Celebrating 20 years of ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’

On July 2, 1999, a small group of 15 persons in Kolkata walked to commemorate the ‘Stonewall Riots’ that took place in New York on June 29, 1969. This is often considered to be the first walk to celebrate LGBTIQA+ or queer lives in India and South Asia, and became the predecessor of subsequent queer pride marches in India. What began as a one-off event has since organically grown into a movement that has witnessed the participation of thousands of individuals spread across multiple locations in India.

Background: In February 1999, the idea of a queer pride walk was first pitched at the ‘YaariaN99’ conference in Hyderabad by queer activist Owais Khan. The primary motivation for such a walk was to increase visibility of queer people. To reflect its inclusive politics, the walk was called the ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’. The walk followed soon after the controversy around the film Fire in 1998-99, which also helped galvanize the queer movements in India. The year 1999 witnessed another landmark in India’s queer landscape – the establishment of Sappho, a support group for lesbians, bisexual women and trans men in eastern India.

Unlike the queer pride marches of today that are marked with flamboyance in the form of colourful billboards, placards and costumes, ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ was a simple affair. Participants wore a yellow coloured t-shirt with the walk logo to mark their solidarity for the cause of promoting self-assertion of queer persons. They visited a number of human rights activists, lawyers, doctors, civil society organizations and government agencies like the West Bengal Human Rights Commission to generate awareness about the everyday acts of visible and invisible violence that queer people faced.

This graphic shows the draft artwork for the front side of the t-shirts designed for ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’. The artwork is that of the ‘Friendship Walk ’99’ logo – a pink inverted triangle combined with a map of India superimposed on a bright yellow rectangular background. Placed right on top of the base of the inverted triangle is the name of LGBT India (in blue and white lettering), one of India’s earliest attempts at forming a national queer collective. There are white bands above and below the yellow rectangle. The upper one has text that says “Friendship Walk ‘99”, and the lower one has text that says “Calcutta, July 2, 1999”. Graphic credit: Owais Khan, Rafiquel Haque Dowjah

Draft artwork for the front side of the t-shirts designed for ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’. Graphic credit: Owais Khan, Rafiquel Haque Dowjah

Twenty years on: ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ saw the participation of only 15 persons (mostly queer identifying men and allies). Yet, it did have a considerable impact on queer activism in the country. In 2003, the idea of a pride walk was revived in Kolkata and from 2008, it became a multi-city event. In many ways, the early years of ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’ served as a learning experience for activists elsewhere to organize and mobilise communities across the entire queer spectrum. Today, as we look back, we realise the role that ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ played in starting a conversation. To commemorate its 20th anniversary, we are celebrating with a variety of events in and around the city on June 29-30! June 30 will see Chandannagar hosting its 7th queer pride in solidarity with Kolkata pride’s 20th anniversary.

While we have come a long way since 1999, the path towards equal rights for queer people continues to be challenging. Section 377, Indian Penal Code may have been read down, but rampant stigma and discrimination against queer people persist. The central government’s plans to pass a draconian Transgender Rights Bill in conflict with constitutional provisions and the Supreme Court’s NALSA verdict of 2014 is only one issue among many that continue to require our resistance.

We invite you to join us – not only to celebrate the simple but powerful idea of initiating conversations and visibilizing the otherwise hidden, but also to mobilise, unify and resist! Come join us in solidarity!

For more information about ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’ and the 20th anniversary events, please visit friendshipwalk20.wordpress.com or write to us at vartablog@gmail.com.

For a Bengali version of the pamphlet, please click here. For audio versions of the pamphlet, please click here (Bengali) and here (English) – Editor.

About the main graphic: Logo created for the 20th anniversary observations of ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’, which was the very first edition of ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’. Graphic credit: Rafiquel Haque Dowjah, one of the 15 people who participated in ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’.