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“I Could Have Been One Of Them”: Why The Orlando Shooting Hit Me Hard As A Queer Indian

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Last month, in a piece on queerbaiting in popular culture, I had written about the staggering rate at which queer characters are being killed off on TV and film, and how that mirrors the real-world violence that LGBTQ people face. Today, in light of the horrific shooting in Orlando, Florida—which targeted a gay nightclub—I couldn’t help but think about this again and again, as if it were a strange self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I’m scared for my life. Scared of living in this country,” a lesbian friend of mine (who also lives in Florida) messaged me early in the morning. With tears streaming down my face and hands shaking, I typed out a reply: “By now, I’m accustomed to feeling scared”

The Orlando shooting, where at least 50 men were killed, has brought a number of issues into the limelight—from gun violence to religious extremism—but the most important one is that of internalized homophobia, which has been the cause behind multiple hate crimes against LGBTQ people all across the world. Barely a few hours after the Orlando shooting, another gunman was apprehended near the Los Angeles Pride Parade—poised to trigger another mass shooting upon LGBTQ parade-goers—making the threat of violence and death for LGBTQ people seem realer and realer.

I had a very intense personal reaction to the attacks. Perhaps it was triggered by my friend’s frantic message, or by John Oliver’s brief, but emotional segment on Orlando, or by the fact that so many gay men in Florida now sit helpless, unable to donate blood to the victims from their own community, because of Florida’s ridiculous law barring queer men from donating blood unless they have been celibate for a year. Or perhaps, it was because I felt, even while being miles away from Orlando, that I could have been one of the victims too.

June is International Pride Month; in commemoration of the years and years of struggle LGBTQ communities across the world have faced in their fight for equal rights; and symbolic of a celebration of our identity, of our queerness, and of our history. For the Orlando shooter to have picked this month, and picked a gay bar of all places—when the bar in question was hosting a ‘Latino Night’ with a Hispanic drag queen headlining the main act—was designed to deal a brutal blow to the community. For a queer person, there is perhaps no safer or more welcoming a space than a gay bar, where you can not only be unabashedly yourself, but also engage with your community—and so, to have the sanctity of this space put in peril makes the threat scary indeed, and more personal than a queer person can ever imagine. It is enough to make any LGBTQ person, in any part of the world, think long and hard about how the very prospect of being out and proud can have such horrific casualties, and how radical an act it actually is.

“Being openly gay in America continues to be a radical act but I hope kids who see terror like this aren’t scared into staying closeted” tweeted gay comedian Matt Bellasai, and helped me realize why I felt so personally affected by this shooting. If the USA, with its legalization of same-sex marriage and openly queer celebrities, can still have trans people not being let into bathrooms of their choice and gay people getting murdered in the very space they call their own, then I, a queer woman in a country where homosexuality is still illegal, have no means of being or feeling safe. Terror like this is actually scaring me into staying closeted—and I’m sure many other queer people feel the same way.

Homophobic crimes like this can occur because all of us are consuming and taking part in a culture that will not even let fictional queers survive. Why does it take 50 deaths for us to pay attention to a hatred that has long pervaded our TV shows, our confectionery shops, our hospitals, classrooms, bathrooms and so on?

When I think about Orlando, the deaths of countless queer characters on film and TV flash in my head—which have now come to mirror real-life in the most haunting, most terrifying of ways. I think of Denise from The Walking Dead—shot dead by an arrow while in the midst of declaring her love for another woman. And then, I think of the people who were in that nightclub on Sunday. Were they also in the midst of declaring their love for a partner, when they were so brutally gunned down?

While the reality of our situation seems bleak at the moment, the resilience of the queer community proves that we cannot be so easily struck down. LGBTQ parades all over the world are sharing strong messages of solidarity, thousands and thousands are queuing up in Orlando to donate blood despite it’s ridiculous donation laws, and Stonewall Inn—the biggest symbol of America’s LGBT history—has been flooded with queer mourners who are lighting candles in memory of the victims and holding peaceful demonstrations.  The fact that the community has refused to back down, gives me some hope. However, the threat, the unbearable sadness, and that feeling of terror—of being scared for my life—continues to remain.  I’m still reading about all the victims and their families, and choking up inside. I could have been one of them. I really could have.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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