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Can We Talk About Casteism Within Queer Spaces Please?

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By Jatin Pawar

Every year, in pride marches across the country, the LGBTQIA+ community is seen at its best with rainbow props exhibited everywhere. From wearing lavish outfits to dancing, playing music, and protesting, the entire community celebrates love, acceptance, and pride of being who they are –  special and lovable. The day also demonstrates the unity of the queer community, the togetherness that makes them strong and fierce. We often see people from diverse backgrounds represent different identities and their intersectionality with their sexuality on posters. Such posters sometimes state “Dalit, Queer, and Proud.”

But, how far has our queer movement arrived in terms of providing an inclusive space for Dalit and Adivasi queers?

How visible is the intersectionality between caste and sexuality in spaces like pride parades? How often are conversations around this intersectionality initiated? While liberating ourselves by accepting alternative sexualities and chanting slogans of equality, are we also acknowledging our caste privilege? 

The manifestation of caste can be seen from subtle to blatant in several ways within queer spaces. Who leads queer events, organisations, and marches? Whose voice is heard by the government at the time of policymaking? Who gets the opportunities of representing the queer community and demanding rights? Who decides what the needs of the community are in the first place?

pride march for LGBTQ
Representational image.

The answers to these are clear. When we think of queer leaders or queer celebrities, they are almost always upper-caste Hindus. The names we hear most often in the news—Laxmi Narayan Tripathi (the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific in the United Nations in 2008), Harish Iyer (the first openly gay man to join politics in India), or Manvendra Singh Gohil (the first openly gay prince in the world)—they are all upper caste.

Googling ‘top LGBTQ activists in India’ will take you through many names, almost all of which are those of savarna-Hindus. So is the case with most LGBTQ writers, artists, or other public figures. Even when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is debated on media channels, the participants are usually savarna.

These instances are problematic because the experiences and socio-economic backgrounds of upper-caste queer persons are definitely different from those of historically marginalised caste queers. So are their demands and expectations in terms of needs and rights.

Many times, upper-caste queer people end up practising blatant casteism. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s remarks in a public talk were described as “appealing to Hindutva ideology and justifying the existence of the caste system in India,” according to a statement issued by an LGBTQIA+ group. The matrimonial advertisement issued by Harish Iyer’s mother stated that she was looking for a groom for her son, “caste no bar, but Iyer preferred“.

Representational image

Queer dating apps are another platform where casteism is visible where some of the users only use their caste as their name, mention their preference for a certain upper caste, or sometimes ask about caste while messaging someone. Some users tend to give the impression that since they are from an upper-caste, they should be considered more ‘desirable’ than others.

In the occasion that someone does highlight their intersectionality between sexuality and caste, they are rarely taken seriously. A Dalit queer student shares a memory from a pride march, “It was my first pride parade, and I was holding a poster saying “I am Dalit, I am queer, and I am here”. I heard someone say, “Yaar yeh yahan bhi caste ghusa dete hain.

Another Dalit queer rights activist says, “I felt the need to explicitly come out to my queer friends as Dalit and their response was along the lines of – “Dude, all of us had to suffer being a queer person in some way or the other. Doing this does not make you any different a victim of prejudice than us.

Such responses leave us with the question of why we isolate caste and queerness. There is often silence or hostility when we talk about caste in queer spaces, despite the fact that caste is everywhere, from laughing about someone’s accent to ridiculing someone’s outfit. Caste and sexuality are not two different things but are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

We cannot invalidate the struggle of Dalit queers by asking them not to bring out dialogues around caste in queer spaces. The irony is that most people belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community themselves fail to acknowledge their caste privilege. When one tries to have a conversation around caste and privilege within queer spaces, many people get annoyed and start competing about their struggles of being queer, without the added lens of caste.

Representational image

Dalit queers are rejected from both spaces – they are neither fully accepted in anti-caste movements, nor in queer movements. Caste and sexuality are inseparable. Both are grounds for discrimination. Taking an intersectional approach broadens our lens to address the different struggles of Dalit LGBTQIA+ folks within the community. If a savarna queer person wants to talk about caste, the first step would be to acknowledge the privileges of belonging to an upper caste and to question why the queer community and queer organisations are majorly dominated by savarna queers.

An upper-caste person cannot justify “not believing in caste” and deem everyone equal while carrying the same caste privilege to organise community gatherings in expensive cafes which might not be affordable or accessible for Dalit queers. The focus of the queer movement is to amplify equality and stories of liberation for the larger society. Such a struggle cannot be separated from caste or other forms of identities such as class, gender, religion, and so on.

There are a number of ways through which we can make a more inclusive space for Dalits and Adivasis. This includes acknowledging our caste privilege, introspecting and reflecting, and creating a listening space.

It’s time that the stories of Dalit queers are heard both within and outside of the queer circle and that the dialogue around caste within the queer spaces is started. It’s time to stand against any form of discrimination and move towards a more inclusive and safe society.

The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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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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