Written by Sumitra Sunder.
Bangalore will soon celebrate its 10th Pride Festival or Namma Pride (Kannada word meaning Our) and Karnataka Queer Habba (Kannada word meaning festival). While Pride month is celebrated across most of the world in June and July, cities in India have different dates for celebrating Pride. Bangalore and Delhi, for instance, often celebrate it in November. July is when plans begin for the festival and associated events.
Being LGBTQ+ (queer) in India: identifying as queer or performing queer is taboo but not illegal, it is the actual intercourse that is deemed unnatural and therefore illegal. What Queer persons have to deal with, as in most other countries, is moral outrage against those who express gender and sexual identities that are non-binary or non-heteronormative.
The 1990s marked an important milestone in the history of queer activism in India. 1992 was the year activists protested against police harassment of gay men, followed by a public ‘coming out’ in response to Right Wing attacks on Regal Cinema in central Delhi when the film Fire was released. These instances mark the beginning of Queer activism in a large way across the country. The problem with being out is not so much a matter of legal rights as much as it is of facing moral policing and being marked as a cultural/social transgressive. This takes us to the argument that the problem with being queer in India is the violence with which those who transgress or challenge hetero-normativity are treated. Therefore, the ways in which to address the problem is by awareness building and creating safe spaces for those who identify as queer.
Pride and related festivals have thus far been a community driven initiative that does not seek to become a large institution. And in the years that it has been happening in Bangalore, the numbers of allies participating has grown and shows hope that this need not be a subject of stigma in the future.
Being queer in India, especially ‘coming out’ and being publicly queer is a dangerous position. Often those who are publicly out come from a privileged background; which is the case in other countries as well where class or skin colour plays a big part in how ‘ok’ it is to come out of the closet or perform your gender in public spaces. Students in many institutions have been ostracised, blackmailed and physically assaulted for being gay or perceived as gay. This violence can be anything from non-acceptance, silence and denial, not acknowledging partners and alternative families; to micro aggressions, corrective rape, house arrest, aiding and abetting suicide or even murder. My observation is that many Indian people are afraid of expressing themselves or speaking about their queerness, especially because they are subjected to violence that is legitimised by the law and social standards. Artistic expression has remained restricted to parallel events alongside the various Pride marches or film festivals across the country. It has been art practice in queer spaces and not art practice that is queered.
Ten years after the protests in the 90’s Bangalore and Delhi held their first pride parades and in 2009, a landmark judgement by the Delhi High Court, decriminalising adult, consensual, same-sex sex moved many queer people to ‘come out’ and begin to lead visible lives. This changed again in 2014 when the judgment was revoked and same sex relationships were criminalized again. That there is a Pride festival today is the concentrated effort of activists and organizations that work towards protecting and validating a queer community. One element that unifies the organization of Pride festivals and the march itself is the refusal of funding from political parties and corporations. The reasoning is that the politics or the vision of the funding body may affect the way in which the festivals are conducted. It could also dictate what events can happen and those that are excluded.
Namma Pride and Karnataka Queer Habba have been organised through a support network of different LGBTQ+ organisations. What is important to remember when organising a festival like this is the politics of sponsorship. Thus far the Coalition for Sex Workers and Sexual Minorities Rights (CSMR), along with other organisations have refused funding from political parties, religious organizations, corporates or any other for-profit entities. This protects groups from conflicting agendas and fosters community involvement in making the festival happen. It is important as the Pride is organised to end discrimination and violence against queer persons. Using the visual spectacle of a march, as well as peppering the cities’ public spaces and entertainment venues with artistic expression, makes a strong statement for the rights of queer people in a heteronormative world. It makes a statement for those who are discriminated against and the violence meted out to those who don’t conform.
Pride and related festivals have thus far been a community driven initiative that does not seek to become a large institution. And in the years that it has been happening in Bangalore, the numbers of allies participating has grown and shows hope that this need not be a subject of stigma in the future. What really needs to happen though is the gradual acceptance of queer people in the popular imagination and a rejection of heteronormative standards of living.
Sumitra Sunder is a Ph.D. candidate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. Her research focuses on Contemporary Art Practice and Curating in India. She tweets at @techtard86. Image Credit: CC by Pride Festival in India/ Wikipedia