ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 52

India's ”Queerfest” targets anti-gay law, prejudice

Indian gay-rights activists

NEW DELHI, Saturday (Reuters) - Hundreds of India's closet gays and lesbians came out to celebrate their sexuality with the launch of a 10-day festival in New Delhi, hoping to build on a campaign against the country's strict anti-gay law. The “Nigah QueerFest '07” kicked off late on Friday with a film screening, a lot of bonhomie and laughter -- a rarity for most Indian gays who are often scorned and persecuted for even holding hands in public.

“This festival is a celebration of our sexuality,” said Gautam Bhan, a tall gay rights activist. “We are seeking our own space through culture and at the same time, conveying our opposition to Section 377,” he added, referring to the anti-gay law. Homosexuality is a crime in India and can result in a jail term of at least 10 years.

While the British colonial-era law has rarely been enforced, activists say it has become a tool for police to harass gay and lesbian couples in order to get bribes. If couples refuse or are unable to pay a bribe, they are often put in dingy cells, brutally beaten and humiliated.

Being called gay is widely considered an insult in a country where ancient temples, murals and other arts such as the “Kama Sutra” -- the cult book of love written by an Indian ascetic 2,000 years ago -- graphically describe gay sex. India's flourishing Hindi film industry, Bollywood, has often used gays as characters of humour and ridicule.

Recent films which have attempted to be more sensitive towards homosexuals have been greeted with fiery protests by right wing Hindu hardliners. The anti-gay law, which dates back to the 19th century, is now being questioned by gay rights groups who argue that not only is it an abuse of human rights but also acts as an impediment in the fight against HIV/AIDS in India.

However, the government says Indian society is not ready to legalise homosexuality. A court judgement is pending. Activists say the festival -- which will include talks, photo exhibitions, films, performances and a candlelight vigil -- is an attempt to use culture to help society recognise the rights of India's homosexuals.

Shrenik, a filmmaker who will screen his film about the subtle flirtation between a gay male couple who try to steal a moment in a crowded bus -- a telling example of how law comes in the way of love -- said the anti-gay law has to be scrapped. “I am sure a day will come soon when the restrictions would go and we would be able to meet like this,” he said. “They can't stop us for long.”

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.