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25 Years of Progress

A rainbow sculpture of a telephone symbolizing the helpline from the group Sappho for Equality before mobile phones were common.
Sandip Roy
A rainbow sculpture of a telephone symbolizing the helpline from the group Sappho for Equality before mobile phones were common.

In a world of smartphones, the rotary dial phone looks very retro. But its not black or grey like the ones I remember from my childhood.
It’s painted in bright rainbow colours. It’s not a real phone. It’s a sculpture at an exhibition marking 25 years of Sappho Kolkata’s oldest lesbian and bisexual women support group. It commemorates their helpline which only operated two hours a week on Mondays from 1-3 in the afternoon. Sometimes a housewife would call when husband was at office and children were at school and say “I am a lesbian too, My family forced me into this marriage.”
Upstairs from the exhibit, in a crowded room some members and friends of Sappho are presenting a skit telling the story of sexual and gender and identity politics through a bit of song and wordplay.


It’s Pride Month in Kolkata and I am Sandip Roy
In San Francisco the end of June marks the big parade celebrating San Francisco Pride. It was the first Pride I had ever attended anywhere. I remember the thrill of walking down Market Street with the South Asian LGBT group Trikone, our truck blasting Bollywood music while we walked in front carrying our banner.
At that time gay sex was criminalized in India. There were no LGBT groups in India. It felt like another world, another life. But most importantly it felt like I had found my tribe, my community, unapologetically gay and unmistakably South Asian.
This year Kolkata marks two anniversaries. One is 25 years of Sappho, the women’s group. The other is 25 years of the first Pride walk in India. Though it was called a Friendship Walk. And bystanders had no idea what it was all about. Pawan Dhall one of the organizers says they had a fallback plan in case it got a little hairy. They carried some backup supplies.

PD1: a lot of stickers and stuff on and safer sex. So that was still the fallback that if there are too many questions we will say that we are doing health awareness work. 

That walk had about 15 people.
Back then Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta had come out with Fire, a landmark film that show two lonely sisters-in-law in Delhi, embarking on a secret love affair.

FIRE: I desire Sita, I desire her warmth. I desire to live with her.

When the film came to India cinema halls were attacked. Kolkata was one city where they was no trouble. But Fire became a code word of sorts for lesbian lives. Right as you enter the Sappho exhibition you see two blow ups of newspaper articles about lesbian lives from that period. One is headline Chhaichapa Fire - Or Fire smoldering under ashes. Another is called We Didnt Start the Fire.
This Pride both Sappho and the Friendship Walk celebrate 25 years. Through panels, art exhibits, discussions and skits about laws like Section 377 which criminalized sex against the order of nature in the Indian Penal Code


But 377 has been read down and consensual gay sex is no longer illegal even though the courts refused to grant the right to same-sex marriage. It feels like a new India when I get an invite from the US Consulate General in Kolkata to a Pride Emporium fair this week where you can pick up some jewelry, jute bags, chocolates and decor items. The venue - the Lincoln Room at the American Centre in Kolkata
The public display of LGBT lives can thus veer between marching on the streets, protesting laws like 377 or the commerce of diversity fairs where people can buy and sell knickknacks. Or panels on diversity and stereotypes at a queer panel sponsored by the local tabloid t2 and the organization Kolkata pride, and clothes maker and artist Kallol Datta says time are changing

KD1: We’ve had enough of cis het perspectives especially male perspectives and we don't need those anymore

But somewhere amidst all that it also has to be fun. Without that everything else is pointless.
Amidst these 25 year anniversaries Kolkata also celebrates a one year anniversary. Last June some friends in Kolkata started a queer karaoke night at the Tavern, an establishment that’s part of Trincas, a decades old nightclub and restaurant.
Queer karaoke on Thursdays at Tavern has taken on a life of its own. The singing isn’t always stellar but it’s boisterous. There are 2 for 1 cocktail specials. the Tavern invite says, “come, chill, vibe and just be”
And people just are. Chatting laughing and occasionally singing Mamma Mia or some Bollywood hit that gets everyone on their feet


And I realize whether its San Francisco or Kolkata in the end we are all looking to do the same thing - build a community, one song, one helpline, one 2:1 cocktail offer at a time.
This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW