Gays, lesbians and transvestites took to the streets of three major Indian cities Sunday in the first nationally coordinated pride marches aimed at overturning a law forbidding homosexuality.
In Kolkata in the east, some 400 people took part in the city's annual Gay Pride parade, drawing curious stares from thousands of onlookers lining the roads to watch the procession.
Ringed by an equal number of police, the marchers set off on a four-kilometre (2.5-mile) walk in the heart of the city, holding banners and placards with slogans demanding recognition and rights.
"More of the youth are coming out to join groups of gays and lesbians in the city," Pawan Dhall, one of the organisers of the parade, told AFP.
But the fear of ostracisation was still evident among a section of marchers who preferred to wear masks to conceal their identity.
In New Delhi, where gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals have never attempted a public march, some 300 people gathered for a two-kilometre walk in the heart of the capital.
"I am wearing a mask because of several reasons -- social pressure, the reservations of friends, family," said a young gay student who asked his name not be published.
"The prejudices of society are as strong as ever. If I were to uncover my face, my parents would have to face the heat."
Activist Pramada Menon said she was overwhlemed by the response of the public.
"This is one of the very, very few occasions when we have not been booed or been cursed at," Menon said.
"Though the perception is changing, it remains a largely upper class phenomenon. People like me can afford to come clean and take a stand.
"Those who are poor are still killing themselves because of 'abnormalities' that they and their families cannot understand or cope with."
The southern technology hub of Bangalore also saw its first-ever gay pride parade.
As in Kolkata and New Delhi, some of the 600 participants wore masks to conceal their faces while others wore fancy clothes to draw public attention in the cosmopolitan city, home to many Indian and international IT companies.
A British colonial-era provision in Indian law prohibits "carnal intercourse against the order of nature," and activists say this allows authorities to treat gay people like criminals.
Under the statute, known as Section 377, unlawful sex is punishable by a fine and a 10-year prison term.
Activists say that while few people are arrested or convicted under the law, many gays and lesbians prefer not to come out.
"We want to say that we, too, like all the others in society, have the right to express ourselves freely," said 30-year-old Ranjit Sinha, who participated in the Kolkata parade for the fourth consecutive year.
"We wanted to tell everybody on the streets, people of all ages who watched the parade, that gays and lesbians are a part of the society, that we are as productive as others in society," he added.
Rights activists say the first attempt at a truly nationwide event, though small by any standards, show India has come a long way since 1999 when just a tiny handful of people made the first attempt at a pride march in Kolkata.
"We will not stop till we get rid of section 377 of the Indian code of law," Siddarth Narrain, a lawyer and activist of the group named Good As You or GAY, told AFP.
Gay pride events are traditionally held around June 27 to commemorate the riots that broke out in 1969 in New York City's Greenwich Village after police raided a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn.
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