Right to Love Society

I march, therefore I am: Legal change happened because LGBTQIA+ activists refused to give up

A Pride March in Bengaluru.   | Photo Credit: PTI

The three men wore bright yellow T-shirts with rainbow-coloured footprints. Rafiquel Haque Dowjah wore his on top of a perfectly pleated dhoti, probably a fashion first. The T-shirts celebrated the 20th anniversary of India’s first Pride Walk in Kolkata and these men — Rafiquel, Pawan Dhall and Owais — were three of the original marchers. Owais had brought the original yellow T-shirt they had worn back in 1999, a little bedraggled but still historic. Twenty years ago, they didn’t call it an LGBTQIA+ Pride March. That seemed too out there. They chose the more innocuous Friendship Walk.

How woke?

When some 15 walkers stepped out on that monsoon day in 1999 they could not have imagined that one day they would be on stage at a “Queer & Inclusive” Rainbow Lit Fest in New Delhi, recounting that story to cheers. There was a catch in festival director Sharif Rangnekar’s voice as he thanked them for coming. In India these days having a gay friend seems to be the new cool (at least in some circles). Publishing houses are bringing out “Indian and gay” novels and memoirs. Corporate giants like Tata are extending benefits to their LGBTQIA+ employees. Karan Johar is promising a Dostana 2 that will be “accurate, non-caricaturish and on point”. It’s part and parcel of a more woke post-377 India.

But those three men in their yellow T-shirts were a reminder that these rights did not just emerge fully formed on September 6, 2018, when the Supreme Court read down Section 377, overturning the 2013 ruling that had recriminalised it, pushing LGBTQIA+ Indians aside as a ‘minuscule minority’.

The change happened because over the years, queer Indians, like Pawan, Owais and Rafiquel and many others, walked the talk when no one else did. When I would come to India on my annual pilgrimage from San Francisco, where I worked in Silicon Valley, Pawan and I would chat about what it meant to be gay in India. Once a friend and I brought back videos of queer films in our suitcases and we had a mini LGBTQIA+ ‘film festival’ in Pawan’s living room. It was hard to imagine a post-377 India with a public Rainbow Fest which people would pay to attend.

Those days Pawan ran a group called Counsel Club in Kolkata. I was volunteering as editor for Trikone, the world’s oldest magazine on South Asian LGBTQIA+ issues that came out of California. Counsel Club used to distribute Trikone in India to save on postage costs from America. One day Pawan got a notice from Customs. They had opened the package of Trikone and issued a show cause asking, “Why shouldn’t we charge you with corrupting the morals of the nation?” Pawan told me, “I can never forget those words. I still have that notice with me.”

‘I hear you’

That notice is among the artefacts of India’s LGBTQIA+ movement. As are the thousands of letters people like Pawan received from lonely men and women trying to make sense of their lives and desires. In his book, Out of Line and Offline — Queer Mobilizations in ’90s Eastern India, Pawan shares some of those letters, written “in yellow envelopes, inland forms, open postcards and aerogrammes”, some looking for a partner, some just a sense of self. “Sir, I started sensing my homosexuality at the age of 11 though till now I have not had sex with anybody.” Two women wrote in, asking for help to flee to Delhi. Otherwise, they said, suicide was the only option. Pawan says he still has 2,500 to 3,000 of those letters. I don’t think many of them talked about Section 377. The letters were inevitably about loneliness rather than legality.

Legal change, once unimaginable, eventually happened because people refused to give up. As Owais writes in an essay in his anthology, Gulabi Baghi, “Success comes only to that person and only that group which is consistent, which is a lambi daud ka ghoda” (the horse for the long run). In 2018, that long run finally bore fruit when the Supreme Court said, “The right to love is not just a separate battle for LGBT individuals, but a battle for all.”

The quotes from that historic judgement will be saved, savoured and celebrated, and rightly so. The words were carefully chosen, written with an eye towards history. Panellists quoted them on television shows. But I hope we also never forget that long before judges put pen to paper, there were ordinary queer Indians who answered, by hand, letters strangers sent to a post-box. They probably didn’t quote Goethe and Shakespeare and Leonard Cohen. They could not even promise “It gets better.” The greatest solace, sometimes the only solace, those at the other end of a post bag number could provide was to pick up a pen and write back to just say, “I hear you.”

Long before this revolution was televised, it was handwritten, one letter at a time, stamped with the kindness of strangers.

The writer is the author of Don’t Let Him Know, and like many Bengalis like to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 9:42:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/i-march-therefore-i-am-legal-change-happened-because-lgbtqia-activists-refused-to-give-up/article30410158.ece

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