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India’s Pride should remember its cultural context

The LGBTQ+ freedom movement needs to be grounded in a home-grown reality. September could be Pride Month here to mark the 2018 Supreme Court verdict

June as Pride in India is just yet another example of blindly following a Western tradition, whether or not it makes sense in an Indian context.
June as Pride in India is just yet another example of blindly following a Western tradition, whether or not it makes sense in an Indian context. (iStockphoto)

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At first the pink momos left me gobsmacked.

A café in Kolkata had thought they were a great way to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month. I had made my peace with cakes, coffee mugs and dog collars, all in rainbow colours, but bright pink momos seemed beyond the pale.

On reflection, however, it kinda made sense. Celebrating Pride in June can feel like a corporate version of food colouring, showy but largely meaningless. Whether it means any change in corporations’ HR policies when it comes to issues like domestic partners or discrimination is another matter altogether.

Also Read: Are labels like gay, straight, bisexual more harm than good?

Of course a bit of feel-good rainbow pride, even if it’s mostly for show, is infinitely preferable to old-fashioned homophobia. One hopes the visibility eventually burrows somewhere into our consciousness and makes workplaces more queer-friendly.

But why June?

In the US, Pride and June have a historical connection. On 28 June 1969, police raided Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence in New York. Till 1966, it was illegal to even serve alcohol to a gay person in New York, which meant most gay bars didn’t have a liquor licence and police harassment was routine. But this time the patrons fought back.

It wasn’t just a gay story. Lesbians, drag queens, homeless youth and gender non-conforming people also fought back. They were the most easily identifiable as queer, and, therefore, easiest to target. A lesbian, whom the police were trying to drag into a car, kept shouting to onlookers, “Why don’t you guys do something?” The crowd started throwing bottles and bricks and the police barricaded themselves in the bar. A drag queen hit a police officer on the head with her purse. Six days of raucous protests and garbage can fires followed. Hundreds stood outside the bar chanting “Gay power” and ‘We want freedom”. A year later, the first Gay Pride marches happened in cities like New York and San Francisco to commemorate those protests. In 2016, then US president Barack Obama designated a new national monument at the site of the Stonewall Inn, the first national LGBTQ+ monument. In 2019, the New York police commissioner formally apologised for the events of 1969. Pride Parades are now celebrations but their origins lie in protest.

Sometimes well-meaning friends wonder why there is a need for gay “pride”. If homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality, why be proud of it as if it’s special? The reason is simple. For a long time, gay people had been told to be ashamed of who they were, asked to keep their heads down and try to pass as heterosexual. Stonewall changed that. In an article in the Harvard Gazette, writer and academic Michael Bronski said the Stonewall uprising, coming in the middle of protests about the war in Vietnam and civil rights, “marked a decisive break from the more passive sexual orientation politics of the day”. The poet Allen Ginsberg, who lived nearby, visited the bar after the uprising. In the book The Gay Militants, he said, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”

But in India the fight for LGBTQ+ rights has not been a street fight like Stonewall. It has largely been fought in the courtrooms, a tortuous legal journey that ended in the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which criminalised homosexuality) on 6 September 2018. June makes little sense as Pride Month in the Indian context.

On top of that, it’s terrible weather for Pride Marches in most of India. It’s either blazingly hot or pouring with rain, neither of which is conducive for walking the streets. Most cities in India have figured this out and quietly moved their Pride Marches to more pleasant times of the year, like December and January, but Pride Month hasn’t moved. The first Pride Walk in India, somewhat discreetly called Friendship Walk, did happen in June in Kolkata in 1999. They took their inspiration from the Pride Marches commemorating 30 years of Stonewall. It was a tiny affair but as one of the marchers, Owais Khan, told me, he thought, “While thousands in New York were celebrating ‘Gay Liberation Day’, can we not do a small padyatra?” Of course, it rained. The streets got waterlogged. The marchers have pictures in their Friendship Walk T-shirts with their pants rolled up.

It made sense then to follow the American Pride calendar because India did not have one of its own. But now it does. September could be Pride Month here to mark the Supreme Court verdict. That was India’s Stonewall moment, just in a different bar setting.

June as Pride in India is just yet another example of blindly following a Western tradition, whether or not it makes sense in an Indian context. It shows how easy it is for us to co-opt the accessories of liberation without imbibing the values that undergirded it. Stonewall was really a story of outcasts and misfits fighting to save the only safe spaces they had in a hostile city. Most “respectable” establishments in the city did not welcome them.The more affluent gay men who could pass as heterosexual mostly did not have that kind of appetite for confrontation. The plaque at Stonewall Inn acknowledges that history when it says, “This uprising catalyzed the LGBTQ civil rights movement.” Without a sense of that history, the rainbow stickers of June just become a symbol of cool rather than protest.

This is not to rain on anyone’s parade. With Section 377 relegated to history, LGBTQ+ acceptance in the Indian workplace can become a game changer. There are small signs that this is happening and colourful Pride celebrations can capitalise on that goodwill. But it has to go beyond stickers and hashtags. Parmesh Shahani, author of Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion In The Indian Workplace, often gives the example of Kochi Metro, which hired about 20 transgender people a few years ago to demonstrate its inclusivity. But it had not considered the fact that many people were unwilling to rent homes to transgender people and many of the new hires had to quit. The next time around, it also helped with housing. Likewise, it’s heartening that the portal BeUnic focuses on showcasing the work of different queer entrepreneurs rather than selling rainbow T-shirts and keychains to cash in on rainbow cool.

The LGBTQ+ movement in India comes with its own cultural context. Our mythology has its own gender-bending stories, as Devdutt Pattanaik explored in his book Shikhandi And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You. It comes with its own cultural baggage as well, as queer Dalits have testified. Even coming out does not have to happen in the same “Mom, Dad, I am gay” way it might in the West. I have often said, only half-jokingly, that in the West coming out historically meant leaving your family in some small mid-western town and heading to San Francisco or New York. In India, coming out often meant the whole family going into the closet with you.

When I used to edit the South Asian LGBTQ+ magazine Trikone in California, we did an issue on coming out. But we called it “Mom, Dad I don’t want to get married”. That just seemed to make more cultural sense. After a friend came out to his family, he asked his mother if she wanted to meet other parents like her. She was horrified at the thought of meeting strangers to discuss her son’s sexuality. “This is not an American talkshow,” she said.

Now times are changing. There are parents’ groups on WhatsApp that help other parents cope with their children’s sexuality—but in an Indian context. As scholar Ruth Vanita said in an interview to Feminism in India, it’s not homosexuality but homophobia that is “the Western import”. A 14th century Bengali narrative of two women producing a child together and raising it or female-female unions in 18th century Urdu poetry are more meaningful here than borrowed arguments about the right to same-sex marriage in the US. The LGBTQ+ freedom movement in India needs to be grounded in that home-grown reality.

It doesn’t need to spin pink Khadi but it could start by changing Pride Month itself. Also, we really can do without those pink momos.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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