It took until 2018 for India to finally overturn the Law making homosexuality illegal imposed by the British Raj some 70 years ago. (Lesbian acts were never included as Queen Victoria would not believe that women could do such things). One year later the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 recognized the right to self-perceived gender identity, and identification documents indicating gender as male or female can be issued by government agencies once a certificate is provided by a relevant medical official. Transgender citizens have a constitutional right to register themselves under a third gender.
It looked like India was on track for the LGBT community to have greater protections than those in many other Asian countries. Then this year they took a step back when The Supreme Court decided NOT to legalize same-sex marriage which was a “smack in the face” to millions of members of the country’s LGBTQ community. This time the opposition wasn’t the Brits ….. long gone but Islamic and Muslim organisations that voiced their opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage.
Thankfully the fight for equal rights goes on in different shapes and forms. The beginning of December sees the second edition of Rainbow Lit Fest, India’s first queer literary festival. After the recent Court Ruling they are focusing on trying to ‘sensitize’ people more to LGBTQ topics, Despite the rise in LGBTQ-centric films in recent years, writers say queer genres of Indian literature are still quite limited in reach and representation.
The first Rainbow Lit Fest was organized by author Sharif D Rangnekar in 2019, just a year after the Supreme Court scrapped the country’s colonial-era law criminalizing consensual gay sex. It will return for its second in-person iteration this year on December 9-10.
“It felt like a good time to return and reclaim our space,” event director Rangnekar said. “The festival is very important in talking about our lives, building a greater sense of belonging. The importance to sensitize people is even greater now because of the reversal people have felt after [the Supreme Court’s ruling in October].” Despite the rise in LGBTQ-centric films and web series in recent years, writers say queer genres of Indian literature are still quite limited in terms of reach and representation.
Niladri R Chatterjee, author of Entering the Maze: Queer Fiction of Krishnagopal Mallick, said queer narratives are mostly written in English, with plots in urban settings. He added that although publishers are keen to sign more LGBTQ authors to “raise their queer credentials”, most are inclined to publish those who write in English so they can market their books abroad.
This year, Queerbeat, an independent collaborative journalism project, that was launched by Indian journalist Ankur Paliwal to fill the void by exclusively covering under-reported LGBTQ issues, including diverse stories about the community from outside urban areas. But Chatterjee said many publishers are still unwilling to take risks in publishing queer content because they do not want to jeopardize their reputations and want to “play safe”.
“There must be publishers who are more willing to take risks,” said Chatterjee, an English professor at the University of Kalyani in West Bengal. “The more queer literature is published, the more there is bound to be greater variety. Regional language media also need to take more risks.”
Rangnekar said this year’s festival will gather around 60 speakers and performers, including specialists in lesser-known genres such as Bhojpuri drag, a traditional Indian form of drag.
“We are looking at things we are uncomfortable talking about,” Rangnekar said. “We are creating the space and encouraging conversations. We need that because our history has been erased, we have no reference points, we are struggling with all the changes that have taken place.”
Such conversations are already part of the literary works – both fiction and non-fiction – that have been shortlisted for the festival’s Rainbow Awards for literature and journalism this year. They include Neel Patel’s novel Tell Me How to Be, a story about a mother and her gay son, Chatterjee’s Bengali translation titled Entering the Maze: Queer Fiction of Krishnagopal Mallick, and K Vaishali’s Homeless, which talks about the struggles of growing up as a dyslexic, lesbian woman in India.
Chatterjee told the South China Morning Press “it was important to underscore that such queer narratives are routinely ignored or tokenized at other domestic literature festivals, while the Rainbow Lit Fest puts them front and center.
“The festival is important because it shines a light on queer literature,” Chatterjee said. “However, my long-term hope is that there may come a time when such festivals will no longer be necessary because the mainstream will wake up to the importance of queer literature.” \
But before that can happen the country must first learn how to treat all of its citizens as equals. She said the repeal of discriminatory laws is the first step towards creating an inclusive society.