Highlights

  • The Footnote: taking a trip down memory lane with those who shaped history
  • The Friendship Walk of '99 revisited
  • A conversation with one of the marchers - Pawan Dhall

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The Footnote | Revisiting India's first Pride Parade with Pawan Dhall

In 1999, 15 people walked around Park Circus Maidan and the queer movement in India took a giant leap forward. We speak with Pawan Dhall, one of the first few walkers at the Kolkata Friendship March 1999! 

23 years ago, 15 people took a symbolic round of the Park Circus Maidan, and the queer movement in India turned a began a new chapter in it’s history. On this anniversary of the Kolkata Friendship Walk of 1999 we take a trip down memory lane with Pawan Dhall, a queer activist, writer and archivist.

Nishtha Shanti: Can you take us back to 1999 and tell us what motivated you to hold the march and what preparation went into it? What was the day like, how did things feel and what was the kind of reaction you got after the parade?

Pawan Dhall: I felt that this would have been just another ‘michil’ or just another procession on the streets of Calcutta. And what big difference would it make? But I came around to the fact that we needed much more public visibility for the Indian queer movements. So, the Fire controversy, the controversy around the film Fire had already happened in the year 1998 and then also it spilled over into 1999. And that had brought the issue, the LGBT issues, into the public forum in one of the biggest ways ever. So, we had in the beginning, we had only 30 people who had agreed to participate. And on the day of the walk, only 15 turned up. And what we decided was that 15 people were not going to make much of a difference walking on the streets. So, we said that let's use this occasion to build bridges. So we did a symbolic walk in Park Circus Maidan, and then we split into two teams. So both the teams visited different NGOs, other social activists and government offices to talk to people to advocate on the issue of LGBT rights, and to explain LGBT rights are nothing different from human rights. The photographs went out all the media publications and one of the members who walked in in the first walk, he actually came out to his family through the walk, actually, because his photograph was also published and his family happened to see it and ask him questions. So, he used that occasion to come out to his family and fortunately he was quite well accepted

NS: At the time how did the queer community react to the march? How important is inclusivity of all groups within the movement?

PD: Some of the queer support groups said that ‘Oh this is just a Western fad’ You have pride marches in New York and Sydney and you’re just a poor copy of those pride marches. But I personally think that that is not how it was and for us straight acting gay men or bisexual men to be visible on the street and to be visible in public forums, it was something empowering I personally had to face a lot of criticism from fellow gay men that you are walking with lower class people, you are working with hijras, you are working with sex workers. They are not respectable. Is this the way you want to take the movement forward? So, my answer was that it is such a sad thing for you to say this because you guys are so scared all the time you are hiding in the safety of your house. You are running down people who are actually out there fighting for your rights. They are getting beaten up by the police, they are being joked about by the public, but they are facing it with courage and they are walking their pride. And this is actually nothing but misogyny as well as transphobia, which was present among many sections of the queer community and still is actually.

NS: Most major cities now have their own parades that are held as a celebration and on a large scale, that largely can be attributed to the step you took all those years ago. How do you feel about queer activism today?

PD: There were something which the Supreme Court had said in its verdict of September 2018, is that we owe an apology to the queer community for all the stigma, discrimination and violence inflicted on the queer community through the years. But what have the governments done to honor the Supreme Court's verdict either for 2018 or for the NALSA judgment on transgender rights in 2014? It is eight years now, but how many government offices have become transgender inclusive? How many government hospitals have toilets where transgender persons can go confidently without being joked or without being called names? So why would these individuals come to the government hospital if they’re not going to be treated with respect? Why does the police come and tell adult Indians that you have to listen to your parents? Be a good boy, be a good girl, get married, have children, that is destiny. That is not the police's job. The police's job is to protect our rights. And we have rights irrespective of gender and sexuality. So, the newer activists have to keep in mind the fundamentals and not be swayed just by the upper, you know, the flimflam, the rainbow colors. That doesn't make any difference at the end of the day.



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