Over the last decade and a half, Gender and Sexuality have gradually gained significance in the public discourse on personal identity in India. The following report presents the highlights of an exchange of thoughts and experiences on the subject, facilitated by Ondede and Radio Active in the forenoon of Saturday, May 15th 2015.
Welcoming the nearly 20 participants, Akkai Padmashali, human rights activist, poet and speaker provided an overview of the objectives of Ondede (meaning convergence in Kannada), an organization that stands for Dignity, Voice and Sexuality and will focus on different issues of sexual minorities, children and women through dialogue and research. Founded by Akkai in December 2014 along with Aasha Ramesh and Shakun Mohini, seasoned women’s rights activists in Bangalore; Prof. Nalini, acting principal United Theological College; Prof. Sharada, CHECK NAME faculty member Kuvempu University; Pinky Chandran, Co-founder and Director, Radio Active, Bangalore’s premier community radio station and Vasudeva Sharma, Director Child Rights Trust, Bangalore, Ondede was publicly launched in Bangalore in January 2015.
Stating that Ondede had hosted discussions on the Age of Consent for Sex and Just Speak Out on International Families Day, Akkai initiated the discussion on the topic for the day saying that the aim of the interaction is to create a space for people especially those regarded as “non-confirming” to feel comfortable to talk about their gender, sexuality and associated realities which are often ignored or suppressed due to patriarchal social norms. She also introduced Shakun, from Vimochana (a reputed, 36-year old organization in Bangalore that assists women facing violence and harassment and advocates for their rights and justice) as the moderator. The people present included lesbian and bisexual women, transwomen, transmen, gay men and heterosexual women and men, gender fluid persons and others who preferred not to reveal their gender or sexual identity. At Shakun’s suggestion, the participants also mentioned whether they saw themselves in their mind, heart, body, soul, etc.
Introducing herself as an independent journalist, writer and trainer on human rights issues with a feminist focus, Pushpa briefly mentioned that she is gender fluid and has a supportive partner. She dwells in her subconscious and is often thinking of the stories or verses she can pen. Next was Dolly Koshy, an Information Technology (IT) professional who said, “I am also an activist especially on gender minority issues and see myself in my head”.
Archana, a media sales professional who has been involved with sexual minority groups for a few years, revealed, “Being gay or lesbian has helped me empathize with others and understand myself too. Akkai inspired me by singing about her life in Cubbon Park. I see myself in my heart and mind and am comfortable and happy with my choice and myself”. Next was Amrita, a freelance IT professional who remarked, “A part of the community since 2010, I realized that meeting others across the class, caste and language makes you understand yourself and privileges. I am a single mother who resides between her head and mind”.
“10 years ago, I met my sexual minority community in Bangalore from whom I have got great support. I consider myself as a woman”, disclosed Krishnaveni, another participant. Soon after, Shanthi, a transwoman shared, “I believe I am a woman, live with my boyfriend and do sex work”. Following her was Jagan, an elderly kothi who said, “I have been called a mayilu (means peacock in Kannada) and am in a critical situation, economically. Forced to do a low paying job at my age, I have attempted suicide”. Ranjitha introduced herself next as a transgender woman psychologically and biologically. “A feminist, and human rights activist, I am also a volunteer with Ondede and have been speaking in colleges primarily about the lives of gender minorities and my experiences. Akkai has been my role model”, she added.
The next to speak was John, doing his bachelor’s degree in social work at St. Joseph’s College. He revealed, “As an intern with Ondede, I have enjoyed learning about sexual minorities and sex workers. I live in my ears, like listening to people and also want people to hear me out”. Navneeta, also an undergraduate student of social work at St. Joseph’s College who resides in her mind mentioned, “During my ongoing internship with Ondede, I have understood and captured stories of a few sexual minorities which we are trying to compile into a book”.
Shilok, another college student and a member of the sexual minority community since 2 years, revealed, “I like writing and see myself as a girl. I do not believe in the body and exist in my soul”. After that, Umesh, a transwoman also called Uma, disclosed, “I do not care much about how I dress and exist in my mind. A part of the sexual minority community in Bangalore from 2002 onwards, I want to listen and give voice to our struggles. I am currently doing that through Ananya, a quarterly Kannada magazine and Jeeva Diary, a weekly community radio programme”.
A gender minority person who hails from North Karnataka, Mallappa, remarked, “I thought that sexual minorities are present only in my region. However, for the last few years, I have associated with the sexual minority community in Bangalore too. I am still learning and reside in my mind”. Following him was Akkai who discovered her gender at age 8 and had struggled at home and outside until she joined and Sangama (a 16-year old NGO in Bangalore that supports working class sex workers and sexual minorities and advocates for their rights and entitlements) where she rose to head the Information and Advocacy department while young. “I decided to take up the role of a Project Manager at Radio Active in 2013 despite having other job offers. Ondede was started as I wanted to move beyond my comfort zone of being with sexual minorities and work with women and children”.
When asked about Ondede’s aims, Akkai explained that it plans to bring together people to converse and study policies and laws relevant to women, children and sexual minorities and question patriarchy. As requested, Pinky briefed everyone about Radio Active’s history (from its inception in 2006), technicalities (like range of 15 kilometeres, frequency 90.4 and licensing) and activities (shows by waste pickers, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, HIV+ women, animal lovers, etc).
Speaking next, Danish Sheikh, a gender minority community member and legal researcher with the Alternative Law Forum (a Bangalore based non-profit organization that litigates on and studies human rights) shared, “Activism brings your heart into varied aspects of different issues. We should remember that the law while quoted and used by some, has rigid boundaries. I live in my mind presently and am working towards the heart”.
Shakun who followed, wanted to be an engineer but was disallowed as her brother was studying for a diploma, narrated, “I belong to a very orthodox community and have struggled against getting into marriage or relationships for convenience. Having met sexual minorities when I started associating with sex workers, I am still learning about these and other individuals and communities. I think in a plural manner, question myself always and see me in others. As a heterosexual woman, I wonder if I am the right moderator for this session. My struggle against patriarchy continues and I believe that falling in love with different people is possible”.
“Let us note that the field of human rights is vast. Securing my right does not mean I deny it to others. Dignity implies how I see myself and how others see us. It is not given on a plate and must not make us arrogant. Patriarchy imposes many problems on the sexual minorities movement and it should not rely on the state and law extraordinarily to accord dignity. While the personal is political, it is also vice versa. The women’s movement rejected family and religion as they were sites of violence. We are still struggling with many aspects of society and returning to dialoging with the family and religion to accept and resolve women’s issues. The sexual minorities movement should not make that mistake of rejecting marriage or relationships and should consider the realities of common people”, observed Shakun. She added that she cannot discuss with her family about those issues that she talks about in public.
Krishnaveni agreed with Shakun that sexual minority individuals like her who are rejected by their families need acceptance. She remarked, “We cannot live outside the family or society totally. As a child I preferred the company of girls and started understanding my sexuality at the age of 15. My mother wondered if she should hit or accept me. She warned me to be aware of my brothers and other family members. Now friends and associates support me. I talk on the radio and publicly and have become strong and bold. However, I am happy that my family has accepted me as that is important to me like it is to everyone else”.
“After some time my family accepted me and my parents said I was the only son although that is a very patriarchal notion. Although I had grown up as a member of a tightly knit group, I left home for sometime as my parents and others were pressurizing me to get married. I would avoid visiting or staying home during weekends, consequently”, Shakun disclosed. Amrita opined that behavior like that of Shakun is termed deviant. “Your family members should also cross the ‘line’ that you have and perhaps you should help them. My coming out to my mother was through humour. I requested her that to understand me besides loving me”, she commented. Danish wondered if we must consider the significance of the family.
Recalling the lives of the late Kajol and Famila, two young transwomen in Bangalore, Shakun narrated how their mothers visited them after they left their respective homes but their fathers did not as they refused to accept them with their gender identity. Stating that it was pointless to regret after their passing, she mentioned that a month later, Famila’s father wanted to know where her grave was as he wished to imprint her birth name Vijay which saddened and surprised her. Ranjita recounted poignantly that Famila’s father expressed that she had spoilt her brother’s life while sitting beside the body. He and her brother did not enter the cemetery during her funeral. “Sanjana, another transwoman, Famila and I had our sex reassignment surgery (SRS) in Dindigul and never followed hijra system”.
Uma stated that the hijra community earlier allowed its members to wear only a sari or salwar kameez discouraged them from having open relationships or talking publicly. It also imposes rituals and hierarchy. At present, Mamta a transwoman is not being allowed to file her nomination for the Gram Panchyat election in Ramnagara district by her rival from another party. “We must raise our voice even if it bounces back, no one listens or it occurs within closed groups as we should be heard and accepted outside. We could protest angrily, have a dialogue or act silently and keep a space for resistance open always”, opined Shakun.
While Amrita expressed that the state is trying to shrink voices, Shakun added that every system such as the media, law and government is constraining space for resistance and dialogue. She stated that the need for convergence arose particularly when discussing gender violence and relevant laws like the criminal law amendment of 2013. “While debating about the gender neutrality of perpetrator, we must realize that there is abuse within the sexual minority community too but that should be addressed differently”, reiterated Shakun.
Doing sex work is not illegal but bringing children into it is different and even sex workers oppose it. Further, we cannot have the same laws for children and adults. Hence legislations like POCSO are required. Why do need laws for sex work? Hardly any soliciting is done. Only clients contact them but can be arrested if they are caught paying. Danish added that the constitution only disallows discrimination on religious caste by government companies. The man in Mumbai whose job application was rejected recently, on religious grounds has filed a hate speech case.
As per Amrita, untouchability is a dimension of caste discrimination that happens indirectly sometimes. Pushpa added that in many parts of India, segregated seating, utensils and other practices are still followed. This has been reported in tea stalls in Tamil Nadu and in government schools during midday meal distribution in Karnataka. Uma said that nowadays caste discrimination seems to be disguised. Boards advertising that homes are for ‘Brahmins only’ for renting, have changed to ‘Vegetarians only’.
Ranjita shared, “I rarely disclose my gender identity to home owners as they prefer not to have gender minorities as tenants. A lady I revealed myself to agreed to let her house to me but asked me for more rent. Also, if you say you do not have children somebody wants to help you medically or otherwise. I recently adopted the daughters of my late sister who rejected me for 10 years, ironically”. Uma observed, “People think that we ‘choose’ to be sexual minorities to do sex work or have sex freely”.
“Stating that you are homosexual makes people judge you. Transpersons cannot use washrooms meant either for women or men easily as they may be of neither gender and people could harass, ridicule or harm them. If I talk to boys, I am considered to be flirting. I cannot find paying guest accommodation or discuss about the sexual harassment I faced from a girl”.
Archana expressed that lesbian women are considered abnormal or incapable of finding or pleasing men. She revealed, “Someone asked me since when I started practising homosexuality and I shot back: since the time you began practicing heterosexuality. I have desires like heterosexuals but do not visualize my bedroom every time I see a girl. In India, many people do not respect privacy. Dating applications even for lesbians throw up male choices. Accepting and coming out is almost a daily process as you are unraveling yourself to you and someone else. The proclaimed ‘guardians of culture’ violate rights of most minorities. On MG road, I see young, ‘attractive’ men who approach transwomen but ridicule them later. We do not give space for women and children”.
According to Shakun, there is fear of sexual exploration and no freedom. The supposedly progressive parents of teenage girls are scared to let them sleepover or have boyfriends. Sex workers are forced to change homes 3-4 times a year particularly if they reveal their profession. “Sexual violence is intrinsic in our lives right from childhood”, Shakun observed. Uma mentioned, “I am not considered a transperson because of my dress or appearance. Only sari wearing transpersons are regarded as gender minorities by the media and others. There is violence by people outside and inside community. Many heterosexuals do not understand our challenges like discontinuing school or leaving home owing to harassment, abuse or violence, or the social discrimination that we face”.
Krishnaveni mentioned that transpeople are stereotyped and ostracized greatly in rural areas while Pushpa highlighted that sexual minorities are forced into marriage, ‘curing’ by traditional healers or or counseled by ignorant or biased professionals. Often people with disabilities are considered incapable or having or fulfilling their sexual needs. If they are married or in intimate relationships, they are regarded as being fortunate and the spouse or partner is supposedly compassionate. At times, physically or mentally challenged persons are married off for money or convenience. Further, in the case of people with psychiatric illnesses, there is the notion (usually wrong) that marriage might help them recover.
“If children play with or approach me, their parents are scared. They perhaps prefer me wearing saris. Those who undergo SRS seem better off. I live on the streets mostly. Young male college students call me uncle but probably imagine me as an ‘aunty’. Being a kothi is perhaps painful lifelong although I do not regard it as a curse. A young chap at a restaurant once asked me for my telephone number and contacted me at night for sex but I refused as I was uninterested and advised him to find someone his age if necessary. My parents left me a house on Brigade road but a nephew forced me out of it. My life is worse than that of a dog. I have courage and strength but lack money and dwelling space. I feel that kothis should become self-reliant and not ignore their families. Many hijras or kothis give everything to male partners who betray or hurt them and then live happily themselves”, Jagan noted poignantly.
Naveneeta disclosed, “I have not yet overcome a childhood incident when I threatened an older boy who tried to harm me when I was left alone with him at my house. However, he turned it on me by giving my parents the reversed account”.
Danish and Pushpa commented that though laws penalizing caste based abuse, discrimination, harassment, assault, violence are stringent like the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989, they are rarely implemented. However, the ones applicable to rape, gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault are poorly enforced and being diluted as it has occurred with IPC sections 376 (rape), 377 (homosexuality) and 498A (domestic violence). Additionally, the myth about misuse of these legislations is exaggerated grossly.
“We must love ourselves and be strong. Also, we must be careful in emotional relationships and should not become dependent on heterosexual men who love themselves and need or use a partner for their pleasure. Sexual minorities become overly vulnerable as they are rejected by their family”, remarked Ranjitha. Shakun added, “Sex workers have safe sex with clients. However, give in to their lovers and partners they and often suffer. It is tough for individuals and groups to unite across distinct identities but necessary. People must retain their individuality but collaborate against common challenges and fight them, relentlessly. Of course, this is easier said than done”.
Archana and Uma when shared that when phone numbers of Pride or sexual minority or sex worker event organizers or magazine editor’s phone numbers are published, they are contacted to supply women. Only a few sexual minority individuals have called them for help. Shakun suggested that like we need a 24/7 helpline to address questions and challenges of sexual minorities, sex workers and sexuality like the one operated by Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI – a reputed NGO that creates awareness on gender, sexuality, etc.) in Delhi. Amrita and Archana opined, “For female born sexual minorities of different classes, we need a Drop In Centre (DIC) or at least a helpline with a neutral person to understand overall issues and people with different identities. ALF can support us legally. Good As You became a male only space. We are Here And Queer (WHAQ) which was assisting women but it must be reenergized”.
“Unless we have a collective space any space we create might be tied with specific identities and become exclusive either due to internal or external perceptions. No one has a right to ruin another’s life for her or his selfish interests as it happened in the case of the lady doctor who committed suicide due to her homosexual husband’s torture. Such incidents must be discussed and addressed as we may be alienated by the women’s movement and many groups who are still wondering about including or supporting us”, Uma and Mallappa said.
Saying that platforms should be created for theatrical expression, Shakun and Archana felt that there is immense talent among sexual minorities community across various identities. Mallappa suggested that Ondade can facilitate such events but perhaps in different locations as some people are uncomfortable with specific places. Ranjita opined that a troupe of talented and interested people can be formed. Pinky expressed that Jain College can consider hosting such activities including associated rehearsals as it had done earlier. “We need places to come and feel together. Apart from discussing, someone should passionately own and drive further initiatives”, Shakun added. Archana mentioned that money and other resources are necessary for which companies that are ready to sponsor can be approached. Ranjita and Archana expressed interest in initiating it.
Mallappa shared, “I participated here as an individual. It is essential to break out of the NGO mode. I am saddened that Jagan’s life has not changed much in last few years”. Ranjita remarked, “We must do more than mere talking. I am glad that we have converged to start this”. Archana commented, “We must try to find employment options other than sex work or begging for sexual minorities”.
“Born and living as women, Dolly and I reject patriarchal notions and attitudes of women which Ranjita or other transwomen may enjoy. Consequently, the women’s movement and transpersons have conflicts”, Shakun mentioned. She and Uma recalled how Famila smoked and wore clothes to Women In Black and other events by women’s groups challenging them to accept her as she is. Her house was a like a DIC for female born sexual minorities”.
At the end of the discussion, the participants summarized the following as the next steps:
Create a platform for regular discussions on gender, sexuality, relationships, family and pertinent challenges especially for sexual minorities, youth, women, people with disabilities, persons defying heteronormative identities and conventions and structures, is required. Participants should gather as individuals rather than be representatives of organizations, groups, networks, etc. across class, caste, religion/faith, ethnicity, race, language, region et al.
People who lack the space for creative expression must feel encouraged to share their music, poetry, films, dance, theatre, pictures and other art forms. Such gatherings or pertinent activities should preferably not be of a very serious nature and be outside Pride or other large events.
It is essential to start efforts to support elderly gender minorities financially and emotionally as they may have been abandoned by their families, partners, friends et al. Further, homes and other spaces for senior citizens usually do not accommodate them.
Compiled by Pushpa A