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9 Moments That Shaped The Queer Movement In India

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The fluidity of gender and sexuality in India’s mythology, literature and society has been well documented by authors like Devdutt Pattanaik, Ruth Vanita, and Saleem Kidwai. But the queer movement – as we know it now – really has its foundations in the last quarter of the the 20th century. It was due to liberalization and “transnational” cultural exchange that more and more Indians began to recognize their “queerness.”

Even back then, there was a wariness to depend on western theory to define what it meant to be queer in India. So you have activists like Gautam Bhan and Arvind Narrain writing “Because I Have A Voice,” or A. Revathi writing her autobiography and creating an anthology of trans experiences. Queer Indians have been carving their own unique spaces, and these 10 instances chart that history:

Coming Out, In Public

In 1986, while the West was seized by the AIDS scare and a rapidly galvanizing homophobia, homosexuality had officially emerged as an identity in India. Veteran journalist Ashok Kavi Row penned what is arguably the first coming out story of modern India. His narrative, explaining for the first time the meaning of the word “gay,” was published in the February issue of a magazine called Savvy.

The First Gay Magazine

In 1990, Row wanted to build a support network to address issues like HIV/AIDs, STIs, discrimination and more. So he started a newsletter that would go on to become Bombay Dost, which is till today India’s leading ‘gay magazine.’ Since its inception, the magazine has been incredibly successful, and widely read. However, the closet is still a reality for many gay men in India, and Bombay Dost staff make sure to deliver each issue in “a non-transparent envelope to maintain confidentiality.

Queer Healthcare

In her book “Queer Activism in India,” anthropologist Naisargi N. Dave notes that during an international conference on AIDS in 1992 in New Delhi, 200 delegates staged a walk-out “to protest the government’s stance on homosexuality.” This simple act led to many subsequent demands for health-care options for men who have sex with men, and the need to address the unique healthcare challenges of queer-identified persons.

Homophobia And The Hindu Right

In 1996, Deepa Mehta released “Fire,” which follows the forbidden sexual desires of protagonists Radha and Sita (cleverly named after two women central to very hetero Hindu mythology ). While it wasn’t India’s first lesbian love story, it was definitely the first one to have a violent aftermath. When the film was released in ‘98, members of right wing groups like the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal attacked cinema halls across the country, to prevent moviegoers from watching it. Nothing scares the patriarchy like two women in love, and the moment was ripe for lesbian women in India to begin asserting their identities.

Community, On The Dancefloor

Despite (or perhaps because of) rising tensions in the country, gay Indians increasingly sought each other out. So in 1999, the Soul Kitchen disco in Delhi hosted the first “gay night.” Parties become the preferred social setting in which face-to-face interactions took place. This was really where a “gay subjecthood” and culture was being formed, and set the tone for many years to come. Parties, clandestine though they may be, are still popular community-organized events that provide a safe space to queer people.

Lesbian Letters

Patriarchal norms and the demands of the family restricted lesbian Indian women from having their equivalent of “gay night.” Other avenues had to be explored. The ‘90s saw a huge surge in written correspondences by lesbian women. The organisation that became the focal point of these letters was Sakhi, a helpline and resource centre set up by academic and activist Gita Thadani. Sakhi received an overwhelming number of letters from “women-seeking-women,” “single ladies” (terms that were popular back then). Some were looking for answers about themselves, others for political organising, and still others simply looking for sex. 1999 was also the year that CALERI (Campaign for Lesbian Rights) came out with a manifesto titled “Lesbian Emergence” – a significant shift in what has so far been a male-dominated queer politics.

First Pride

Even if the Indian queer community was following a standard set by its Western counterparts, the first LGBT Pride March held in 1999 in Calcutta. It was a tiny group, no more than 15 people, but it was undeniably a moment of arrival for a vibrantly visible queer politics in the country. The very act of walking through public streets, and claiming one’s queerness was enough to make people pay attention. And by 2012, the march had grown a hundred-fold, with 1,500 people joining in, and it only promised to get bigger!

Section 377

The fight against the obsolete, vaguely-worded, colonial-era anti-sodomy law that criminalizes sexual acts “against the order of nature” began way back in 2001. In 2009, the Delhi High Court struck down Section 377. The petition was taken up to the Supreme Court, in the hopes of scrapping the law nationwide. But in a severe blow to the community, the apex court overturned the Delhi verdict in 2013, effectively re-criminalising homosexuality. Every new decision on Section 377 has spurred the community into action.

The Transgender Rights Bill

While the government point-blank refuses to entertain the idea of homosexuality in India, various recent attempts to mainstream the transgender community have been made. The Transgender Rights Bill of 2016 was a watershed moment in LGBTQ rights, for bringing the issue of trans self-determination into public discourse. But it was also a massive disappointment, built on a largely incomplete understanding of self-determination. And this has only compelled the trans community to fight harder.

These shifts in popular perceptions, claims to self-hood, and significant legal advancements or regressions are all indicative of an ever-growing, queer politics unique to India. And while not all of these are cause for celebration, they create a sense of lineage, a community, and a collective history, and that’s something to be proud of.

Update: An older version of this article said that the first LGBT Pride March held in India was in Delhi. The article has been corrected.

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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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