Nazariya QFRG organises Our Lives Our Tales (OLOT), a series of talks by people who have lived queer lives and fought battles for the queer movement, as a way of preserving and passing along oral histories that might otherwise be lost with them. Through the 2020 Webinar Series (June 2020) of OLOT, Nazariya documented and shared the journey of Sappho for Equality, Stree Sangam/Labia, Vikalp, and LesBit/Rahi.
(This is an excerpt from the document by Nazariya. For the full document, click here.)
“We [queer people] were presented as mere numbers in newspapers, but who were these people, how did they live their daily lives?”
– Maya Sharma
When newspapers ran articles on LBT individuals, their lives were turned into mere statistics, this erasure of lived experiences pushed Maya to write stories, and her book was born.
A popular misconception around sexuality is that people from the working class do not experience it.
But having met many queer individuals, and hunting stories down in different newspaper articles with Indira Pathak; Maya Sharma knew there existed people from the community in various sections of society and wanted to bring forth these stories.
This need to be heard and seen in public through the literature of their own was felt across the nation, and different organisations came up with different ways to articulate their voices. Sappho birthed Swakanthey (meaning: in our own voice) in 2004, a magazine that explored the theme of women’s sexuality, and sold it at the Kolkata book fair.
At a time when invisibility was high and so was the risk due to homophobia, it took much courage to hawk a magazine that had stories about lesbians. Participating in the book fair was also a strategy for empowerment, to begin a dialogue with the common people and the magazine is a tool to articulate expression of the LBT community members, shared Akanksha.
The Kolkata book fair saw hordes of people, and everyone knew of Swakanthey and the stall, but it was marked with prejudice.
Akanksha shared that, members would take copies and roam the fair to ‘lure’ customers and younger members were often paired with more experienced ones to handle uncles that would harass the younger lesbians.
One of the audience members shared that they took their mother to the Swakanthey stall at the Kolkata book fair in 2010 and bought her a copy of the magazine. With the copy in one hand, she formally came out to her mother.
The first issue saw five hundred copies, and today, the magazine is published bi-annually with over three thousand copies in circulation.
LesBiT utilised the varied talents of its members to produce plays. The money generated from these performances was used to pay for necessities like surgeries. This way the community benefits twice from the stories, first by gaining visibility through storytelling and second by generating funds that are then used for the community.
The team also conducted workshops that enabled the participants to channel their experiences through a creative voice.
Sunil Mohan has worked on multiple projects archiving queer lived experiences and also turning them into plays. When Chayanika Shah, Aarti, Swati Sesha, Vinay Chandan and Sharada were in Bangalore, they met with Rumi Harish and Sunil who were planning to open their organisation. Acting as their sounding board, they advised the two to do a study to know what the community needs in its own words.
“Towards Gender Inclusivity” was born out of this discussion, in collaboration with ALF fellowship. Amplifying voices is also about visualising “what next” steps by hearing out the community’s needs.
The aim of these groups was primarily to provide a space and voice to people from the community, which also inevitably leads to people dating and breaking up as well. Sustaining a space is as much about maintaining relationships as it is about financial stability.
Indira and Maya shared being a witness to many subversive acts by the community in rural Gujarat. One where “the wife’s document had her partner’s name under husband with the suffix of ‘ben’ attached to it”. Another memory was of “attending a house-warming ceremony at another queer couple’s house, where the entire village was in attendance. The people’s presence in the ceremony, where the queer couple sat as the husband and wife, was a show of acceptance and support”.
All groups unanimously have witnessed the coming together and falling apart of members. Akanksha shared that Sappho saw multiple relationships, but it did not change the group’s dynamics as Sappho does not take responsibility for these relationships.
Despite the constant shift in personal dynamics, there was still strength in the group, Sunil believes this is because it came from a physical space, and not online.
Chayanika Shah and Shals Mahajan shared the failure they faced. In the initial days of Stree Sangam, when they organised parties for the members, no one would show up. Subsequently, in 1996 Stree Sangam organised its first national retreat in Bombay. The second one followed this in 1998. There was no agenda for the retreat; the community members were invited to share their lived experiences and get to know each other.
Chayanika expressed the joy they felt in being part of these two critical moments. She hopes that anyone starting something new feels the pleasure of building it without a blueprint, or any idea or form it may take one day – just going ahead and doing it anyway.
Note: This was originally published here.