many publications have moved online. The internet has replaced what was once the only way to access information for the community.”

LGBT issues have begun to find space in mainstream reporting, Doctor points out, further reducing the indispensability of queer-specific publications. Rights-based reporting, HIV-related stories and trends in the community all make it to daily newspapers and magazines now.

Still, across the board, editors and activists say there is room for all kinds of publications. “There is space for everyone,” says Udayan Dhar, 28, who edits Pink Pages. “You can count the number of such publications on your fingers. There is room for more.”

And, the magazine culture has its uses that the internet can’t entirely replace. For instance, in smaller places, where internet access is limited, a physical magazine still has currency. Sappho for Equality, a Kolkata-based group, has since 2004 between producing Swakanthey, a biannual, bilingual six-page newsletter of academic articles, non-fiction stories and poetry. “We are a grass roots organisation,” says Rukmini, a research assistant with the group. “In the communities where we work, hard copies are important – we can't simply say, 'find us online'."

There are also other intangible impacts of tangible publications. “If someone gets a magazine home, their family might flip through it,” says Hazra. “Magazines left around the house for parents to “accidentally” read may help young people in coming out.”