CHALLENGES, VICTORIES, AND MEMORIES
Nazariya organises talk sessions with individuals and collectives/groups who have been involved in queer activism (including but beyond 377) for decades. Called Our Lives Our Tales (OLOT), we aim to create a series of talks given by people who have lived queer lives and fought battles for the queer movement, as a way of preserving and passing along oral histories that might otherwise be lost with them.
OLOT 2020 SERIES
Through the OLOT 2020 series (in June 2020), we documented and shared the journeys of some of the LBT*Q collectives in India, Sappho, Stree Sangam/Labia, Vikalp, and LesBit/Rahi. Through exploring their journies we mad an attempt to understand the LBT*Q organising in the country. Some of the aspects we gleaned over were:
- Stories of their formation
- Reasons behind starting collectives that focussed only on lesbian, bisexual women?
- Understanding of the word queer?
- Focus on PAGFAB
- Reflections on butch-femme binary
- The T in LBT
ABOUT THE SPEAKERS
Beginning with Malobika and Akanksha from Sappho for equality based in Kolkata, followed by Shals Mahajan and Chayanika Shah of LABIA in Mumbai, Sunil Mohan in Bengaluru and Maya Sharma and Indira Pathak from Vikalp in Vadodara. These sessions invited the speakers to share their journey as queer individuals and founders/builders of organisations in support of the community. With their plethora of experience in organising, resisting, and sustaining for the community, the veterans were also asked to share their words of wisdom for growing organisation and the younger generation taking the torch.
Akanksha believes that the right to gender and sexuality should be treated as the basic human rights and no one should be discriminated against by the society or state on the basis of her/his/their gender-sexual orientation. Being co-founder of Sappho and Sappho for Equality, she dreams of a world free from phobia and tries to become instrumental in LGBT movement in India for more than two decades to bring about changes towards a better tomorrow in the lives of gender-sexually marginalised persons. A Ph.D. in Bioinformatics, she is professionally involved in the Government research and development sector. Science provides her living and sexuality bestows her life.
Malobika is Queer feminist activist, engaged in the LGBTQ Rights movement in India for last 21 years. She is Co-founder and Managing Trustee of Sappho for Equality.
Sunil Mohan was Kerala State Women’s team Cricket Captain. Came to Bangalore completed his Electrical Diploma and started working in Sangama an NGO working for the rights of sexual minorities. Fed up with the kind of work, he started working independently his research work through community consultation process under the fellowship of Alternative Law Forum and published a report called Towards Gender Inclusivity. He has worked on Oral history documentation of LGBTI people across south India with the fellowship of CCDS Open Space Pune. He along with Rumi Harish started a study on Discrimination at Alternative Law Forum and have written a report called Conversations on Caste Discrimination in South India after conducting 95 conversations across South India. Sunil identifies as a Trans Man.
Rumi Harish, a student of music learning music from the past 30 years. Rumi started working with women, contract workers’ union and marginalised genders and sexualities from 1999 till now. Rumi composes music and also has done work on sociological understanding of music and gender and written a play on the Raga Kalyani called Sanchari. Rumi started working with Sunil from 2006 and has continued even now for all his research work while also working his own works. Rumi identifies as a queer trans person.
Chayanika Shahhas been a lecturer of Physics in one part of her life, a volunteer in urban efforts at claiming feminist, queer and civil rights for all in another large part, and a curious person dabbling in too many things to pursue any one, in the rest of the time. She is too ancient so do take her stories with a pinch of salt but she does have some scattered writing which you can hold her accountable for.
Shals Mahajan is a writer, activist, layabout, part feline, somewhat hooman, genderqueer queer feminist fellow who lives in Bombay, but mainly in their head. They have been guilty of starting a collective which became LABIA: A Queer Feminist LBT Collective, two and a half decades ago. If they knew that it would survive with them in it for so long maybe they would have thought otherwise.
Bit of a vagabond in her younger years, Indira Pathak’s activism bears that stamp still, running amok like her interventions, she is rarely still. She joined the Mahila Samakhya programme and was a dissenter there and cofounded Vikalp in Vadodara as support space for women there. Her discomfort with the identity of a woman lay under wraps even when she became active in the women’s movement (WM). Her coming out was open only to a few in the WM and then it was the identity of a woman who loved women that prevailed. It seems only recent in 2003, with the start of Vikalp’s journey, in reaching out to the queer community in Gujarat like herself that “came home to myself”. Not a woman, neither a man, closer to trans with masculinity that affirms femininity.
A feminist, Maya Sharma is a writer by accident and a queer activist by choice. Working at the grassroots, in Delhi resettlement colonies within the women’s movement, on issues of Single Women, organising and building a political identity it was their intersectional vulnerability that brought the paper and pen together for her. She writes in Hindi and English. She was part of the campaign against the ban of Fire in 1998. She wrote a book called Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Under Privileged India in 2006. Maya joined Vikalp in Vadodara to work on the ground best suited to her skills and her own life, with people like her and not quite like her.
CHALLENGES, VICTORIES, AND MEMORIES
“We make boxes out of our life, this is about livelihood, that is about sexuality. But at Mahila Andolan we always talked about intersections”
– Maya Sharma
Queer people are often, rather almost always asked: how did you know? Does one know upon birth or at puberty or upon meeting someone? But this question is also reductive of people’s identity to their sexual orientation or gender. Our speakers shared their journey about their political and personal growth as and above queer individuals.
The journey of Malobika and Akanksha started from a telephone booth at Sarojini Nagar, Delhi in 1998. After learning about Sangini in Delhi, with just their post box number and helpline number at hand, Malobika and Akanksha travelled to Delhi and dialled their number from an STD booth. In order to conceal their true identity they immediately introduced themselves with a different name that soon became their identity as they continued to lead a dual life, “from 9-6 I was Meenakshi, from 6 past one minute to next day eight past fifty-nine I was Malobika”.
Maya Sharma was part of the feminist movement, before the queer movement at a time when terms like ‘queer’, ‘trans’ and even ‘lesbian’ were not part of the vocabulary. She was part of the Mahila Samakhya where she learnt off feminism and in search of growth, she later joined the Trade Union as a gender expert. Sexuality and labour are two important pillars, especially for women as patriarchy controls both and working with Mahila Samuha and the Trade Union, she was able to ideologically understand these two pillars and incorporate these learnings in her personal life. Maya recalled that when she was working on her book (Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India) on single women, she came across single women who loved other women in the Union and many trans individuals in the Union too, employed in the railway sector largely. Though there was a lack in the vocabulary at the time, people were still out there, living their queer lives. This visibility did not necessarily point towards an acceptance of sexuality or a better understanding of gender issues. These spaces of dissent had their own reservations about the queer movement. At a conference in Panchgani, held in December 2000, Maya decided to share her field experience with the queer community. News had reached the Union much earlier than the conference. Even though Maya spoke in her own individual capacity, she was asked to leave the Union and did so in the next six months. Like Maya, Indira Pathak too had her own struggles with organisations due to her political beliefs.
Indira identifies herself as a dissenter, for she has constantly defied organisations and ideologies. Since college, Indira was part of the left front where she learned the concept of oppressor and oppressed but she found the space to be male dominated and when she was comfortable enough to come out about her sexuality to the head of the group, he asked to keep it under wraps. Being asked to stay in the closet and no longer being able to express or align with the group, Indira moved to another organisation in Ahmedabad that worked on caste issues in rural settings.
After hearing about a woman being murdered over dowry, Indira wanted to intervene but the organisation held her back as they were ‘outsiders’ in the village and it would not be appropriate to meddle in their business. She decided to pursue the case herself, filed a FIR and soon got media’s attention too but alas the case was lost, and she had to leave the organisation too. She joined Mahila Samakhya then, which she called a healing experience to be working with women.
Sunil recalled recognising his queerness the first time, “I realised I am something, not like anyone”. He continued, “there were problems at home, I wanted to come out of there and a friend gave a child helpline number, who led me to another counselling centre called Praan”. His friend then led him to the group called ‘Vaadil’, which means door in Malayalam, where community members met every Sunday. This is where Sunil met Reshma Bharadwaj, Deepa and others. Subsequently, the group did discussions on Nandu and Sheela’s case which came out in the media as the first lesbian case, and Sunil marks this as the beginning of his political journey. Nandu and Sheela were to be moved to Bangalore under Sangama’s wing for their protection due to the increasing heat their case saw, and Sunil voluntarily accompanied them as their translator in 2003. While attending the 2004 WF in Mumbai, Sunil was offered a job at Sangama as an office assistant.
Working at Sangama, he was exposed to other autonomous groups that met regularly in their office, and hosted discussions around gender and sexuality that informed Sunil on various identities. He and his colleague began questioning their identity, trying to align with the identity terms discussed in the meeting.
Sangama began the Lesbian Bisexual Women’s Project (LBWP), and like Indira faced limitations at her organisation, Sunil too began to outgrow his group. Sunil met Rumi through another friend who came from France to work on a project called ‘Sakhi’, a musical performance art piece with the community. Rumi and Sunil became friends over story sessions during the project and began collaborating since then. After leaving Sangama, Sunil organised a women’s cricket team on Rumi’s request and later joined an electrical diploma at NIIT with the help of LABIA’s fellowship. Due to an accident however, after receiving treatment and surgeries, Sunil was advised to leave his diploma at NIIT to avoid the risk of seizures. After applying to multiple places, Sunil received a call from Sangama to work on the LBWP project and through it, he began working on crisis intervention. Due to the amount of work and lack of decision-making power in the project, Sunil requested for someone to be hired and Rumi joined the project as a coordinator. Together they began planning the project and had all the freedom to call the shots.
Later in 2005 while designing his own support collective, LesBiT, Sunil discarded the idea of sharing identity markers in the meetings because of two reasons. First, it was understood that the individuals present identified as LBT and secondly, he found the practice humiliating since it was already something the ‘outside’ world required them to do and Sunil’s idea of the group was to create a safe space for all to be comfortable and share in.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
“Right from Patna itself, I knew I had no choice; I had to set up an emotional support group”
Malobika changed many cities and jobs before finally landing in Kolkata with Akanksha. She shared that upon her arrival at Kolkata, they visited a gay organisation called Council Club which is no longer active. Despite the niceness of people there, Malobika and Akanksha could not relate to them as the oppressions they faced as women, as homosexual women, were different and not relatable. They soon came into the media’s eye as a journalist learned about them and asked for an interview. In 1999 an article was published in Anandabazar Patrika, which resulted in more than three hundred and fifty letters from women to the postal code. Many of which were anonymous while some chose to share their phone numbers. Malobika shared that a team of six began calling and responding. Most of the letters were divided into areas and the three couples took charge of areas and met in public areas. Soon enough it was a team of 30 people and on June 20, 1999 Sappho was formed in Malobika and Akanksha’s ten by eleven square feet of a room. Simultaneously, Fire re-released.
Fire by Deepa Mehta stirred a lot of controversy upon its release across India. In a country that did not have the word for female homosexuality, the film dared to showcase such a relationship. It met with much hostility by the right wing in India followed by a ban and protests to remove that ban brought many queer identifying folks together. Malobika and Akanksha shared their memory of watching and re-watching the movie, then visiting the theatre numerous times to wait outside and gaze at the spectators, in search of people who ‘look like us’.
Chayanika fondly remembered the special screenings for women spectators in a single screen theatre in Mumbai. She continued to share that unlike the usual screenings, the audience did not leave during the interval, instead continued to sit in to chit-chat! Stree Sangam made little four-page long pamphlets with Vijaydan Detha’s version of the Rajasthani folk story of Teeja and Beeja, to circulate at these screenings and in turn received letters to the Stree Sangam post box. Chayanika added that whether one likes it or not, Fire brought the conversation of female sexuality out in the public eye.
The movie saw the brunt of the right wing soon enough and was banned by the censor board. To fight this ban, Campaign for Lesbian Rights or CALERI was formed bringing together certain women groups and individuals. Maya shared that the campaign’s objective was to spread awareness and carve a space for the community and the issue. She added that some groups were adamant to take this issue up as a suppression of female sexuality rather than the safer approach advised by most groups then, of viewing it as a violation of freedom of expression, that they only joined the campaign on the condition of it being vocal about women’s sexuality. She recalls making the ‘Indian and Lesbian’ poster to counter the argument that lesbian is a ‘western idea’. Soon this poster caused a scandal and possibly, Maya stated, the first visible expression of women’s choice of their sexual expression. She clarified that though there was much conversation around HIV, women were still invisible hence she holds this poster as the first visible expression.
When asked how she found and met people for her book, Maya shared that she didn’t have to seek anyone because being in the public eye, with the many risks, came with the advantage of being noticed by other LBT people and they would reach out themselves. Indira added that they followed up with every letter they received or any article they came across in the news.
But it was not all that easy to use the media to gain visibility. After getting a postbox address, when Vikalp tried to advertise it in a newspaper in plain words: Any women loving women can contact us, they were denied space in the paper. To counter this problem, they began publishing stickers and stuck them in washrooms and other public areas to gain visibility. At a time when the internet was not as active, and social media was unheard of, this was a popular tactic that was used across the country as Stree Sangam and Sappho also shared.
Again, the newspapers had a role to play, this time in Bombay. Shals came across an article in the newspaper about a gay conference at SNDT Women’s University and connected with the then director to put her in touch with ‘other dykes’. A young and brash Shals, as they recall themselves to be, would not take no for an answer and eventually got Aarti’s number. Aarti and Sakina were the known lesbian women in 1995’s Bombay, through which others connected. Shals added that this was a time when the term ‘queer’ was not part of the vocabulary. After meeting Aarti, Shals was soon introduced to others and suddenly for the first time ever, she found herself in a room in India, full of only queer people like them.
After attending a meeting with Forum against Oppression of Women, a feminist collective, the need for a queer collective became more evident. Using Aarti and Sakina’s contacts, Shals, Leslie and others wrote letters and organised a meet up at a shack at Aksa beach. Shals and Leslie being the ‘identifiable dykes’ mentioned that they would be wearing baseball caps so they can be recognised at the beach. After waiting for about three to four hours, people came. Although the records state that there were eighteen people, Shals remembers it to be around thirty.
Shals went on to share the nomenclature story of Stree Sangam. They recalled the bizarre list that the group came up with, varying from ‘Jhasi’s Brigade’ to ‘Kajol’s Fan Club’; among the many puns and other suggestions, Shals had suggested ‘Labia’ which was soon rejected. But the idea was to have a name that women were comfortable writing to, and did not stand out. ‘Stree Sangam’ made the cut, and while getting the P.O. box the group was identified as a women’s writers group.
One of the first discussions as a group they had was about whether the group was only for lesbian women or lesbian and bisexual women. The idea was not to exclude, but to give space to a specific group and at the end of the day they decided to include bisexual women as well. The question of trans inclusivity was yet to come for Stree Sangam as it was not part of their lives then. Chayanika added that it is reflection on various subjects, and movement of the group that helps it grow and also flourish for as long as 25 years. She also added that the feminist group, Forum, helped Stree Sangam when it was still establishing itself. The senior members from Forum were invited to attend the Stree Sangam meetings and Chayanika remembers the feeling strange at the earlier meetings because the group was hesitant about who can be part of the meetings, unlike Forum was. The anxiety being known and outed was very operative throughout in Stree Sangam. Networking with Forum, India Centre for Human Rights and Law, and others that are not seen as queer, helped relax this anxiety of being outed.
There was much discussion and thought around what the group would aim for. Whether it was a collective to help network and socialise or one that would work to change the world. Chayanika also shared that the gay and lesbian spaces were not different earlier and a women’s group, separate from the men’s was necessary at that time. Initially only those who were seeking such spaces, got in touch with Stree Sangam but slowly in five years, the network grew stronger and more people joined.
Chayanika and Shals shared the failure they faced when organised parties for the members, as no one would show up. But Stree Sangam also organised the first national retreat in Bombay, in 1996, followed by a second in 1998. Friends from Delhi and Kolkata joined in. Maya was also part of this retreat and remembers it to be an important event because it was the first time, a national level gathering of queer individuals took place. There was no agenda for the retreat, the folks were invited to share their lived experiences and get to know each other. Chayanika expressed the joy they felt in being part of two important moments. She hopes that anyone starting something new, feels the joy of building it without a blueprint, or any idea of the form it may take on day and going ahead and doing it anyway.
“We [queer people] were presented as mere numbers in newspapers, but who were these people, how did they live their daily lives?”
– Maya Sharma
When newspapers ran articles on LBT individuals, their lives were turned into mere statistics, this erasure of lived experiences pushed Maya to write stories and her book was born. A popular misconception around sexuality is that people from the working class do not experience it, but having met many queer individuals, and hunting stories down in different newspaper articles with Indira, Maya knew there existed people from the community in different sections of society and wanted to bring forth these stories. Maya acknowledged the push and support from her friends that helped her shape the stories into a book.
This need to be heard and seen in public through a literature of their own was felt across the nation and different organisations came up with different ways to articulate their voices. Sappho birthed Swakanthey (meaning: In our own voice) in 2004, a magazine that explored the theme of women’s sexuality, and sold it at the Kolkata book fair. At a time when invisibility was high and so was the risk due to homophobia, it took much courage to hawk a magazine that had stories about lesbians. Participating in the fair was also a strategy for empowerment, to begin dialogue with the common people and the magazine is a tool to articulate expression of the LBT community members, shared Akanksha. The Kolkata book fair saw hoards of people, and everyone knew of Swakanthey and the stall, but it was marked with prejudice. Members would take copies and roam the fair to lure customers and younger members were often paired with more experienced ones to handle uncles that would harass the younger lesbians.
One of the audience members shared that they took their mother to the Swakanthey stall at the Kolkata book fair in 2010, bought her a copy of the magazine and with that in hand, came out formally to her. The first issue saw five hundred copies and today, the magazine is published bi-annually with over three thousand copies in circulation.
LesBiT utilised the varied talents of its members to produce plays. The money generated from these performances was used to pay for necessities like surgeries. This way the community benefits twice from the stories, first by gaining visibility through storytelling and second by generating funds that are then used for the community. The team also conducted workshops that enabled the participants to channel their experiences through a creative voice.
Sunil has worked on multiple projects archiving queer lived experiences and also turning them into plays. When Chayanika, Aarti, Swati Sesha, Vinay Chandan and Sharada were in Bangalore, they met with Rumi and Sunil who were planning to open their own organisation. Acting as their sounding board, they advised the two to do a study to know what the community needs in its own words. ‘Towards Gender Inclusivity’ was born out of this discussion, in collaboration with ALF fellowship. Amplifying voices is also about visualising ‘what next’ steps by hearing out the community’s needs.
“Before knowing these jargons, we still existed. How did we express ourselves? What language did we use? I wrote a concept note around that to document people reflecting on those times in their lives”. shared Sunil on how the Oral history archiving project with CCDS began. As part of the project, he travelled all over south India and met with thirty people and documented them on video. Although there was a blog due to its limited reach, and the want for more viewership, Sunil decided to conduct two workshops. He got the filmmaker Revathi from Chennai onboard who made a script for the satire ‘Nanga Ready’ (We are Ready). This satire was about the binary gender system, making fun of the system while questioning it. CCDS also produced a documentary with the videos.
Along with Gautam Bhan and others, Sunil worked on a project of public space and accommodation that resulted in a powerful play called ‘Freedom Begum’ also known as ‘Begum Mahal’. The team conducted a total of twelve residential workshops that lasted over four days, to frame the play. Since it was such a politically charged theme, to evade any charges or hostility, they produced it as fiction.
“Huge fights happened, but if one person was in need of help, everyone would run to them”.
– Sunil Mohan
The aim of these groups was largely to provide a space to people from the community, which also inevitably leads to people dating and breaking up as well. Sustaining a space is as much about sustaining relationships as it is about financial stability.
All groups unanimously have witnessed the coming together and falling apart of members. Akanksha shared that the Sappho saw multiple relationships, but it did not change the group dynamics as Sappho does not take responsibility for these relationships. According to Sunil, LesBiT’s biggest problem was that people came as partners and would switch their partners. There was also talk of Kerala morality between members from Kerala, shared Sunil. Despite the shift in personal dynamics, there was still a strength, he believes this is because it came from a physical space, and not online. He continued to share, “huge fights happened, but if one person was in need of help, everyone would run to them”. People from the group are still friends and hang out despite all that happened.
Talking about Vikalp’s experience with the Covid-19 pandemic, Maya shared that each month they put aside some money and ask for donations to be used by community members in need. This collection is allowing them to temporarily support those in need currently but in the long run, Maya admitted, it is going to be a very hard struggle since even those on salaries, have not been paid due to the pandemic since the lockdown. One of the members took a loan to buy an auto-rickshaw but since the lockdown, all public use vehicles were prohibited which meant no income. Vikalp has been paying off the loan using the collective money. Other than monetary donations, Vikalp also relies on support from doctor friends that provide hormonal injections and medication for the community members. She added that people in Gujarat are known to be pennywise, so there are some who have their own savings to sustain them and otherwise Vikalp also relies on low interest loans and borrowing for now. Within Vikalp is another group called ‘Sabrang’ that collects donations for trans people, which has been helpful with the quarantine and job loss. Now that the lockdown has been lifted, the salaried individuals are able to earn again, but both Indira and Maya stated that another such a hit would be hard to negotiate.
Another struggle with running such spaces is the activists’ own mental health. When asked how he takes care of his mental well-being he shared, “I still do the same kind of work and I will continue to do the same because I cannot break their trust”. Sunil first worked on crisis management through Sangama’s Lesbian Bisexual Women’s Project (LBWP) that later included transpeople and was renamed Lesbian Bisexual Women and Trans Intervention (LBWTI). Expressing his lack of boundaries, Sunil shared that he receives calls at odd hours since his personal number is given out whenever necessary. With Rumi, he has now set up Rahi, to systemise crisis intervention and ease the responsibilities off of a single individual to multiple trained ones. Sunil also shared that Rahi is a trust and he actively fights turning it into an NGO. He added that crisis intervention requires good allies in dedicated lawyers. When he worked at ALF with Rumi, they both trained the lawyers there in the process of intervention and even dragged them into real situations, thereby making them reliable and experienced lawyers for crisis intervention.
There is no guarantee that two groups with similar ideologies regarding the same subject, will see eye to eye on the victims of that particular subject. In their conversations on domestic violence, women’s groups there was no talk about queer individuals and Sunil confronted this exclusion. He even pushed different groups to discuss the family and non-family divide that gave the parents authority to correct their children and any harm in the process was overlooked. Recognising the separation from the women’s groups, Sunil organised talk sessions with many individuals on various topics, from ‘love and violence’ to ‘acid attacks’. There was a resistance and the journey to engage with different groups still continues.
Contrary to the assumptions, rural India is more accepting of trans lives. Indira and Maya shared their witnessed experiences in rural areas of Gujarat and according to them, queer individuals have already fought their own battle for acceptance and own there. Indira shared an incident of a married queer couple where the wife’s document had her partner’s name under husband with the suffix of ‘ben’ attached to it. They shared another memory of attending a house-warming ceremony at another queer couple’s house, where the village was invited and in attendance too. The people’s presence in the ceremony, where the the queer couple sat as husband and wife, was a show of acceptance and support. Indira further added that queer individuals in rural areas do not need city folks to fight their battle for them, but they can aid with advocacy in the government jobs and policies. Those trans individuals who passed and already have their identity cards and documents, and hold government jobs, do not want to risk outing themselves to avail the benefits of NALSA judgement or other policies, Indira added.
Cover page image courtesy: ‘Pravartak’ Journal Published by Counsel Club. Image provided by Pawan Dhall.