Activists and supporters of gay and lesbian rights took to the streets in the four Indian cities of Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Pondicherry on Sunday in probably their largest demonstration ever. The parades called “Delhi Queer Pride” or “Rainbow Pride Walk” drew hundreds of participants. Celebrating their pride in their sexuality, gays and lesbians demanded that the law criminalizing homosexuality be scrapped immediately.
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Some had their faces covered with multi-hued masks, while most others walked smiling at the cameras, unabashed and fearless. Brandishing rainbow-coloured flags, holding banners and swinging to the drum beats as they walked along, Delhi's first gay pride parade made for a colourful spectacle.
In a nation where homosexuality is illegal and is punishable with up to 10 years in jail, the overwhelmingly large attendance at the event took many by surprise.
Gay activism on the rise in India
Gautam Bhan, the chief organizer of the Queer Pride parade hoped the march would generate respect for the gays and lesbians especially when there has been an increase in gay activisim at least in urban India.
"I think the march is a coming of age of the movement in a sense, it is a culmination of 10 years of work, 10 years in which attitudes and rights of the movement around sexuality in India have rapidly and so quickly changed. 10 years ago you would never imagine such a thing possible."
Kapil Kaul, one of the marchers was happy that there was a big turnout. ``I take huge pride that finally some of us have decided to go out and not be hesitant about talking and exposing themselves to be who they are and what they stand for."
Gays, lesbians, transgenders, activists and supporters walked in the parade with great gusto. Banners with screaming headlines such as "Drop 377" - referring to section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that considers homosexuality a crime - "Heterosexuality is not normal, it's common", floated above the hundreds of heads on the roads of Connaught Place, the business district and shopping arcade in the heart of the capital.
Every year the week leading up to June 29 is remembered by sexual minorities and those with alternative sexual proclivities across the world as the "Rainbow Pride Week".
Tough struggle ahead for social acceptance
Though Article 377 is currently being debated in court and the verdict will be an important landmark in the community’s struggle, Bhan says there are bigger challenges ahead.
"We have challenged the anti-sodomy law in the courts so the legal challenge is on. But the other challenge – the right to claiming public space, the right to everyday dignity, the right to be free of discrimination – all of these movements, all of these changes can only come with a sustained cultural and social movement – they just can’t come from legal change. Legal change can be a symbolic trigger to other changes, it can’t win hearts and minds."
There have been at least 35 cases of gay or lesbian people committing suicide in the last five years to escape conventional marriage. The parade, which saw thousands come out spontaneously, was small by many standards. But the organizers hope this will mark the beginning of a change in mindsets.