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RIGHTS: Queer Parade Defies Anachronistic Indian Law

Sujata B. Shakeel

NEW DELHI, Jun 30 2009 (IPS) - "Not all females are women," reads a poster emblazoned in red. "I am the pink sheep of my family!" is the message on another, while a third, very cheekily proclaims, "I don’t give a f***, I am a greedy bisexual"!

"No Fear, We are Queer" - More than 1,500 people participated in New Delhi's second Queer Parade  Credit: Sudhanshu Malhotra/IPS

"No Fear, We are Queer" - More than 1,500 people participated in New Delhi's second Queer Parade Credit: Sudhanshu Malhotra/IPS

New Delhi’s second Queer Pride parade was flamboyant, riveting and raucous – a medley of rainbow hues, music, and in-your-face attitudes that infused an infectious energy and verve to a sultry, simmering Sunday evening.

On Jun. 28, more than 1,500 people joined the parade in central Delhi. Among them women and men from the city’s urban villages like Khanpur and Kapashera and well-heeled residents of South Delhi. A group of students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and also visitors from Mumbai, Dehradun and Assam, and a few foreigners.

Like 27-year-old Liz from Texas, studying Hindi at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Jaipur, who did the four-hour bus journey just for the Queer Pride. "I am a lesbian," she said. "My partner is in Toronto but will be joining me soon. This march is an excellent way to express solidarity and see the community come out in the open."

India’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people are only now more openly coming out of the closet. Homosexuality is a criminal offence under an anachronistic law, Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which has been used by the police and religious orthodoxy to harass and terrorise same sex couples.

"No Fear, We are Queer" says one of the posters, challenging the authority of the state that seeks to "criminalise and throttle an individual’s right to profess and practice their sexual preferences," asserts 44-year-old Pramada Menon, a Delhi-based activist and consultant on women’s rights and gender issues.

"We are just asking to be allowed to live the way we want," according to Anusha, 23, a political science student who describes herself as bisexual. "We are not impinging on anyone’s rights, so why is it so difficult to allow us our rights of self expression and choices? It is discrimination when you ask me whether I am straight or queer, or if I can’t talk about my sexuality freely."

Under Indian law, only heterosexual couples can get a house loan from a bank, apply for medical insurance jointly, adopt a child as a couple, or will their property to a partner. "We are marginalised at every step," Menon states.

Activists have been campaigning to scrap the British colonial era law. "We need to resist the heterosexual matrix," says social scientist and activist, Aditya Nigam.

Also known as the anti-sodomy law, Sec 377 penalises "voluntary carnal intercourse against the order of nature with a man, woman or animal." The punishment, though rare, includes life imprisonment and fines, which are frequently resorted to by the police to extort money from bisexual, homosexual and transgendered women and men.

But repealing Section 377 is a contentious issue in India with religious organisations strongly opposing the move under the plea that "it would lead to sexual anarchy."

Talk of sexual anarchy is a big joke, feel many gay rights activists. "Should they not address more lethal issues like child marriage, female foeticide, domestic violence, rape, murder for dowry and pedophile? There has to be reconciliation and there has to be support for this marginalised section," says Menon.

Support is essential, according to 35 year-old cabin crew personnel Varun, who was "dismayed and confused when I discovered myself in college." Eye-catching in a black and gold ensemble and flamboyant feathered headgear, Varun says he could come out in the open only because of the support of his family. What scares him is the "potential HIV/AIDS factor and access to unbiased treatment!"

In 2001, Naz Foundation (India) Trust, an NGO working on HIV/AIDS issues filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Delhi High Court demanding repeal of Article 377 on the grounds that it discriminates against LGBTI people who may need HIV/AIDS treatment.

The petition also raises another contention: describing people with different sexual preferences as criminals is a violation of human rights guaranteed under India’s Constitution. The court began hearings in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Manmohan Singh government is believed to be "back-pedalling" on the issue of supporting the demand for amendment of Article 377 for fear of religious backlash, say activists.

Anjali Gopalan, director of the Naz Foundation Trust, says, very angrily: "How can you place religion over human rights!"

There is no doubt that "it (repealing) is about human rights and about acceptance," says Dr Kumar, a professor at Delhi University, who was at the parade with her daughter Ria, 26, (name changed) a PhD scholar. "Isn’t it discrimination that compels many present here to hide (their faces) behind a mask or a shade. It is humiliating and very confidence eroding!"

"I was not shocked when I learned of her (Ria’s) sexual orientation. The issue brought us closer, forging a deeper understanding. I’m proud that my daughter could express herself. She won’t tell herself a lie and I don’t want her to be a fraud. It is important to be able to experience what one really is," she adds.

Kumar who describes herself as a "proud mother" says: "Freedom and progress is not just about economic progress, but also about uninhibited thought, progressive attitude, and the courage of conviction to confront natural reality. The great Indian middle class needs to change its mindset to become a more inclusive society."

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