NEW DELHI — Men wore sparkling saris, women wore rainbow boas and hundreds of people chanted for gay rights in three Indian cities Sunday in the largest display of gay pride in the deeply conservative country where homosexual acts are illegal.
Gay rights supporters took to the streets of Calcutta, Bangalore and New Delhi to call for an end to discrimination and push for acceptance in a society where intolerance is widespread.
"This is a national coming-out party," said Alok Gupta, a lawyer from Mumbai, as he stood among several hundred activists in New Delhi. "This is a simple thing: We are seeking the right to love."
While small groups have marched in the eastern city of Calcutta in recent years, Sunday's events were the first gay pride parades in Bangalore and New Delhi. Several hundred people turned out at each of the three events.
The marches came days before the Delhi High Court is expected to hear arguments on overturning a law against homosexual sex that dates to the British colonial era. The law, which forbids sexual acts "against the order of nature," carries punishment of up to 10 years in prison.
The law is rarely enforced, but activists say it sanctions discrimination.
"Discrimination is widespread because there is no protection or law or societal understanding," said Lesley Esteves, 32, a gay rights activist who helped organize the New Delhi parade. "There's discrimination in the workplace; there's discrimination in the family — it's on every level."
Despite the festive mood Sunday, fear of discrimination was evident among the crowds in New Delhi. Many of the marchers wore rainbow-colored masks so their friends and families wouldn't know they were gay. Many others declined to speak to journalists.
Some, however, were happy to announce themselves to the public.
"I want people to see us, to talk to us, to become acquainted with who we are and how we feel," said Kangan Ratra, a lesbian in New Delhi. "The first step is to see us. The next step is to understand us."
The protests in all three cities were peaceful, though the number of police and journalists likely matched that of the marchers.
Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a senior leader of India's main Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, said he opposed the gay activists' march and called homosexuality "unnatural."
"I don't think it will be accepted in our country. Most of the people are traditional people, religious people, and it will not be accepted in Indian culture," Naqvi said.
Naqvi said BJP supporters did not protest the march because "we are not going to give importance to such behavior."
Still, there are signs that homosexuality is becoming more accepted in India, at least in big cities. In New Delhi, gay and lesbian groups hold biweekly movie screenings and parties, and organizers say attendance is rising. Newspaper editorials have called for revisions to the law, and prominent writers and activists have signed petitions expressing their support.