ST: Indian gays hold rare march for their rights (July 1)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July 1, 2008
Indian gays hold rare march for their rights
Coming-out pride rallies show how attitudes in nation are changing rapidly
By Ravi Velloor

NEW DELHI - AT FIRST glance, the 500 or so marchers in central New
Delhi looked like they were rallying for communal harmony.

'Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai,' read the placards they carried, using the
Hindi word for Christian.

Below those words were another rhyming line: 'Homo-hetero bhai bhai.'

Bhai-bhai in common Hindi translates as 'brotherhood'.

The marchers were holding an unprecedented public demonstration in the
national capital on Sunday for gay rights, showing sympathy towards
those clustered as LGBT - short for lesbian, gay, bisexual and

In the technology hub of Bangalore, dozens of gays came out of the
closet to hold what is commonly known as a pride rally. So, too, did
gays in Kolkata, where pride rallies have been held since 2003.

Among the marchers in New Delhi was Mr K.R. Gopalan, a retired Indian
Air Force officer whose daughter is a lesbian.

'I came here to support my daughter,' he told reporters covering the
rally. 'I support her decision on her sexuality.'

The coming-out pride rally underscores how rapidly attitudes are
changing in this country regarding practices and ideas that go against
the norm.

India has had its famous gays. The late rock star Freddie Mercury, who
fronted the British band Queen, was born in Mumbai as Farrokh Balsara.
He died of Aids in 1991 and was a homosexual. Writer Vikram Seth
recently acknowledged that he is gay.

But for the most part, homosexuals have remained in the closet,
stigmatised by society. Indeed, India's public laws are often woefully
behind the times, thanks in part to the humbug of politicians and

Some years ago, when top character actresses Shabana Azmi and Nandita
Das starred in a movie on lesbianism called Fire, right-wing
protesters succeeded in having the film pulled from many theatres

In Bangalore, perhaps India's most globalised city that was once known
for its swinging night life, the administration now bans live music in
its bars. Mumbai has banned its once-ubiquitous 'dance bars'.

India's laws treat homosexuality as a crime.

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, drafted in 1860, prescribes
punishment for up to 10 years for 'carnal intercourse against the
order of nature'.

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
Mr Vikram Doctor, 40, a member of the Queer Media Collective, a group
of journalists who aim for a more balanced treatment of gay and
lesbian issues.

'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.'

The penal code is rarely applied, but hangs as a threat and a tool for
corrupt policemen to occasionally extort money.

This time around, gay rights activists probably have a better chance
of being heard. One reason is that there is growing realisation in
India that driving homosexuals underground may be hindering the drive
to combat Aids.

Mr Ashok Row Kavi, a pioneering gay rights activist in India, noted
that homosexuality is gaining acceptance in the West after years of

'It is going to be a bitter fight here as well because modern India is
a product of many other cultures,' said Mr Kavi, who works as a
consultant for UNAids.