On a Sunday afternoon, people started pouring into The Creative Arts Academy in Kolkata’s Kalighat area. Well past 4 PM, when their meeting was supposed to begin, for a while it seemed most chairs may remain empty, but soon after the gathering swelled to a point that impromptu arrangements had to be made to seat people.

Together, this group of mostly young Calcuttans are working to make Kolkata Pride Walk 2023 more than just a day’s event. They are pushing the boundary of what the world has come to expect from Pride walks.

The Kolkata Rainbow Pride Festival, a collective that organises the Pride walk in West Bengal’s capital, called a volunteers meet on July 30 at The Creative Arts Academy. In an earlier meeting, with a smaller group, the body had decided on a date for the walk this year. The Kolkata Pride Walk 2023 will be held on December 17, the last Sunday before Christmas eve.

“This year we have started early and are planning a bigger, better and much more inclusive and exciting Kolkata Pride month,” an Instagram post announcing the volunteers meet said. In collaboration with other queer and trans organisations and groups, organisers of the Kolkata Pride hold several events over a month before the day of the walk. These events are held from mid-November till the Pride walk.

One of the key aspects of making the Kolkata Pride bigger and more inclusive this year, The Citizen learned, is expanding the scope of the Trans and Queer Health Camp from a one-day event. Bhaskor Das, a neuropsychiatrist and queer activist for the last 6 years, has been at the helm of organising this event for Kolkata Pride.

“We organise the health camp as a one-day affair but as part of this year’s Pride month we are trying to move out and make it larger for people who need more access to it. We need to go to the suburbs and rural areas,” Das said. There is a realisation that “organising a health camp in the city wouldn’t be enough because queer trans people also exist in the suburban and rural areas”, Das said.

Health care infrastructure in the rural and suburban areas is often inadequate and especially for the trans and non-binary community, who face rampant discrimination in the Indian healthcare system, access to essential medical treatment becomes an uphill battle, Das explained.

He added that he has come across instances where doctors have not given proper attention to the issues of trans people and that their symptoms have not been properly assessed.

In July 2021, Kerala’s Anannayah Kumari Alex, a 28-year-old woman and the state’s first Trans radio jockey, had died by suicide after undergoing gender reaffirmation surgery at a government hospital which was accused of “gross medical negligence”. The government ordered a probe in January 2022 after the community continuously demanded justice.

“Unless and until they (trans people) protest against it, shout against it or do something about it, there is nobody who would cater to their needs,” Das said. “For a trans person or a non-binary person, coming to the hospital should not be a battle,” he said.

“So, we are planning to organise the health camp not just in the city (Kolkata) but out there (rural and suburban areas) as well. We are trying to include many more doctors than the last time,” Das added.

Besides catering to the needs of those who are transitioning, the health camp also worked with people living with HIV/AIDS and queer people troubled with mental health illnesses. These are chronic issues that need continuous medical attention and a medical camp once or twice a year is just not enough, Das said.

“Last year we provided medical guidance to the queer community free of charge or at a minimal cost through the health camp. This year we are trying to have this like a regular thing and not a yearly thing. I think it will be a stepping stone for a Queer Clinic in the heart of the city. If it happens, it will probably be India’s second such clinic,” he said.

The nitty gritty of how the health camp will be scaled up formed a major part of the discussion at the volunteers’ meet. The issue of whether Kolkata Pride can associate itself with some major private hospital or not was also discussed and a consensus emerged that these events should be free of corporate influence. Collectives, groups and networks of doctors can be onboarded without any quid pro quo arrangement, organisers and volunteers decided.

Apart from the health camp, Kolkata Pride will also host a Visual Arts and Performances Arts Festival during the month-long celebration and on the day of the walk also there will be dance, song and poem recital performances. For these, the volunteers have been asked to identify queer talents from not only Kolkata but also the rest of the state who would be willing to participate.

In keeping with the egalitarian spirit of Pride, individual artists and groups will not be judged as in a competition, it was decided in the meeting.

“Quality judgement is a slippery slope,” said Anindya Hajra, one of the founder members of Pratyay Gender Trust, a human rights advocacy group that focuses on working class transgender women’s rights, especially their economic rights and livelihood issues, said during the meet.

Hajra said that instead of some handful of people deciding which artists should be given the chance to perform, a process that in the past has led to some inconveniences, there should be a transparent and fair method of selection.

There will be a time-window when artists may express their desire to perform at the Pride events and permissions will be given on a first-come-first-serve basis, it was decided. A sub-committee will be formed to coordinate with the artists and arrange the performances and exhibitions.

Beyond the celebration of queer existence, Pride is also a protest, Navonil Das, one of the key members of the organising team of Kolkata Pride Walk, said.

“It is a resistance. It is a protest. Kolkata Pride is very political. If the ruling party does something wrong, we will go out and we will criticise that and that space is given in the city. So, this is a beautiful part of being in Kolkata and being in Kolkata Pride,” he said.

“We are intersectional. We know that our (the queer community) rights are important but also other minorities’ rights are also important,” he added. In the previous years’ Pride walks, slogans against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC) were raised, Navonil Das said.

Last year, the Kolkata Pride had also advocated for the rights of Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised communities and especially for the rights of queer individuals coming from these marginalised backgrounds.

“As part of the Pride, we adopt certain burning issues of the time. We have already decided that we will raise the issue of Manipur violence this year. Closer to the Pride (walk), we have a poster making and sloganeering workshop where we will adopt slogans and make posters based on those burning issues,” Das said.

This year a major issue that is especially very high on the minds of all queer individuals is the Supreme Court’s yet to deliver verdict on same-sex marriages in India. Minakshi Sanyal, co-founder and former managing trustee of Sappho for Equality (a charitable organisation founded by lesbian women), is one of the litigants seeking legal sanction for same-sex marriages in India.

As Bengal and India’s queer community awaits Supreme Court’s verdict in the matter, The Citizen spoke to the current Managing Trustee of Sappho for Equality – Koyel Ghosh – to understand how this decision will impact Kolkata Pride Walk this year.

“I have been involved in preparing a handbook for the judiciary on how to deal with issues related to the LGBTQIA+ community. Our rights don’t just stop at marriage. They start with it because with marriage comes a lot of rights. These rights are denied to queer and trans people,” Ghosh said.

The right to adopt, have a joint bank account, to inherit your spouse’s property et cetera are some of the rights that legally wedded couples enjoy in India and are not extended to the same-sex couples. Within the queer community, there’s been a debate on whether these rights should be extended by way of recognising civil unions of same-sex couples or by giving legal sanctity to marriages, which many consider an institution rooted in patriarchy.

“I agree that marriage itself is a very patriarchal institution that needs to be challenged but the bouquet of rights that come with marriage are rights that I also want as a queer person. If I have a partner, I want that person to get a share in my property and not my natal family who have ‘invisiblised’ my existence, right? If I have a medical emergency, I want my partner or my chosen family to make decisions in my life,” Ghosh explained.

On how this verdict, which has been reserved by a bench headed by Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud and is expected to be announced soon, will impact the Kolkata Pride, Koyel said, “Hum Dekhenge (a poem written by Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz; it means we’ll see)”.

“See the Pride will be colourful. Nothing will be able to stop the colours that we have worked so hard to bring. You will not be able to stop the rainbow after the rain, right? If it comes in our favour, good. If it doesn’t, we will continue to fight as we do every day,” she said with a smile.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, Das also had a similar take. “The concept of marriage doesn’t even work for straight people, what are we running after? I like the rights that come with marriage. It's very important to get those rights. To be equal to other citizens and I think in this country, it comes with the right to get married,” he said.

“When 377 (Article 377 of IPC criminalised homosexuality and was read down by the Supreme Court on September 6, 2018) was finally read down, people had rushed to the streets. Remembering that day gives me goosebumps. So, something like this will change the way we live. Maybe a world where we don’t have to come out. The Pride walk will go berserk,” Das added.

Over the years, the world has most definitely changed for queer people in India. To a large extent, Kolkata as a city has been at the forefront of this change. It was here, in 1999, that India’s first pride walk, which was then called the ‘Friendship walk’, was carried out by a group of 15 people. The Citizen spoke with Aditya Mohnot, a fashion designer based in Kolkata, who was part of that group.

Sitting inside Porshi, a training centre and canteen run by Sappho for Equality that provides a safe space for queer individuals and employment to LGBTQIA+ victims, Mohnot talked about how the queer movement is larger than just the Pride walk. Hundreds of queer individuals have literally given their blood and sweat to increase visibility of the community.

Like this canteen Porshi, he said, is a way of reclaiming public space by the LGBTQIA+ community who had been invisibilised by the society. Not only does Porshi provide a space for the queer community to socialise and work, they also regularly hold training classes on different subjects for community members coming from a working-class background.

The enterprise is a community endeavour, with queer artists painting its walls with colourful murals of trans icon Marsha P Johnson and others and the employees are victims of violence and gender discrimination, Koyel explained enthusiastically.

In 1999, the idea for India’s first Pride march was initiated as a simple discussion to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, which sparked the international queer movement, Mohnot said. They had shared the literature of Pride but named it the Friendship Walk as homosexuality was a crime.

During the discussion, “Owais had said that if nobody walks, I will walk alone,” Mohnot said. Owais Khan was one of the other participants of India’s first Pride walk and Mohnot said he was one of the key people working to organise it. It was a very simple affair back then.

Since then, Kolkata Pride has been organised in various different parts of the city, all with the idea of reclaiming public spaces. The current form of Kolkata Pride is completely different, Aditya believes.

“There is a lot of glamour now. Pride has become something that people tick mark. Like it is something that they must have on their social media profiles to look cool,” he said, adding that visibility and acceptance are two different things.

“There’s a lot more visibility, but not much acceptance,” he said. Mohnot did accept that over the years, more and more heterosexual people have become more accepting and that the Pride has had a role to play in it.

During the discussions in the volunteers meet, Rahul Nath – professionally a writer and the person handling a major part of the logistical work for the Pride walk – talked about how the Pride has touched the lives of non-queer residents of Kolkata. He cited the example of onlookers who, during the Pride events before the walk, would come up to the organisers to ask if they could also participate.

“We know how much Pride matters. Just seeing that flag and people organising has given courage to so many. Most importantly, I want to do this for that one closeted person who may see us and decide to come out of their uncomfortable zone,” Nath said.

Five months from now, when people walk through Kolkata’s streets with rainbow flags in their hands, they will dance, sing, shout, laugh and do more. But these young and old people, who have often been told they are not what’s normal, are now not just reclaiming space but creating it.

Most of them arrived at The Creative Arts Academy separately but they left it together to head to Porshi, where they drank a coffee, had fun, talked, cut a birthday cake and resisted to not be ‘invisiblised’. They are now pushing boundaries to create a new normal.