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Desi-Queering Harvard: Apphia Kumar on building youth leadership

On the 16th of February, the 2014 Harvard India Conference featured, for the first time in its history, a panel discussion LGBT Rights in India: The Way Forward featuring community spokespersons and activists based in India and the US. Orinam is pleased to bring you the first in what will be hopefully a series of talks from this panel.

Apphia Kumar,  representing young Indian LGBT voices and the bisexual community, writes “It always humbles me to have these opportunities to speak up and reminds me how important my voice is, as a bisexual Indian woman, and that there is hope for things to get better for us and for future generations.”

Image Source: Robyn Ochs
Image credit: Robyn Ochs

Please click to listen to her talk, and read the transcript below:


“My experience as an advocate for the Indian LGBT community is something that came about by way of necessity and I have had to learn on the job. Like almost every other young LGBT person my age, I grew up thinking that I was the only queer in the country. I grew up in a predominantly South Indian and very Christian home and in a city with no visible LGBT community, support system or allies. In the small world around me, no one was queer as far as I knew, we didn’t talk about sex or sexual orientation and when I tried asking my parents to send me to a therapist because I thought there was something wrong with me, they refused.

It took me over four years, a South African roommate in Malaysia, four seasons of The L Word, a lot of articles, a few emails from Robyn Ochs – an amazing bi activist from Boston – an online conversation with Siddharth Narrain and the courage to show up at a meetup by ‘Good as You, Bangalore’ where I met him and a group of men who didn’t identify as straight either, for the first time in my life. Soon after that, Bangalore had its first Pride and at it, I – like many others – experienced a profound sense of liberation and empowerment. So I was being called a lesbian… that made me even more determined to correct people and create a space for me as a bisexual. If you were going to give me a label, give me the right one. It finally felt like it was okay to be exactly who I am.

In 2009, my father was diagnosed with cancer and I had to move back home, to Pune – which isn’t a big metro city. After a couple of months back home, I missed being a part of a community that knew exactly who I was and accepted me unconditionally. On a trip back to Bangalore, I mentioned this to Siddharth and another brilliant activist – they both heard me out and then told me that if I wanted things to change, I had to do something about it myself. That’s what they all did. Siddharth introduced me to someone from Pune who had just moved to Bangalore. He told me that though there wasn’t any ‘visible community’, there were a few of his friends he could put me in touch with. I jumped at the opportunity, but wanted to do more. With the few resources I had available to me at the time, by way of my job in the entertainment industry and the internet, I managed to get a venue to open it’s doors exclusively to LGBT people for one night. We had 55 people show up the first night, simply looking for a safe space to socialize in. They were some of the warmest and nicest people I’d ever met, and though they didn’t know me at all we had an automatic sense of belonging. Even the staff at the venue were pleasantly surprised and felt a sense of community among us.

With one event every month for about three years, we grew consistently to over a community of 400 people who identified as LGBT or were allies. I ensured that we were a family friendly space, very aware of the younger crowd that were reaching out and we made it a point to celebrate every coming out like it was a big birthday party. From connections made here, emerged a digital monthly magazine, called The Queer Chronicle and a local support group for Marathi speaking queer men. The fact that we were doing all of this without any major financial backing or bigger NGO, encouraged us even though we had our share of opposition.

As we continued to keep doing the events, I realized that a lot of the people who showed up also wanted to talk about issues they were having – with their families, with their friends, at work, with coming out or even figuring out their own identities. I arranged one on one meeting with them and group meets for those who wanted to – but we always had to find a coffee shop or a restaurant to meet at. There was no safe space for the other important conversations that were needed to be had.

Unfortunately, I did not know then, and still don’t know how to create a permanent safe space. A few conversations with a local women’s rights activist told me that there was a lot of paperwork and fundraising I would have to do, to make that happen and almost no resources I could turn to. Even though I continued being a visible vocal advocate, I felt that the community I represented, needed me to be doing more and I simply did not know how to cater to that need.

At some point in the beginning of 2010, I was invited to a conference in Bombay, of LGBT activists from all across India. I was excited to be a part of that event, but what I experienced startled me and was very disappointing. We were only two out bisexual women at that event and the other person was a volunteer at that event. When discussing issues, and when votes were called for, I couldn’t vote because I was there as an independent and did not belong to a registered organization. At one point I asked the activists representing supposed bi-inclusive groups to help and would anyone please take a vote as a bi representative. That was the only time that the entire room was completely silent. Nobody really wanted to associate themselves with us, even though almost all of their mission statements include the word bisexual. After that incident, I started an online support group for Indian bisexuals across the country, along with the amazing Sonal Giani. The response to BOZ was incredible – within an hour of launching, we had 62 people join up and start talking about how incredible it was to finally have a safe space focused on bi issues, and to connect with a larger community of people.

I also looked into what it would take to create a permanent space for the change I wanted to bring about. The inspiring people at the core of the LGBT movement were busy doing the best they could in their cities with every waking hour they had and other than corresponding with me via email, there was little they could actually do to help me equip myself with the tools I needed to be more effective. Through my research online, I created a plan for what was needed and got some paperwork put together. In order to get any legal work done, I found out that I needed money I did not have and again found myself falling short and unable to move forward. Around this same time, I got a few emails from people in smaller cities like Pune asking me how I did what I did and how could they do the same. Unfortunately all I could tell them was my experience and not having them myself, I could not equip these other eager voices to become effective leaders in their own communities.

Image courtesy: Robyn Ochs
Bi activists Apphia Kumar and Robyn Ochs

As a young advocate for the queer community, I believe that it possible to change this and create a network of young leaders that can radically change the future of equality in India. I am not saying that there is absolutely no one who cares enough to do anything about it. I’m saying that the people who do, do not have the time or resources needed to make the difference. From the work I managed to do in Pune, I know for a fact that even the smallest voice, that has the courage to speak up, be heard and be seen – can make a huge difference to many lives – irrespective of age, gender, economic standing or orientation.If we want to see change on a larger scale, we have to focus on every corner of the country and should not leave anyone behind.

We need to have a solid network of agents of change that are equipped with the right tools, network and support system to do community outreach work all across the country and be effective voices for the Indian LGBT community. Right now, the movement is almost lopsided. The major campaigns and outreach programs are in the major cities and we’re not including the smaller LGBT communities – which infact would benefit from this kind of liaison the most! Instead of us learning what we need to know by trial and error, or surpassing what we might think is beyond our capabilities – we must have a training program for our youth that want to be LGBT leaders. I believe that this is the only way for us to have well equipped leaders, leading our movement from all across the country and who knows… we might even have them successfully run for election and eventually have someone in parliament speaking up for our equal rights as citizens.

I strongly believe that this has the potential to bring out and equip leaders that the future of the Indian LGBT movement desperately needs, because right now – we are failing a large population of our community and that must change!

And like someone wise once told me – “If you want things to change, you have to do something about it… that’s how we all started.”

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  1. Apphia, I am an LGBT rights activist in Tampa, FL and would love to chat/attend events like the one above. Tampa has no such specifically Indian event and is far from visible where the Indian LGBT population is concerned. I’m keeping my eyes peeled to participate in this conversation. Currently a Women’s and Gender Studies grad student, I am doing research on the social and political implications of being an LGBT individual in India given present legalities. If you’re good with talking, please get in touch at samira.obeid@gmail.com

      1. Hey Apphia,

        It is really good to know that people like you are making India a better place to live. I want to speak to you. It would be great if you could share your email id. I look forward to your reply.

        Regards.

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