The rainbow pride colours are everywhere. Now also at a neighbourhood Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata – in the form of a rainbow alpana! This came about because of a local puja organizing committee member’s initiative, who invited a youth advocacy group to do something to mark the first anniversary of the Section 377 verdict and sensitize the public on the matter. The pandal will also have an adjoining booth for queer individuals to interact with visitors.
Quite a commendable effort as it is. And not surprising at all, given that Durga Puja organizers in Kolkata are known to take up various social issues as their pandal decoration and installation themes. But this story is also about how the rainbow pride colours are becoming more ubiquitous in the city than the yellow taxis once were!
I’ve been saying this to many friends that the pride colours seem to be coming out of my ears! Perhaps it’s a matter of time before someone invents rainbow tinted contact lens as well (if not done so already). I’m not quite sure what that will look like, and even if it does look pleasing, whether my heart will flutter with joy and my eyes blink till they fall off with silly ‘love is love’ ecstasy.
If there’s any doubt, then let me say that I do write this with many mixed feelings about the still-fresh first anniversary of the Section 377 verdict. There’s no question that the verdict was a milestone, a painfully long-awaited step towards greater social equity. So celebrations were in order when the verdict was declared last year.
They are in order this year as well, and will perhaps be every time September 6 passes by. And yet, can there be something called ‘mindful’ celebrations? Mindful of the fact that the ground reality faced by many queer individuals is still not what the court ordered, violence at home and on the streets hasn’t dissolved into thin air, and exclusion from education, employment, health services and even shopping malls isn’t a thing of the past? A quick scan of Facebook posts by many trans and other queer individuals in the recent past should clear the air or muddy the picture, whichever expression you prefer.
Amid all the parties, marches and other merrymaking, I was invited to attend an anniversary event organized by NGOs SAATHII and Thoughtshop Foundation on September 6 at the latter’s meeting space. Both agencies work with young communities on gender, sexuality, health and social justice issues. Thoughtshop Foundation, in particular, has been working with a number of youth groups in and around Kolkata since many years. What is special about their work is the emphasis on incremental but sustainable change in the circumstances and environments in which many young people live, especially those who are not fluent in English, and have lesser access to resources and fewer opportunities in life.
I did have some misgivings about what the event would involve, but I needn’t have worried. Yes, there was cake, much cheering and a fair share of selfies. But there was also an opportunity to look back at the long years of struggles braved by queer communities and activists around Section 377 with 50-odd young and youthful minds. I could also get to share some thoughts around how, in spite of the verdict, ‘no one is free till everyone is free’.
There were encouraging nods when I asked how much reason a Dalit or Muslim queer person or a queer person from Jammu and Kashmir may have to celebrate the verdict. If a disabled person who is queer is discriminated against because of their disability, what would they have felt about the Section 377 verdict? There was laughter, when on a lighter note, I commented what use would the verdict be if there was no greenery left in our cities for couples, queer or not, to roam around and sing Bollywood songs in. I winded up with the thought of sab adhikar, sabar adhikar (all the rights, for everyone) – the best I could explain ‘intersectionality’ in Bengali. Something which many youngsters present probably already knew instinctively!
The best part of the event though was after the break and cake! I found myself clapping with the others when one young person after another shared stories of their own ‘queerness’ – ‘difference’ may be a better word – or about someone else they knew in their family or among friends who didn’t follow the ‘norms’. Point to note, the youth groups that Thoughtshop Foundation works with and who were present at the event were not queer community groups. Rather they were mixed groups in many senses, with queer individuals included and also those who’re still exploring their gender, sexuality or sexual difference and articulating them gradually. Thanks, of course, to the supportive environment they have found in their groups.
A sample of the stories shared at the event follows (documentation courtesy Thoughtshop Foundation and SAATHII). These are stories with powerful messages. One underlying message, a happy one at that for queer activists, is that change around gender and sexual diversity may be happening away from the ‘mainstream’ queer movements as well, quite removed from the ‘echo chambers’ of activism and academia (an issue articulated very well by my colleague Sayan Bhattacharya in the August 2019 issue of Varta). Change of any kind often gains its own life!
Stories of pride and change
Pinky, 19, is a member of a Kolkata-based Youth Resource Cell (YRC) supported by Thoughtshop Foundation. She shared that her mother, a domestic worker, used to be embarrassed by her appearance, which she felt ‘caught too much attention’, and her ‘boyish’ style of dress. She said her mother wanted to send her away. Pinky feared she’d be trafficked, and felt her mother and other family members didn’t understand her. She’d often be teased and harassed by the neighbours. After a recent incident, members of her YRC and people from Thoughtshop Foundation met her mother. A few long conversations helped her see her daughter differently. She accepted her, so much so that she also supported her decision to cut her hair and stood up for her publicly, even facing violence from the neighbourhood community along with her daughter. Pinky said her group members were her strong supporters, and being with them had made her feel good about herself. They and Thoughtshop Foundation representatives were regularly in touch with her and her mother to provide them emotional support.
Samar is just 13 years old and lives in a peri-urban area of Kolkata. He’s in the seventh standard and member of a YRC. He talked about an older 12th standard schoolmate who’s feminine in appearance and faces frequent bullying and even sexual harassment from other students in school. Some of these incidents have happened right before his eyes. Complaints to teachers haven’t made any difference. Samar said the sessions on gender and sexuality at Thoughtshop Foundation have made him think differently, and he’s now befriended the older student. On one occasion he even shouted back at the harassers saying their behaviour was wrong. He’s resolved to always stand by his new friend.
Reshma is a city-based YRC youth leader. In the past, she would often wonder why her uncle was feminine in appearance and mannerism. Though she wasn’t sure whether her uncle was transgender or gay, learning about gender and sexuality had made her realize she shouldn’t be judgmental. Over time she had become more supportive of her uncle in day-to-day matters at home.
Sumita, 18, resident of a rural area, is a youth mentor in one of the YRCs. Sumita spoke about planning a haircut because it was important to be in tune with one’s ‘true self’, though Sumita’s siblings had advised going slow. Sumita’s sense of humour was remarkable and drew loud cheers from the participants. Many girls had so far rejected Sumita’s proposals for friendship and this had been rather disappointing. So now Sumita had decided to wait for the girls to come up with proposals. The choice to accept or reject from now on would be Sumita’s!
All names have been changed in the stories above for reasons of confidentiality.
About the main photo: Prior to the event, the author was determined not to take or be part of a selfie shot because of a growing irritation with the potential of selfies to distract, even on occasions that merit focussing on people and issues beyond oneself. But then when one’s talking about the ‘self’ and ‘pride’, a well considered selfie, especially a groupfie, needn’t be out of place. This photograph is also evidence of how the optimism of the youth has the power to dissolve any resolve. Inset shows cake photographed by the author and devoured (well, almost entirely) while he was busy editing the photograph on his phone camera.