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Being Proud Is Not Enough: What Makes Up My Kaleidoscopic Queer Narrative

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By: Aroh Akunth

When I sat down to write this article about my queer experiences, I struggled with the question of what counts as my queer experience. Can I, being a queer individual even have non-queer experiences? Would it then discount the experiences of those who fall for the same old opposite-sex partners, but are yet very queer? Isn’t the whole idea of being exclusively attracted to the opposite-sex, queer in itself? Clearly the aforementioned isn’t something that concerns only me and is best left to experts, but when I think about my queer experiences, I can think of a few ways in which my politics and being have evolved over the years, and that’s precisely what I will try to delve into here.

I remember never having a ‘coming out’ moment as such – I was the youngest and the most flamboyant (read extra) in the family, loosely holding on to my masculinity. This is the embarrassing bit: I recall my first crushes being Disney characters Nala and The Little Mermaid’s dad (the latter because he was the only shirtless cartoon on TV). When I was young, people would often confuse me for a girl, and I didn’t mind it one bit. In fact, I enjoyed it. It gave me a sense of power and made me feel closer to my mother and grandmother – my two favourite family members. Growing up, my mother instilled a sense of pride in me about my caste and gender identity, which I carry with me even today. Growing up, my mother instilled in me a sense of pride about my caste and gender identity which I carry with me to date.

I remember having discussions about caste in middle school where classmates would unanimously ask me to shut the fuck up – not because they were casteist, but because, at least to them, my discussion was always out-of-the-syllabus. That’s how caste and gender are still taught in school – as syllabi rather than realities. It is treated as something abstract to research (by mostly savarna cis-het academics). As a Dalit and queer person, I could connect the similar oppressions these identities face and how within the queer and Dalit spaces, both can be stifled.

These realizations come to oppressed individuals not only (or almost never) because of what they study, but more out of what they experience. Often these discoveries come at a cost –  like every queer Dalit individual, I was bullied for who I was, openly called names, groped – I remember someone putting a cigarette butt to my skin for being effeminate and fat, even as they said, “We’re just burning fat, it shouldn’t hurt.” 

I was asked to go to conversion therapy, and I will not excuse the people who did this in the name of being unaware. To say that they were unaware would mean that they got nothing out of what they did and the way they did it. I believe that these bullies often know what is up, but they still go ahead with being cruel to satisfy their need to feel powerful. I don’t think a Dalit queer person can get rid of such harassment ever in their life. After being put through it, I could see my earlier experience of pride, and the later experience of bullying interact with each other in ways that I decided to do something about it and call people out on it.

In my university I got elected as a representative for the Committee of Prevention of Sexual Harassment, but what I soon realized was that even in liberal places, with the best of policies and governments which are popularly elected and considered ‘better’, there’s a lot that the policies don’t cover –  individuals of certain backgrounds are not only systematically disadvantaged but prosecuted under the same laws – and my university was no exception. This was when I finally decided that, as marginalised individuals who always have the cards stacked against us, just being proud and having a political stance is not enough. It is our job to bring down these houses of cards which savarna cis-hets or any other oppressors pride themselves on.

When students were challenging institutional discrimination at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), there were students who ceased to be friends with me for the allegations that were brought against their dear university. These were people who were my friends, who had up till then shared secrets, committees, classroom spaces, performances, parties, and crushes with me. They did not even bother to contact me or any formal source in any way individually, before writing pieces of ‘investigative journalism’ about me. Their opinions can still be justified, but their hate posts were peppered with slight shots at my character, my credibility as a student of AUD, and outright casteist homophobic slander.

This, however, is not to say that I didn’t anticipate this behaviour from them, and I’m definitely not the only person that this has happened with, but to make a larger point about how savarna-cis-het associations work in tandem with each other in institutions to maintain the hierarchy of a certain group of individuals. Denying someone their experience, and asking them to provide evidence is not only a very violent form of oppression, but it also stems from a certain kind of entitlement which in turn discloses the societal location of the critics who are asking for it. For them, neither an anonymous list nor absence of a proper mechanism seems to be a problem, all they care about is the shame they have to experience for some time while they shame the very existence of certain people based on their identities.

I have often been called a crybaby. For them, my tears cannot possibly be of resistance. But thankfully – maybe because humans sometimes barter some good for all the bad they do or maybe because my institution is named after Babasaheb – the larger student body, teachers and individuals are still working on instituting mandatory bodies like the Equal Opportunity Cell, SC/ST Cell, more representative bodies and effective mechanisms for dealing with cyberbullying. And I am continuing my education and activism.

But being queer is not always about your oppression or resistance, it is the spaces in between the two. For me, it is as much about writing and performing mostly (if not all) female, Dalit, and queer characters; about how my school friends and family who very well know that I am queer (and have known it for a while), but do not bring it up actively because my relationship with them is a non-sexual one purely based on the activities we enjoy, or kinship; it is about me sleeping with just men for the next eight years straight and still being a bisexual; it’s about me not buying the whole top – bottom binary; it is about my mental and chronic illnesses because even when I am unable to breathe, I want to breathe as a queer, even when I am depressed, I binge on gay dramas; it’s about how I navigate interracial relationships and my inter-caste identity.

It’s also as much about my male, class and abled privileges. It’s about me identifying as an atheist, and yet knowing how this identity has been exercised to erase people’s caste privileges in our country, its multiple ‘ists’ that make me and are yet to be identified – feminist, nudist, environmentalist, anarchist (?). When I started writing this piece, I had no idea how to paint a queer narrative. I guess it can’t be painted; it has to be a kaleidoscope. It’s in all of us and yet nothing tangible, very much like queers, it’s there.

Aroh Akunth has done their Bachelor’s in Social Sciences & Humanities from Ambedkar University Delhi. They often write about their experiences with queerness and caste and have a keen interest in literature, activism and the performing arts. They are currently pursuing their Masters in Criminology and Justice from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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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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