As the world continues to push for more tolerance along the lines of gender identity and sexual orientation, the LGBTQIA+ community in India is constantly finding its voice and expression in a country that has been traditionally conservative for centuries. This has culminated in a wave of coming out moments, rights-based associations and campaigns on tolerance and diversity to help entrench acceptance among Indians and ensure LGBTQIA+ members find a safe space in society.

In light of this responsibility, Drishti: a-queer collective – concerned with the rights and welfare of its members – is hosting the first Pride Walk in Jorhat, Assam. The Walk, set to hold on Sunday, April 17, 2022, starting at Jorhat Stadium is part of an effort to help members of this vulnerable community own their reality and gain confidence to live their lives as themselves, without the need to conceal their true identities.

The founder of Drishti, Rituparna Neog, explains that the Walk is another way to strengthen the voice of the community. “Drishti has done a lot of work towards creating a safe space for the community, also towards gender equality and mental health. But we wanted our voice to be strong enough so that people at large could hear us. Hence, the idea of organising a Queer Pride Walk came up recently. It has its historic importance because we want to demonstrate and promote self-affirmation, dignity, equality and human rights of the whole LGBTQIA+ community members,” he says.

Speaking further, Rituparna explains that the LGBTQIA+ agenda is a subject that has not received the right academic and social attention. “Pride rallies can change that. It can help us create genuine interest among common people to know the community better. The seemingly little change and interest arising from this Walk will open channels of communication among members of the community and between members and the rest of society. 

“And the day people will start talking about gender, sex and sexuality and, more importantly, about human’s right to choose, will be the day when the gap will start shrinking,” he adds.

Shattering the glass ceiling

Efforts like those of Drishti geared towards amplifying the voices of the LGBTQIA+ community, over the years, have given members the courage to step out of the closet and freely express themselves. This has also further been entrenched by the September 6, 2018 law removing the ban on homosexuality in Assam. The stories of LGBTQIA+ heroes like Parijit Mahapatra, Deepak Chetry, and Poran Jyoti Gogoi come to mind. 

Known as Romi in the fashion world, it was Poran’s move to New Delhi for further studies that gave him the inspiration needed to be himself. “I couldn’t even tell my family about my sexuality at the time. I knew I was uncomfortable and living a life that wasn’t mine. In Delhi, I saw many people like me who could live as themselves. That was what boosted my confidence to begin to dress and behave the way I felt most comfortable,” he said.

There are several hundreds like Poran whose stories can help galvanise courage during the walk. Rituparna Abang, another champion from the LGBTQIA+ community, shared how he faced grave discrimination and backlash for coming out. While he’s quite lucky to be getting the support of his mother and sister-in-law, his older brothers have consistently frowned at his sexual orientation and identity. This is the reality in Jorhat, Guwahati, the whole of Assam and, indeed, all of India.

For Deepak Chetry, things have got better since he came out, but it wasn’t always so. “People are usually not comfortable with things that seem odd to them, and they tend to treat you badly. I was severely bullied and called unprintable slang and names, just for choosing to be myself,” he says. “It’s nice that we’re seeing more understanding and acceptance among the people,” he adds.

There’s also Parijit Mahapatra who’s considered a true hero of the LGBTQIA community. His experience has also often inspired many others as he continues to emphasise the need to assess people’s tolerance and mental awareness before coming out. “It is certainly easier to open up to people who are open-minded,” he notes.

Consolidating past efforts for a better future

Things are better in India today than they were a decade ago, but things can get a lot better, according to advocates of LGBTQIA+ rights. Groups like Drishti have, over the years, sought to engage members of the public through various initiatives. This includes postering activities involving colleges and even campaigns on social media. “I need to point out here that it was a queer community meet-up hosted by Jorhat College in 2021 that set the groundwork for who we are today. It was during the Bihu Festival and about 100 people turned up.

“That was a very encouraging event which spoke to the willingness of queer people to associate with one another and find a collective means of expression. Since Drishti was formed after that meet-up, we’ve been able to organise ourselves in various ways just to push our message further and wider,” adds Rituparna.

With the Pride Walk set to hold, there have been several activities to create awareness around the district and beyond. “We conducted a public poster making event to involve more and more people in the Pride Parade. Responses from the colleges are positive and we can feel how they are opening their hearts to us.

“Also, we are doing postering in the town and through social media in trying to reach out to the community. On the day of the pride rally, along with the pride walk, we will also organise a street play to generate awareness among the people as the parade will not just include our community, but also people in general that we’re expecting. There will be queer poetry recitation, dance, and musical performances by our community members,” he notes.

This won’t be the first time such Walks have been witnessed in Assam. Guwahati has held a Pride Walk yearly since 2014. With the sixth edition of the Guwahati Pride Walk set to hold on July 24, there is widespread confidence for greater acceptance of unfolding realities. Xomonnoy, a body dedicated to the free expression and freedom of members of the LGBTQIA+ community and organisers of the Guwahati Pride Walk, has explained that having more districts and organisations join the struggle is a good sign for the future.

Walking for the right to live and be free

The undeniable and inalienable right of everyone to live with respect and dignity forms the basis of discussion once again as members of a marginalised group are seeking to break free from systemic discrimination. As Lipi, a non-binary person and core group member of Drishti says, “Pride is the one dream that lives inside of me. It is not an easy thing to face the detested looks of people from home to college as well as random people, their whispers in public toilets, public transport, weddings and cultural gatherings, etc.

“The outrage sown by this discrimination and ill-treatment of people gave me the irresistible volition to do something for the people of my city. And finally, with the help of Drishti Queer Collective, I got that long-awaited chance to play a part in organising Jorhat’s first Queer Pride,” says Lipi.

That sentiment is shared by another core group member and co-organiser of the Pride Walk, Jimi. As a lawyer and poet, there’s already an inclination to try and correct (or at least talk about) the ills of society. “Living life with pride is not a luxury but a necessity. It’s a basic human right. But belonging to a minority community of any kind is not going to give us the option to do that, hence it feels like a luxury, especially in a small city like Jorhat, where the mentality of most people is narrower than the city’s potholes.

“Organizing Jorhat’s first-ever Queer Pride is, thus, a statement and a proclamation of the importance of every human’s right to life with dignity,” adds Jimi.

Beyond walks and awareness

Discrimination and bias towards members of the LGBTQIA+ community have been recorded in great measure, especially concerning access to healthcare and other services. Queer groups like Drishti and Xomonnoy are also greatly involved in providing medical and mental health support for members.

“There have also been interventions in the areas of Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS testing and distribution of contraceptives among the LGBTQIA+ community, all in a bid to help them live normal lives. It is hoped that the Walks provide the needed platform for continuing conversation towards ensuring the rights and freedom of members of the LGBTQIA+ community are protected at all cost,” Xomonnoy co-founder Shivalal Gautam.

Also Read: How Assam’s LGBTQIAP+ community is taking down century-old traditions

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