A personal QAM-eo

Jan 28, 2012, 07:02 IST | Vikram Phukan

With gay pride week finishing off with the Queer Azaadi March (QAM) or gay parade today, a look at whether pride is simply posturing or has deeper significance for the community

With gay pride week finishing off with the Queer Azaadi March (QAM) or gay parade today, a look at whether pride is simply posturing or has deeper significance for the community

This week saw the build-up to the Queer Azaadi March, which is what the annual gay pride parade in Mumbai calls itself. A posse of enthusiastic young organizers put together a series of well-attended events. There was a festival of queer cinema, a rock concert featuring talented gay musicians, a performance gala presented by irrepressible dancing transsexuals, even an impromptu flash-mob at Marine Drive.

Take that, Mumbai: Supporters and members of the  Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBT) community in a flash mob
at Marine Drive held earlier this week  to express solidarity and support
for a cause. The initiative was part of the celebrations leading up to the
Gay Pride March today. Pic/Shadab Khan

Not to mention, there were popular cameos by Hrithik Roshan and Imran Khan, who proved to be actors with a social conscience. Today, thousands will descend upon August Kranti Maidan, from whence will be launched the fourth edition of Mumbai's own pride parade. After much wrangling, police permissions are finally in place, and although the stretch from the maidan to Girgaum Chowpatty, along which the parade advances, is the same as in previous years, the complexion of the crowd is expected to be more upbeat than ever before.

Let's groove: A flash mob by Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT)
members and supporters at Marine Drive, earlier this week in the lead
up to the parade today. Pic/Shadab Khan

Over the past few years, the queer community in Mumbai has shed several skins, and in that molting has crystallized a sense of a new pan-queer identity that is confident and brazen and inclusive. Even if contemporary gay existence in India is still powered by the proverbial closet, the numbers at such events keep growing each year.

Incluive: Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People, at the Creating Change conference
in the US

It will be some time before we can reach the levels of attendance at internationally-renowned pride parades, like San Francisco Pride, for instance, where gigantic carnival floats ferry whole contingents representing the complete spectrum of queer people, from firemen in uniforms to drag queens with huge bouffants, from cheery parents' groups to policemen striding nonchalantly to a martial rhythm.

Target of hate: Family members of gay Ugandan activist David Kato
during a memorial service in Kampala, Uganda on January 26, 2012.
Kato was brutally murdered in his home in Mukono District in Kyetume.

In Mumbai, Republic-Day-style floats are not allowed, but there are colourful hand-painted banners and rainbow flags sold at Rs 50 apiece, and lively sloganeering that is as earnest as it is shrill. In this entire hubbub, it is perhaps easy to be asked, what does this pride actually signify? Why are the Azaadi marchers, reveling in their otherness, so proud of themselves, and so gratified by this kind of display?

It is a fair question. After all, for all practical purposes, people are born gay. It isn't something you earn, or achieve, or choose. The accepted idea is that you can't be proud of what you can't help being. For example, you can't be proud of having a fair complexion, or being born into a certain religion or a specific community (just as you cannot discriminate against others, by the same token).

You can be proud only of the tangible, measurable things that you have earned. Like air miles, or scholarships, or a citation of merit, even. In practice, however, people derive succour from exactly these things -- being tall, or fair, or naturally endowed. Sometimes the pride stems from a sense of superiority, in being divinely ordained to being several notches above the hoi polloi.

Think of white supremacists. In a rapidly collapsing global world, these ideas are being turned on their heads, and arguments associated with racial superiority are constantly being laid to rest.

Where it stems from a history of subjugation, pride in one's own marginalized identity can be liberating. Elections have been won from the podium of Dalit pride working on this very sentiment, although that palpable sense of empowerment was later manifested only in terms of countless granite likeness of Mayawati dotting the urban landscape, in a display of skewed chauvinism.

Gay pride comes from a position of subjugation, just as much, except that the conspiracy against homosexuals isn't conducted by states or castes or narrow sectarian groups, but by society at large. In the context of a gay parade, pride has the allure of reactionary politics. Each time a gay man is told that his orientation is just a phase, each time a young boy is slapped on the wrists for not being a certain way, every time a lesbian is made to feel she is a pariah just because her sartorial sense gives away clear clues about her sexual persuasion -- that's when it's drilled into the heads of queer people that they don't belong, there's something about them that is less than others, and that their sexuality is a disfiguring handicap.

When you switch on the television, you hear foot-in-mouth politicians muttering inanities about so-called unnatural gay sex. When you watch a matinee show at a multiplex, Indian cinema foists upon you a litany of ill-conceived stereotypes. When you hang out with your friends, gay slurs are casually passed around like a shared cigarette. When you meet your parents, they can think of nothing better than marry you off to cure you of your propensity for same-sex love.

The average gay man is filled with so much self-loathing that he may spend an entire lifetime just trying to fit in, and weld himself to a suitable societal construct. It's important to take him aside and sit him down, and remind him that he is a person in his own right, and his personal predilections, however uncommon they may be, are as valid as anyone else's.

A pride parade may be a simplistic way of celebrating your otherness. It's mere pageantry, and the real battleground may be elsewhere, but it's a clarion call of sorts. When you have a sizeable contingent of people, who've always been told how to behave, what to wear, whom to sleep with, and people have been asked to quell their natural instincts, and many who've been too ostracized to have been told anything at all--when these people march on the streets and wave out at bewildered bystanders, wearing brightly flamboyant outfits, crying out emphatically that they exist and that they will no more be relegated to the cloistered confines of an underground culture, then you can understand why they are proud.

They have been told to be shameful all their lives, and restoring their much-debilitated self-esteem involved a journey that may have been difficult and painful for many, but it was also one of the best things that they had undergone because sexuality is ultimately about the enduring connections you make.

They may not have won a wager, or snared a deal, but they've learnt the hard way how to walk out stoutly, even if it's just for a few hours on a public boulevard. Therefore they are proud because in the face of bigotry you don't take cudgels. You walk out into the open. Some people will call it an egregious flaunting of sexuality. Wearing it on the sleeve, as it were. Others will see it for what it is. An unabashed celebration of a reclaimed identity.

Of course, if you ask queer people themselves about why they should be proud, you are plagued with a multitude of answers. Some feel the emotional quotient that they've developed allows them to live life as veritable empaths. Others feel, that straddling both the feminine and masculine psyches is the most enriching aspect of their sexual orientation. There are those who dabble in divination becomes it comes easily to them.

Others talk of an acutely developed creative facility that allows them to contribute immeasurably to the arts. Still others bring us back to square one, and say there is no need to be proud. Square one is possibly how it will be in the future, when sexuality becomes merely an incidental detail and people are no more weighed against each other in those antiquated terms.

The writer runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions.

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