Shillong, September 14, 2018: Shillong today defied rain and public hostility to become the first city in India to organize their first rainbow pride walk after the Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Around five years ago when the same court had reinstated this British era relic, it was another north-eastern city that had become the first to organize their first pride walk in protest – Guwahati – in February 2014.
Both apex court verdicts galvanized the queer communities in Guwahati and Shillong to mobilize resources and come out on the streets in defiance and in celebration. The December 11, 2013 verdict was followed by a protest demonstration in Guwahati on December 15, and this in many ways was the birth of the queer movement in the city. The pride walk that followed is now an annual affair and continues to grow in numbers and diversity of participation. Similarly, the September 6, 2018 verdict led to community members in Shillong organizing a celebratory public gathering the very next day. The pride walk followed within a week!
The ‘Shillong Pride Walk’ was organised by the city’s queer community members with support from NGOs Shamakami and Manbha Foundation. It started from Fire Brigade Point and its route included St. Edmund’s School, Dhankheti Point, Cathedral Church, Don Bosco Point, Laitumkhrah Police Point and Laitumkhrah Police Beat House before it ended at the starting point itself.
It rained heavily for two hours before the pride walk was about to start, but that did not dampen the spirit of the 300-odd people who turned up in good cheer. There were allies from St. Edmund’s College, Women’s College, Martin Luther Christian University and the Indian Institute of Professional Studies who walked in solidarity. People showed up from different places in Meghalaya, Assam, West Bengal and other states. The Section 377 verdict was cause for cheer also for NGO outreach workers who provide sexual health services to queer communities and often face harassment in the process.
The event had its share of negative reactions and expressions of hostility by the passersby. The ugliest of these incidents was when one Rimand Judah, who gives spiritual talks in churches and does Bible readings on Doordarshan, passed unsavoury comments at the walkers. He made lewd gestures while crossing the walkers in his car and wished them to “rot in hell”!
Fortunately, the police immediately stopped and interrogated him, and later filed a complaint against him on their own. The pride walk organizers too registered a complaint of intimidation against the religious figure the very next day and sought an apology from him (see visual on the left). Another passerby, in response to the slogan “I’m gay, that’s okay” shouted back “This is Shillong, it’s not okay”. But there were several positive reactions as well. Some people cheered and responded in solidarity with the marchers.
When asked about how the educational institutions were mobilized on such short notice, Rebina Subba, the founder of Shamakami and one of the torch bearers of the queer movement in Shillong, said: “The social work students have been doing their internships with our HIV project and we’ve conducted many gender and sexuality sessions with these colleges. We’re in good touch with all the departmental heads. We forwarded letters for participation in the pride and they forwarded them to all the students.” The rest of the participants came on their own after learning about it on Facebook, Instagram and other social media.
Indeed, the queer movement in Shillong started many years before the first pride walk. There has been engagement with various stakeholders, on the queer community’s religious rights, sexual health, legal concerns and other human rights issues. But despite many years of commendable work, goodwill and support, Shillong did not organize a pride walk possibly because of the dominance and influence of the churches in Meghalaya.
Rebina Subba echoed, “There were certain obstacles still on the path which community people were not able to overcome and organize an event like the pride walk. But when the Supreme Court judgement came through, it gave instant confidence and courage to the community to face the people and come out with their identities!”
It was thoughtful on the part of the pride walk organizers to go past a religious institute that has been openly queerphobic. Perhaps this was why there was heightened joy, cheering and sloganeering as the marchers trooped past the famous St. Cathedral Church. “Religion has acted as a big barrier in our fight and movement till date. People still have a long way to go in becoming accepting and making an inclusive and equal society,” added Rebina Subba.
Indeed, the journey ahead is long and the challenges humongous – especially in the context of North-East India, which is often seen as a homogenous cluster of states in an isolated corner of the country. Few people realize or recognize the diverse social, cultural and political sensibilities prevalent in each of the states in the region.
It is time also for queer activists and media persons in major urban centres to realize that a pride event happening in Shillong or Guwahati is as much ‘national’ in its importance as something happening in Delhi or Mumbai.
Till the time of this report being published on October 15, 2018, no apology had come forth from Rimand Judah. This was according to information received from pride walk organizer Rebina Subba. But the complainants were planning to continue their pursuit – Editor.
About the main photo: A scene from the starting point of the ‘Shillong Pride Walk’ at Fire Brigade Point. Among the participants are the author Shivalal Gautam at the extreme right end and advocate and Shamakami founder Rebina Subba third from right. All photographs courtesy ‘Shillong Pride Walk’ organizers