It’s business as usual in the bustling lane of Connaught Place’s Block B. But something new catches one’s eye: three new billboards depicting the LGBTQ community in India, have recently been added here.
The billboard shows a mother with her son—who has his male partner next to him. The two men are seen cooking together and the lady can be seen raising her hand towards them as a sign of affection and acceptance.
Installed above one of the elevator’s at Rajiv Chowk Metro station, the billboards are part of a campaign to raise awareness about LGBT rights and the community’s lifestyle in India. Connaught Place was chosen as the first location to put up these billboards owing to the massive crowd that visits this spot on a daily basis.
The billboard at Rajiv Chowk Metro Station
It’s been four months since the Supreme Court decriminalised gay sex and, in a historic move, struck down Section 377. Activists at Jhatkaa.org—a campaigning organisation—thought that it was about time a dialogue be initiated on LGBT rights in the capital as well as across the country. These billboards are the organisation’s attempt at opening up discourse around the LGBT community, and more importantly, to normalise the way people view such depictions (like the one seen on the billboard).
“The main objective of this campaign is to push the conversation about LGBT rights towards social acceptance and the normalisation of queerness,” says Jyotsna Sara George, campaign manager at Jhatkaa.org.
George says that the preparation for the campaign began in June, way before the verdict came out. The organisation got in touch with an international organisation called All Out, which primarily focuses on the political advocacy of LGBT rights.
Since the campaign required funding, Jhatkaa.org, along with All Out, started a crowdfunding campaign and were able to raise the necessary funds for the cause.
According to George, some members are from countries where same-sex marriage is already legal. “They empathised and stood up in solidarity by financially supporting this campaign,” adds George. Another campaigner, Punita Maheshwari, said: “It shows that people care. The contribution from each donor was not much, but the amount we raised shows that there are many people who are supportive of this campaign.”
Once the money was raised, Jhatkaa started a poll on various social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. In the poll, four artworks highlight four different aspects: legality, acceptance from families, place in mythology, and cultural traditions. The illustrations themselves were made by Shalaka Pai, who is a queer illustrator. “We did this deliberately so that their experience reflects in their work. Our larger objective is to create more visibility for them,” says George.
The illustrations for the advertisement went through a two-round polling contest conducted on Facebook. The winning illustration shows a lesbian couple sitting on a bench in front of the Delhi High Court. Below the illustration, a text in Hindi and English reads: “Being gay is not a crime/Samalaingik hona kaanooni apradh nahi hain.”
However, this powerful illustration was not approved by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation’s (DMRC) vendor agency.
The ad agency that Jhatkaa was working with, sent the following message stating the reason for DMRC’s disapproval. “DMRC reserves the right of any layout approval. They have conveyed to modify the said creative without any picture and with an informatory message adaption.”
This is DMRC’s vendor agency indirectly presenting a case of heteronormativity. The original illustration was changed and the illustration that the billboard now carries has left the message—which was supposed to be highlighted—buried in the depths while gaining approval.
George says: “DMRC does not have any liability because all their advertising spaces have been given to different vendors. They don’t directly communicate with anybody.” She also says that there are no exclusive advertising guidelines on sexuality. “But of course, it is open to interpretation. We understood that they are trying to exercise some form of censorship, even though they directly did not say so.”
“They can’t say that directly after the verdict. But this is the sort of mindset of the person-in-charge at the vendor’s agency, who decides what sort of illustration would go up,” pointed out George. However, Jhatkaa.org is not taking this lightly, and Maheshwari says that the organisation is currently working on a petition, but first, they want their facts and figures to be clear.
An onlooker at B Block was asked what she thought the billboard depicted.“I think it’s a mother and her two sons cooking together and they’re happy,” she said, on condition of anonymity. “But I don’t know how the message correlates to this.” When she was told that it is a gay couple along with a mother, she was happy, but at the same time, shocked. “It doesn’t seem like that. Is it some sort of censorship?”
It feels like the message has been lost in translation—only to satisfy the DMRC vendor’s idea of what is “right” for society. This sort of heteronormativity has been seen in other parts of the world too.
In May, Mango TV, a Chinese broadcast channel blurred the rainbow flag and tattoos on air. In Qatar, some articles on LGBT issues published in The New York Times’ international edition were censored too. Earlier this week, a few people in Bulgaria destroyed a campaign poster advocating LGBT rights.
A number on which the public can send missed calls—7338730702—is also provided on the billboard. The idea behind this is to get a curious person to reach out to the organisation. “If they want to know more, they can give a missed call on this number, and we can then add them to our WhatsApp list,” adds George.
This is a pilot project and the organisation may soon take this campaign to Tier-II cities like Jaipur. “We want to take it to other cities to start a dialogue. We need people to talk about it first. They can judge later whether it’s good or not,” says Maheshwari.
By evening, as CP comes to life with lights and people from all walks of life, the billboard shines with a faint ray of hope and manages to catch the attention of an elderly couple passing by. gets some attention from an elderly couple passing by. “Are they partners?” asked the couple. On confirmation, they smiled and continued on their path.
This story was first published in Patriot.