Lesbians, gays, transmen, old men and women – it was an eclectic mix.
It was a regular Sunday afternoon in Assam’s Guwahati: shops closed, middle-class Assamese homes napping the afternoon away, streets rather empty.
But the mood in Dighalipukhuri, a neighborhood in the city was more upbeat than usual. Colourful balloons, rainbow flags, theatrical masks, and several banners that raised slogans in both Assamese and English lay around a corner close to the park entrance opposite the Assam State Museum. Many were dressed in garish outfits and some just looked confused, chatting about what was going on. I heard someone mutter behind me: ‘I am new to this. Could I just walk along with you?’
Proud of who I am
It was the fifth Queer Pride March in Guwahati where many people came together to celebrate their identities and protest against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The Pride was organized by Xukia, an organization in the city working for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Even during my years in Delhi I made it a point to never miss the Pride, more so because it was an occasion for bumping into friends and breaking into a random dance. With no one willing to tag along with me this time, I decided to go on my own.
I quickly walked towards the ring where all the celebration was taking place and pretended to be comfortable. In a small pick-up truck stood Abhishek Chakraborty, a student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Guwahati, and also one of the organizers of the Pride. Holding a mic, he announced, “The Pride is a celebration of everyone who is asserting their identities and fighting for who they are, and who they want to be. There are a lot of people who cannot walk with us because of the circumstances they live in. We walk, sing and dance today for every one of them.” Passionately, he raised slogans in Assamese: ‘Mur xorir, mur odhikaar; mur jibon, mur odhikaar’ (my body is my possession, my life is my possession).
You will never walk alone
I realized I hadn’t worn anything bright that loudly claimed that I’m part of the Pride. I unzipped my bag pack and pulled out a bright-coloured scarf. I instantly felt more at home.
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A Queer Rights Activist Milin Dutta, who identifies himself as a transman, waves at me from the crowd. Milin is middle aged and has a very friendly demeanor. He introduced me to a couple of his friends - Bitopi Dutta and Ankita NE. They were all part of organizing the first pride in Guwahati in 2014, and were amazed at how it had grown.
Milin was born a girl but brought up by his parents like a boy. He moved to the US where he was able to achieve his transformation. He now shuttles between Assam and the US, ‘six months here and six there’. He told me that the Pride is great but there should be more involvement with more marginalized voices at the fore. “By next year I hope we’ll have parents support groups as well.”
When he was young, he wanted to move out of Assam and its patriarchal society. Lonely and unaware, he wondered if people like him existed anywhere in the world. “Then, I went to study engineering in Surat where I attended a seminar and someone mentioned being gay and I was like Oh!”
He had a girlfriend then but they didn’t call themselves lesbians. “In future, I would go on to date several women and I also went through severe heart breaks.”
The sound of the drums got louder and the group started moving: The march began.
It started from the Dighalipukhuri park entrance, passed through localities in the area - Handique Girls College, the Guwahati High Court etc. and returned to the same point after an entire circle.
On the way, I noticed the crowd increase and a lot of people kept joining in, making it a massive turnout. It mainly comprised enthusiastic college students, and young people, but only a few middle aged men and women. Perhaps most of them indulged in ogling at the crowd from the view of their balconies.
I met Guwahati-based freelance journalist Prabir Talukdar who felt that an annual 45-minute event on a holiday would barely make an impact. Apart from some who are genuinely interested, others are mere spectators for whom LGBTQ makes no sense. But having more such events would help.
Love has no gender
Snehashish Das, a student activist from TISS, Guwahati and a student of TISS felt differently. “Pride is a struggle against homogenization of identities, experiences, choices. A lot of pre-pride events had been organized at TISS and in some other parts of the city urging people to be a part of it. The Queer Collective in Guwahati has often organized many discussions and events around gender and sexuality.”
Right to choose who I am
Just when I was about to leave, Pragati Kalita, one of the members of Xukia introduced me to Joyshree Sharma (name changed to protect identity). Joyshree is an activist from a small town in Assam, much smaller than Guwahati, who identifies herself as a lesbian woman and admits that she has had massive crushes on women since her schooldays. Confused about her orientation until a year ago, Joyshree dated a man for five years. Laughing, she said, “We were never close physically.”
I asked Joyshree if the Pride has been liberating for her. She told me she found out about it last year and came from her town to attend it. “After I got here, I felt I’d found my community.” Post last year’s Pride, Joyshree has dated three women, all who identify themselves as bisexual.
Back in her hometown, LGBTQ is not a topic that is openly talked about. But at the same time, she thinks Guwahati isn’t very evolved either. “Only certain sections of people are. The youth is less homophobic these days but the elders are never going to be open to the idea.”
Her close friends know about her. Opening up in front of her siblings was a challenge. “I’m hopeful they will understand, eventually.” But the biggest fear is coming out in front of her parents who don’t know yet.
Aware of the fact that her sexual orientation is an open secret in her hometown, she said, “I know people talk behind my back and make assumptions that if a woman is seen with me for more than a week, she’s got to be my partner. People are really judgmental but I can’t help that.” For many women in her hometown it’s unthinkable to even speak about it, let alone openly attend a Pride in a big city.
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In Assam, Xukia has been involved in sensitization work but they need more support groups. Joyshree feels an alliance between queers and heterosexuals will help. Though this year there have been people from Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya, but they still have a long way to go.’
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Sanskrita Bharadwaj
Photographs by Sanskrita Bharadwaj