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Feature in Infochange india July 15, 2007

Posted by qmediawatch in English, Online/New Media.
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http://www.infochangeindia.org/features433.jsp

In Kolkata, a city known to provide space to the marginalised, the LGBT community celebrated its sexuality and publicly declared its alternative sexual preferences

They brought songs and laughter on a heavy, rain-cast, monsoon weekend. A large group of people, representatives of more than a dozen organisations, carrying colourful placards and festoons, walked down the main streets of Kolkata on the evening of July 1, 2007, singing. Some, dressed in women’s attire and stunning accessories, walked gracefully and confidently, ignoring the curious glances and bewildered looks of the crowds on the streets. A few passersby gasped in disbelief, some swore and laughed, while the brave reached out to take the leaflets that were being distributed.

The merry group, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender community
(LGBT), sang and shouted, not in protest or in anger against the routine discrimination and violence, but as a ‘coming out’ in pride of their sexual identities. Said Agniva Lahiri, development consultant, “The pride march is in celebration of our sexuality. To walk on the streets is a political move, to declare publicly our different sexual preferences.”

The Rainbow Pride Walk in Kolkata, the only one of its kind in the country, is part of a week-long celebration of cultural events. Every year diverse human rights movements working in the city and nationally come together to organise film shows, art exhibitions, discussions and dance performances to create spaces for dialogue and understanding devoid of hate, stigma and harassment. Worldwide, the LGBT community has adopted the ‘rainbow’ as a symbol of their sexual diversity and pride. “The public march on the streets reflects our confidence.
It also demonstrates a more tolerant Kolkata,” said Agniva after a pause.“While people’s sexuality is not their only identity, it’s often used to deny them their rights to equality before the law, to security and freedom,” said Pawan Dhall of SAATHII. Though the LGBT communities in India have made considerable strides in asserting their rights, Section 377, which criminalises same-sex relationships among men, and incidents of homophobic and transphobic violence, are widely prevalent. Many activists like Agniva feel it is more important to seriously address issues of gender construct and socialisation
which stereotype both men and women than to focus on the ban of 377  which has partly sapped the energy of the movement.

The first LGBT Pride March was organised in Kolkata in 1999 by support forums for sexual minorities to mark the landmark event of the Stonewall Riots in the USA . Years ago, on June 27, 1969, LGBT people had publicly protested police harassment in New York, a daily routine in their lives at the time. “As a result of the riots and protests, the new movement for LGBT rights emerged. Activists in India took inspiration from the Stonewall Riots and took the first steps,” said Dhall.

The celebrations this year began on June 24 with the Siddhartha Gautam Film Festival in memory of Gautam, a young lawyer and civil rights activist who died young of cancer. He was one of the first in India in the late-’80s to talk about sexuality and HIV and AIDS as a human rights issue. Today, the film festival has become a platform to screen films on human rights issues that Siddhartha worked and fought for.

According to Agniva, the pride walk is possible in the city only because people in West Bengal are more tolerant of the LGBT community. He and his friends would however like to see more active participation in their programmes. “People do not interfere or create obstacles in our work; in fact they are quite supportive,” said Agniva. For instance, the municipal employees of Bidhannagar are not only friendly towards them, they cooperate by offering the LGBT members space to meet and conduct their work. Many feel that the state’s ideological leanings towards Marxism aid this tolerance. Many of the LGBTs are themselves supporters of the Marxist political parties, which gives them easier access to
the leadership and promotes dialogue on related issues.

“It’s the younger generation of Marxists who are more sympathetic and progressive in their attitude towards the cause,” asserts Vikram Ghosh of Amitie. He should know. In 2005, during a book fair in Hoogly district, some senior members of the ruling Marxist party had abused and beaten up their members, forcibly closed down their bookstall, destroyed the posters and damaged the books. In protest, the group appealed to the Calcutta High Court . The Court ruled that the LGBT community had the right to express themselves.

The most active support to the LGBTs, not unexpectedly, has been from women’s groups in the city. At every platform, meeting and programme organised by the women’s network Maitree, the lesbian group Sappho has been encouraged to express and voice its concerns. “We have participated in various Maitree programmes as equal partners, with our distinct sexual identity, organisation placards and issues. We have never faced any ridicule, hassles or indignities,” said Abir of Sappho. Incidentally, Saphho does not participate in the Pride Walk because it disagrees politically with the need for a public declaration of one’s sexuality.

Since the last one year, the LGBT community has received an unexpected push
from an unlikely quarter. Academia, known for its prudish correctness, broke social boundaries when the English Department of Jadavpur University introduced
Queer Studies in the post-graduate course. The six-month course got an overwhelming response from the students, with more than 50 registering for it. “Queer Studies is a new but growing discipline,” said Paromita Charavorty, convenor of the course. “Students are curious about sexual politics, for some it is fashionable to be radical, many others understand that it emerges out of gay politics.”

Kolkata is known to be a city with a tradition of tolerance, providing space to marginalised people. If the Rainbow Pride Week, culminating in the Pride Walk, can become a regular part of the city landscape, the city certainly has something to be proud of. (Rajashri Dasgupta is an independent writer and researcher based in Kolkata)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2007

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