Digital media, queer lives and ‘Indian-ness’

This first (main) photograph shows the book launch ceremony during the event ‘Books, Films and IDAHOBIT 2017’ organized at the Alliance Francaise du Bengale Park Street centre in Kolkata on May 4, 2017. Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta, Pawan Dhall and Stephane Amalir (standing from left to right) can be seen holding the two books launched, smiling and facing the cameras in the audience. The books launched were ‘Digital Queer Cultures in India – Politics, Intimacies and Belonging’ and ‘Social Media, Sexuality and Sexual Health Advocacy in Kolkata, India’. The first was authored by Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta, Lecturer in Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University, UK. The second was co-authored by Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta and Pawan Dhall, queer activist and Founding Trustee, Varta Trust. Stephane Amalir is Director, Alliance Francaise du Bengale. In the background is a screen projection of a graphic highlighting the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. Photo credit: Arunabha Hazra

Happenings, May '17
Two books on the relationship between digital media and queer lives were launched recently in Kolkata. The event was part of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia observations. Kaustav Manna reports

Kolkata, May 4, 2017: Digital media and its impact on the lives of queer people in India were in the spotlight today at a city event co-organized by Alliance Francaise du Bengale and Varta Trust. Two books on the theme were launched – Digital Queer Cultures in India – Politics, Intimacies and Belonging by Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta, and Social Media, Sexuality and Sexual Health Advocacy in Kolkata, India by Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta and Pawan Dhall. Stephane Amalir, Director, Alliance Francaise du Bengale joined the authors for the launch ceremony.

Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta is Lecturer in Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University, UK. He left Kolkata for higher education and later teaching in UK in 2009. Pawan Dhall has been engaged in queer community mobilization in eastern India since the early 1990s and is Founding Trustee, Varta Trust. The project team for the second book included Dr. Paul Boyce, Lecturer in Anthropology and International Development in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK.

This second photograph from the event ‘Books, Films and IDAHOBIT 2017’ shows painter-graphic designer and event anchor Rudra Kishore Mandal introducing the two authors of the day Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta and Pawan Dhall to the audience. The authors are seated on chairs facing the audience while the anchor is standing to their left, reading out from some papers in his hand. In the foreground we can see a few members of the audience, their faces turned towards the authors and the anchor. In the background is a screen projection of a graphic highlighting the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. Photo credit: Arunabha Hazra

Event anchor Rudra Kishore Mandal introduces authors Pawan Dhall (centre) and Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta

Titled ‘Books, Films and IDAHOBIT 2017’, the event was organized in the run-up to the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) on May 17. About 50 people were present in the audience. Painter and graphic designer Rudra Kishore Mandal moderated the event, and explained that IDAHOBIT was a worldwide annual occasion to draw the attention of governments (especially local authorities), policy makers, media, opinion makers and the public at large to the stigma, discrimination and violence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and other gender and sexually non-conforming people.

Inset: May 17 also commemorates the World Health Organization’s decision to delist homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1990. May 17 was established as the International Day Against Homophobia in 2004. Subsequently, transphobia (2009) and biphobia (2015) were added to the name in recognition of the unique struggles of transgender and bisexual people.The event focussed on how digital or online spaces could also be sites where queer people faced homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and ‘effeminophobia’ (which Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta talks about in Digital Queer Cultures in India). Yet, as the authors of the two books pointed out, these spaces were also helping queer people network, mobilize resources and assert their identities and rights in new ways.

In a conversation conducted by Rudra Kishore Mandal with the two authors, Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta said, “Digital Queer Cultures in India investigates the everyday experiences of queer Indian men on digital media.”

Summarizing the book, he said that it took the reader through a history of sorts of the evolution of media in India – more particularly the emergence of digital media in India since the 1990s, and showed how the Indian queer movement made use of digital media to strengthen its community mobilization efforts and advocate its cause. In essence, the book critiqued the argument that queerness can’t be part of ‘Indian-ness’, he added.

Asked to provide instances of digital media-based queer activism, Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta said, “The book narrates how digital media has been deployed by queer activists to respond to unethical media coverage, as in the case of Hyderabad-based TV9 channel’s downright homophobic portrayal of the city’s gay scenario telecast in February 2011. The story completely violated journalistic and broadcasting codes around informed consent and confidentiality. The nationwide response was persistent and strong enough for the TV channel to withdraw its video also from YouTube and issue an unconditional apology!”

Talking about Social Media, Sexuality and Sexual Health Advocacy in Kolkata, India, Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta said, “This report is based on a qualitative research project funded by Wellcome Trust, London. It highlights the fact that much of the sexual networking among gay men, transgender women and other queer Indian men has moved from physical cruising sites to digital platforms. Digital spaces also offer an opportunity to isolated queer individuals to find both online and offline social support and develop a sense of belonging.”

Joining in, Pawan Dhall said: “This shift means that NGOs and queer support forums in West Bengal and elsewhere must also incorporate digital media in their outreach efforts to provide sexual health information and services to queer people. And this effort should be focussed not only on STI and HIV testing and treatment, but also concerns like self esteem, mental health, legal gender identity change, sexual reassignment surgery, relationship counselling, and even tackling online blackmail.”

This third photograph from the event ‘Books, Films and IDAHOBIT 2017’ shows a conversation in progress between the two authors of the day, Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta and Pawan Dhall, and the event anchor Rudra Kishore Mandal. All three are seated on chairs facing the audience, with the two books launched are displayed on a small table in front of them. Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta (first from the left) is speaking, holding a microphone in his left hand while gesturing with the right. Pawan Dhall (in the centre) and Rudra Kishore Mandal (third from left) look on as he speaks. Pawan Dhall is wearing a black t-shirt with the logo of the ‘No Going Back 377’ campaign emblazoned on it in white. A line in Hindi above the logo says “Ab Wapsi Nahin” (implying now there’s no turning back in the struggle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which unjustly criminalizes queer people). Photo credit: Arunabha Hazra

Conversation in progress - (from left) Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta, Pawan Dhall and Rudra Kishore Mandal

On the challenges involved in online sexual health promotion, Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta pointed out that trust was a big factor – the information available online must be seen as reliable by the reader, and could supplement rather than replace face-to-face services provision.

Moreover, the different digital forums accessed by gay men and transgender women for sexual networking had different approaches to sexual health – while some advocated for safer sexual practices, others were sites accessed by people specifically looking for unprotected sex. So the sexual health and risk reduction messaging would have to be customized in order to be effective in relation to these preferences.

According to Pawan Dhall, another challenge would lie in penetrating the rural areas of India with digital media, as also using languages other than English to communicate clearly and accurately on sexual health issues to queer people (not just queer men but all people with genders and sexualities considered non-conforming or queer).

In addition, government attention on the potential of digital media for health promotion among queer people was still by and large missing. Besides, there were concerns that talking about gender, sex and sexuality openly on the internet might attract censorship and obscenity laws, he added.

The conversation with the authors provoked questions from the audience. Issues like what worked and what didn’t in terms of online sexual health advocacy were discussed, as also how implicit homophobia existed even in well-intentioned efforts meant to fight it.

This fourth photograph from the event ‘Books, Films and IDAHOBIT 2017’ shows a member of the audience holding a microphone and asking a question during an interface with the two authors of the day Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta and Pawan Dhall. The speaker is facing the camera and around 15 people (most of them men and a couple of women) are visible in the audience, seated around the speaker. Some of them seem to be listening intently to the speaker. Photo credit: Arunabha Hazra

Audience interface with the authors in progress

On implicit homophobia, the event’s opening short video (click here), a social experiment on Indian attitudes towards gay men in public spaces, was selected from YouTube such as to emphasize this phenomenon. The video captured reactions of people in places like parks and gardens in Delhi to a gay couple being harassed by some other youth. The reactions ranged from indifference, sniggers and outright support to the harassers to a few people supporting the gay couple instead. In the end, when it was revealed amid much laughter and expressions of surprise that the harassers and the harassed were both play acting to see how people responded, it was also added that the gay couple were “not actually gay”. Was this distancing themselves from queer possibilities necessary for the actors?

Commenting on the video, Stephane Amalir shared that in France too there was need to ensure that the socio-political atmosphere did not turn hostile to queer people.

The last part of the event included the screening of a popular French feature film Tomboy. Directed by Céline Sciamma, this 2011 release follows the experiences of a gender non-conforming child in France. A family moves into a new neighbourhood, and a 10-year-old named Laure deliberately presents as a boy named Mikhael to the neighbourhood children. What follows is a poignant but not overtly sentimental expose of social hypocrisies around gender non-conformance. See film trailer here.

For copies of the two books, please write to vartablog@gmail.com.

All photo credits: Arunabha Hazra (main photo shows – from left to right – Dr. Rohit K. Dasgupta, Pawan Dhall and Stephane Amalir during the book launch ceremony).

Author Photo

Kaustav Manna

Kaustav Manna, a graduate in psychology, is a photography enthusiast and freelance writer.

Author Photo

Arunabha Hazra

Arunabha Hazra is a young event manager with an eye for the good things in life – music, cinema, food, beverages and more! He can be contacted at arunabha.events@gmail.com.

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