BHUBANESWAR, India – Aditya Das traveled six hours on a bus to this eastern Indian city to attend his first gay pride parade on Saturday.
He looked around at the crowd as people weaved past traffic and temples, holding rainbow flags and glittery signs in an exuberant celebration of gay identity.
“I am gay,” a loudspeaker blared. “That’s okay!” the crowd chanted back.
He had found his own people, said Das, 31. “I felt I had reached heaven,” he exulted after the parade.
Bhubaneswar’s gay pride parade came days before a landmark Supreme Court ruling, expected Thursday, which is likely to decriminalize gay sex in this country of 1.3 billion people. But in some ways, the historic ruling is merely catching up with significant shifts in Indian society, where taboos around gay identity are rapidly changing.
In recent years, more than 30 Indian cities – including Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha state – have held their first gay pride parades. Gay stereotypes are being challenged in film and mass culture, too – a handful of recent blockbuster Bollywood films have shown gay characters not just as caricatures or comedy figures, but as layered protagonists or supporting actors.
Coming out in India remains difficult, however. In Bhubaneswar – a town where girls’ colleges lock their doors at 6 p.m. and where public kissing is frowned upon – gay men meet secretly in the unused bathrooms of the city’s park or on dating apps. Some of those who come out to their families are forced to take medication, shock therapy or fake cures peddled by quack doctors and ascetics. Even the movement’s most vocal champions – some of the organizers of the city’s first pride march – have not told their parents that they are gay, or that they attended the event.
But change is afoot. Das is now openly gay in his remote town of Baripada, about 150 miles northeast of Bhubaneswar, and he estimates that about a third of its residents support him. Five years ago, that would have been inconceivable, he said.
He volunteers with an underground organization that tries to identify lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans people and teach them about sexual health and overcoming bullying. “We tell them that being gay is natural, that you won’t be able to change. We tell them that the government will support us, someday; something will change.”
Access to smartphones and cheap Internet has opened India up to worldwide trends, while the growth of large IT outsourcing firms in smaller cities has increased financial independence for some young people, giving many the courage to come out. Dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder have allowed gay people to discover one another and explore their own sexuality.
The parade was a novelty in this city – most of the marchers and organizers had previously seen pride events only on YouTube or on photographs online.
“I have cried a lot in hiding,” said Sanju, who was marching for the first time in Bhubaneswar and wanted to be identified only by his nickname. “Now I am proud. God has made me different. I am one out of 10,” he said.
India has flip-flopped on gay rights. In 2009, Delhi’s High Court abolished Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws voluntary “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” effectively legalizing gay sex. But that verdict was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Since then, gay activists have created a huge public movement against the ban, which on rare occasions has been used to prosecute gay people but is frequently used by police and vigilante groups to blackmail and threaten closeted members of the gay community.
“We now have a group of parents filing petitions to the Supreme Court against 377,” said Arvind Narrain, a lawyer and activist, referring to one of six petitions that the court heard to scrap Section 377. “We have a mother, dressed quite conservatively in a sari, sitting next to her gay child on national television and making the most radical argument – that Section 377 goes against family values. You look at that and say, ‘Wow, the country has changed.'”
Part of the movement’s success in India is due to centuries-long recognition of gender-fluid identities. Ancient Hindu texts portray characters who identify as being in between male and female. India has recognized the marginalized intersex or trans “hijra” community for centuries – a community that is mocked but also associated with mysticism and power. Because of the hijras’ prominence, government forms have a separate box for those who identify as “third gender,” and many states provide welfare programs such as subsidized education for trans people.
But many here have never encountered openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people and still do not believe they exist in Bhubaneswar, said Bijaya Biswal, one of the organizers of the pride event. “People here are not very political,” said the 23-year-old doctor. “It is not easy to update their thinking.”
Many watching the modest pride parade in the city did not understand what the slogans and posters meant. “This is against society,” said Benudhar Baliavsingh, upon learning the purpose of the march. “What’s good about this?”
Another puzzled onlooker was more positive when he was told the meaning of the rainbow flag. “This is good. If people love each other freely, they will live together happily. They won’t fight,” he said.
“This is the start of something huge,” said one activist who took the microphone, referring to the upcoming Supreme Court verdict. Many who attended talked about the need for further legal protections and rights to protect the LGBTQ community, and the next steps for the gay movement – such as rights to marriage and adoption.
“A new fight begins now,” said Venkatesh Kodukula, 26, who travels around the country attending pride marches and has been to nine this year.
For Das, the visitor attending his first pride march, being able to walk in the streets and shout about his gay identity represents a sign of progress. “To see so many people screaming, supporting us – when I think about it, I cry,” he said.