Social Justice Matters | How a pride walk in Palampur is breaking stereotypes
The pride walk at Palampur shattered the long-held notion of LGBTQIA+ activism being centered in big metropolises
Growing up in the verdant foothills of the Dhauladhars, Shashank K had hardly imagined a day he would march up the streets of Palampur town, dancing with his peers, resplendent in a blue skirt, his cheeks silver with glitter, his partner by his side.
He always felt uncomfortable in the mould of gender and sexuality that society had set for him but in his home town, there were few avenues to explore alternative expression, and any conversations on sex were shrouded in shame and stigma.
“In my small town, only a few people had the privilege to understand and have access to the language of gender and sexuality. Around us, there were many men, who were in unhappy marriages, living a double life. I was keenly aware of this,” said the 33-year-old.
Internet came late to small-town India, and smartphones even later, but when they did, ushered in an explosion of dating apps. “Suddenly, we could see people around us – who were confused, didn’t know the terminology or what they want to identify as, or a place to go where they could be themselves,” said Shashank.
From this dream was born the Himachal Queer Collective in January 2021, and the first pride in the hill state on December 15 in Palampur. “We went to bed the previous night scared if people will even show up; but in the morning, our phones were clogged with texts. People came from across the state, danced, held hands and for a moment, were themselves,” said Don Hasar, who organised the pride event along with his partner, Shashank.
The pride walk at Palampur shattered the long-held notion of LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) activism being centered in big metropolises, and joined a line of small towns – Islampur in West Bengal or Imphal in Manipur, to name a few – where local activists have opened the door on queer advocacy and conversations on gender and sexuality.
The 2018 decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Supreme Court was a watershed moment, and a bouquet of subsequent judgments by high courts upholding the rights of queer couples to live threat-free lives independent of their families have buoyed these communities. Think of the two young women from Madurai who escaped their families and whose petition in the Madras high court earlier this year led to a landmark judgment on awareness, education, health access and state response.
Still, being queer in a small town is difficult, and very different from popularly held stereotypes – there are no gay bashes where Gaga blares from the speakers, no shower of glitter and floats at nightclubs, no rainbow cakes and no floral weddings. Instead, a clandestine holding of hands, a rendezvous at the forlorn lane behind the local railway station, a fleeting moment of intimacy or momentary glances have to suffice. Of course, technology now ensures that apps connect people, but long calls invite the wrath of overbearing parents, holding hands carries the threat of a nosy neighbour and the seeming impossibility of escaping the prison of normalized gender and sexuality is enough to make any sprouting of queerness wilt.
Shashank and Don were aware of this. “When we started our collective and started a social media page, we found 30-35 young people quickly joined us because we wanted to increase our visibility. We started using posters on gender and sexuality, especially in the Pahadi dialect,” said Shashank.
Of course, this came with challenges. Their page and profiles were targeted by conservative groups and profanities were often hurled at them – and this has only increased since the pride walk. “But the hate was far outpaced by the love we got,” said Don.
The duo have lofty dreams. They want to create a physical space where people can come together and discuss their gender and sexuality expressions in safety, discuss ideas, vulnerabilities, love and loss, and ensure that young queer people in the region don’t have to battle the fog of ignorance and disgust that the previous generation did. “We could have done the pride in Dharamsala or Bir, but we had our hearts set on Palampur because this is where we are from, where we go to the market every day, and where we want to tell people that we are not unnatural or from the West,” said Don, 29.
For now, though, they are basking in the accolades pouring in after the successful pride walk, and making plans to go to schools and colleges to talk about their life and love once the Omicron wave recedes from the country. They say despite the challenges, the pride taught them some valuable lessons.
“We kept thinking Himachal wasn’t ready. And yet, on the morning of pride, I spotted a young man, maybe from a nearby village, get off the bus at the chowk. He took a poster out of his bag, one he had made himself, and walked into the pride. I thought to myself, this is for whom we were doing this. This is what matters,” said Shashank.
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