NEW DELHI – Hundreds of gay rights supporters waved flags and danced past traffic during marches through three Indian cities Sunday to celebrate gay pride and call for the decriminalization of homosexuality in this deeply conservative country.
The New Delhi parade passed near the Delhi High Court, which is reviewing a law that prohibits gay sex — and can punish it with up to 10 years in prison.
Law Minister Veerappa Moily also said he would soon meet with two other important government ministers to discuss changing the country's anti-homosexuality laws, according to Sunday's Hindustan Times newspaper.
Gay rights activists said momentum was on their side.
"This piece of legislation makes no sense," said Ponni Arasu, 25, a law student and a march organizer. "You cannot deny people their basic civil rights.
Sex between people of the same gender has been illegal in India since a British colonial era law included it as a forbidden sexual act "against the order of nature."
Rights activists say the law sanctions discrimination and marginalizes the gay community. Health experts say the law discourages safe sex and has been a hurdle in fighting HIV and AIDS. Roughly 2.5 million Indians have HIV.
Supporters of the law, which include leaders of the Hindu right, argue that gay sex should remain illegal and that open homosexuality is out of step with the values of this deeply traditional country.
On Sunday, activists took to the streets of the southern cities of Chennai and Bangalore and the capital, New Delhi. Marching bands blared horns and pounded drums while men wearing saris and women waving rainbow flags chanted for their rights.
The parades came a year after India's first large gay pride march, a celebration that supporters say would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
"It was the first very overt, celebratory and positive images of the community," said Leslie Esteves, 33, an organizer in New Delhi. "This is a confident community that has survived and thrived despite the shadow of criminalization."
Homosexuality is slowly gaining acceptance in some parts of India, especially in its big cities. Many bars have gay nights and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues.
Still, being gay is deeply taboo and many marchers Sunday covered their faces because they hadn't told their friends and families about their sexuality.
"Give me support, I want to take off my mask," read a sign carried by a woman who gave her name only as Ganga.
Marchers said the parade was meant to send a message to authorities to repeal the law criminalizing gay sex, known as Section 377 of the Indian penal code. But it was also meant to reach Indians still in the closet.
"We're going to tell them that you're not alone," said Arasu, the law student. "We are all going to be around to support you so you can live with dignity."
Rajiv Dua, a community health expert handing out rainbow flags and buttons, said the motivation was simple.
"We don't want to be ignored anymore," he said.