13 May 2013

Bangalore Pride

Every queer pride parade in an Indian city is a sort of landmark event. But not every parade reveals a whole new sexual category before it’s over. At Bangalore Pride 2012, which was held last November, I overheard for the first time the term “Androidgyny.” That’s “androgyny” fused with “Android”: capital-A, meaning not a generic humanoid robot but the Google smartphone operating system.

The Google OS has a mascot, Bugdroid, which looks like a somewhat evolved relative of R2D2; hemisphere-headed, but with antennae and limbs. Usually it has a green coat. For Bangalore Pride, it busted out the rainbow colors. So is Bugdroid gay? Does it have android hardware but gynoid software? Does it dream of electric she-boys? We didn’t care to know. Every act of love matters, and deserves respect, and that will still be true even after the robots take over.

This basic message of Bangalore Pride has been affirmed over five years of marches, while other messages, more specific to policy, have risen or fallen in amplitude. The demand to revise a 19th-century law, still used to criminalize homosexual acts, had made a major noise in previous years, but this year it was inaudible, as the matter was before the Supreme Court and the queer rights movement in India is nothing if not judicially savvy. (Its verdict is expected in the winter of  2013  before the senior judge hearing the case retires.) Other talk was common to pride marches everywhere:

“I’m just not sure that this kind of display is the most effective way to make the public understand. But next year, if we made everyone wear shirts and ties . . .”

“. . . And they’re like pose, pose, pose— I mean, come on ya, is this an event to support queers or to support photojournalists?”

“That girl. That one. Just, please tell me she’s single. And lez.”

So it came to be that the singular message broadcast by last year’s Pride was the support for gay rights in the corporate new economy. Only in Bangalore! And not just because of the eminence of the software and outsourced services industries here; this is the only major Pride March in India that permits groups to display corporate branding. The largest banners, flexi-printed onto polythene rather than hand-scrawled on droopy cardboard, were supplied by Google, IBM, and Goldman Sachs. Each of the corporations has an in-house network of LGBT workers, and funds its participation in Pride events across India, or even as far afield as San Francisco. Their banners reared up over the rest of the neon procession, like brassy chariots behind the foot soldiers.

I liked that the group from IBM, the Employee Association for Gay & Lesbian Advancement, call themselves E.A.G.L.E., bringing some of that corporate animality to the usually mild lexicon of gay rights. The deputation from Goldman Sachs was called, simply, the LGBT Network, and their banner said, simply, “PRIDE,” in a font commonly seen on boxes of spreadsheet software. Here another principle of corporate ops: act boring while you change everything.

“Hey, are you guys there? I’ll be there in a minute, five minutes.”

“We’re at the Goldman banner! Can you hear me? Meet us near the Goldman banner!”

It could have meant a lot of things, at a queer pride march, but it turned out to mean this, and we ended up trailing behind the Goldman banner for six kilometers: plenty of time in which to wonder why it was there. It’s good to learn that the firm supports its queer consultants, as part of its broader undertaking in India to promote queer-inclusive workplaces. But that did feel like the right answer to the wrong question. Watching the investment bank proclaim its integrity on sexual rights was like sitting with an abusive uncle at lunch and having him lecture you about sustainable energy. Surely this is not what you came here to say. If only Goldman could repackage social attitudes the way they repackaged derivatives: the firm might redeem the word “fabulous” from what was done to it by its most famous employee, “Fabulous” Fabrice Tourre.

Apparently not evil, and easily most popular at Pride 2012, were the Gayglers (“gay” + “Googlers,” but you got that). There were a lot of them, and they were passing around bright, branded yo-yos and stickers to all the sad sorts who had turned up at a Pride march in black T-shirts. Soon the parade was swarming with rainbow Bugdroids. They got everywhere: onto our lapels and butt-pockets and noses and windshields.

I remembered what it had meant, in college, to be called a Bug: Bisexual Until Graduation. In it for the ride, not for real. I hoped Bugdroid was in it for real. Because my own chest now expressed the demand for fairness, respect, love, and a low-cost, Linux-based smartphone platform.


The curious position of queer rights in India is this: although it is opposed, it has no clear opponent. The severe social taboo is real enough, but its representatives, when they form up, usually appear as a motley bunch of eccentrics and stodgy clerical officials, shuffling through an unstudied brief against homosexuality. Arrayed against the queer movement on the matter of IPC 377, the Victorian-era criminal provision, are the bureaucracies of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Apostolic Churches Alliance, but most vocal in those ranks are an astrologer named Suresh Kumar Kaushal and a celebrity guru named Baba Ramdev, who appears to believe he can cure AIDS with yoga.

The contrast is stark with the United States, where the equality of gay citizens is a brittle “wedge issue,” held in place by massive religiopolitical machines. They have, at least, the decency to be openly paranoid and obsessive. In India, the movement battles only against a thick gas of taboo, and only the occasional nutter seems to rush out of it into the sunlight.

On the other hand, many proponents of gay rights are youngish, charismatic, full-hearted people, fiercely urban and full of discretion on everything from their politics (left) to the cut of their jeans (tight). This part of the movement comes from privilege, and is in fact comparatively small, especially in Bangalore. The real numbers, and the full-time personnel, come from working-class groups, especially alliances of HIV activists, kothis, and hijras (third-gender minorities who, though they inherit a tradition centuries old and widely tolerated in India, must survive on the most ragged fringes of public performance and sex work). Sangama, one vanguard group, concentrates on people from “poor and/or non-English-speaking backgrounds,” whose lives would otherwise be remote from the cosmos of queer solidarity.

The deepening of India’s democracy drew power away from urban elites, who are now intensely aloof from electoral politics. The reaction to the thought of dealing with state politicians, even among activists, is part allergic inflammation and part dry heave. Sangama, however, operates in Kannada (the main vernacular in the region) and represents “traditional” transgender communities, and it is able to cultivate ties with politicians. It has the support of leaders nominally left-wing as well as right-wing, including even one top adviser to the previous, now disgraced, chief minister B. S. Yeddyurappa. One of Sangama’s founders, Manohar Elavarthi, has started his own party, aiming to become the first “out” gay man in the country to hold elected office.

This inclusion means the queer-rights struggle has a diverse class-base unlike any other in India. In a country with a genius for exclusion, there’s power in the fact that anyone can be born gay. It gives the movement a presence in both “civil society” and “political society,” as in Partha Chatterjee’s formulation of two separate domains of political action: the former the bourgeois public sphere where formally available individual rights are won, the latter comprised of the urban and rural poor seeking group claims, who settle more ad hoc and even unstable arrangements through direct political negotiation. This diversity can also be inferred from policy wins. In Madras in 2008, working-class groups managed to get a third-gender category included on ration cards, securing their right to subsidized rice and kerosene. Simultaneously, in Delhi, graduates of India’s most elite law college made liberal arguments before the High Court, knocking the supports out from under IPC 377.

The latter often have better English than the judges weighing their cause. As artists and the intelligentsia, metropolitan activists put other media to eloquent use as well. And the coup de grâce is their own photogenicity, revealed at events like Pride: they look the part of New India. Apart from their sexualities, but also because of that, they make good early-adopters of lifestyle goods and cultural stuff. Among other, more intentional battles, they’re at the forefront of the battle between Bugdroid and Blackberry.

With this combination of dazzling advocates and murky opponents, the movement presents practically no barriers to corporate participation. These are real contingencies behind the decision of Google and Goldman to publicize their support for queer rights here. Which is for better or for worse. The movement absolutely wants corporate India to be outspoken in its commitment to fairness. In much of the West, tacit corporate acceptance gave the media sanction to support queer visibility and rights. Yet the movement will also want to avoid being stained through “pinkwashing,” or even basic brand placement. If that can be imagined happening to any Indian political movement, this is the one. A guy from Monsanto may be calling next; an answer should be ready.


Cast aside doubt—onward the march! “I’ve never seen any of this before,” I heard someone say. That’s a phrase you might hear at almost any Pride march, but it’s usually spoken by onlookers. Here the voice belonged to a member of the march, as she stood at the crest of an overpass, marveling at the view over its side.

The Pride March had convened at Tulasi Park next to Majestic Bus Station, and then bounced gaily toward its other terminus, the Town Hall stairs. The entire route is located within what is called the “City,” the fuming gut of the Kannada metropolis, a canyon of cement, cheap cladding, and crooked signage. Bangalore’s main railway station and bus terminal are here, as well as the biggest cinemas that screen movies in Kannada. This part of town is the oldest and the youngest: new arrivals from the countryside spread thin blankets on the cement, but buried deep below them is the pete, the native settlement which preceded the British Cantonment and colonial Bangalore. The area embodies the intermediate class of the state: its urban transition, its congested hopes, its flattery by politicians, its loyalty to the most dreadful film industry; its centrality and power and exclusion and neglect all at once.

Its opposite pole is the one that is colonially derived. The Cantonment was raised by an early-modern corporation, the East India Company, and has been reoccupied by late-modern corporations since the ’90s. Then as now, it offered access to serious capital if you knew the password: the English language. To those of us raised in the milieu of the “Cantt,” the City is still barely visible, except as a sort of sandstorm, depositing the grit of the hinterland on our doorsteps. Its sound is a vernacular roaring. The separateness of “City” and “Cantt” was the main expression, in my life, of all that was colonially designed and had to be postcolonially denied. Even in the post-colony, the privileged folk of the Cantt rarely cross into the City, except to catch trains—though the Cantonment has its own train station—and anyway who takes trains anymore?

“I’ve never even been in this part of the city before.”

Yet here we were, wearing white capris and Ferrari-red porkpie hats; wearing feather boas. Wearing our Adidas (instead of our chappals) because walking on those streets can be, seriously, like hiking in the wild. Many of the marchers weren’t Cantt people, of course. Many belonged to the same class as the onlookers, and these City areas. Others, like the hijras in the march, had seen much worse. At Pride 2012, however, they were far below headcount. This year Sangama did not actively participate. Under logistical strain, it was reserving resources for a separate march in the spring; they planned to demand action on government promises of housing and credit assistance for hijras, a livelihood issue that would not get much of an airing at Pride. Their absence left Pride looking unusually privileged. It also thinned the visual field to the advantage of the Goldman banner. So corporate capital had entered the movement, and was already making claims on our attention, if not yet on the activism altogether.

I tried not to fret about it.

At the end of each year’s Pride, the organizers hand over the task of planning to a new, younger team, to fresh blood. Last year’s team, while permitting company branding, insisted that there could be no corporate sponsors for the march itself. A new team might differ. Marches need money. Consider the hypothetical day that marketing departments are admitted into decisions about what, and who, constitutes Bangalore Pride. What should it look like? Not like an under-nourished kothi from Bellandur wearing an itchy polyester shirt. It won’t be hard to conclude that working-class marchers should be allowed to march off in their own direction. Against centuries of conditioning, Bangalore Pride has stormed the walls that separate different classes of queer citizens. It could easily fall back, turn away from the wall, to tarry instead on the trimmed lawns of the Cantt.

I really tried not to fret about it. But our giddy procession had begun to look less like a path to justice and more like another field for capital to seize and use it to do justice only to itself. The thought would drop away, but bounce back to mind, like a Gaygler’s yo-yo.

The march progressed. And despite all our elite trepidation, the City received us with color and warm ambience. Crowds of thin, slipper-wearing men watched without hostility; some had diffident questions. The area is mostly exhaust-gray, but rainbow colors seemed to crackle out of its corners in reaction; the red-and-yellow stripes of Kannada nationalism seemed to perk up for the parade. So did the juice-stain posters for Yograj Bhatt’s new flick Drama. The municipal murals on every wall, of airborne dolphins and Chola dancers suffocating under cartoonish breasts, felt like lurid but not inappropriate decor for the occasion. The face of Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa smiled benevolently upon us from posters at every street junction. Perspiring activists ambushed the parked ice cream carts, which served up cassattas nearly as bright as the clothes that they dripped onto.

We relaxed into our stride. Our attention was somewhere new now, shifted from the taut banners of our corporate allies. The City was becoming visible to the marchers, even as the marchers became visible to the City, and surprise and incomprehension were in gay eyes as well. In the mingled hubbub of the road and the parade, it was easy to miss: the moment when both seemed to speak together, and say together, “I live here, too.” One presented its sexuality, the other presented its geography, and neither was found to be as fearful or repellent as may have been expected. It didn’t exactly promise a future in which Kannada pride and gay pride learn they are sisters. Yet it was a moment to flourish in each other’s gaze as humans, not as demons. The aim of the march felt true, with these other humans before us. I could forget for a while about the Androids coming up behind.

Image: Bangalore Pride, 2008. Photo via flickr (peevee@ds).

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