June 28 marks 50 years since the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, setting off a series of protests by the city’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community that proved to be a vital catalyst in the movement against discrimination. Thirty years later, the month of June went on to be designated as Pride month, inspiring the community across the globe to come out and stand up for themselves, unapologetically.
The Stonewall raid had parallels in India too. In 2001, the Uttar Pradesh police raided the premises in Lucknow of the Naz Foundation and Bharosa Trust, both of which worked in the area of HIV prevention. Four men, including Arif Jafar – who led both organisations in the city– were jailed for more 40 days as the police claimed that their HIV/AIDS programmes were the front for a sex racket.
In a few days, queer and allied groups organised protests in several cities. Later that year, the raids prompted the Naz Foundation to petition for Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised homosexuality, to be read down. This was probably the first unifying moment for all hues of the LGBT community.
The movement today, though, is not as unified or visibly inclusive. It reflects the polarisation with which the rest of India lives, as communities are divided between ideologies of human equity with equality and also along lines of religion, caste and class. For the LGBT community, there is difference between members in Mumbai and Delhi in how matters are approached. Mumbai has been open to corporate money, allowing corporate logos to be displayed at Pride even before Section 377 was read down. Delhi, on the other hand, has tried to remain independent, raising money from the community. Community members in each city across India have made their own choices, often appearing distant from each other and at times even disconnected.
The closest the community got to being on the same page was when the Lawyer’s Collective organised national meets over the past decade to discuss the case against Section 377 and how it was faring in the courts. The strongest display of collective joy occurred last September, when the Supreme Court finally read down Section 377.
After that historic day, there have been a few unifying moments: when the Madras High Court in April upheld transgender marriage rights and when ace sprinter Dutee Chand in May announced that she was in a same-sex relationship. But when it came to the Lok Sabha elections and the discussion on the post-Section 377 sense of freedom, the debates shifted our focus from human rights to our personal political preferences.
At the same time, the LGBT movement has acquired a range of new-found allies, from magazines waking up to our fashion quotient to corporations angling for our “pink rupees”, claiming almost overnight that they are inclusive of all kinds of diversity. Even some film celebrities have come out to say how “normal” we are and that India should allow same-sex marriages.
Ironically, none of these entities or personalities had been there earlier – with us or for us. While these voices matter, they are often timed with a festive phase in our freedom struggle rather than when the chips are down and we are facing the reality of the hate and pain inflicted against the community.
While there has been growing visibility of queer people, there have been growing hate crimes too – reported and unreported, such as a lesbian being tied to a tree and beaten in Odisha in May and the numerous attacks on trans-genders in various parts of the country. Some gay chat apps have resulted in a rise in blackmail cases, exploiting the continued stigmatisation of the community.
While the newfound freedom after Section 377 is essentially a celebration of not being criminal, it isn’t anything close to the freedom that everyone else has. We can be bullied in schools and colleges, discriminated against at the workplace, denied inheritance rights and health benefits and of course, disallowed a legally recognised marriage.
The problem is that, at this point, the LGBT movement in India is bereft of a direction. There is no centralised system that integrates views and thoughts to develop a strategy on what should come next. Hopefully, this is merely a pause to regroup. Till then, the courage and bravery to exist as queer will continue to be a reason to feel proud. And if we can unite to fight for our rights rather than about ideology, religion and region and find common ground that is higher than the “normalcy” of a hetero-dominated India, there would be reason to be even prouder.
Sharif Rangnekar is the author of Straight to Normal: My Life as a Gay Man.
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