Being born and raised in a society with certain norms and prejudices often places certain restrictions and barriers on the way we think. When faced with the truth, it is up to us to step out of our comfort zones and accept reality for what it is. In this process, one may be challenged by the prejudiced sections of society, who refuse to accept any point of view other than their own. Opening their eyes is a difficult task which requires continuous and deliberate effort from humankind as a whole.
The LGBTQ community has to routinely face several obstacles that come in the way of living a dignified, normal life, where fundamental rights can be enforced. We, at Festember, NIT Trichy, interviewed Mr Aditya Raja, an LGBTQ rights activist who runs a social collective called ‘Safe Spot’, which works towards these very goals.
Through the interview, we gained an insight into the struggles faced by the LGBTQ community through glimpses into his own personal journey of growing up as a homosexual person in the Indian community. Raja, through the course of the interview, dispelled several myths surrounding this ‘taboo’ topic and inspired us to be a part of the change the world needs, to be more accepting and open to all human beings.
Festember Team: You are part of an interest group that aims to spread awareness about the LGBTQ community. Can you tell us how you discovered this group and what you do?
Aditya Raja: When I was 24 years old, I started actively participating in LGBTQ awareness and activist events. Through this work, I realized that a lot of people had strong homophobia and transphobia based on very weak and hollow fears, and prejudices that they had adopted from society and culture without questioning or challenging them. This inspired me and a friend to assemble a panel discussion called ‘Gender, Sexuality and Pride’ at an engineering college in Hyderabad. The idea was to have three to four LGBTQ Indians talk about their experiences of growing up queer in a country as homophobic and transphobic as India followed by a Q&A session with the audience. The event was very powerful.
We had a lesbian woman, a gay man and a trans woman sharing deeply personal experiences about their queerness and how they dealt with it. For many of the students, it was the first time they had met a queer person. And for most of them, it was the first time they listened to a queer person speak. Seeing the human perspective of a grossly stigmatized and taboo subject educated and challenged them. This experience motivated me to start a collective called ‘Safe Spot’. The collective aims to conduct panel discussions and events in different educational institutions and corporations where queer people talk about their experiences and views with the aim of addressing the ignorance and misinformation that is often the sole foundation of homophobia and transphobia.
FT: Have you ever looked for a sense of belonging in non-regional societies? That is, have you ever felt that people outside of India are more accommodating of different sexual orientations and preferences, and provide a more positive environment to members of the community?
AR: There is a very popular view that countries or cultures outside of India, particularly the West, are more accepting and understanding of the LGBTQ community and its issues. I believe that this is a severe over-simplification. People seem to overlook the fact that almost every country that today seems to be aware of, and accepting of LGBTQ people, has had a long, often violent history of marginalizing and mistreating them. Even countries where all the right laws have been laid in support of LGBTQ people today still have rampant and insidious homophobia and transphobia in their societies. I emphasize, as too many people seem to have an attitude of hopelessness and dejection towards the idea of India ever being a safe home for its LGBTQ citizens.
I personally have received the advice to pack my bags and move to America because it is more “tolerant of my kind” several times. This advice, coming from cisgender and heterosexual people, is lazy and irresponsible. The opportunity to move to a foreign country where one supposedly can be free to live their lives openly and honestly is a privilege available to only the rich and middle-class queer Indians. What must the millions of Indians cramped in the metaphorical closet do? India has its own journey of understanding and reconciliation with the LGBTQ community ahead of itself, and it will happen. And when it does, it will be thanks to all the people, queer and their allies, who stood their ground, spoke up and fought for human rights.
FT: A large section of the society, especially parents of individuals who come out, believe that homosexuality is not real and that it’s just an anomaly which can be dealt with through medical care. Were you faced with the same situation, and if so, how did you overcome the issue?
AR: When I came out to my mother, her first reaction was to take me to a doctor. When I assured her that my sexuality was not some sort of physical ailment, she suggested we go to a psychiatrist. It is a painful, humiliating experience when a loved one sees a fundamental aspect of you as a defect. When my mom sought guidance from her older sister, a highly educated doctor, my aunt assured my mom that it was only a “phase” and that I would definitely, 99% sure, be “normal” again.
I, thankfully, was able to stand my ground and explain to my mother how this was not something that can be treated or even something that should be treated. She is currently banking on divine intervention to “cure” me which is a relief considering the fact that an ignorant doctor is a much more real danger than a celestial entity.
There are a perilous number of therapists, counsellors, psychiatrists and doctors who are prejudiced, biased and uninformed about sexual orientation and gender identity, and are operating in our society. I see them being called to TV shows as experts to spread their ignorant views and have heard of them from friends who have been subjected to cruel and harmful “corrective treatments.” It is essential that medical communities make urgent and strong actions to educate themselves about this issue.
FT: Did you see any major changes in how your close friends and acquaintances treated you after you came out? Was there any particular instance where you were moved by the overwhelming support shown by someone close to you?
AR: The only people I have explicitly come out to are my immediate family. My mom did not take it too well and is still in denial about it. My sister met my coming out with disbelief and eventual tolerance that sometimes seems like silent acceptance. Most people would consider my experiences lucky.
One day, a photo of me standing with five other people at a queer pride march was published in a newspaper article, written about a gay man who had recently committed suicide due to his personal struggles. Two of my colleagues spotted my picture and came around to my desk and brought it to my attention. They could hardly suppress their giggles while they asked me if I were gay. Soon, a small crowd gathered around me while this outrageous news was being disseminated.
Imagine being able to dehumanize a section of society so thoroughly that you can use an article, headlined with the news of the suicide of a gay man, and use it to mock another gay man. I am proud to say that I was able to stand up for myself. I pointed out, as politely as I could, how malicious, insensitive and orthodox their views were. I asked them why they felt so comfortable mocking this issue. What ensued was almost an hour-long discussion about fundamental biases and prejudices. A few of them have since been more distant and reserved around me. The others have been their normal selves. Homophobia and transphobia have been systematically infused into our society. To talk about this taboo subject freely, to confront our own problematic behaviour and address it will take time.
I don’t think I have ever been “overwhelmingly moved” by someone’s show of support to me and I don’t think I ever will be. Call me ungrateful but I refuse to thank anyone for being a decent enough human being as to believe that I deserve the same rights as a straight person. Supporting LGBTQ rights is not a favour to anyone. It is humanity’s fight.
FT: A lot of people, especially women, do not realize that they might not exactly be where society wants them to be on the gender spectrum. Did you go through phases of self-doubt, confusion or hatred when you first realised that you were somehow different? If yes, how did you grow out of it?
AR: Every queer person’s experience of realizing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity is different. There are people who remember being an unambiguously queer toddler and those who realize it after they’ve had grandkids. Women, in particular, are so thoroughly discouraged from exploring and expressing their sexuality by the society that it often takes years before they discover or come to terms with that aspect of themselves.
I remember realizing that I was different when I was 5 years old. When I still didn’t have the vocabulary to qualify exactly how I was different. Other kids noticed it when I was 7 years old. I remember because they communicated their observations by bullying me. When I was 12, I heard the word ‘gay’ for the first time and realized that this little singularity in me had a name.
When I was 13, enough people had convinced me that I was not only different but a defect. At that age, I hated myself and I hated being gay. This negativity deepened and grew with me into miserable depths. At the age of 22, I finally met another queer person. It was then that I entertained the fantastic, rebellious idea that perhaps there was nothing wrong with me and that everyone else was wrong about me; that maybe, it was okay to be gay. The day that I decided I would no longer be ashamed of my sexual orientation was the day the bullying stopped. There were still bullies around but for the first time, I could see them for what they really were: scared, oblivious and ignorant. Today, when someone makes a homophobic or transphobic taunt, I try to respond with information, sympathy and an offer of discussion. I see it as a reflection of themselves, not me. It is this continuous, conscious and taxing effort that I have to make on a daily basis which has transformed me.
FT: What can we, as individuals, and collectively as a society, do to raise awareness and make the world a place where all communities can live together in respect and harmony?
AR: Educate yourself, reflect within, form opinions and stand up for them. Recognize your privilege, identify your own problematic behaviour and address it.
Personally, I have many privileges: gender, caste, class, access to education, etc. Being aware of them makes me more mindful of the ways I might be insensitive to the marginalized and of the ways I can use my privilege to fight for social equality.
This interview was taken by Vishnu Deepak in collaboration with Sandip Nair, Tejas Harirajan Radhakrishnan, Adhithya Sundar, Varshiny Arumugam and Abhinaya S.B.