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We The Queers Of India Aren’t Free To Love Even On Our 70th Independence Day

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It was an uneventful night. I came home to find a large tricolour flag hoisted in my living room, and all I could think was, “What is this monstrosity doing in my hall?” I asked my flatmate what this was and whose is it. Just like that he responded, “It’s the flag and it’s ours.” A stern objection later, the flag moved to his own room.

For many , the tricolour is the ultimate symbol of nationalism and unity, and my textbooks in school said that I should respect it a great deal. I am not entirely sure what caused my reaction to a piece of satin cloth that meant so much to so many people around me. Maybe it’s the fact that every single day, we the queers of India (how I wish our Preamble began so), are pushed to the sidelines of our public discourse. We are somehow made to feel, by virtue of our existence, that we do not fit in with the rest. Right from school – a microcosm of society in general – most of us are prepared for these exclusionary politics.

The feeling of disenfranchisement runs deep when we realise that our tally of ‘rights’ doesn’t match to what it should be. And when it is discussed, all we can hear is the occasional ‘NO TO SECTION 377’ scream. Yeah, yeah, Section 377 must go, once and for all. Meanwhile, many of us need to lead lives in fear while having to wonder why.

But we must respect the State. That we absolutely must. We must respect the State that creates criminals out of people who don’t align with its choice of who you should be with.

The State is indeed a political establishment of a cultural entity. It is often said that nations are ‘imagined communities’. But does our imagination really capture India’s diversity as it should? Because from my experience, it tends to hierarchize and prefer the flag-lovers over the queers (the queer flag-lovers are too fragmented a sample). For the most part, we end up becoming an after-thought, let alone fitting anywhere in that imagination.

Independence marks our freedom; freedom from oppression, repression, fascism, discrimination and so on. But can the queers call themselves free when we aren’t even allowed to love? Why is that some of us, during sex, have to not only worry about using protection but also prepare for bail, just in case things go the other way?

Living in a culture of fear sure does wonders for my patriotic fervour. When I see nothing but explicit text messages on the dating apps that I use, I am not disgusted anymore. I have realised that the state, and what we stand for, has reduced us to misfits and criminals. It has taken our ability to express love to whomsoever we choose, criminalised it, while popping some ‘sanskaar’ in there, to further demonise our existence as citizens who don’t deserve equal rights. Not that holding hands while watching a movie has gone out of vogue, but fear rules all. Fear has become that overpowering ingredient that ruins the dish of love.

‘Love happens’ – that’s not just a bad movie starring Jennifer Aniston, it’s how we have romanticised the idea of people falling in love. It just spontaneously occurs when you are with the ‘right’ person, where social context and subject positions don’t matter one bit. Similarly, ‘loving’ this country, its values and symbols, has a lot to do with this spontaneous overflow of emotions that is supposed to lack any context. It’s just supposed to happen. Put aside your differences and just love it already. Or else!

Unfortunately, our differences make or break whether we can love in this country. If you are a Brahmin cisgender man there is possibly little to complain about. A saree-clad cisgender woman has it good too, maybe to an extent. But a Dalit Muslim’s affection for his counterpart at work and a transwoman who is abandoned by everybody that she has come to know, they have no right to love. It just doesn’t ‘happen’ to them that easy and if it does, they are given two options: live on the margins, or follow the State’s policy on who to love (or not love at all).

It wouldn’t matter if you don’t feel like you are treated like an equal, or if you are hunted by the state for not conforming, or if you are harassed by the state machinery, or if you face workplace discrimination where the state is supposed to help you. Fuck it. Just stand during the anthem, spout some Bengali that you don’t necessarily understand, look at the flag and feel great about how (un)equal you are in this nation and eat that damned tricolour biryani on special offer by Zomato.

How I wish that the State would just let love happen. If only the nation had the approach to loving people regardless of who they love, then my identity as a ‘free Indian’ would not have been so conflicted. Why can’t our love for the nation and what it has done for us translate into us loving who we want to? Is that so much to ask? After all, we created the nation.

Don’t be mistaken. I will do the whole charade if you want me to. I will sing the anthem proudly (after Googling what it means) and if I must, I’ll bring my flatmate’s flag back into the living room for a day. I will dance with the devil for as long as it takes.

Just let us love.

Happy Independence Day.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.”

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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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