Coming out in support: Queer Azaadi Mumbai

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Is Mumbai a queer friendly city? We try to find out.

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“Mumbai is a great city for queer people. That is, if you have come out and are part of the community. Otherwise it´s a bad place to be in,” says Sonal Giani, a 25-year-old member of the Queer Azaadi / Queer Pride (QA) organization committee.

QA is a Mumbai based collective of individuals and organizations who come together every month to organize networking events for the queer community and to discuss important issues concerning them. Their main event is the annual Queer Azaadi March where up to 2500 people come together to celebrate their right to be queer. Apart from the march, the QA also organizes smaller events, such as open-mics, dance performances, photo exhibitions and poster-making competitions on a regular basis. All their meetings are usually held in Hindi and in English, and if possible also in Marathi, in order to make sure that the gatherings are as inclusive as possible. Furthermore, Mumbai offers a good nightlife where queer events are held almost every weekend. However, there still isn’t a single gay bar in the city.

The first pride march was held in 2008. At that point of time, Section 377 (see box) was still operative, which basically criminalized even consensual homosexual activity between adults.  Hence, the symbolic date the QA committee chose for their first march was August 16th, one day after Independence Day, in order to campaign for their rights to be independent and treated equally. After the decriminalization of homosexuality in 2009, the cornerstone for queer movements all over India, they pushed the march closer to January 26th, i.e. Republic Day. Usually the pride march takes place in early February, attracting up to 2500 people. The rally itself can be described as an eclectic mix of people from all kinds of backgrounds, nationalities and sexual orientations. A lot of the participants dress up in eccentric costumes and keep dancing through the streets with loud music sounding from the parade floats. The colourful outfits, and the cheerful, celebratory atmosphere often make pedestrians stop and watch the parade go by. Some of them even join in for a while. According to Giani, who is also a project manager at The Humsafar Trust, a non-profit organization that helps the queer community, the overall responses to the march have been positive, despite its unconventional, and perhaps even shocking demeanor in the eyes of some of the bystanders.

Flash mob at last year’s QA March by a collective called Yaariyan, featuring Harish Iyer, Sonal Giani and several TISS students.

However, the whole process of getting permissions for the pride march from the police and BMC is still an arduous one, which has not become any easier since 2008. For the organization of other annual events such as the Mumbai Marathon on the other hand, the procedures have been simplified every year. Moreover, without the backing of organizations like The Humsafar Trust, the Queer Azaadi movement would not have been able to obtain certain permissions at all. Sometimes, their applications get rejected without any reason being provided. According to activists, the media luckily has been rather helpful in helping them put pressure on the authorities when required.

sonalSonal Giani, 25, Project Manager at The Humsafar Trust

It is exactly this persistence in the form of simply claiming their rights which makes this movement such a powerful one. And this starts at a basic level. What really comes through in the many stories and anecdotes which are shared with me during the interviews is a feeling of unflagging support and solidarity amongst the QA community in Mumbai, which makes them strong as a collective and at the same time, empowers the individual members.

Movements like the Queer Azaadi are a clear sign of ongoing change and can be seen as the collective articulation of a growing and more confident queer community in Mumbai. A new generation has emerged which wants to come out to their friends and family. Only a few years ago, before the decriminalization, this used to be a very different ballgame. Furthermore, queer characters have gained a lot more visibility in the media of late, which helps normalizing the notion of queerness itself.

However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Harish Iyer, 33, another member of the QA collective and an activist, tells me, “Mumbai is a hostile place when you are trying to hide away as a gay person. People can and do use it against you.” Moreover, a lot of working spaces, particularly in the corporate sector, are still hostile towards queer people. What is lacking is the implementation of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT)-friendly policies in India. Housing is another major challenge for queer people in Mumbai. Landlords make their tenants sign documents which state that they can be turned out for so-called “immoral activities”, an umbrella term which could encompass practically anything. Hence, the need for queer housing organizations, such as Gay Housing Assistance Resource (GHAR) is still immense in a city like Mumbai.

For the transgender community the above-mentioned problems are particularly serious, for their queerness is the most visible. Damini, a 40-year-old counselor for the TG/Hijra community based organization Darpan Foundation and a male-to-female transgender person herself, describes the situation of the TG communities in Mumbai as more than precarious. Not only do they face verbal and physical discrimination from a large part of the society which makes it impossible for them to find regular jobs or apartments in any of the ‘better’ neighbourhoods, but they virtually get no legal protection from the State whatsoever. “We are exposed to verbal and physical abuse almost on a daily basis from all kinds of people from society. But then, how are they supposed to respect us when we haven’t even been officially recognized as citizens by the State? Without legal recognition, you don’t count for much in this country,” Damini tells me in a very firm voice. Hence, what most of the transgender people are left with to make a living is either begging or sex work, with no sight of an escape route out of this vicious circle of marginalization, oppression and violence. Moreover, their access to so-called public spaces is highly limited, and literally all the TG/Hijra communities are located in slums.

Stanley, a project manager at Darpan Foundation, sees the problem as a highly deep-rooted one, based on prejudice and stereotypes within society, centering on gender roles, and notions of purity and indecency. In all the years that Stanley has worked for various NGOs, including Darpan Foundation, he has seen some change taking place within society, primarily due to the work of the aforementioned organizations, and partly also due to an increased visibility of queer characters in the media. However, sadly, in the Mumbai of 2013, we are still far from a situation where TG / Hijra communities are entitled to a life with dignity.

The traditional conceptualization of the heterosexual, married couple is still considered the norm by a vast majority of the society, which holds true for Mumbai as much as for any other city in the country, and hence, the societal sanctioning of alternative practices is high. Marriage pressure and ignorance often drive queer people away from their families. Iyer’s parents even suggested he get married to a lesbian woman, or a widow, in order to at least preserve the girl’s ‘dignity’. However, Iyer has made it very clear that being gay is part of who he is. “For my father, acceptance is almost an act of charity. Look, my son is gay, but I am accepting it,” Iyer continues, “but at least my parents are not trying to change me anymore.” Moreover, Iyer lives his homosexuality very openly and has had good experiences so far. “Once, I was kissing a male friend in a club in Bandra where we were clearly the only gay people, and so we expected some extreme reactions. But no one even looked at us! No eyeballs popping!” he almost cries out.

2Harish Iyer, activist from the QA Collective

For Iyer, the actual problem in India is not one of a discrimination of homosexuality as such, but much more generally, the demonization of any form of sexuality that is non-reproductive, or in other words, that is pleasurable. A main problem which underlies this rigorous and uptight approach towards sexuality and gender identity among a major part of the Indian society is the sheer lack of sex-education in school and at home. Furthermore, if there are educational workshops they tend to separate the girls and the boys and teach them only what they consider ‘relevant’ for them. Girls are often not even shown how to use a condom, simply ignoring the fact that they are sexual beings as well. Hence, in such an environment alternative sexualities are hardly ever talked about. For most of the children and adolescents the media and the Internet have become their sole sources of information with respect to their sexuality. Of course, this is highly problematic for various reasons. Even though the media has created more visibility for the queer community in India, there is still a long way to go. They often over-simplify certain categories such as transgender and intersexed. Moreover, Iyer feels that certain communities are still mis- or underrepresented, such as the bisexual community. These people often face discrimination from both sides, the queer and the heterosexual community, which perceive them as confused or not completely out of the closet yet.

At the end of the day, one’s sexual orientation is not a choice, but the way in which one wants to live is. Resistance starts at the day-to-day level. It starts with people like Giani and Iyer claiming their basic rights, without asking for them. They live their lives openly as queer individuals without giving in to the societal pressure around them. Moreover, they reach out to other people, organize events like the pride march which not only creates awareness and undermines stereotypes but also gives visibility to the queer community, which is extremely crucial to the process of demystifying queerness. Additionally, the use of art in their events, in the form of music, dancing, painting, design and photography, has worked as an incredibly powerful tool to build bridges, change mindsets and to simply start a dialogue.

Both

A lot has changed since 2009. An empowered new generation of young LGBTs has formed in Mumbai. It is a generation which is close-knit and among which people help each other out. Yet, at the same time, there are still large numbers of people out there who are too scared to come out to their families and friends out of fear of social sanctioning and marginalization. The Hijra/TG communities in particular are still facing discrimination and hostility on a daily basis just for living an alternative gender identity. Moreover, society, for most part, continues to operate in highly heteronormative, dichotomous terms with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity.

So once again, is Mumbai a queer-friendly city or not? I would say yes. And I would say no. Or in Giani’s words, “We still have a long way to go but the ball has been set rolling.”

Note: This article was written before the Supreme Court judgment of December 11, 2013 (see Box).

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is also known as the anti-sodomy law, which essentially criminalizes consensual homosexual sex between adults. The law has often been exploited by the police and others to harass and blackmail gay men & transgenders, particularly those from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder who have little knowledge of their rights. On July 2, 2009, the Delhi High Court pronounced that Section 377 should be read down to exclude consensual sex between adults. This verdict was of major importance as Section 377 functioned as a clear violation of the basic human rights of the queer community.

However on December 11, 2013 the Supreme Court set aside the above-mentioned High Court ruling from 2009, thereby criminalizing consensual homosexual sex once again. According to the court it is up to the parliament to legislate on the issue. The verdict is a huge setback for gay rights activists and their supporters all over India. Moreover, this judgment doesn’t only affect the LGBT community of this country but all of us who believe in equal and human rights. 

Photos: Sonal Giani & Harish Iyer. Design: Rajashree Gandhi & Fareeda Muhammed

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