The most difficult issue facing South Asian LGBT activists has always been invisibility. Names always had to be changed in articles. Very few people were willing to be photographed. As a movement it had no face or just a few, like activist Ashok Row Kavi or Delhi hairstylist Sylvle. As a result. generations of queer South Asians growing up both in the diaspore and the subcontinent were always starved for images. But that has changed slowly but surely. Some of the change has come through consistent and fair coverage by journalists like Arthur Pais in many mainstream Indian publications, Pais was recognized with a Pink Peacock Award by Trikone this year for covering queer issues long before Deepa Mehta’s Fire (with the help of Shiv Sena gangs) made it front page news.
But the main change has come from within the movement through anthologies like Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s Same Sex Love in India and Yaarana-Gay Writing from India and Facing the Mirror-Lesbian Writing from India brought out by Penguin India in 1999. You can now just walk into a big bookstore in Bombay and pick up a book on gay Indian writing off the shelf for Rs. 200.
Even films are showing images of queer South Asians, and not just as effeminate comic sidekicks of Hindi film villains. And it’s more than just one Fire. Now there is even a bona fide feature about a young hip Indian-American lesbian that is enjoying a limited release across the U.S. after a very successful festival run–Nisha Ganatra’s Chutney Popcorn. Instead of just being a coming out story, its heroine Reena is contending with a commitment-phobic girlfriend, getting pregnant using a turkey baster, and an opinionated mother (played by Madhur Jaffrey), There are countless other short films and documentaries, like Nishit Saran’s Summer in My Veins where he comes out on-camera to his I” visiting mother. Or Amol Palekar’s paayra about a man who lives as a woman.
So, in this new century has the South Asian lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender movement itself finally come out and it’s no big deal? Not really. The major issues facing queer South Asians are still not very different from 1986 when Trlkone was founded¬family, marriage, shame. In Chutney Popcorn, Madhur Jaffrey’s character refers to her daughter’s lesbianism in hushed tones as a “you-know disability.” Nisha Ganatra does not know if that is the attitude of the community at large but she is sure that “there is a lot of ignorance and a lot of fear. I think the more people come out and take the time to explain it to their friends and relatives-the more people will stop being afraid. Because that’s really what it is, I think. Just fear of the unknown.”
That our communities are remarkably oblivious of their queer children was evident when the gay magazine Genre published a cover of actor Alexis Arquette dressed as Krishna. It got calls and even death threats from enraged Hindus who said there were no gays in India! Meanwhile, in India they were organizing conferences on gay issues like the one in May 2000 in Mumbai attended by 120 delegates representing 26 NGOs. Vivek who attended both the Mumbai conference and DesiQ felt that though personal issues like coming out was a paramount concern at both, the Mumbai conference had also started to grapple with the technical issues of being queer in India like how to form groups, how to negotiate with government agencies, legal status of queer people and groups.
Urvashi Vaid of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is optimistic that “the mainstream Indian community is changing as its age demographics change. As my generation of 40somethings and my siblings and their spouses assume greater leadership roles in South Asian and Indian community organizations in the U.S., the attitudes of those organizations will change.” But she wholeheartedly agrees that the only way to change the homophobia and homo-ignorance that lurks beneath the surface is through “honest and frank conversations because there is a tremendous amount of discomfort that people have about sexuality, homosexuality and women’s equality in South Asian communities.”
The Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) in New York has been one organization that has consistently refused to have that conversation. They have used every excuse to keep SALGA (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association) out of the FIA Independence Day Parade since 1993. Some of the excuses have been remarkable-like SALGA is really South Asian, not Indian. In contrast, Trikone has always taken part in the San Francisco Bay Area FIA sponsored India Day events. Atif, one of SALGA’s organizers, says that when SALGA had marched in 1992 and 1993 it had never been branded un-Indian by the onlookers. In fact, he gleefully recounts how helpful the desi shopkeepers on Lexington Avenue in New York have been when South Asian drag queens descended upon them to shop for ghaghra-cholis!
After the intervention of the Manhattan Borough, a State Senator and other elected officials, SALGA has finally been allowed to march in the 2000 Parade.
On the other hand, other South Asian organizations have been much more sympathetic. When SALGA was first barred from the Parade, they marched instead with Sakhi-a women’s group. (As a result Sakhi was barred from the Parade). Trikone has marched with the Bay Area’s domestic violence group, Maitri, in the FIA Parade. Both Narika and Maitri have presented workshops at Trikone conferences. Sonia Pelia, President of Maitri explains that domestic violence (like homosexuality) is marked by “shame, stigma, prejudice, and rejection of the victim to encourage the victim to keep quiet. I think being a part of a group (as in the case of domestic violence workers and volunteers) that is mocked at, dismissed, harassed, and labeled, It is relatively easy to develop understanding and empathy for another group in a similar situation, for instance the GLBT folks.”
In fact, South Asian queer groups seeking to come out in their own communities would do well to look at the approach taken by groups like Maitri. Pella recalls when she first joined Maitri about seven years ago and did outreach at the Gandhi Mela, the one or two people who stopped by would more often than not “harangue us about being feminists, causing break ups of marriages.” Now 50-100 stop to thank them for their work and the fundraisers are supported by many leading figures in the community. She feels Maim has gained acceptance by reinforcing the fact that it is a part of the community by being at every possible community event-be it a conference, a mela, or a health fair.
But she cautions that ignorance has deep roots. She still hears that domestic violence cannot happen among the highly educated tech-elite of the Silicon Valley. She asserts, “I think the only way that any group can truly change how the majority of folks think is a painstaking one: one person at a time. I believe that the GLBT community must reach out to and educate not just the English-speaking elite but every segment of our community in the U.S.” For that the only answer is grassroots activism and building alliances with other community-based groups.
One of the most successful examples of this kind of alliance building has been Toronto’s alternative arts festival–Desh Pardesh. Desh started out as a showcase for the artistic talents of Toronto’s South Asian gay group, Khush. But it soon evolved into an entity of its own, spanning a broad range of progressive causes. Novelist Shyam Selvadurai who has been involved with both Desh and Khush thinks it is a very successful model because, “the result is a greater artistic pool to draw from and so better programming. Being gay myself, I find that I don’t want to be restricted, I want to be a part of other progressive agendas as well.” However, he admits that just because you are gay it does not mean you are automatically concerned about the Narmada dam or the Sri Lankan civil war. He says, “In fact, sometimes queers in general can be remarkably uncaring when it comes to the suffering of others. But if you are concerned, it certainly opens you up as a person. Everyone will ultimately profit from keeping the common good of the world in mind.”
It was this spirit of building alliances that, was foremost in Sarita Vasa’s mind when she came to the DesiQ conference. The founder and executive director of Indo-American Cultural Center (IACC) sees a clear intersection between the goals of organizations like Trikone and IACC-“Trikone creates a dialogue on the queer South Asian experience through events, the magazine, conference, etc. lACC creates a dialogue on the South Asian American experience, which T rikone is an integral part of. We create that dialogue through our community based projects-Artwallah, Traveler’s Festival, Youth Programming, Organic Workshops, etc.” And she wants to see Trikone at these events and others like the conference for the Network of India Professionals (NetIP). She points out that “NetIP’s primary goal is to build a forum for professional networking and community development. If you look at the agenda for their conference, there is a panel on social and political activism that Trikone should be a part of.”
But the growing visibility of queer issues also brings fears of a backlash. The Press Council of Sri Lanka recently received a complaint from Sherman de Rose (of the gay group Companions on a Journey) about a letter in a newspaper saying lesbians deserved to have rapists unleashed on them. Instead of reprimanding the newspaper for inciting violence, the Press Council concluded that since lesbianism was “an act of sadism and salacious,” de Rose himself was guilty of promoting sadism and salacity!
Surina Khan, the Pakistani-born lesbian who heads the International Gay and lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGUiRC) explains, “Any time we see any kind of progressive social change we also see a backlash. And we have to be prepared for that backlash. We have to understand the opposition and create an infrastructure of diverse organizations that can serve and learn from the millions of LGBT people around the world who are living with these attacks everyday.”
That infrastructure is built through conferences like DesiQ. It is built through faxed letters of protest to the Nepalese government for arbitrarily detaining two women who want to live together. It is built through the courage of South Asian queer men and women in their colorful kurtas and salwars walking down the streets of Fremont at the India Day Parade holding signs that read “Intolerance in UnIndian.” And it is built through the efforts of people like Rashmi in Los Angeles who carry back the enthusiasm and energy of a conference like DesiQ to the neat ordered suburban communities they came from. Rashmi’s journey did not just end with that shuttle ride. Though the conference was over, she was, as she put it “still walking on clouds.” She ended up coming out to all her co-workers. To her delighted surprise they all proved to be very supportive. She says wonderingly, “Wow! I was floored! Am I like the luckiest woman on earth or what?”