The fluidity of gender and sexuality in India’s mythology, literature and society has been well documented by authors like Devdutt Pattanaik, Ruth Vanita, and Saleem Kidwai. But the queer movement – as we know it now – really has its foundations in the last quarter of the the 20th century. It was due to liberalization and “transnational” cultural exchange that more and more Indians began to recognize their “queerness.”
Even back then, there was a wariness to depend on western theory to define what it meant to be queer in India. So you have activists like Gautam Bhan and Arvind Narrain writing “Because I Have A Voice,” or A. Revathi writing her autobiography and creating an anthology of trans experiences. Queer Indians have been carving their own unique spaces, and these 10 instances chart that history:
In 1986, while the West was seized by the AIDS scare and a rapidly galvanizing homophobia, homosexuality had officially emerged as an identity in India. Veteran journalist Ashok Kavi Row penned what is arguably the first coming out story of modern India. His narrative, explaining for the first time the meaning of the word “gay,” was published in the February issue of a magazine called Savvy.
In 1990, Row wanted to build a support network to address issues like HIV/AIDs, STIs, discrimination and more. So he started a newsletter that would go on to become Bombay Dost, which is till today India’s leading ‘gay magazine.’ Since its inception, the magazine has been incredibly successful, and widely read. However, the closet is still a reality for many gay men in India, and Bombay Dost staff make sure to deliver each issue in “a non-transparent envelope to maintain confidentiality.”
In her book “Queer Activism in India,” anthropologist Naisargi N. Dave notes that during an international conference on AIDS in 1992 in New Delhi, 200 delegates staged a walk-out “to protest the government’s stance on homosexuality.” This simple act led to many subsequent demands for health-care options for men who have sex with men, and the need to address the unique healthcare challenges of queer-identified persons.
In 1996, Deepa Mehta released “Fire,” which follows the forbidden sexual desires of protagonists Radha and Sita (cleverly named after two women central to very hetero Hindu mythology ). While it wasn’t India’s first lesbian love story, it was definitely the first one to have a violent aftermath. When the film was released in ‘98, members of right wing groups like the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal attacked cinema halls across the country, to prevent moviegoers from watching it. Nothing scares the patriarchy like two women in love, and the moment was ripe for lesbian women in India to begin asserting their identities.
Despite (or perhaps because of) rising tensions in the country, gay Indians increasingly sought each other out. So in 1999, the Soul Kitchen disco in Delhi hosted the first “gay night.” Parties become the preferred social setting in which face-to-face interactions took place. This was really where a “gay subjecthood” and culture was being formed, and set the tone for many years to come. Parties, clandestine though they may be, are still popular community-organized events that provide a safe space to queer people.
Patriarchal norms and the demands of the family restricted lesbian Indian women from having their equivalent of “gay night.” Other avenues had to be explored. The ‘90s saw a huge surge in written correspondences by lesbian women. The organisation that became the focal point of these letters was Sakhi, a helpline and resource centre set up by academic and activist Gita Thadani. Sakhi received an overwhelming number of letters from “women-seeking-women,” “single ladies” (terms that were popular back then). Some were looking for answers about themselves, others for political organising, and still others simply looking for sex. 1999 was also the year that CALERI (Campaign for Lesbian Rights) came out with a manifesto titled “Lesbian Emergence” – a significant shift in what has so far been a male-dominated queer politics.
Even if the Indian queer community was following a standard set by its Western counterparts, the first LGBT Pride March held in 1999 in Calcutta. It was a tiny group, no more than 15 people, but it was undeniably a moment of arrival for a vibrantly visible queer politics in the country. The very act of walking through public streets, and claiming one’s queerness was enough to make people pay attention. And by 2012, the march had grown a hundred-fold, with 1,500 people joining in, and it only promised to get bigger!
The fight against the obsolete, vaguely-worded, colonial-era anti-sodomy law that criminalizes sexual acts “against the order of nature” began way back in 2001. In 2009, the Delhi High Court struck down Section 377. The petition was taken up to the Supreme Court, in the hopes of scrapping the law nationwide. But in a severe blow to the community, the apex court overturned the Delhi verdict in 2013, effectively re-criminalising homosexuality. Every new decision on Section 377 has spurred the community into action.
While the government point-blank refuses to entertain the idea of homosexuality in India, various recent attempts to mainstream the transgender community have been made. The Transgender Rights Bill of 2016 was a watershed moment in LGBTQ rights, for bringing the issue of trans self-determination into public discourse. But it was also a massive disappointment, built on a largely incomplete understanding of self-determination. And this has only compelled the trans community to fight harder.
These shifts in popular perceptions, claims to self-hood, and significant legal advancements or regressions are all indicative of an ever-growing, queer politics unique to India. And while not all of these are cause for celebration, they create a sense of lineage, a community, and a collective history, and that’s something to be proud of.
Update: An older version of this article said that the first LGBT Pride March held in India was in Delhi. The article has been corrected.