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India Holds Pride Parade Amid Fears Created by Return of Law That Bans Gay Sex

Hundreds of people turned out for Mumbai's Pride Parade, despite a 2013 court ruling that reinstated a colonial-era law that bans sex "against the order of nature."

by Suranjana Tewari
Feb 1 2015, 3:01pm

Toutes les photos sont de Suranjana Tewari

Hundreds of people turned out for Mumbai's annual Pride Parade on Saturday, demanding equality and rights for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community in India.

Wearing an array of outfits, participants danced under huge rainbow flags and carried multi-colored balloons through neighborhoods of India's financial capital chanting "Homophobia Bharat chorro," a slogan that translates in English to "Homophobia get lost from India."

The march, which is in its seventh year, comes at a crucial time for India's LGBT community.

In December 2013, the country's Supreme Court threw out a 2009 ruling that decriminalized gay sex. The decision reinstated Section 377 of India's penal code, a colonial-era law that bans sex "against the order of nature" and carries a jail term of up to 10 years.

Pride parades have continued in cities across India despite the law. But the 2013 ruling has made members of the community, many of whom chose to be more open about their sexuality after the 2009 reforms, feeling fearful once again.

"India has been independent for 66 years but we still don't have freedom of expression," a professor of engineering at the parade who did not wish to be named told VICE News. "It's important to create awareness in society."

A couple that got married at the parade. (Photo by Suranjana Tewari)

The professor had married his partner of four years at a traditional Hindu ceremony ahead of the parade. The couple said they chose to make their union official on such an auspicious day because they felt safe knowing they had the support of the community. Although they did not wish to be identified by name, the pair said they could tell their families about their relationship now that they are married.

Many participants chose to hide their identities for fear of recognition by their employers.

"If people come to know about my sexuality at work, they might tease me and force me to leave," said Nikhil, who wore a mask to cover his face. "If it wasn't for the Supreme Court's decision, I would have told my family by now."

Parts of India remain deeply conservative and gay people continue to face discrimination. Activists say that attacks against gay people and reports of harassment by police have increased since Section 377 was reinstated.

Some participants had little faith that the current government would revoke the law. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right wing nationalist party, came to power in a landslide victory last year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to address the issue of homosexuality, although some of his colleagues have waded into the debate.

(Photo by Suranjana Tewari)

Last month, a BJP minister from Goa said the state government had plans to open treatment facilities for gay people in the region.

"We will make them normal. We will have centres for them, like Alcoholics Anonymous centres," Ramesh Tawadkar told reporters. The sports and youth affairs minister added, "We will train them and give them medicines, too."

Such attitudes continue to weigh on some members of India's LGBT community.

When 36-year-old Shaurya told her family and friends about her partner, Kushi, she was ostracized. The couple now has to travel two hours from their small town to Mumbai to socialize with friends they have made in the LGBT community.

"I don't care for society, whatever happens we will be together till our last breath," Shaurya told VICE News. "We would like to get married legally, though, and have a baby."

Some of the biggest cheers at the parade were reserved for transgender participants — many of them draped in heavily embroidered saris and glittering jewelry.

Shaurya and Kushi said they travel two hours from their small town to Mumbai to socialize with friends. (Photo by Suranjana Tewari)

The transgender movement has made significant gains, with India's highest court ruling last year that they can be legally recognized as gender neutral. A city in the central state of Chhattisgarh has since elected the country's first transgender mayor.

The march Saturday brought traffic to a standstill in some southern neighborhoods of Mumbai, and although organizers had sought police approval to hold the parade, the route was ultimately cut short. But that didn't dampen spirits.

"We're very happy with the turnout this year," said Bushan Kulkarni, one of the organizers of the parade. "This year is bigger and better than before."

Many shopkeepers, drivers, and residents came out to watch the festivities from the sidelines.

"I think they're gay," one elderly gentleman told his friend in Hindi. "Each to their own," he said after being asked what he thought of the spectacle.

The theme of this year's parade was "fakr" — taking pride in what you are. Many family members came out to support their relatives in that vein.

"I am marching to spread awareness because of my son who is gay," said Shaila, a frail 74 year old who was being guided through the march by her children. "For the first time in my life, I am fighting for the right cause."

Follow Suranjana Tewari on Twitter: @suranjanasays