“Ex Muslim and Queer, facing Islamophobia.” My eyes sweep through the hard-hitting banners and rainbow flags. I’m among the 15,000-odd attendants at the 12th edition of Queer Azaadi Mumbai Pride march on February 2, the first in the city since the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the Indian penal code last September. There is nothing unusual about the parade-goers. Except, most of the outfits could have given the ongoing Lakmé Fashion Week a run for its money. Participants dressed in neon wigs, butterfly wings and multi-coloured lehengas striking hard-to-miss poses.
Drum rolls and pro LGBTQIA+ chants reverberate in South Bombay streets. The venue—just outside August Kranti Maidan—is sardine-packed. Yet, I find myself at ease. How could I not? The air is buzzing with infectious, welcoming energy.
The 2019 parade has attracted the queer community and its allies from across the globe. I meet Susan and Christine, U.S.-based lawyers from the East Coast who have timed their visit to India so that they can be a part of the event. The couple, who have been married for three years, met over two decades ago when Christine was fighting for the rights of same-sex couples to legally adopt children. “It was her case and she won,” smiles Susan. While marriage and adoption are milestones yet to be achieved in India, Christine believes that “nobody deserves to be criminalised [for their orientation] and now India has to keep moving forward.” First timers in the city, the two are thrilled to be a part of the pride march, also their first outside U.S.A. For them, the march is a worldwide movement for liberation and Mumbai has been more than welcoming.
A little later, I bump into Hsien Chew, a London-based Singaporean national who is accompanied by his elderly parents. During Chew’s previous visit to Mumbai, he met and bonded with members of Rainbow Voices Mumbai, India’s first LGBTQIA+ choir group. He has now returned for the parade and to remind people that section 377 still exists in other parts of the world, including Singapore, and “the fight is not over.” In almost that exact moment, I look up and notice a festoon of saffron flags forming a mini-canopy in anticipation of a political rally the following day. The country’s political parties’ daunting silence and occasional declaration to “cure” queerness is mockingly overshadowed by a sea of colourful flags on that February afternoon. “We’re improving,” Florence, Chew’s mother, says about ethnocentrism, “but Asian countries take longer in such matters.” To her, even Mumbai’s taxi rides have a freewheeling appeal as opposed to the stringent commute in Singapore.
On ground zero, mothers of LGBTQIA+ children do not hold back in their show of love and support for the community. Taking to the makeshift stage, the city-based women garner applause by urging more parents to turn up for future parades. The idea is simultaneously mimed in sign language by an event authority. I see the momentum gain and sense a rainbow revolution in the making.
Barricaded by a human chain of cops and volunteers to keep the traffic in check, the rainbow parade marches down with spunk and spirit. Much like a baarat at weddings, people dance to the beats of dhols as spectators watch in awe. Amidst this jamboree, I spot faces painted in VIBGYOR hearts, hugs being given and kisses sealing hearts. There is no room for bigotry here.
Unfortunately, in some parts of the country, being gay is not a sexual orientation. It is a taboo. Jigar Rathore and Raunaq hail from a small town in Gujarat. They’re still in the closet in their hometown and have taken this trip to the city to walk the parade under the pretext of visiting a friend. Dressed in an emerald lehenga which is accessorised with a chunky nose ring, Jigar channels the aura of a diva. This is his third march in the city—he feels “free as a butterfly in Mumbai.” Accompanied by his friend Raunaq, who can carry off shorts and red heels with the panache of a runway model, the two feel no inhibition to jazz up their wardrobe in the streets of the city that allows them to embrace their truth. “I felt like a queen while walking the parade,” chirps Raunaq. “I can dress and roam the way I like, and nobody bats an eye here. The reaction in Gujarat would be pretty appalling.”
The city has also played Cupid for some. Piyush and Sushil have been together for 23 years. Their love for theatre brought them together in a stroke of fate at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai. Having grown up in Dehradhun, Piyush came out to his family much before he met Sushil and has been well accepted by everyone in his circle. But it was in Mumbai that he felt more liberated. The two have been coming to the parade since 2013. “It has definitely become livelier over the years and I see more people,” says Piyush, while fixing his rainbow sash. In the Mardi Gras parades in Sydney and London, where floats add to the grandeur of the carnivalesque celebrations attended by millions, one has to pay to participate. The couple has attended them both, and plans to attend the Sydney one again in March. Mumbai may not match up in scale to its international counterparts, but its ‘free for all’ spirit appeals to the likes of Piyush.
As the evening winds down, I catch up with Sonal Giani. She has been a part of the Queer Azaadi Mumbai collective, which organises the march, for nine years. On her toes since nine that morning, she is now glowing with a sense of accomplishment. And rightly so, as I learn that a team of not more than 15 volunteers worked relentlessly for five months to put together the events of the pride month. Queries come pouring from 10-15 countries and people from almost every major Indian city plan a visit to Mumbai at least two months before the parade is scheduled. It is an event not to be missed. “Despite there being parades in other Indian cities, Mumbai puts people at ease. It is a city of art and Bollywood,” says Sonal. “When a new movement dawns in the city, it usually trickles down in other spaces too.”
I only have to look around to absorb the truth of her words. This is my second time participating in the pride parade in Mumbai. I joined as an ally. I left falling in love with my city twice over.
Be a part of pride marches across the world. This year, most parades are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York, which led to the first LGBTQIA+ uprising in the city.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.
Shreya Shetty is a Bombay-based photographer in constant search of in-between moments, along with soul-satisfying food. Photography comes as naturally as breathing to her.