Prominent LGBTQIA+ members discuss Pride events going digital, mainstream media and changes they wish to see
For the past 50 years, the month of June is being celebrated as Pride Month, with a reported estimate of over 1,500 events happening across the world annually. Held to honour the Stonewall Riots in 1969 -- where hundreds of people stood up against injustice and police brutality against the LGBTQA+ community -- the annual celebration comes with colourful parades, parties and programs celebrating love, diversity and acceptance.
However, due to the global coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions that came with it, June of 2020 is looking very different. While the Pride marches have been taken off the streets for the first time in its 50-year history, the spirit of the month is still alive as most events and campaigns have pivoted to virtual platforms.
From the American NGO, The Trevor Project’s #PrideEverywhere campaign to India's Pride Circle with its #21DaysAllyChallenge, the events are well and in order in the digital space. “Going online completely does seem very surreal. However, we need to adapt to the new normal. We can celebrate by speaking up on all social media platforms and participating in pride events that are online. Yes, it would have helped if it was in the physical space, but I am glad that we are not forgetting the spirit,” says Mumbai-based equal rights activist Harrish Iyer.
However, sharing his concern for the reach of the online activities, Chennai-based fashion show director Sunil Menon says, "Given the current scenario with the pandemic playing out so viciously across the country, it doesn't make any sense to think of a way to reach out to the public to keep the spirit alive and the momentum going but through online portals. We have to consider the safety of every participant who's going to be in rallies, exhibitions and the performances that accompany these big pride events. On the other hand, we have to also understand that those who are online are a privileged few. Only a very limited number of people are able to access the media and information to understand what's happening around. So in that sense, the pandemic has put a spoke in the wheel, so to speak, and slowed the process down. After all, the visual pageantry and the physical presence of a community in a public space is more profound and has more of an impact on the general population who are watching. So there will be a difference in the equilibrium and the impetus due to the pandemic.”
Bold and beautiful
For Chennai-based fashion choreographer Karun Raman, the pandemic certainly hasn't dampened his spirit. "The lockdown has just stopped us from doing Pride marches but that's about it. There are so many ways in which we can celebrate the entire month. A few days back, I dressed up as my alter ego, Ms Kim Raman, and went on Instagram live. I spoke about coming out, being bold and living life in our own terms. So if I can do something like that, I believe everybody can. I also dressed up in drag and went to my neighbour's house to have dinner with them because I want more people to know that its okay to be different," adds Karun who's now signed up as the South India brand ambassador of Balma, a networking app for the South Asian queer community.
He further adds, “Most people who show up at these marches will come with masks on and never even show their faces anyway. For people like that, it’s better they sit at home and support. What is important is that the people in the community should be much more united. There’s so much we can do with it, like fight for our rights and demand education for transgenders rather than walking in a parade, trying to prove a point.”
Engaging in content that tells the stories of the LGBTQIA+ community is one of the many ways to honour the month whilst staying at home, says Mumbai-based author Parmesh Shahani. “Most of the activities during the pride month are usually done outdoors. Now all of that has shifted online, which is still good but the joy that comes with meeting people -- because Pride month is also very much about solidarity -- is what we will miss. In Bombay, this is the time we always have the KASHISH Queer Film Festival where we all dresses up, go out and enjoy the screenings.” says Parmesh, author of forthcoming book Queeristan and head of Godrej India Culture Lab.
Talking further of mainstream movies where the community has been authentically portrayed, he adds, “Now there are films like Moothon, Super Deluxe, series like Made In Heaven, Four More Shots Please, The Other Love Story among many others that have portrayed the LGBTQIA+ community quite authentically. The representation has evolved a lot over the years. Earlier if they showed a queer person, the person would be a really sad character or a joke material but now, the portrayal is more nuanced. That said, I would love to see more intersectional representation in the media. Like people who are queer & Dalit or queer & differently-abled like the character, Kalki played in Margarita With A Straw. We need more of that."
"We need more voices, more diverse voices," agrees Harrish. "We are quite complex people with many stories within us. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga was a good start in Bollywood. The Canadian series called Queer As Folk is like the 'Queer Bible'. Also, Hannah Gadsby's Nanette is another Maverick. The representation has definitely evolved but we still have a long way to go."
Talking about his favourite movie of recent times, Sunil adds, "Just before the lockdown, I got to see a very powerful film made by Geethu Mohandas in Malayalam, called Moothon in which the principal character in the film is from the LGBTQIA+ community. There is a very strong presence of the community in the film and I thought it was a very powerful story. I was extremely moved by the story, the treatment and how sensitively the director was able to convey and bring the story to the public. That is one film that has stayed in my mind."
Change for good
We asked Sunil how the culture and conversation around LGBTQIA+ have changed over the years, he says, “I started work in 1992, long before LGBT activism was even a thought. After over 25 odd years of my work and my life as an activist, there has been an immense change that has happened and a lot of credit goes to the mainstream media because they have engaged and sensitised in a very rational way with the community. It has tried to bring our stories to the public and make them understand it.” He further adds, “What I want to see now is for the educational institutions to be extremely vigilant against bullying, and harassment that happens to queer children in schools because that’s a place where the maximum damage is done. Also, the common man has to be sensitised and has to learn to accept the community in their everyday life, so that it becomes something regular and normal. That's the dream that we have.”
Talking of the crucial role social media has played in bringing change, Karun says, “The portrayal has evolved in such a way that even rural people also understand that a trans man and a gay man are different. There is more space, more respect in society for us now. But the bullying and the making fun of never stops. I still get bullied on Instagram. Such people are always there but that said, there’s more exposure now with TV and the internet. When I was young, it wasn't as easy but now the gay culture has changed fully because of social media. The young generation understands that being gay is not wrong.”
“It all starts at home. Parents need to educate the children much more about this because whatever you teach is going to affect his future. And if a child is different, the parents should make her comfortable enough to let her talk to them. The schools also need to be more understanding of bullying. In most cases the kids are going to go back to a house where they are scared of their parents,” adds Karun, who’s opening a new fashion school called Beautiful Chaos, which is going to have something for everyone.
And when asked about the change he hopes to see, Harrish shares, "We would prefer a strong anti-discrimination law. And everything that is given to cis-gendered heterosexual people on a platter, we need all of them."