Pride marches have become the most visible face of the queer rights movement in India by honouring the struggles of those who are marginalised because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or sex characteristics. Claiming public spaces is one way of demanding respect and justice amidst the everyday structural violence inflicted by government institutions, families and communities that uphold binary conceptions of gender, and construct heterosexuality as the norm.
What steps are being taken to ensure that queer persons with disabilities feel safe, welcomed, included and affirmed at these events? Do they get to make decisions, or do others dictate what ‘accessibility’ ought to mean? Apart from providing ‘accommodations’ relating to specific disabilities, how is ableism being actively challenged in queer spaces? What are the ways in which queer rights activists and disability rights activists can work together? This article aims to explore the answers to these questions.
At the outset, it must be acknowledged that most queer spaces are as ableist as other social spaces. Since their focus is on creating islands of refuge for those that are non-normative in terms of gender and sexuality, they are often oblivious to other forms of oppression. It is difficult to say whether this omission is intentional or not. While lack of funding is often cited as a reason, one must be vigilant and ask why accessibility is an after-thought, and not seen as a high priority.
‘Intersectionality’, a term introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is tossed around in many activist spaces, but there is little commitment to fighting back against the structural violence that manifests when gender combines with race, disability, caste and other aspects of identity. Since most queer collectives that organise pride marches in India are led by ‘able-bodied’ people, the onus of calling out ableism and demanding accessibility falls upon disabled persons.
Shivangi Agrawal’s story is a case in point. She is an artist and accessibility consultant based in Delhi. When she attended the Delhi Queer Pride for the first time in 2017, she had to be physically lifted on to the stage. She says, “Accessibility considerations were not a priority until they saw a real person with a visible disability at a pride march. After that, I was invited to start attending pride meetings. I got a lot of support from the community, and I found a voice in decision-making processes.”
Delhi Queer Pride now has a team of accessibility volunteers, a ramp for the stage, electric rickshaws, sign language interpreters for speeches and poetry, and a separate email address for disabled participants to send in their queries and accessibility needs. The pride march route is mapped out online and made available in advance so that participants can plan accordingly. That said, organisers of Delhi Queer Pride also recognise that the current set of initiatives are not enough.
Working on accessibility has to be an ongoing effort. Since disabilities are of various kinds, a one-size-fits-all approach is unhelpful while thinking about it. The accommodations that work for one disabled person may not be beneficial for another. Pride committees must be willing to invite disabled persons at the planning stage so that the design of the process places their needs at the centre. This participatory model is essential for the lived experiences of disabled people, rather than assumptions, to effectively guide policy.
Rajib Chakrabarti, a school teacher from Baruipur in West Bengal shares, “Because I have an orthopaedic disability, I need crutches to help me walk. I also have to spend a lot of time ensuring that I keep myself well so that my condition does not deteriorate.” As a result of these concerns, he stayed away from the Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk until last year. Kolkata is the nearest metropolis from where he lives, but travelling there takes time, resources and an incredible amount of effort. He mustered the confidence to go only once organisers in Kolkata assured him that his needs would be accommodated. He adds, “Standing for a long time is impossible for me, so I can participate in the walk only if a wheelchair is available. I think that the organisers are doing what they can, by providing sign language interpreters for people with hearing impairments and volunteer assistance for people with visual impairments. Supporting all who are marginalised should be the ultimate aim, but due to difficulties in fundraising, it will take time to get there.” Chakrabarti has been expressive about his accessibility needs but living in an ableist society, he has also accustomed to the fact that things will not change overnight. It will take a lot of persistence and the voices of many like him, to bring about change.
How do organisers look at this situation? Shivalal Gautam, an activist who has previously volunteered with Guwahati Queer Pride, feels embarrassed about how little is being done to ensure accessibility in pride marches. He believes that there is no lack of will, but only budgetary constraints in play. As one of the youngest pride marches in India, they do not have the kind of resources that marches in metropolitan cities are able to collect through fundraisers at clubs and hotels. He says, “We try to keep our expenses as low as possible. Unfortunately, this means that ensuring accessibility for queer people with disabilities takes a back seat. We have talked about printing pamphlets in Braille and providing wheelchair access, but we have not been able to do any of it yet.” Gautam believes that the situation will truly start to change once the organising team includes queer people with disabilities. While there is some awareness about physical disabilities, Guwahati Queer Pride has not yet started conversations about psycho-social disabilities such as anxiety, schizophrenia or depression. He adds, “People living with these conditions should also be able to participate and express themselves freely, without feeling excluded.”
Since ableism is pervasive in queer spaces, the specific forms of distress experienced by people with psycho-social disabilities are often clubbed into the pain that most queer people carry from living in a cis-heteronormative world. As a result, queer people living with these conditions might not get the care and support they need. If they speak about what they are going through, and how debilitating it is for them, they also risk facing stigma from other queer persons.
L Ramakrishnan lives with generalised anxiety disorder. He works with a public health NGO called SAATHII, volunteers with LGBTIQA+ collectives, and has been part of the coalition organising Chennai Rainbow Pride since 2009. He feels hesitant to talk about his lived experience with psycho-social disability in most queer spaces, although he is fortunate to have support systems in place to manage it in ways that others may not. He says, “I know some queer people with social anxiety that would like to participate in the pride march but are uncomfortable in group situations and therefore often stand on the sidelines. It is crucial that others acknowledge this, respect their choice and not press them to be in the thick of things.” These individuals may not be able to show up at the venue on the day of the march, even if they want to. Ramakrishnan asserts that it is important to respect their lived realities and let them be as they might want to partake in it in their own way, through video calls, looking at photographs, or by participating in smaller pride events that have fewer people and less noise.
Hearing that people are willing to account for diverse needs is such a relief for someone like me, who identifies as queer, struggles with physical pain due to varicose veins, and feels overwhelmed by noise and an endless sequence of hugs from people I do not know. When I attended my first ever pride march, I was glad to be there but also felt pressured by the expectation that I was to own that space as mine and enjoy every bit. It was physically painful for me to walk the long distance. When people look at me, they might read me as obese but not as disabled, ill or in pain. When I speak of my pain, I am often told that I need to lose weight, instead of being asked if I need a break from walking. When I mention that a pride march or a post-pride party is too loud for me, I am labelled as being fussy and anti-social.
I might have found a kindred spirit in AK Dave, a queer feminist activist who volunteers to organise Delhi Queer Pride. She too believes that people should be able to participate on their own terms, in ways that feel safe and comfortable to them. “Some people live with anxiety, and feel nervous in crowds, and I know there are many of us. However, being on the edges should not feel like being on the sidelines,” she says. Delhi Queer Pride, according to her and Agrawal, is a proudly political space, so they want to push the envelope and let people know they do not have to be able-bodied or neuro-typical in order to participate. Dave also points out a need for greater awareness about the specific negotiations that people with psycho-social disabilities have to make, especially because “coming out as another marginalised identity can be challenging in queer spaces.” Since these negotiations are not visible, one can only learn about them by creating opportunities for dialogue with disabled persons, in a spirit of humility and assurance of wanting to make things better.
Queer persons with disabilities should not be made to feel as though they are asking for too much, or told that they need to be grateful for what they have been provided. These ableist attitudes flourish because queer persons with disabilities lack representation in popular culture, as well as in pride committees. An ableist society establishes a hierarchy of pain and suffering. For a disability to be acknowledged, it has to be performed. This burden of proof casts a predatory gaze upon those who do not fit into the elusive ideal of the normative body or mind that is functional, productive and desirable. I speak here as someone who has experienced body shaming from cis-men in queer spaces.
While naming their disability can enable many to access their rights, self-identification is not a source of agency for everyone. I had not realised this until an insightful conversation with Reshma Valliappan, an artist, educator and activist who lives in Pune. She said, “Since identity is important to people in LGBTQIA+ spaces, I am often asked if I identify as a woman, as gender-fluid or as a trans-person. Such labelling is unsettling for me. The psychiatric label has already caused enough damage to people with psycho-social disabilities. We have been locked up in homes or sent to correctional institutions because the mental health system decided we were mad and needed to be ‘fixed’.” Valliappan lives with schizophrenia, epilepsy and a brain tumour. Individuals, not infrastructure, make a space inclusive for her. Instead of expecting accommodations from pride organisers, she prefers to receive support from friends who walk with her at a pride march, or let her stay in the car if she needs to, or wait with her at a restaurant until she feels comfortable enough to step into a crowded, noisy place. When pride committees look at disabled persons as a generalisable category, such individual needs are left out and accessibility gets reduced to broad guidelines that can be implemented and replicated at scale.
Accessibility initiatives at pride events, marches and festivals are most effective when led by persons with disabilities and allies committed to a rights-based understanding of it. This is the model that has worked for the Bengaluru Namma Pride March since 2016. Madhu and Ritesh, who are both members of this committee, have been able to draw the agenda forward because it resonates at a personal level. Madhu says, “Both of us have a deep connection with intersections of sexuality and disability. Ritesh works in the space of accessibility, and is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, of which I am an active ally. I also identify as a person with a disability myself.” Their contribution to making pride marches accessible for people with disabilities has inspired pride committees in Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata to do the same.
For instance, queer activist Pawan Dhall, founder of the Kolkata-based Varta Trust, has been associated with the Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk in various capacities over the last two decades. He reveals that since 2017, arrangements for sign language interpretation have been made for participants with hearing impairments. However, the team that organised a special event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the walk got feedback saying that a lot more needs to be done for visually impaired participants. “While audio versions of the leaflets were available, there were some technical glitches. We also learnt that web-based material should be created in keeping with accessibility guidelines. There is scope for improvement if we are open to learning from people who face barriers, and spend time training the volunteers well in advance.,” he remarks.
When thinking about text and audio invitations for pride marches and accessible venues for post-pride parties, it is crucial to approach the removal of barriers from a rights-based lens rather than equating disability with a lack. The challenges that people with disabilities face in society are due to systems, infrastructure and processes designed in ways that exclude them. They should not be made to feel that their needs are irrelevant or unimportant, and they should not be reduced to their disability. The disability is only one aspect of their life, and the onset of the disability is also connected to the process of ageing in many cases, so pride events organised by young people must actively look out for the needs of queer elders.
The community spirit that binds marginalised people together is what most participants treasure about pride marches. In a world that pathologises, isolates and stigmatises them, these marches offer a reminder that they have a right to exist and they are not alone. Many cities have multiple events leading up to the march, and so it can be quite challenging to fill the void that follows after a pride week or pride month. The sudden shift from being surrounded by warmth to being left to fend for oneself can be quite harsh.
Loneliness, which is a common experience for queer individuals, is heightened for people with psycho-social disabilities because of the taboo on speaking openly about one’s mental health issues. Pride marches will need to address this issue. For example, Bengaluru Namma Pride March has taken the first step in the right direction. They ask participants to get in touch with any specific requirements they have, publish helpline numbers and release a list of mental health clinics and professionals who can provide support.
Such initiatives affirm the agency of disabled people and enable them to participate without being pitied or patronised. Just as ableism thrives in queer spaces, homophobia and transphobia thrive in support groups for disabled people. It is rare for Agrawal to be in disability rights forums that welcome conversations about queerness. That part of her identity is important to her, but is typically not welcome. Madhu and Ritesh add, “In the disability space, understanding of the concept of sexuality is limited. Most people with disability are perceived to have limited or no sexual needs, and the recognition that they are as sexual or asexual as anyone else, is just starting to be acknowledged.”
Preeti Singh, who grew up with cerebral palsy and was the first runner-up of Miss Wheelchair India in 2017, has penned a beautiful essay titled ‘As a woman with a disability, I’m either seen as helpless or heroic.’ She writes, “I’m either pitied (and shunned), or made into an object of inspiration. I’m rarely introduced as Preeti, the great conversationalist, or the bibliophile, or the nerd, or the fashion enthusiast, or the girl who sucks at maths. None of these things matter in the face of one overwhelming reality: I’m always the girl in the wheelchair.”
This needs to change now.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who loves hugging trees, reading poetry, contemplating the teachings of the Buddha, and working towards a queer affirmative world.