What does an anniversary celebration of a pride walk mean for queer communities who have till recently lived under the shadow of criminality cast by an outdated cruel law? Like every year, this year too has seen the celebration of pride in several parts of the country. Last month, on the 29th of June, Kolkata marked the 20th anniversary of ‘Friendship Walk ’99’, considered by many as the first ever rainbow pride walk in India and South Asia. The neighbouring town of Chandannagar hosted its seventh pride the next day (June 30) to extend solidarity. While two decades have concluded since the first pride, it’s important to look back and reflect on what pride meant then, what it has come to mean now, and what form it could take in the future.
The walk in 1999
On July 2, 1999, 15 queer individuals and allies donned bright yellow t-shirts and walked down the streets of Kolkata. Instead of calling it a pride march, as was the global trend in this regard, the organizers after considerable debate decided to call it the ‘Friendship Walk’. During the walk, they visited human rights activists, lawyers, doctors, civil society organizations and government agencies like the West Bengal Human Rights Commission and West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society to generate awareness about queer communities and their visibility as a community.
Knowing that the very first pride in the country was rooted in the idea of ‘friendship’ is interesting and in many ways, comforting. Back in 1999, queer activism was still in its early stages. A collective consciousness, identity and a common language for the experiences of the queer communities was just emerging. It was at this stage that a growing friendship among a group of individuals became the central force that enabled the ‘Friendship Walk’.
Friendships have held a special importance in the lives of queer persons by becoming the ‘families of choice’ for many queer persons who have experienced rejection from their own natal families. Friendships have thus been integral to building a body of queer resistance. At the same time, given that queer activism in 1999 was only just emerging in the public domain, the idea of ‘friendship’ operated as a more inclusive, non-threatening way of starting a dialogue about queerness and queer lives with the larger society.
Though 15 people finally walked on July 2, 1999, many more have played a critical role over the years in mobilising political consciousness and creating a sense of ‘community’. The first walk was instrumental in starting a much needed dialogue on visibility of queer communities within the larger society. Though it took some time, pride became a common annual event in Kolkata from 2003 and a multi-city affair across India from 2008. Today, it’s celebrated yearly with much pomp and show in several state capitals of India and places as varied as Chandannagar, Darjeeling and Jamshedpur to name a few. It’s been a long journey since 1999. So 20 years later, when we found ourselves celebrating this historical journey, we were quite overwhelmed.
Bees saal baad . . .
On the 29th of June, around 3 pm, as we gathered at the Park Circus Maidan in South Kolkata to celebrate the first of the events (an opening remembrance) to observe the 20th anniversary of ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’, we were hit by a wave of humidity that precedes a big shower. Soon enough the first downpour of the week hit us – just as the first walk in 1999 was completed under pouring rain and through flooded streets!
As soon as the rains subsided, the cacophony and hustle bustle that precedes an event took over. We started off with six of the 15 first-time walkers who had walked in 1999 – Rafiquel Haque Dowjah, Ashok Row Kavi, Aditya Mohnot, Satish Kumar, Owais Khan and Pawan Dhall – bringing to light the history of pride in India, sharing their journey since 1999. The significance of the Park Circus Maidan was underlined – the walk in 1999 had also begun from the same place, though from a different site. This was followed by a dance performance.
The starting point of the anniversary events witnessed not only large community and ally participation, but the outpouring of several young student volunteers affiliated with organizations such as Nazariya: A Grassroots LGBT+Straight Alliance. As the crowd slowly gathered, the organizers and volunteers handed out pamphlets to bystanders who were passing by. Souvenir badges and t-shirts commemorating the 20th anniversary of ‘Friendship Walk ’99’ were distributed against donations to raise funds for the anniversary events as well as future events. The opening event wound up around 4 pm.
The next part of the anniversary events, about an hour later, was a symbolic walk (not the annual Kolkata pride held in December) beginning from the Academy of Fine Arts till the Tata Centre on Chowringhee Road (both locations in Central Kolkata). As the march started, so did another downpour. But this time it was harder and longer, attempting its best to dampen the celebrations. But about 150 people waddled through pools of water, with some welcoming the opportunity to get drenched while others sought cover under umbrellas and the rainbow flag that stretched across the march.
There was very little that the downpour could achieve when it came to trying to disrupt the walk. By the end of it, we all stood soaked, excited, exhausted and perhaps ready to call it a day in front of the Tata Centre, opposite the Elliot Park. As we marked 20 years of the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’, we wondered what would we be celebrating and fighting 20 years from now. The walk made us think about the generations of resistance that have gone into making simple human rights principles realisable for our communities and how for many, resistance against oppressive institutions and societal structures is an everyday reality and a way of life.
Reflections . . .
As the rain continued to pound the streets of Kolkata and the symbolic walk concluded, the anniversary events moved indoors to the Tata Centre building. After the welcome note was delivered by Anubhuti Banerjee, representing the Wings queer employees’ resource group in Tata Steel, seven youth performers staged a skit developed by queer support group Amitie’ Trust, Belur that portrayed queer people’s journey of overcoming discrimination and violence and reaching a point of survival with dignity and pride.
After the skit, two panels were organized. First, where the participants of ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ looked back on their experiences and motivations of the time along with the changes they had witnessed over 20 years. The speakers were Rafiquel Haque Dowjah, Owais Khan, Aditya Mohnot, Ashok Row Kavi, Pawan Dhall and Satish Kumar. This panel was chaired by Anubhuti Banerjee.
As an extension of the first panel, a number of discussants from the audience were asked to speak about different aspects of ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’. Rudra Kishore Mondal spoke about the formation of Kolkata Rainbow Pride Festival collective, which helped bring in the involvement of the wider queer community beyond NGOs in the organizing of the walk 2011 onwards. Ishan Chakraborty emphasized how the organizers must think carefully about disability inclusion in the walk and related events – in terms of not just the mere presence of persons with disabilities, but also disability-sensitive communication and logistics. Ani Dutta and Sampurn Ghosh spoke about the changes in trans participation in Kolkata pride over the years, particularly the fact that several forms of exclusion still persisted even as greater numbers of trans women and trans men now participated in the walk. This discussion was followed by a dance performance by another member of Amitie’ Trust.
This was followed by the second panel which saw the participation of Aparna Banerjee of Amitie’ Trust, Belur; Shivalal Gautam of Xomonnoy, Guwahati; Abhilash Patra of Parichay, Bhubaneswar; and Joyita Mondal of Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society, Islampur. They spoke about their experiences of organizing pride in smaller cities – Chandannagar, Guwahati, Islampur and Bhubaneswar, respectively. The second panel was chaired by Pawan Dhall.
In the first panel, as the participants of ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ reflected back, they acknowledged the largely urban, middle-class roots of their activism and their limitations in making the walk inclusive and intersectional. For one, a big constituent missing from the walk were queer women (only one of the 15 first-time walkers was a woman, one among two allies in the group; the others were all gay or bisexual men). Lesbian visibility in the public domain at the time was still limited. In 1998, the controversy around the movie Fire had captured the public imagination. The depiction of a sexual and romantic relationship between two women on screen proliferated right wing protests that sought to label queer persons as influenced by western culture and sensibility.
These events in some sense pointed to the need for more organizations like Sappho, which was formed just ahead of ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ as the first exclusive support forum in eastern India advocating for the rights of lesbians and bisexual women, and later trans men as well. Though the controversy around Fire was prevalent in the minds of the organizers of ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’, queer women didn’t participate in the event. As the organizers of the first walk explained, while a few queer women were unable to travel over from other cities because of logistical factors like non-availability of train tickets, for many others (including those in Kolkata) visible association with a queer-themed event was a challenge.
More on making the walk inclusive
Looking beyond the first walk itself, some of the panellists and discussants said that pride organizing in Kolkata had still to go some way in being inclusive. Though trans women, especially those from the districts were present in large numbers in the first few editions of ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’ since 2003, the scenario changed around the end of the 2000s as more urban, middle class, cisgender gay and bisexual men started participating in the walk. Some trans women were critical that Kolkata pride, along the way, stopped being as welcoming of working class trans persons as it was in the earlier years. Hijra participation in the walk had also reduced significantly.
While queer women had become more visible in the Kolkata pride since 2011-12, they and trans persons, particularly trans masculine individuals, continued to face greater barriers to inclusion within queer spaces – in the pride and beyond. With regard to making conscious attempts at inclusion of persons with disabilities and individuals from the Dalit communities, Kolkata pride had just about made a start in recent years. The importance of not confusing ‘inclusion’ with ‘integration’ was pointed out. While the former could easily morph into tokenistic participation, the latter required a systemic overhaul and re-thinking of our movements, modes of expression, and activisms.
Pride beyond metropolitan India
As Kolkata celebrated 20 years for pride, queer people in Chandannagar – an erstwhile French colony on the banks of the Hooghly – witnessed their 7th pride on the 30th of June. Pride in Chandannagar started in 2013 as an initiative rooted in the need to counter violence against queer persons through visibility and sensitization. Unlike the big cities, where the pride march happens in non-residential spaces, Chandannagar’s pride passes through a route flanked by private homes on either side. As we started walking from the Chandannagar Strand, the starting point every year, besides curious onlookers on the road, people stood at their balconies and windows to observe a loud and colourful crowd making its way through roads that are generally marked by the calm of afternoon naps. The Chandannagar pride was characterised by its intimacy and warmth because of its sense of community – something that is increasingly rare in an age of big media and pinkwashing.
Much like Chandannagar, prides across non-metropolitan cities are now a reality. Not only do prides provide spaces where one can find community and a sense of security, they’re also spaces that can spark political conversations about what queer liberation means to us. Islampur, located in the North Bengal district of Uttar Dinajpur, witnessed its first pride as recently as 2017. Interestingly, while many prides are organized to critique and resist State power, the local government in Islampur is known to provide considerable support to the pride organizers in the town. According to Joyita Mondal, pride in Islampur finds a lot of support not just from self-help groups and women’s rights organizations but also government employees. The next pride in Islampur is slated for January 2020.
In Guwahati, it was in 2014 that pride happened for the first time. Shivalal Gautam shared that while there was an initial conversation about the Guwahati pride being tagged as a pride for the entire north-eastern region, the idea was rejected. Instead, prides began to be organized slowly in other states in the North-East like Manipur, Meghalaya and most recently Arunachal Pradesh. Issues such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958; National Register of Citizens; and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2018 have featured strongly in pride walks in the region.
The marrying of pride with other social justice movements is an irreversible trend – movements against systemic oppression cannot exist in silos, and the acknowledgement of the inter-connected nature of our freedoms during pride walks thus has deep symbolic significance.
In Bhubaneshwar, the first pride was organized in 2009 and repeated in 2010. Most of the participants were trans women, their allies and representatives of civil society organizations. More recently, Parichay collective, a new queer support forum in Odisha, has attempted to ensure greater integration of the queer spectrum in the pride. In 2018, conversations between both older and newer queer initiatives as well as their allies resulted in a pride that saw a much wider participation of queer communities. Fragmentations within queer communities remind us that we need to be cognisant of different hierarchies that creep into queer spaces. A sincere commitment towards democratisation is one of the pressing issues facing queer initiatives.
Some personal observations
With rainbow pride walks having become a ‘mainstream’ and annual affair across many of India’s cities, it’s now difficult for us to envisage a time without them. Walking in prides in different parts of the country also gives one an opportunity to observe the different ways in which queer politics manifest themselves during this event. While the Delhi pride attracts huge numbers, it’s marked by streaks of classism – evident in the spaces that are marked out for post-pride celebrations. At the same time it’s warming to witness Delhi pride’s willingness to show solidarity with other issues and movements – whether it’s Kashmir, a challenge to fascism, or contesting Brahminical patriarchy. Kolkata pride too expresses these solidarities, but much like the city itself, is more grounded and humble than Delhi. The queer spaces in Kolkata appear to be more inclusive of the working classes, not to mention the pull of passionate arguments over bharer cha and cigarettes!
In times to come, how queer groups negotiate their politics with the State will become critical, especially with regard to developments like the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019. In such situations, Owais Khan, one of the participants of ‘Friendship Walk ’99’ reminded us of the importance for continuous dialogue within movements. While consensus and agreement may not always be possible, dialogue with dissenting voices within our movements must remain integral.
As conversations in Kolkata demonstrated, self-reflexivity and acknowledgement of both the successes and failures of the queer movements is intrinsic to building a more democratic, inclusive and intersectional queer space. At the same time resisting the commodification of pride and the pressure of assimilation, and debating what ‘liberation’ means for the queer communities in the so called ‘post-Section 377 era’ are issues that require attention.
While pride is often viewed as an act of celebration, it originated as an act of resistance. As is often said, the first gay pride was a riot! Staying true to its roots is particularly important for pride, especially at a time like this.
Apart from queer individuals and their allies, a number of agencies like Amitie’ Trust, Belur; Dumdum Swikriti Society, Kolkata; InterPride, Toronto; Nazariya – A Grassroots LGBT+Straight Alliance, Kolkata; Queer Ink, Mumbai; Wings Employee Resource Group, Tata Steel, Kolkata; and Varta Trust, Kolkata together organized the 20th anniversary events. Please visit this site to read more about ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ and documentation on the anniversary events – Editor.
About the main photo: Logo created by Rafiquel Haque Dowjah for the 20th anniversary observations of ‘Friendship Walk ‘99’ superimposed on a photograph taken at the ‘7th Chandannagar Rainbow Pride Walk’ by Prosenjit Pal.