Ban On ‘Unnatural’ Sex Bolsters LGBT Pride In India

Aspiring Indian filmmaker Nakshatra Bagwe at Queer Azaadi Mumbai 2013
Indian filmmaker Nakshatra Bagwe at Queer Azaadi Mumbai 2013

Western culture has generally adopted the June anniversary of the Stonewall riots as the celebration for LGBT Pride, but in Mumbai, India–an enormous metro area of approximately 20 million people, the same size as New York City–the festival known as “Queer Azaadi” will take place in February.

On the heels of the unfortunate “recriminalization” of sexual activity for same-sex partners, known as Section 377, we had a quick chat with two LGBT activists in India: Pallav Patankar, Director of HIV Programs at The Humsafar Trust, is part of the organizational team for Queer Azaadi; and Nitin Karani is a local LGBT activist and Board Member of Samapathik Trust.

Why is Pride held in February?
Patankar: The Pride march in Mumbai is always organized on the first weekend after the Indian Republic Day, the day the constitution of India took effect, which is the 26th of January.

Is it a popular event in Mumbai?
Patankar: The number of people who attend every year ranges from 2000-2500.
Karani: This year I expect at least that many given the anger against the Supreme court verdict.

What about the recent Supreme Court ruling in India, that bans gay sex?  Does it really mean gay people will be arrested for having sex?  
Patankar: The term “gay sex : is a misnomer. Section 377 bans “unnatural sex,” which includes anal sex, blow jobs, masturbation, anything other than peno-vaginal is unnatural as per law.  This not only affects the queer community, but straight people as well, making the entire sexual active population in India criminals.

Do you know of anyone who has been harassed because of this law? I ask this because there are many laws like this in existence around the world, but people claim they don’t matter because are not enforced.
Patankar: These laws are not enforced because they are hard to implement or report. However, Section 377 is used more as a tool to harass and blackmail gay and lesbian people.  One has to also realize that these laws come in the way of HIV prevention, where even giving a condom to two men is effectively abetting a crime. Or a doctor would be required to report a case of anal sex since it amounts to criminal activity.

In the U.S., “gay pride” suggests a parade, and then an outdoor party with performances by drag queens, and then a finalé by a pop music artist.  There is usually a lot of alcohol involved.  What does a gay pride event in India look like?
Patankar: We are very clear that while Pride is a concept that has emerged in the West, we will emulate the concept with our Indian value system and sensibilities that help us assimilate into the mainstream. We do have performances by a transgender group that performs local Bollywood songs and local folk dance, and a rock concert by the sea front which invites local music bands to perform. We have post pride party where there will be alcohol, but smoking and drinking during the Pride march is discouraged.
Karani: There is a lot of singing and sloganeering of course. And many drag queens and hijras.

What is a hijra?
Karani: A hijra is a male who either considers himself a woman or the third gender and lives and dresses up as a woman, who may or may not be castrated. They live on the margins but have a traditional place in society.  Read the hijras Wikipedia page for more information. (Ed. note: hijras)

Who are the icons of the LGBT community in India?
Patankar: Onir is an openly gay Bollywood film director. Imran Khan, Mona Ambegaonkar, and Celina Jaitley are top Bollywood actors who have all come out with open support for the LGBT community.
Karani: Also the late Freddie Mercury, although he never acknowledged his Indian origin.