Hundreds March in India for Gay Rights

By Emily Wax and Ria Sen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 30, 2008

NEW DELHI, June 29 -- Waving rainbow flags and chanting "Gay India does exist," nearly 1,000 gay activists and their supporters marched in coordinated parades in three Indian cities Sunday, demonstrating their growing confidence and hope for change on a subcontinent where homosexuality is illegal.

Activists in New Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata called the parades the largest display of gay pride in India's modern history. They said the public rallies would have been impossible just a decade ago in this largely conservative nation, where marriage is seen as an important societal duty.

"Today a celebratory march occurred," said Pramada Menon, 42, a human rights activist who deals with sexuality issues. "I am excited that globalization has made sexual orientation a celebration. Today, we are ready to walk without masks."

The Indian Penal Code contains a colonial-era provision known as Section 377, which prohibits sexual activity that is "against the order of nature." The statute carries punishment of up to 10 years in prison.

The law has been repealed in other former British colonies. Human rights groups, in a challenge at the Delhi High Court, are asking the judges to declare that India's law does not apply to consenting adults. The court is set to hear arguments this week.

"In India, gays and lesbians still live highly closeted lives," said Vikram Doctor, 40, a member of the Queer Media Collective. "There is still violence. There are still many desperate suicides by gay couples. There is still harassment. And there is still intense pressure to marry those they do not want to be with. But today we have a voice. This march has taken on a momentum of its own."

Section 377 has been widely used to blackmail gays in highly organized rackets, according to Doctor and other activists. Marriage in India is highly valued and is sometimes a lucrative business arrangement between families.

"I wish to tell people, the judiciary and the government that gays do exist," said Alok Gupta, 28, a lawyer who focuses on gay rights.

In India's capital, New Delhi, the parade was more a celebration than a protest. Festive drumming filled the hazy air as marchers unfurled banners that read "Queer Dilliwalla," or resident of Delhi, and "377 Quit India."

The parades were peaceful, amid a heavy police presence. Attendees included families pushing strollers, foreigners and transvestites clad in bright saris and rainbow boas.

Wearing a T-shirt that said "Stonewalled," with an image of a famous ancient Indian sculpture of two women embracing, Giti Thadani, 47, a member of Sakhi, an organization for lesbians, said she remembered when the first openly gay organization formed in the mid-1980s. It had just four members.

"Then it was very difficult," she said. "Today, young Indians are economically independent -- they have access to information and they have their own sexual preferences. They don't always want to be married off at a young age. This parade is a sign of modernity."

Lesley Esteves, 32, one of the main organizers of the event, said the day was "a tangible sign of progress," but added: "The road is still long. The battle is far from over."

India's conservative Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has openly disagreed with the movement, calling it "un-Indian and against families." But leaders said they did not wish to protest the parades, so as not to give more attention to the issue.

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