“Launda, chhakka, gaandu. These are some of the names that LGBTQ people are afraid of being called when they think of coming out in this part of India,” Reshma Prasad, a 28-year-old trans woman activist told VICE. The derogatory words have no real English translation, but they get their message across. They’re common in northern India and frequently heard by those like Prasad, who is from the conservative city of Patna, in Bihar.
In a small city like Patna, where the trans community has long been associated with local traditions such as launda naach—a controversial art form in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where trans women or effeminate men dance to entertain men and are often exposed to violence, sexual assaults, and STDs—LGBTQ conversations are hard to come by.
“The label of homosexuality is like a play, like for entertainment [in a city like Patna]. The gay community is already struggling with their identity, and let’s not even talk about the lesbian community,” Prasad said. “For them, being out is next to impossible. We have 13-14 districts that are friendly towards cross-dressers and homosexuals, and their sexual grooming also happens this way. Which is why a lot of people here approach them through these associations and misuse words like launda and chhakka for the larger LGBTQ community.”
The queer movement may have reached a landmark momentum last year, when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which used to criminalise gay sex, was read down. But in small-town India, prejudice and discrimination are alive and well. This has not, however, prevented these communities from their own pride movements. The challenges force them to be more creative, perhaps quieter in some ways, yet while they differ from the larger movements in bigger metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru, their versions of the pride are carving an alternative path to greater acceptance and social change.
Prasad, who has been an activist for the last seven years with mostly Dalit or women’s movements (“Because through them, we find community supporters”), is currently organising the first Bihar Pride Parade. It’s slated for July 14, International Non-Binary People’s Day, in a state where trans pride has taken place only twice in the last five years, owing to lack of resources and unwillingness of LGBTQ members to be visible. “Mobilising transgenders is easy. We have access and the tools to bring them," she said "But the gay, lesbian and bisexual community is so invisible, that they are mostly seen in the cruising hotspots. But there are a few members who are out, and they will be joining us this year."
This is especially impressive when seen in contrast to the urban, liberal spaces—where queer activists have amplified their voices on platforms like Instagram, and corporates have embraced the movement as part of their CSR initiatives. In smaller towns and cities, many have yet to grasp identities other than heterosexuality.
In the hilly north Indian city of Dehradun, in Uttarakhand—which also goes by the sobriquet of ‘Devbhoomi’ (land of gods) because of the multiple pilgrimage sites—17-year-old Shreya Singh painted a bleak picture of the LGBTQ community’s experience living there. “There have been cases where people have been bullied for being gay and feminine. In another, a transgender man—a friend of mine—got publicly lynched when, during a Tinder date, the girl he was meeting started shouting that my friend is trying to be a man and trying to harass her,” the student activist said.
Singh herself has come out only to her close friends and her psychology teacher, and their acceptance is what she calls a "privilege". "I know people who have come out to their parents and gotten into a lot of trouble. A friend of mine came out to his father and he was forced to visit psychiatrists for therapy to help ‘cure’ his ‘problem’," she said. The reality makes Singh a part of a very small, even if relatively underground, LGB movement in Dehradun, which has seen pride parades since 2017. There, the trans movement is stronger, she said.
“When it comes to organising these events, permissions become very difficult because people are very ignorant and orthodox. Back in 2017, when we approached the authorities for permissions to organise the pride walk, we were told that same-sex relationships cannot be celebrated like this," she said. "This is a very small town too, and so visibility comes at a high cost, mostly from older generations. This is why, in January 2018, we started Queer Collective Dehradun to initiate a dialogue in the right direction."
The first meeting of Queer Collective Dehradun was organised in a public park. Nobody turned up. "Maybe they were afraid of being spotted by someone they knew," said Singh. And so, the collective now meets informally at cafes and similar settings, once a month, to ensure that those who seek privacy get it.
“I don’t even want to call this activism because we’re literally just reaching out to people at this stage,” she said. “Nobody has threatened us yet, but there’s always the fear it could happen to us.”
In other places, politics can further compound the complications.
Sadam Hanjabam, 30, told VICE that being born in Imphal in northeast India meant being born into conflict, which made coming out even more difficult. He remembers growing up at a time when stepping out after sunset was considered highly dangerous due to military rule in the area.
“We were more focused on how to survive this conflict and trauma by the military and state forces, so much so that queer voices were neglected,” said Hanjabam. “Even now, there are cases of suicide because there is no one they can open up to. Trans people are visible because they are visible to the eyes. But the LGBTQ people of the grassroots level don’t even seek healthcare or jobs, for fear of being discriminated against.”
This is why Hanjabam founded Ya All, which literally translates to “Revolution”. The movement is a nod to his homeland’s spirit of dissent and resistance, albeit a quieter version. “We don’t do pride because of the huge risks that come with militarisation,” he said. Manipur did have one pride march in 2014, but it was unnoticed not just by the media but also the LGBTQ community. “It happened at a time when nobody knew about pride. In fact, we also came to know about it much later. This also has to do with the fact that there’s a huge gap in LGBTQ awareness.”
Despite this, Ya All managed to highlight LGBTQ visibility by hosting alternate events: Queer Games (which he said is India’s first), fashion shows, literature festivals and, now, a safe space that doubles up as a cafe and networking zone for the local queer community.
While alternative activities to marches may be the norm in small cities, there are some small cities leading the most inspiring movements in the country, literally at par with those in the metropolis. A lot of it has to do with the economic development of these pockets, which has advanced LGBTQ conversations considerably. In cities like Pune and Chandigarh, for instance, the reading down of Section 377 has moved from demanding equal rights to love, to larger issues such as acceptance, visibility and civil unions—giving other smaller cities a ray of hope. Pune, which celebrated its ninth pride march last month, saw these agendas being highlighted with the presence of Sameer Samudra and Amit Gokhale, a non-residential Indian couple who live in the US and who have been married since 2010, along with other foreign national couples.
“Apart from that, we are also focusing on violence that comes from the family towards those who come out to them,” Omkar Joshi, 32, an LGBTQ activist from Pune, told VICE. “Even today, they are pressurised into heterosexual marriages. We are also now looking at workplaces, diversity policies and discrimination laws. Rules may have changed since last year, but acceptance really hasn’t.”
Joshi reiterates that acceptance is not easy, especially with the deep-seated ignorance and prejudices, but that there has been progress. “A lot of corporates and NGOs are coming forward, media is responding positively, and, personally, I have observed that a lot of people are now approaching us to know how they can come out to their families. They don’t want to be suffocated anymore. This, in a conservative city like Pune, is a big thing,” he said.
Bikramjit Kohli, an activist from Chandigarh, agrees. The 28-year-old has been a part of the LGBTQ movement in the city since 2013, and feels that unlike most small cities, Chandigarh is as evolved in its conversation around LGBTQ as any bigger city. In fact, in 2017, Punjab University became the first institution in the state to have a toilet for the third gender.
“The exposure here is at par with Delhi or Mumbai. For example, in Delhi, they have regular meetups and parties. LGBTQ people can gather and enjoy these events every week. Here too, thanks to initiatives like the Keshav Suri Foundation, we have lively social spaces for the LGBTQ communities,” Kohli said.
“Yes, we are a tier-2 city, but in terms of exposure and perception, we have now reached a point in which we approach the people in power and society and talk about sensitisation. As we speak, more and more people are now wearing fewer masks. When we started, people were not comfortable with being identified. Now they are asking organisers to speak on public microphones. This, right here, is change.”
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