Wimp, pansy, gay, dyke, homo, pussy, hijra, tomboy….words like these and more are so common in schools and neighbourhoods among children. They certainly were when I was growing up and I still hear them or others like them. Labels that were used so casually to denote children who seemed different, who seemed odd to the common perception of how young boys and girls should be. Labels that stuck to the person, marking that person, scarring that person.

When we speak of double and triple oppression, it is often in the context of gender or caste identity. For example, a Dalit woman is double oppressed – as a Dalit, and as a woman; a Bihari Dalit woman would be triply oppressed if in a place that hated North-Indians – as a Bihari, as a Dalit, and as a woman.

And usually such oppression is seen in manifest violence, both psychological and physical. The last few months have seen so many Dalit women and girls being raped that there seems to be a pattern of caste-violence targeting one gender.

In all this talk of oppression and violence, there is one group that is usually left out: the LGBTQIA community or, to use another phrase, those practising alternate forms of sexuality. With the sort of restrictive religious belief systems we have in India, people identifying with an alternate sexuality, one not in consonance with majoritarian monogamous heterosexuality, are oppressed severely in myriad ways. Some are forced into heterosexual alliances which end in disharmony and unhappiness; others are pushed into unproven methods of ‘curing’ them from their sexual orientation (as though it were a sickness!); still others are threatened with physical violence or death; almost all are made to feel they are going against God and are condemned. To make matters worse, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises all forms of non-heterosexual sexualities and makes such acts punishable with as much as life imprisonment. A law that persists from the British era and that our law-makers have refused to consider repealing segregates and discriminates against people of alternate sexualities!

I have just one question (and for this, we need to put aside our training, our religious brainwashing, our formation, our preconceived notions of faith): If two (or more) consenting adults choose to practice a sexuality different from a majority of society, and do so with no intended harm to others, what is the problem?

If we are truly successful in placing all our baggage aside, the answer to the above question might surprise us!

In recent times (around 3-4 years back) Pope Francis has spoken more freely and acceptingly of alternate sexualities and given great hope to many who suffer great trauma in being condemned as unnatural and evil by hard-core right-wingers. In Mumbai, in news reports as well as in an television interview with Karan Thapar, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, emphasised this openness and acceptance, stressed the need for a gentler, less judgemental approach, and is even credited with being in the forefront of the move to push for repeal of Section 377 and for decriminalisation of alternate sexualities. I quote from one report: ‘A large number of Catholics in the city have backed Cardinal Oswald Gracias’ appeal for a more open-hearted approach towards the LGBT community. The archdiocese office in Colaba has received several calls from people who have praised the cardinal’s “progressive views”, which they say are in line with Pope Francis’ efforts to create a more welcoming Catholic Church.” (https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/other/Cardinals-call-for-welcoming-LGBT-members-gains-support/amp_articleshow/49533556.cms, Mumbai Mirror, 26 October 2015)

On 3 February this year, I attended Pride March in Mumbai for the first time. Pride March is an annual event held in different cities across India and the world to recognise those with alternate sexualities and to create awareness that members of the LGBTQIA community are deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. This year’s theme was #QuitIndia377, an allusion to the Section of the IPC that needs urgent and immediate repeal.

My group of friends and I had a marvellous experience – there was energy, acceptance, colour, diversity, laughter. It was a march with a difference. With coloured hair and painted nails, we let ourselves sink into the atmosphere. The march was not very long, and the police and bystanders were supportive. When we think that that energy and joy was radiated by people who have faced ostracism, pain, violence, and trauma, I have to say that Pride March taught me a lesson.

When I started writing this article, news had just come in about the Florida school shooting in which 17 had been killed. In India too, news of violence against minorities, against Dalits, against women make it to the papers almost daily. And here at Pride March were people at the receiving end of fundamentalist violence and bigotry showing us how possible it is to just love, live, and let live. How difficult is that, I ask? How difficult is it to just respect someone’s free choice and not allow our (im)moral bigotry and narrow-mindedness to condemn that person. How difficult is it to accept the beautiful diversity around us?

While I am proud to note the support to LGBTQIA rights by the Pope and Mumbai’s Archbishop, this perception and broadness of mind has to trickle down, to priests and nuns, to community leaders, to families and communities, to all religions. It is time to put prejudice and antediluvian morality aside and open our hearts and arms to welcome all people and give them the dignity, respect and freedom they deserve.

Happy Pride!

Suren Abreu, Green Madcaps

[This article will shortly be published in the Prophetic Voice, a challenging magazine published by the CPCI based in Bengaluru.]