On July 2, 1999, amidst the Kolkata monsoons, 15 queer individuals and allies from Bangalore, Batanagar, Bongaon, Darjeeling, Delhi, Kolkata, Kurseong, Mumbai and Atlanta in the USA donned bright yellow t-shirts adorned with pink triangles and embarked on India and South Asia’s first rainbow pride walk, known as the ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’. This historic event, timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that took place in New York in 1969, marked a significant moment in India’s queer rights movements. It was a collective effort of several individuals and organizations from across India, with LGBT-India providing the lead in mobilization, and Counsel Club and Integration Society undertaking the ground-level implementation.

Initially, there were 30 individuals who had agreed to participate in the walk from different parts of India. On the day of the walk, only 15 showed up because of difficulties in long distance travel and fear of media exposure. Recognizing that the small numbers likely would not have a significant impact in terms of a pride march, a decision was made to use the occasion to foster connections and build bridges within the community and connect with NGOs, social activists, families of queer individuals, lawyers, doctors, and government agencies like the West Bengal Human Rights Commission and West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society. The idea was to generate awareness about the queer communities and their day-to-day concerns with both friendly and not-so-friendly individuals and organizations.

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

The controversy surrounding Deepa Mehta’s film Fire which unfolded in 1998 and spilled over into 1999 due to its significant impact, played a pivotal role in bringing queer issues into the public sphere in a substantial way. In 1999, while homosexuality (read “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”) remained criminalised in India under the archaic colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ was materialised through a network of queer support groups and the newly emerging online spaces like the Yahoo groups where queer individuals found each other and realised the need for friendship, solidarity and unity to gain justice. Though modest in numbers, the walkers contributed to the shattering of an age-old silence around queer people in India. It was empowering to be visible on the streets and in public.

On the day of the event, a symbolic walk was conducted in the morning at South Kolkata’s Park Circus Maidan, following which the participants split into two teams, one for South Kolkata and another for the North. Both teams visited various NGOs, social activists, and government offices to engage in dialogue and advocate for the rights of ‘LGBT people’ (the expression popular in those days). They emphasised on conveying that queer rights are fundamentally human rights, aiming to increase awareness and understanding of these issues among a broader audience. They wanted to initiate a dialogue, asserting that queer individuals refuse to be confined to the closet and instead seek to live freely and healthily as equals, without fear of violence from both the State and society. With heads held high, the participants made a powerful statement about their right to live openly and authentically. This modest effort triggered ripples of change that have transformed into today’s vibrant rainbow pride walks held in dozens of urban centres in India, including the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’, the 20th edition of which was held in December 2023.

A quarter of a century later, there is no denying the importance of friendship in channelizing energies to hold the State accountable for queer people to not simply exist, but live with dignity. While significant progress has been made in terms of societal acceptance, there is still unfinished business with the State. Despite advancements, the State and its various institutions, continue to treat queer Indians as undesirables, relegating them to the margins. Queer people still face anxieties around education, employment, health, homelessness, relationships and homemaking in the face of a largely queerphobic society.

The 25th anniversary of ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ serves as a major milestone in the life of a 77-year-old country as well as a reminder of the work that remains to be done:

  • The collective voice of the queer communities needs to be stronger and better heard by those in positions of power.
  • The diversity of expressions and social, economic and cultural contexts within the queer communities needs to be respected to make our efforts more inclusive.
  • Collaborations between the queer movements and other social movements need to be strengthened through the bonds of friendship.

We hope that the 25th anniversary events – a ‘queer mix’ of commemorative events (a symbolic walk included), bridge building or sensitization activities, art and queer archiving workshops, exhibitions and cultural events – will contribute towards these goals that will require all of us to be in it for the long haul.

With love and warmth from a motley group of the ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ walkers and their comrades, both long-time and new ones!

For more information, please call Mahua Seth at 0091 98368 44227 or Swati Das at 0091 82503 43453. If you would like to donate funds to support the anniversary observations, please write to vartablog@gmail.com.

Read more about ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ here: friendshipwalk20.wordpress.com or write to us at vartablog@gmail.com. Also read ‘Bees Saal Baad . . .’ in the June 2019 issue of Varta – Editor.

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

About the main graphic: Logo created for the 25th anniversary observations of ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’, which was the very first edition of ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’. The logo presents the colours of the Progress Pride Flag. Graphic credit: Tabish Shakil – Tabish’s creation was the winning entry from an open call for logo designs over social media