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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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).