Peer support plays a very crucial role for gay men in India. So says a new survey by Swasti, a health resource centre with branches in South India. The centre surveyed 8,549 men who experience same-sex attraction, in the states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka, and found that just over half of them were more prone to some form of violence because they did not have adequate support systems to fall back on. What was interesting in this survey was that these men were usually living with their parents and were still very much in the closet.
“Solidarity” has a very special place in the vocabulary of any marginalized group. And having a peer support group is affirming in more ways than one. To begin with, it counters the sense of isolation that many gay men (or those who identify as LGBTQ) face, when living in a society that adheres aggressively to a heteronormative script. Secondly, peer support allow members to formulate group-specific solutions for themselves. Community organizations, as the Swasti survey finds, empower members to address healthcare needs, with HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment, prevention of STDs, contraception and other resources on safe sex practices. They also help members navigate issues of harassment, whether from other civilians or from the police.
These findings, along with an earlier study on homophobic workplaces, point to power structures that operate outside of the bounds of legality. India’s new laws in favour of uplifting its trans community won’t shatter old mindsets overnight. Even scrapping the very controversial Section 377 will not turn the country into an LGBTQ fun-park.
In our quest to create inclusive societies, we’ve taken to lauding certain legal provisions as benchmarks. While having laws on paper to safeguard the rights of certain groups obviously means a great deal – especially when these are hard-won, newly-made laws – we tend to overestimate their power to overturn far more insidious social divisions at play.
Remember when the US Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality was met with vibrant celebration? Well, the rule barring gay men from donating blood was still very much in place – something which would become apparent after the Orlando shootings just a year later. At an extremely traumatic time for queer folks in Florida, they and everyone else were made painfully aware of the heavy prejudices stacked against them.
The federal system of the US allows each state to have its own laws, which in the best case scenario lack anti-discrimination laws, or in the worst case scenario push transphobic laws like HB2 or invoke religious freedom to discriminate against LGBTQ citizens.
India’s system of governance may be different, but that isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration, if you remember how our Supreme Court was able to undo the progressive judgement on Section 377, not only for Delhi (where it was passed in 2009) but for the entire country.
The laws would have to be absolutely watertight, taking into consideration even the smallest margins of error, in order to really establish the inclusive society we want.
While this does sound like an immense task, it is after all the direction in which any evolving and democratic society should be moving. But perhaps, simultaneously, it is also time to pay more attention to what community organizations can do.
In Seattle, an LGBTQ centre called Gay City runs a special housing programmes for homeless queer youth. There are many queer people as young as 12, who are escaping domestic abuse, or are disowned because of their identities. Homelessness only increases their risk to violence and poor health. And that’s why housing programmes are an important part of a support infrastructure.
Similarly, in San Francisco, Openhouse is an agency that assists elderly LGBTQ citizens in getting safe and affordable housing. Of course, San Francisco has its own history with this issue. Back during World War II, the West Coast city was a drop off point for those discharged from the navy for being gay. This would be the start to a brand new way of life, as gay men would go on to not only claim space there, but also add to the city’s history, culture, and real estate value. So while “housing programmes” as such didn’t exactly exist, there were thriving gay-majority neighbourhoods and business areas too. And it’s not for nothing that San Francisco has become an internationally recognized queer culture hub.
In India, the story of LGBTQ people and housing has been markedly different from San Francisco. Here, the hijra gharana has been the support system for numerous trans people. While not all trans Indians align themselves with indigenous identities like hijra, kinnar, or kothi (to name a few) the trans community in India has a long history and tradition of social organization that helps members navigate through an oppressive, heteropatriarchal society.
And since at least the ‘90s, the houses and office spaces of LGBTQ leaders and organizations have been safe-havens. Sangini, in New Delhi, has been one such organization that has offered help and shelter to queer women escaping abuse. Today, several community organizations like the Delhi-based Naz Foundation or Mumbai-based Hamsafar Trust have various support services for queer and trans Indians.
There are no formal housing programmes for queer Indians yet, and it is likely that they will be hard to set up given the general view of LGBTQ people, but it’s definitely a concept worth exploring.
The Swasti survey really does give us something to chew on. For one thing, it demonstrates how the family – which we are often told is our primary source of love and support – often fails us by being oppressive, controlling and closed-minded. Secondly, it shows how community organizations are able to fill those gaps, and actually look out for the mental and physical well-being of LGBTQ members. Alongside our efforts to purge discrimination from our laws, we should also be looking at how to strengthen queer communities from within.
The housing question could certainly be put through some more tests. We want to avoid a ghettoization of LGBTQ Indians, because if the endgame is inclusion, then being pushed to a corner (no matter how safe and familiar it may seem) is not the way to go. But we should thinking of new ways of being, living, and working. More interaction between queer people across all kinds of boundaries, more programmes to empower ourselves, and way more volume when we demand to make all our spaces safe and welcoming.
Oh, and I guess a “gay commune” thrown into the mix would be pretty nice too.
Featured Image Credit: Manira Chaudhary.