Indian Cities See First Ever Gay Pride Parades

Homosexuality is outlawed in India, but that didn't stop gay pride parades from rolling through Bangalore and New Delhi. Marcher Lesley Esteves says some people wore masks to remain anonymous.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Hi, welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. There were gay pride marches in many American cities this weekend, New York, San Francisco, Chicago among them. The annual Pride March began in 1970 as a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a clash with police at a Greenwich Village bar that was a cornerstone event in the popularization of the gay rights movement.

Yesterday marked the first ever gay pride parade in Bangalore and New Delhi, India. There were also marchers in Calcutta, although not for the first time. Go, Calcutta. In India, homosexual acts are illegal, though prosecutions are rare, rarer than parades, it would seem. Lesley Esteves helped organize the New Delhi parade. She joins us now. Hello, Lesley.

Ms. LESLEY A. ESTEVES (Magazine Editor, New Delhi, India; Pride Parade Organizer): Hi.

PESCA: What was the reaction to the parades from the police and the public?

Ms. ESTEVES: The police were extremely supportive, because in India, it's a democratic right to protest. And so we asked for permission, and the police were extremely supportive, and they provided police protection to protect us.

PESCA: And the public? Did they come out - even if they had people come out to gawk, people come out to support?

Ms. ESTEVES: Certainly, well, you know, we had a lot of support from non-queer people. I know my colleagues and my relatives and a lot of us queer people, our relatives turned up to support it, and our straight friends, and also, were sometimes joining up. Others would ask us what it was about and the reaction would be mixed, but always friendly.

PESCA: How was the turnout?

Ms. ESTEVES: The turnout was about 10 times beyond what we expected. I thought there would be about 150 to 200 people there, but there were nearly 1,500 people in New Delhi alone.

PESCA: We read that many marchers wore rainbow-colored masks because it's illegal to be gay in India, and also, so that their friends and family might not know, you know, to stay in the closet, essentially. So did you wear a mask?

Ms. ESTEVES: No, I did not. I'm out, but I would like to say that in India, the problems facing gay people is not just Section 377, which actually criminalizes homosexuality. It is societal attitude and workplace attitude. That's why these people would march. They're not afraid of conviction. They're afraid of discrimination. Also, in India, you're not targeted with Section 377, we're also targeted with obscenity and public nuisance laws, more commonly.

PESCA: So Section 377 is the statute in the code that goes back to British colonial times.

Ms. ESTEVES: That's right.

PESCA: People who want it overturned say it's antiquated. Now, in the United States, the sodomy laws were overturned because they were unconstitutional. I was browsing the Indian constitution, which is the largest in the world. If the law is to be overturned, would it be on constitutional grounds? Is that how the legal system works in India?

Ms. ESTEVES: That is the question which is being asked right now, in fact, exactly that process, where a petition has been filed in courts in India asking that they declare the law unconstitutional because it obligates the right to life, equality, freedom of expression of a large section of Indians. That's the approach we've taken.

PESCA: Now, we mentioned rainbow flags. The very date of the protest is clearly, you know, it's to commemorate - the gay rights parades in the United States commemorate the Stonewall Uprising. So there's clearly some U.S. influence in the gay activism in India. But what did you see that was distinctly Indian about what was going on yesterday?

Ms. ESTEVES: You know, gay pride began in the U.S., in New York, and it spread across the world, and it's caught the imagination of the queer community across the world. The reason we in Delhi and Bangalore marched on June 29th, yesterday, was because we are following the lead of Calcutta, which has been marching for many years, and they declared their parade would be on June 29th.

In fact, the city of Bombay, it will have its parade on August 16th, which is the day after Indian Independence Day, to underscore the fact that there are many Indians who are still not free. We would also choose that day, but we wanted to give solidarity to our colleagues in Calcutta, who are indeed marching along with most of the world on Global Pride Week, which commemorates what happened in Stonewall, definitely.

PESCA: Right.

Ms. ESTEVES: Beyond that, I wouldn't say that there was any U.S. influence. It was entirely a Delhi protest march.

PESCA: So what kinds of signs or outfits or just some Indian flair that a parade-goer would have seen that was distinctly Indian?

Ms. ESTEVES: Well, our (unintelligible) Indian languages, for instance, and not that many of - we had quite a bit of participation from ex-pats who happened to be in Delhi and wanted to join the pride. Otherwise, the movement is totally homegrown. And in fact, we take a lot of inspiration - if you ask who we take inspiration from, it's not the U.S. but Nepal.

PESCA: What was the tone? Oh, sorry, go ahead.

Ms. ESTEVES: The tone was celebratory.

PESCA: What was the dress? Was it provocative or outrageous? That sometimes happens in the U.S. gay pride parades.

Ms. ESTEVES: Not provocative. Some people did come in drag, and that was fantastic. I was very proud that they felt able to come out in drag. But this was the first time. I hope we'll get more outrageous with every passing parade.

PESCA: More outrageous. Was there a lot of flesh showing or was that kind of kept under wraps?

Ms. ESTEVES: No, no.

PESCA: And should we compare - is it fair to compare the gay rights movement in India to where it was in the U.S. - I don't know, pick a date - 20 years ago or 30 years ago? Or are they really such different situations?

Ms. ESTEVES: I would say we're a few years after Stonewall. That's where India is right now.

PESCA: OK, so the mid-'70s. And what about Bollywood? Any depictions of homosexuality in Bollywood movies, or TV shows or...

Ms. ESTEVES: Plenty of depictions, very few of them sensitive.

PESCA: I see, so it's more mockery.

Ms. ESTEVES: OK.

PESCA: Yup. All right, Lesley Esteves is a gay rights activist who helped plan the New Delhi gay pride parade. Thank you, Lesley.

Ms. ESTEVES: Thank you. Bye.

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