Tracing the history of LGBTQ lives in India is a difficult task.
For one thing, most people don’t feel safe enough to come out of the closet, and disclose their experiences. For another, so much has been lost to time, erased by a strict code of sexual morality. Thanks colonialism! And then there’s also precious few places where you can actually have discussions about sexuality.
Historical reference points are important for any community’s sense of self, and queer Indians are no different. In a world that favours cisgender and heterosexual (cishet) ways of living, two things happen. First, people who are queer are put through various phases of self-doubt and discrimination. Second, cishet people are unable to examine the role they play in structurally oppressing LGBTQ folks.
So, in the interest of our collective knowledge, and working towards a more aware and sensitive world, let’s take a look at 91 things that we should remember about the LGBTQ movement in India:
According to research by the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association (GALVA), it was around 3102 B.C. (during the Vedic Age) that homosexuality or non-normative sexual identity was recognised as “tritiya prakriti”, or the third nature.
Back in the good ol’ days of third century BC, the Koovagam festival was born. It celebrated the story of Krishna taking the form of a woman to marry Aravan before the battle of Mahabharata. The festival continues even today, and is the largest annual gathering of trans people in India.
Temples constructed in Puri and Tanjore between the 6th and 14th centuries had some pretty explicit depictions of queer couples. As mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik writes, “One invariably finds erotic images including those that modern law deems unnatural and society considers obscene.”
Babur’s infatuation with a teenage boy named Baburi has even been documented in his memoirs, “Babur Nama”, and we have records of several couplets composed in Persian, by the lovelorn emperor for Baburi.
It’s 1862 when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code came into force. Drafted by Thomas Babington Macaulay, then head of the Law Commission, it is based on Britain’s own former anti-sodomy laws, and archaic 19th century Victorian morality. This section criminalises any form of sexual activity “against the order of nature”, and can be used at any time to harass and incarcerate same-sex couples.
Flash forward to mid-20th century, when Mahatma Gandhi – revered father of the nation – wrote against homosexuality. He was worried it would “[gain] the stamp of respectability”, saying it was “a most dangerous doctrine to preach anywhere.”
There was kind of a lull, post-Independence, but then in 1977, writer and math wizard Shakuntla Devi published “The World of Homosexuals”. Arguably the first of its kind in India, the book contained interviews with homosexual men, set against the backdrop of the Emergency years. In it, she wrote that “rather than pretending that homosexuals don’t exist” it was time “we face the facts squarely in the eye and find room for [homosexual people].”
The All-India Hijra Conference was called in 1981. Around 50,000 members of the community travelled to Agra to attend it.
In 1986, journalist Ashok Row Kavi penned an article about himself for Savvy Magazine, which became the first ‘coming out’ story from India.
In 1987, Leela and Urmila, two policewomen from Madhya Pradesh, married each other in the first ever documented case of its kind. Sadly, after the ceremony, both women were discharged from duty.
Remember Ashok Row Kavi? In 1990, a few short years after coming out, he founded India’s first magazine for queer men – BombayDost. And it’s still in circulation, with actor Manoj Bajpayee on the cover of its latest issue!
AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan – a group working to fight discrimination against HIV/AIDS positive persons – took a bold step in 1991, publishing the first citizen’s report on the status of at-risk homosexual men. Called “Less Than Gay”, it “expose[d] the silly lie that homosexuality does not exist in India” and “that gay people are a species from a different planet.”
In 1992, a conference on AIDS and health care was hosted in New Delhi, but it didn’t engage with the health of men who have sex with men. And that’s when it became the site of the first protest for the rights of gay men.
Queer psychologist and arts administrator Rakesh Ratti put together the first ever anthology of South Asian gay and lesbian experiences. It was published as “Lotus of Another Colour” in 1993. Says Ratti of the book: “If this book were on the shelf, it would have shown me that being gay was not at conflict with being Indian, that the two could coexist.”
The ‘90s also saw the emergence ‘women-loving-women’ in India. This was when activist and academic Gita Thadani set up Sakhi, a women’s helpline and lesbian resource centre which facilitated cross-country networking between queer women.
While LGBTQ people had managed to stay under the radar for the most part, it was in 1994 that someone with political clout actually expressed their contempt. A communist activist named Vimla Farooqi wrote to the then Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao to stop a gay men’s conference in Bombay.
In the same year as Farooqi’s letter, the Humsafar Trust was founded in Bombay, by none other than Ashok Row Kavi. One of the oldest LGBTQ organisations, it started out doing HIV/AIDS prevention advocacy, and today does various outreach programmes for the entire LGBTQ spectrum in several Indian cities.
“BOMGaY”, a 12 minute long film starring Rahul Bose and author R. Raj Rao, among others, was made in 1996. It follows several storylines of queer Indians living in ‘Maximum City’, and even though it was never released commercially, it remains an important part of queer cinema in India.
In 1996, Gita Thadani published “Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India“. In it, she explores the “erotic bonding between women in ancient India“, also looking at what has become of female sexuality in contemporary times.
In 1997, while lawyer and activist Arvind Narrain was still a student, he spearheaded the first LGBTQ rights seminar in National Law School of Bangalore, opening up the discussion on queerness in a new and public setting for the first time.
In 1997 two separate helplines and support networks were set up for LGBTQ Indians in crisis – Sangini, based in New Delhi, for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, and, similarly, Humraz for queer men.
In 1998, the Shiv Sena vandalised theatres that were screening Deepa Mehta’s “Fire” in Goregaon, Mumbai and Regal Cinemas, New Delhi. Instead of intervening and restoring order, Maharashtra’s then Chief Minister Manohar Joshi responded with: “I congratulate them for what they have done. The film’s theme is alien to our culture.” But this violent outburst only prompted queer women to come together and advocate for their rights.
Just as religious and ethnic minorities or people from certain economic classes are routinely denied accommodation by prejudiced landlords and homeowners, so too were trans and gay Indians. That’s why between 1998 and 1999, G.H.A.R (that’s Gay Housing Assistance Resource) was founded in Bombay by Sachin Jain. It set out to help LGBTQ Indians find safe living spaces, without having to worry about constant discrimination, from landlords and other tenants. Operations moved onto Facebook in 2012 and are still in full swing!
Calcutta holds India’s first ever ‘Gay Pride Parade’ in 1999. Called the Calcutta Rainbow Pride, it had only 15 people marching, but still sent a big message to the country – we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re proud of it!
Queer women in India have always been far more invisibilised than queer men. And in 1999, a Delhi-based organisation called CALERI (Campaign for Lesbian Rights) decided to address that issue. They released a manifesto titled “Lesbian Emergence” which pretty much broke the silence around the lives of queer women.
In the late nineties, dance culture slowly began to evolve as a community building and networking activity among LGBTQ people in India’s metropolitans. In 1999, a discotheque named Soul Kitchen in Delhi hosted the first “gay night”, giving members of the community the chance to meet each other in a safe space where they can be themselves.
Efforts to grow the community of queer and ‘women-loving-women’ in India continued through the ‘90s. It was at the turn of the century that Sappho for Equality was founded in Kolkata, as a space for queer people assigned female at birth. The organisation runs a range of programmes from study circles, to crisis intervention, to sensitivity training in medical colleges and much more.
“Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India” published in 1999 became an important bit of literature that increased visibility for queer women in the country.
It was 2001 when Naz Foundation and The Lawyer’s Collective filed the first petition against Section 377, asking for it to be read down, on the grounds that it was discriminatory to queer people, and also hampered HIV/AIDS intervention programmes.
It was still 2001 when LGBTQ people in Mumbai staged a silent protest against Section 377, outside the city’s iconic Flora Fountain, indicating a new phase in public demonstrations for LGBTQ rights.
In 2001, going up against all odds, Mumbai-based trans activist Gauri Sawant adopted Gayatri, the orphaned daughter of a sex worker, and puts her through school and college. A recent ad by Vicks tells her story, and how she destroyed the idea that trans people can’t be parents.
Despite family pressure, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla came out of the closet in 2002, and became the first openly gay prince in India. Soon after this, he made appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and set up the Lakshya Trust, which is dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention and intervention.
In 2003, the multi-organisation group called Voices Against 377 was formed. One of the first things they did was publish the report “Rights for All: Ending Discrimination Under Section 377”. The 60-page document extensively covers issues like sexuality and mental health, human rights violations, sex reassignment and more.
In 2003, author R. Raj Rao (remember him from BOMGaY?) penned India’s first gay romance novel. It was called “The Boyfriend”.
Orinam (meaning “one kind” in Tamil) was founded in Chennai in 2003 as “a support, cultural and activist space”, and is still the most prominent LGBTQ collective in Tamil Nadu. From organising film festivals to reading groups to the city’s Pride march, Orinam has worked hard to boost queer visibility in the state.
By 2004, the community became increasingly organised and was ready to take the fight for equal rights out in public. Voices Against 377 launched the Million Voices Campaign to collect one million messages on sexual rights in India.
In 2004, 38-year-old Pushkin Chandra, the son of a retired IAS officers, along with his partner Kuldeep Singh, were murdered in cold blood. Chandra himself was found with 11 stab wounds. The incident not only brought homophobic violence to the public’s attention, it also brought members of the LGBTQ community together to fight it. It took until 2010 for Chandra’s murderers to be given life sentences.
Back in 2006, India’s influential elite sent an open letter demanding that Section 377 be scrapped. Among these were people like author Arundhati Roy, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, poet Vikram Seth, and journalist Rajdeep Sardesai.
In the absence of marriage equality, the Humsafar Trust’s Goa wing began organising same-sex marriage ceremonies for people in the coastal state. While not legally recognised, these unions (which took place in 2006) were symbolic and also very affirming for many same-sex couples in India.
In 2008, LGBTQ-rights campaigners in India released a statement on how colonialism and the oppression of queer Indians worked hand in hand. They said: “We call on the British Government to apologise for the immense suffering that has resulted from their imposition of Section 377.”
The first ever Pride Marches in New Delhi and Mumbai were organised simultaneously in 2008. The two metropolitan cities saw a large and encouraging turn out, and it set the pace for the years to come, as Pride only grew bigger and brighter.
Organised by the Chennai Rainbow Coalition, a network of local LGBT+ and ally groups, holds its first Rainbow Pride Walk on June 28, 2009. With members of various LGBTQ groups in attendance.
The result of efforts by the Naz Foundation in 2001, the Delhi High Court passes a landmark judgement on July 2, 2010, by reading down Section 377 of the IPC. In effect, it granted equal rights to those seen as ‘sexual minorities’, and was one of the most affirming moments for LGBTQ Indians.
In 2010, Ramchandra Siras, a professor of Marathi in Aligarh Muslim University, is suspended from his job, after the college authorities find him guilty of ‘gross misconduct’. While with his male partner, Prof. Siras’s home was invaded by unknown assailants who filmed him and threatened him with blackmail. Though he fought this injustice in court, Prof. Siras died an unexplained death, and six persons suspected of murder were arrested.
The year after the High Court decision proved to be a productive one for the community. The Kashish Mumbai Queer Film Festival – which is today one of India’s largest LGBTQ film fests – was first launched in 2010, with the support of Bollywood actor Celina Jaitley
It was also in 2010 that the Queer-Ink publishing house was launched by entrepreneur Shobhna S. Kumar. Apart from publishing queer fiction, it also provides educational resources and crisis intervention services for LGBTQ Indians.
While he was the Health Minister in 2011, Ghulam Nabi Azad publicly decried homosexuality as a disease, only furthering negative stereotypes about queer people, and pathologising non-heterosexual sexual identities.
The country’s first queer-oriented radio project was launched in September 2013. Called QRadio, and based out of Bangalore, it “voices the advocacy, activism and lifestyle dialogue of the LGBT community.”
In 2013, LGBTQ Indians looked on in anguish as the Supreme Court overturned the Delhi High Court’s progressive judgement on Section 377, in effect reinstating the colonial law all over India. It was a massive blow to the community – especially for those who came out of the closet after 2009, and found themselves vulnerable in a largely homophobic nation once more.
In protest against the Supreme Court’s decision, out-and-proud author Vikram Seth posed for India Today’s cover, with this important message:
Even as the community reeled from the Supreme Court’s decision, Guwahati held its first Pride walk in 2013, and we saw the LGBTQ community in the North East states move to make its presence felt.
2014 became a defining moment for positive legislations for the transgender community. It started in April, with the National Legal Services Authority judgement to formally recognise trans people as the ‘third gender’ on official government-issued documents. It was in December that same year that the DMK’s Tiruchi Siva presented the private member’s bill in the Rajya Sabha, called Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014.
In February 2014, the Indian Psychiatric Society released a statement saying homosexuality is not a disease, and that it did not recognise it as one.
In April 2014, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan made an unexpected comment about equality, saying: “Everybody, including gays, has human rights. It is the job of the government to protect their rights.” This was one of the first ever statements on the subject from a BJP minister.
From August 2014 onwards, Delhi University began releasing admission forms which included the “third gender” category to improve education access for trans students.
Satyamev Jayate aired an episode on “Accepting Alternate Sexualities”. Hosted by Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, the episode is broadcast nationally and delivered an important message to all. After it was aired, the show’s team also released a booklet containing personal narratives by trans and queer Indians.
Manabi Bandhyapadhyay became them first openly trans college principal in 2015. She held the post at Krishnanagar Women’s College for a year and a half until she decided to resign, citing mental pressure when, as she said, “All my colleagues went against me, as did some students.”
The same year that Bandhyopadhyay made history, over in Chhattisgarh, Madhu Bai Kinnar made history too, after being elected as the first trans mayor of Raigarh.
Radhika Piramal, the managing director of VIP Industries (Asia’s second largest luggage makers) came out of the closet, also talking about her marriage to her female partner in the USA.
For the very first time, transgender artists in Kolkata get together to create Durga Puja idols, include figure of Ardhanarishwara, an important emblem for the trans community in India.
Late in 2015, Gaysi Magazine published a first-of-its-kind illustrated anthology about queerness, featuring colourful, moving, powerful artworks from over 30 artists.
In December 2015, parliamentarian and opposition party politician Shashi Tharoor prepared a private member’s bill to amend 377, but it was shot down even before it could be presented in the Lok Sabha.
In February 2016, Trans activist and Mitr Trust founder Rudrani Chettri began crowdfunding for a special project – India’s first trans modelling agency. The idea was to change the way the world perceives trans and hijra people, how they perceive themselves, and create the opportunity to pursue a career, instead of being pulled into sex work or begging in order to survive.
The first Gurgaon Pride March was held in July 2016, bringing queer politics and visibility to Millennium City.
One month later in August, the Humsafar Trust, in collaboration with the online platform LoveMatters, launched “Strengthening Bridges”. Having identified how deeply families affect the development of LGBTQ individuals, this special manual was meant to sensitise parents and counsellors.
By October 2016, the Chez Jerome-Q Café opened in New Delhi as the city’s first LGBTQ cafe, “where people come, converse, laugh, let their hair down — knowing this is a safe place for all.”
Amour, a queer dating app, was launched in 2016 to address some of the issues that other dating apps for queer people left unanswered. The service promised to personalise its matchmaking to suit the personal needs of each user, and keep in mind intersecting identities like disability, spoken languages, gender and sexuality orientation.
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill (first presented by Tiruchi Siva in 2014), set out to institute several important provisions on non-discrimination, access to education, healthcare and also the right to self-determination. However, by the time it was passed in 2016, the bill kept getting diluted, provoking deep criticism from trans activists.
In November 2016, Caritas India – the social service wing of the Catholic Church – stated its willingness to help the transgender community, including employing them within their own organisation.
Despite efforts to sensitise the public about the trans community, various incidents of violence against trans and hijra people keep getting reported. In November 2016, a trans social worker named Tara was murdered in Chennai. This was sparked an outbreak of protests in various cities.
In a significant first, “All About Section 377”, an LGBTQ-centric web series, was granted permission to air on national television. By the end of 2016, it was given a primetime spot on Good Times, the lifestyle channel by NDTV.
In December 2016, West Bengal-based activist Sree Ghatak Muhurry launched a talent platform for the LGBTQ community in Kolkata, to encourage folks to get into the arts and other creative careers.
Kerala-based Trans activist Vijayaraja Mallika set up India’s first ever school for transgender people. Called the Sahaj International, it was inaugurated in Kochi on December 30, 2016. It enrolled a class of 10 older trans people who were kept out of school, either due to bullying, lack of economic resources, or other pressing circumstances.
In 2016, RJ Shilok received the National Community Radio Award for her show “Colourful Kamanabillu”. At just 21 years old, she is the only active trans radio jockey in India, using her platform to raise awareness about LGBTQ issues, racism and more.
As 2016 began winding down, photographers Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh released “Delhi: Communities of Belonging” featuring over 150 photographs of LGBTQ Indians. The project was a showcase of queer love, of LGBTQ activists, of what it means to be on either side of the closet doors, and more.
In December last year, a few bars in New Delhi and Mumbai imposed a random ban on queer male-male couples on the occasion of New Year’s Eve. Mumbai-based activist Harish Iyer launched the #GayWellSoon campaign, against these homophobic decisions. Inspired by the film “Lagey Raho Munna Bhai” he and others sent roses to these bars, asking them to change their mindsets.
At the start of 2017, Amra Odbhuta opened as Kolkata’s first LGBTQ cafe, where “queer and trans voices get together, laugh, perform and celebrate identities.”
In February 2017, Delhi-based musician and Friends of Linger frontman Sharif Rangnekar went head to head with the CBFC after it gave his music video an “A” rating, simply because it featured a same-sex couple. The good news is that Rangnekar eventually won the fight!
In February 2017, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare unveils a kit to promote good health and wellbeing, and – to everyone’s surprise – says that homosexuality is natural.
Throwing it back to the romance of silent films, Faraz Arif Ansari directed “Sisak”, a film about two men who fall in love with each other while on the Mumbai local. The 20-minute long film, which was completed in February 2017, has also made its way to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and is currently being screened in various Indian cities.
In March 2017, the Central Board of Film Certification issued a notice banning Jayan Cherian’s “Ka Bodyscapes”, because of its LGBTQ-oriented characters and content. But despite this, the director has decided to fight back.
It’s March when Asmita Sarkar became the first openly lesbian woman contesting elections at Jadavpur University. This was a major step for queer visibility on campuses, which still have to do a lot to be inclusive of various identities.
Again in March, a special programme in Mumbai encouraged parents to take up the rainbow flag and learn how to become allies of LGBTQ youth, forming a first-of-its-kind support group.
In April 2017, Manjit Kaur Sandhu, a government employee from Punjab, married her same-sex partner in a traditional Indian wedding, with supportive friends and family in attendance. This, despite the fact that marriage between two people of the same sex is not legal.
It’s rainbow flags, dancing and singing – the whole shebang – in the city of Lucknow, as the LGBTQ community holds the city’s first ever Pride march in April.
In a big step that same month, the Election Commission of the North East state recognised Sandra Serto Nandeibam, a trans woman, as a woman on her voter documents. Because trans women are women, and they should be able to identify as such!
Many trans people in India have reported that they were afraid to use public washrooms in case they were harassed. Some even made it a point not to drink water during the day so they didn’t have to relieve themselves. So, in a decision that is distinctly opposite to the bathroom bill debates in the USA, the Ministry of Water released a circular in April on ensuring equal bathroom access for trans people. This was a bid promote a non-discriminatory environment, and ensure good health and sanitation for trans people.
In May 2017, the Kochi Metro made the bold decision to hire 23 transgender women. They even released a moving ad campaign featuring these employees. Unfortunately, as DailyO reported, eight of the hired employees had to resign. Says Sheetal Shyam, who was hired as a ticket officer: “Though there are many vacant houses for rent, the owners refuse to hire it out to us. We’re forced to stay in lodges coughing up over ₹600 per day.”
The first Bhopal Pride was held in May 2017, and attended by trans activist Kalki Subramaniam and #GayWellSoon ideator Harish Iyer.
Systematically kept away from educational opportunities, there is a new programme for disadvantaged members of the trans community in Kerala. The Kerala State Literacy Mission, launched at the start of June 2017, said it will hold classes for transgender school drop-outs in Kollam, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Thrissur, Kollam, Kozhikode, Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram.
‘Queen of Dhwayah’ was inaugurated as the first beauty pageant for trans women in Kerala. Like Chhettri’s modelling agency, the idea is to change the negative perceptions people have of trans Indians. It was held in June 2017 in Ernakulam. In attendance was K. K. Shailaja, the state’s Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment.
In July 2017, trans activist Joyita Mondal was appointed to bench of the National Lok Adalat (an alternate legal redressal mechanism) in the Uttar Dinajpur district of West bengal. And it’s major step for the community to have a representative in a state body like this.
Each of these 91 developments perhaps only scrape the surface of LGBTQ history in India. That history is always in motion, still largely in unwritten, but looking back at the struggles and the positive developments definitely gives us the push we need to keep going forward. And, perhaps most significantly, knowing it all roots us to each other and the fight for justice and equality.