By Shamini Kothari and Anahita S:
Five months into going live on Facebook as “QueerAbad”, a group based in our home state of Gujarat, we decided it was time we invited people to come out from behind their screens. For our very first live event, we chose to do a queer poetry evening, trying to push queer identifying people to either read their own work or discover queer poets whose work they enjoy and share it with each other. Honestly, we had no idea what kind of response we would get, estimating between 20 and 35 people roughly. The day of the event our close friend Pooja met us at the venue and as our luck would have it, the ceiling of there had sprung a leak so the whole floor was wet. The only other option was a semi-outdoor space – but it turned out a group of monkeys had had a party there right before we had arrived, and was not only covered in shit but also buzzing with a million monsoon mosquitoes! So we three spent the next hour washing, cleaning, smoking out and dressing up the entire space faster than any of us have ever worked in our lives! By the time people started coming in we were all drenched in sweat (not how we had intended to look as the hosts of QueerAbad’s first ever event!), putting up fairy lights and laying down mats for people to sit on. But when the audience started coming in, the numbers were staggering. By the end of the evening, the place was packed with almost a 100 people.
The founding of QueerAbad comes from the severe lack and void that Ahmedabad can make you feel especially when you come back from a place, as I (Anahita) did, which was full of queer folk. I had realised from experience that the few queer spaces that existed within Ahmedabad were very insular and full of fear and therefore the only answer I had was to create an alternative since we had the voices, the dreams, and the privilege to do so. The name itself had been floating around in my head for a while, fitting so perfectly and sounding so right that it was almost like it was waiting to come forth and take form. Apart from the obvious city association, I liked the fact that “abad” literally meant “cultivated place”, which in some senses is exactly what the Queer scene needed and would be working to do.
We also felt that the other groups that did exist, apart from being insular, did not articulate their politics intersectionally from the beginning. Intersectionality, I (Shamini) feel, is at the very core of Queerabad because neither of us believe in single-issue politics but I think it is a concept that is hard to implement or practice in terms of an organization or space and very few people talk about its challenges. The truth is, the two of us come with privilege so there is already baggage there and that tends to define what the space is like or how inclusive people might expect it to be. But the other groups we were part of were in some sense less inclusive and were themselves closeted. So since the two of us were out, we felt we should use that and create an online space that is open to both queers and allies so that people could negotiate exactly how they want to participate without having to come out or worry about being outed.
Politics and how it intersects with our life is a huge part of how QueerAbad is run because actually the two of us met at an anti-Section 377 protest, and fell in love as quickly and passionately as QueerAbad was born.
So at some point towards the end of last year, I (Shamini) returned to Ahmedabad from Brighton, UK, after completing an MA in Sexual Dissidence, and having presented a paper at the Queer Asia conference. I realized that there might never be a space in the city where I could engage with queer issues academically. And on raising my concern about the lack of queer conferences in India, especially in Gujarat, Anahita responded and said “So we’ll organize one ourselves.” Which is exactly how ‘સં|bandh: The West Zone Queer Conference’ came about and it is precisely on this spirit that Queerabad was founded — the belief that you create spaces that don’t exist. I think if we had to see how Queerabad works, our two roles have their overlaps —the one represents possibility and the idea (Anahita) and the other articulates the politics and helps with the execution (Shamini).
But the ways in which QueerAbad runs is very much a community process and it only works with the help of friends that have seen this journey through with the two of us. Everything from cutting chart paper to buying bandhani dupattas (which has now become a core part of our identity) the approach has been very hands-on and DIY, which is exactly how we think it should be!
I think the incredibly attentive and warm response our first event got is something that pushed our belief that extra mile and continues to be what we look back at when we need the inspiration to keep working. We keep seeing in small and big ways that people need this space and they come to us with gratitude and partial disbelief saying “This is what we’ve been looking for.” It is a huge part of what keeps us going.
We have since then organised a talk by Amruta Patil, a performance and workshop by Alok Vaid-Menon and have intimate, monthly meetings called “Ask What You Will” where people ask questions anonymously and we try and answer them all together. We also had a “Queer Erotica Reading and Discussion” recently and this was one event that saw an excellent discussion, which was quite surreal to witness in a city like Ahmedabad that can be quite conservative in many ways. But the truth is Ahmedabad is changing and we may not agree with all of its changes but this particular shift has been a long time coming.
QueerAbad works because of belief, reflection and intense micro-managing! We have સં|bandh in the month of February and then a Pride march organised after the conference ending in a fair. Along with this, we have been working on a queer zine (titled “Tilt”) to be published around the same time and information booklets of everything from mental health, trans* identities to basic definitions of the whole spectrum. We want to put Ahmedabad on the map as far as queer spaces are concerned and we assure you this February is just the beginning of a much longer, vibrant journey!