Calcutta's Friendship Walk, 20 Years On
India's First Queer Awareness Movement
On July 2 1999, a small group of 15 people set out on a seminal journey that would change the landscape of LGBTQIA+ identity and rights in India, irrevocably, in the years to come.
Walking to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that took place in New York City on 29 June 1969, this event is considered the first of its kind, not only in India, but in South Asia at large. It is recognized as the precursor to several queer pride marches that have emerged across the country in subsequent years.
The role of “Friendship Walk 99” in starting conversations associated with queer identities and related issues cannot be understated, by any means. A commemorative walk was held on June 29 2019, marking the two-decade anniversary of the event. There, The Citizen spoke to organizers, both new and old, in an attempt to gauge how far they believe they have come, since that fateful day in 1999.
Aditya, a member of the organizing team of the 1999 walk, talked about the ideas that spurred the original initiative. “20 years ago, when we started this, it wasn’t something big, at least in my head. We didn’t expect it to change the world. It was more about just getting together, and letting people know that we’re there. It was far more important to let other people who were of a similar identity, to know that they’re not alone. For that walk at that time, visibility was important – far more than fighting for rights,” he said. “Of course, fighting for rights was important, but at that time, there were a lot of people who were suffering because of loneliness, because they thought they were the only ones. That needed to change,” he added.
A member of the community himself, Aditya spoke to The Citizen about how organizing the event opened his eyes to the existence of deep-seeded stigma that generally remains hidden from public view. “For me, the concept of alienation proved to be very foreign. Since school, I had always had friends who had been accepting of my sexual orientation. It, therefore, took me a while to understand that there were people who were forcibly made to feel discriminated. That wasn’t something I had gone through myself. But having come across more stories of people who had faced discriminatory treatment, the importance of networking with people who would understand became increasingly evident to me,” he said.
“Friendship Walk 99” displayed many notable differences from their far more flamboyant 21st- Century counterparts. While the pride marches of today are marked by their resplendent banners, placards, costumes and outfits, participants of the 1999 walk wore a simple yellow t-shirt – insignia that they have retained till today – with a designated logo, marking their solidarity with the cause of promoting self-assertion of queer identities. They held meetings with human rights’ activists, lawyers, doctors, civil society organizations and government agencies, such as the West Bengal Human Rights Commission, to generate awareness about the discrimination and violence directed towards queer people in everyday life. The 2019 edition of the walk endured the pouring monsoon rain, with protesters taking shelter under their beloved rainbow flag as they marched along one of the city’s major thoroughfares.
In the years following 1999, Calcutta has maintained a unique culture of queer activism, that stands out when compared to other cities, in the opinion of formerly Delhi-based lawyers and volunteers, Namrata and Diksha. “Calcutta’s pride has always been easier to access, and is far more inclusive than other cities, in multiple senses. Say if you want to volunteer and be a part of the movement, they’re very welcoming. It also just seems to be far more working-class inclusive. Delhi, in contrast, is far more elite, with upper caste and upper-class participation far more dominant than it is here. But I do think that there are conversations happening in Delhi about the movement becoming more intersectional, and so I really hope to see the movement there become more open to people just joining in and pitching in, as well,” Namrata said.
When asked why she believed this is the case, she cited the deeply entrenched culture of mass mobilization that has historically characterized the city, in light of its past of left-wing protest and activism. The decriminalization of Section 377 has further exacerbated the formation of an environment where newfound positivity and optimism captivate the minds of members of the LGBTQIA+ Community.
This kind of climate has, in Diksha’s opinion, led to the creation of a faux belief that whatever had to be achieved in terms of queer rights, already has been. “In that sense, having walks like this is important because they serve as a reminder that there are still plenty of things that need to be talked about and fought for. Some things, say for instance, the terrible Transgender Rights’ Bill, which was thankfully lapsed, just go to show that the right messages have not seeped in to all levels of society adequately, yet,” she told The Citizen.
There was, however, common recognition of the fact that decriminalization of Section 377 was also a necessary first step on a much longer journey. “Now you can start thinking about a lot of other civil right that come with it. Marriage, of course, is the first thing people talk about, but also adoption, inheritance, and other civil rights can now be discussed,” Diksha said.
Meanwhile, Namrata spoke about the implications of attempts that have already been made, to further the rights of members of the LGBTQIA+ community, most often through legal methods. “There are of course, seminal supreme court judgements like NLSA vs Union of India, but despite these, we continue to see that the transgender community is marginalized, and they still don’t have a good piece of legislation protecting them. This just goes to show that the Supreme Court’s judgements are important, but they do not necessarily lead to structural change, and it is, therefore, really important for us to continue to resist,” she said.
“Obviously, having these judgements gives the community more negotiating power with the state, but then, is the state willing to listen? Are people around you willing to listen to some of the demands you’re making? The community needs to keep struggling. It is exhausting, but then that’s how all movements are – you have to make power listen to you, and to make that happen, you have to keep resisting, and remaining visible, and that’s where walks like this become so very important,” she added.
There are other encouraging signs too. Aditya talks about how diversity in terms of age groups participating in Calcutta’s pride walks has greatly increased over the past 20 years. “Today, an 18-year-old person is out on the streets, and a 60-year-old is still participating too,” he said. Furthermore, the overwhelming increase in numbers - from 15 in 1999 to a few thousand in 2019 – is obviously makes an encouraging sign.
“There has been an expansion in terms of economic backgrounds too, but that still has scope for improvement. What also needs to change is inclusiveness in terms of people from a variety of professions. What you see is a lot of young people who are in the community, and who are still in college, or have just graduated – and still have the spirit of the “rebel” within them. We need to get more people from professional fields to get involved and start talking about these issues. Most of the older people you will find at these walks are people who have been working with organizations dealing with these issues,” Aditya added.
The organizing team of “Friendship Walk 99” continue to be present at each subsequent edition, continuing the struggle alongside scores of new participants, each year.
Realistically, 10 years from now, many of the participants of Calcutta’s pride walks would like to be able to walk around with their partners freely, a reality not yet achieved, as social ostracism still runs riot in this country. “I want to be able to move freely, without having to think about whether or not I can go to a particular place, and whether this place is going to be queer-friendly or not. As long as even that label of being ‘queer-friendly’ is present, you’re still being discriminated against,” said Aditya. “Why should a place determine whether queer people are allowed? It’s almost like the colonial restriction “Indians and Dogs not allowed”. As long as those labels stick, these problems will continue,” he added.
It is clear, that despite what has already been achieved, the 20-year Anniversary of Calcutta’s “Friendship Walk 99” marks the need of the queer community in India to recommit, and to continue to resist, in the face of massive adversity.