Gay Pride Parade in New Delhi

India may pride itself on being the world's largest democracy, but it still takes a dim view of gay rights. Homosexuality is illegal and deemed an "unnatural sexual offense" under section 377 of the country's penal code, where it is categorized alongside bestiality and punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

So it was with a mixture of defiance and celebration that several hundred participants in New Delhi's first gay pride parade rallied through the capital on Sunday, beating drums, shouting slogans and waving rainbow-striped pride flags. Simultaneous marches were held in Calcutta and Bangalore, along with dozens of other cities the world over. The parades commemorated the 1969 Stonewall Riots that followed a New York City police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village watering hole frequented by a largely gay clientele.

The parades have become a regular part of the landscape in places such New York City, but in India's conservative society, participants in the parade and their audience are still getting accustomed to the celebration. Not everyone involved in the New Delhi march felt entirely comfortable bearing their faces to a frenzy of media cameras and busloads of police officers. Wearing a rainbow-colored paper mask, Ajay (he didn't want to give his last name), 26, said his gay friends in Delhi are quite open online, but that the situation on the streets is different. "We cannot hold hands in public or show affection," he said.

No single organization took the lead on the Sunday rally in India's capital. Rather, an email went out and support largely snowballed on the Internet. A core group of about 40 individuals played a leading role, encouraged by a series of gay-friendly events held over the past year—a film festival, regular Sunday meet-ups, nights out at clubs.

Lesley Esteves, a New Delhi magazine editor who helped organize the parade, dubbed it a "community event" and explained the challenges of pushing the bounds of social acceptability in India: "India functions like this—you have this massive media coverage and people know what the word 'queer' is." But at the same time, "We are still having to go to the courts to convince families against holding their children captiv[e] in their homes because they are homosexuals."

The marchers held aloft signs denouncing the colonial-era antigay laws and shouted "377 quit India," a slogan invoking the antigay law that called to mind the Quit India Movement, which was aimed at bringing British rule to an end. But changing the legislation is only part of the problem, said participants. "New Delhi is a very, very homophobic place," said Paroma Mukherjee, a senior photojournalist with the Indian Express. Indian newspapers are rife with tales of suicides of homosexual men and women pressured into traditional, arranged marriages. And those with the means to leave the country sometimes do so, seeking asylum in more sympathetic climes.

Deshan Tucker, 19, a college student at Delhi University, echoed that sentiment. "Supporting the cause is different from saying to them that I'm gay. [If you do,] they will look down on you and say, 'Why are you like that?'" His university campus lacks a single gay student organization. "Legislation is just the first step," said Deshan. "Gays are denied the fundamental right of existence."

But neither Deshan nor his other gay friends from Delhi University—nor anyone else this reporter spoke with at the rally—said they had been arrested by the police in violation of section 377. That isn't to say that gay men are not still arrested for consensual sex. A few months ago in Lucknow, capital of New Delhi's neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, two gay men were arrested after being found in a "breeding position" in a public park. "The problem with 377," said Muyer Suresh, a lawyer from Bangalore, is that "you get extortion, harassment, blackmail by the cops," which can lead to rape and torture, he said.

This 150-year-old chapter of Indian history may be coming to a close soon. The Delhi High Court is weighing a petition against Article 377, and a ruling is expected in the near future. Brought by the Naz Foundation, an Indian organization that works to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, the petition is currently pending on appeal and the next hearing is July 2. Perhaps next year, marchers will feel more at ease showing their faces.