Our Voices The Orinam Blog

in her voice

This was supposed to be an interview but while transcribing the conversation; it seemed the questions were mere interruptions. Here’s a journey of an LBT (lesbian, bisexual women and transmen) support group through the eyes of one of its founder members, Malobika. Gender, class, HIV, family, relationships, pride walks, funding and much more… a short biography of a movement.

Special Feature for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO-T 2014)

Malobika, illustrated by abhishekdas

You know… when you ask me about the formation of Sappho, it opens a floodgate of memories for me. By the time I was 20-21, I wanted to move to a new city, make a fresh start, so suffocating it had become. Yes, I had discovered myself long back. Today I have crossed 50. When I was 16- 17, falling in love was itself such an exceptional and almost forbidden act and here was I, who couldn’t fit in anywhere. I found myself attracted towards women… an attraction which I could not suppress. At school, while I, being the tallest girl in class, was the last bencher, Akanksha (my partner) was the first bencher. Though I have known her since we were in Class V, back then we were not friends. Much later, while I was in Patiala, she wrote to me after her father’s demise and we reconnected. Anyway… I spoke about my orientation to only one friend, a very dear friend. She felt so scared for me that she strongly advised me not to disclose this ‘secret’ to anyone. She feared that if I disclosed this to anyone, people would ostracise me. I am in touch with her to this day. We do not get to meet but are still very good  friends. When the Section 377 verdict came, she called me twice but I could not take her calls for some work. The third time she called, she only said, “I know you are busy but just wanted to know whether you are all right.” So [it’s] that kind of a bond.

When I was 21, I decided that I needed to confront my reality: yes, I am a lesbian. Mind you, I knew the term… learnt it in the first year of college from a friend. I had also read that famous article by Navratilova but I don’t remember reading the ‘L word’ in that article. I decided I would go out and become financially independent and would obviously not marry. A huge advantage I had was I was born into an extremely liberal family. My parents rarely imposed their decisions on me. So I went off to Patiala to work as a trainee in the R and D department of an industrial house. Later I cleared a test and got absorbed.

I have struggled a lot in life. After Patiala, my next stop was Patna, in the reference section of Times of India but I resigned following some ethical differences, about which we can perhaps talk off the record. I was back in Kolkata. I started selling sarees and then cleared an entrance test with a public sector organisetion, and that’s where I have been working since 1993. After Akanksha wrote to me in Patiala, our correspondence continued. We started meeting. I was posted in Durgapur. She was from an extremely orthodox family. Her mother’s word was the last word. Her family was trying to get her married. Even my parents gave an advert in the matrimonial. Once I found out, I confronted my father and emphatically told him that I would not marry. I hadn’t spoken about my orientation yet. Plus, I had already been through a string of failed relationships. So I was extremely circumspect but nevertheless got into a relationship with Akanksha in 1993.

I was transferred to Kolkata in 1998. It was my dream to start a support group where people could come and at least speak their hearts out. At least they would not have to keep running around like me, because of their orientation. Akanksha wasn’t too sure back then. Of course she had her reasons. After her father’s death, her family had become almost bankrupt and she was the primary breadwinner. I, on my part, too had been through difficult straits. She did not want us to be in a spot but I was adamant. If nothing else, I would walk it alone. I was quite desperate as this was already my 6th job. She did join me thinking she would ensure that I would not get into any trouble but of course later, she became a stauncher activist than me. I found a helpline number of Sangini (India’s first lesbian helpline) in a magazine. The number used to be operative once a week. One day, we planned a visit to Delhi… went there, called Sangini but could not meet anyone. Back then, they did not have any website, neither was any postal address advertised. When we asked the operator if they had any facilitator in Kolkata, she replied even if they had, they would not give us any address for privacy and security reasons. In any case, they did not have any facility in the city. You can, therefore, well imagine the situation. How underground we were! We came back. Then we came across Counsel Club’s (a now defunct LGBT support group in Kolkata) phone number and PO box number in the Sunday magazine. We contacted them and became a part of that space. While on an individual level, it was quite refreshing to meet people who shared similar concerns, at the end of the day it was an extremely masculinist space. We could not relate. There were other issues too. How does a homosexual man relate to a homosexual woman? Is their non normative sexuality enough to bridge the material differences of gender? And to this, when you add money matters, how do their power dynamics play out?

However, we realised that the media was giving us some attention. So I spoke to Akanksha and decided that we would give an interview (imagine the time period, the risks it entailed, our respective jobs, family!). The media would have to prominently display the Club’s address. With the Club, we got into an understanding that they would give us the letters written by women. Imagine the coincidence… at the same time, Nupur and Mallika wrote to Stree Sangam in Bombay. Veena Fernandez, who had heard of us from Pawan (of Counsel Club), forwarded him the letter and we got it from him. Another woman, Julia Dutta, contacted me on my landline number (she got it from Vina) and told me that she knew two other women from the city who she had met at a retreat on Madh island. That’s how I met Preeti and Sheena. Anandabazar took our interview in March, 1999, a few months after Fire released. On 2nd April that year, Nupur and Mallika came to our place. We were wondering about when the interview would appear. We were sure that more people would contact us once it was in print. The interview came on 4th April, 1999. We received around 35 letters from women. The six of us divided the work among ourselves. We were on one page about creating an informal and safe space where you could talk freely and reach out to and connect with people like you. Preeti and Akanksha started brainstorming about our logo and the six of us named our space, Sappho. We used to function from our tiny pad in Santoshpur. Within three months of publication of the interview, we were twenty odd people and it was decided that Sappho would have its first official meeting on 20th June that year.

The experience of buying this flat itself is one story, I must tell you. Back then, HDFC bank used to charge 17.5% interest for home loan. There weren’t too many options for home loans. So when we jointly applied for the loan with HDFC, their consternation knew no depths. The number of hassles we had to face… the vice president told me, “Just for once, say she is your cousin. I will give you the loan right away.” But I refused. “We are not sisters. We are friends!” Ultimately the loan was sanctioned in my name. When I registered the flat, I put it in the will that following my death, she would get the flat and after her death, our respective brothers could spot sell it and divide the money. Later, when we bought our new flat, we had to face a similar situation yet again, this time with SBI. They did not have any such precedents. Akanksha and I were individually asked the same questions to see whether our answers matched. Ultimately, the loan was sanctioned. After us, many same sex couples got loans citing our example but today of course they only ask for your salary slip.

I have seen some M to Fs talking so much about exploitation suddenly taking on a masculinist tone and swearing at network meetings where projects are allotted! But I cannot keep quiet when I see a girl working for an LGBT forum being made to sign a voucher for Rs. 2200 and then being paid Rs. 1400! Such a lot of noise about exploitation but who will look within?

Anyway, coming back to our meetings, I have always been very particular about the accessibility of the space that we created. People have left the group, not being able to communicate across classes but I have always tried to keep the elite vs. non elite debate at bay. We have already been otherised. Should we indulge in the same politics among ourselves as well? Okay, you are uneducated, you are from a slum, so will I not eat with you? On one hand, we are saying that we do not want outhouse status, who are you to mainstream us when we are already part of it? And then on the other hand, should we hierarchise on the basis of class?

Coming back, the moment, it was Sunday, girls started arriving from the morning. They would stay the whole day, chat with us, eat with us. But those were days of dire straits. Repaying the bank loan, repaying loans taken from other sources, there were days when, because we had to buy 10 eggs in the morning, dinner would be puffed rice for the two of us. We had bought a bed for which we were paying an EMI as well. One Sunday, everybody scrambled onto the bed and suddenly I found that the occupants were descending. The bed had hollowed out! This kind of a situation lasted till 2000. However, the joy of being with these girls compensated for all the hardship. I still vividly remember our first meeting. One of our girls acquired the keys to a flat owned by an NRI person. All of us went to his flat. That day it was raining cats and dogs. We ordered biryani. Some of the girls took off their drenched clothes and wore the NRI’s overcoats. We cried and laughed and talked. What happiness to discover so many people like us! But of course, as time passed, we realised that sharing each other’s joys and pains was not enough. One needed to address this systemic oppression. I may have been from a liberal family but the stories of violence was mind numbing. We used to always insist that it was absolutely imperative to be financially independent. And here were parents who went to the employers and told them that their daughters were lesbians so that they would be sacked and lose their financial autonomy (and thus come back to the family fold!). There were others who disowned their daughters. A girl’s mother had an eye surgery. One day her friend’s mother took ill and the girl came to visit her. It was late. She would stay back and leave at dawn the next day. Just for this reason, her mother threatened to wrench out her lens. She would rather remain blinded than see her daughter settle with another woman. There was a structure to this kind of oppression and it did not matter if you were a 20 year old girl or a 32 year old, educated and independent woman. It was, therefore, an absolute necessity to be a part of the women’s movement. That is why, immediately after the formation of Sappho, we became part of Maitree ( a network of women’s groups in West Bengal). Nupur and Akanksha went to meet them and the first question some of them had was ‘what do lesbians look like’. Nupur and Akanksha pointed at themselves and these people were thoroughly shocked. Our point was simple. When a father disowns her daughter, do you condone this violence because she is lesbian or do you term it domestic violence? We tried to punch holes into the whole bogey of food, shelter and clothing first and sex later. If a girl loses her home because of her orientation, she will automatically lose food, shelter and clothing. At the 7th Autonomous Women’s Conference in Salt Lake stadium, I raised the question ‘what action were the women’s organisations taking when, in a single year, 26 lesbians committed suicide in the South?’ A veteran feminist tried to tell me off, saying that I was trying to dictate the motion. I said if stating facts is construed as such, so be it. We would not allow them to hierarchise the issues, we could not afford to be left at the margins. We would not play into their power dynamics. They challenged us to arrange accommodation for the 2500 participants at the conference. We lived up to it, but back then, we were small and an activist used to taunt us, pointing to the fact that we were incapable of providing monetary support to the Conference. Today, the same activist marvels at the fact that we can engage in serious academic projects and also have fun dancing and making merry. This is just to show how our struggles have – problematically but surely – become a part of the women’s movement. However, the politics of power dynamics continues. In the 2013 commemoration of Jyoti Singh’s horrific rape, Maitree’s leaflet did not have a word on homosexuality, despite the Supreme Court judgment. We had to bring out our own leaflets. We have taken up their duplicitous stand on Section 377 at the Maitree meeting.

“The same patriarchal flamboyance without any political agenda! Look at the images of the international prides, rather nude marches! Gym toned, waxed chests on display! Mind you, I am not raising a red flag of Indian culture here! But my question is simple and basic. What is your sociocultural location? Where are the people who you meet everyday, who live on the margins? How are you incorporating their realities into your pride?”

Today, people know us, invite us at national events, but the period between 1999 and 2004was an acid test. None of our members were willing to come forward and give their address to help us register Sappho. But things gradually changed. We knew that we would not receive any state funding. Our first foreign grant came in 2005 and we started making giant moves. During the pre-fund period, we concentrated on outreach work. British Council gave us a platform and Sappho made its first public appearance here. Immediately, a lot of NGOs, which would otherwise not pay us attention, turned up. Anuradha Kapoor of Swayam volunteered to give us a helpline number which would be operational for a couple of hours, once every week. We printed leaflets with sentences like, “Being a woman, do you love another woman? You are not alone…” We pasted these stealthily across the city.

Anandabazar refused to publicise our number because apparently this would come under obscenity laws while the hotlines for masseurs and escort services won’t! Later, the number was incorporated within an article. More calls started coming. We started creating referral networks with the HRLN (Human Rights Law Network), Swayam for cases of domestic violence, homes for girls abandoned by their families, Gana Unnayan Parishad, Sanlap, Sanhita, etc. However, I felt that unless we dialogue with the larger society on issues of sexuality, a lot of violence would go unabated. That is how Sappho for Equality was formed, outside of the Sappho space. This was the end of 2002. Right at the outset, we were very clear that when we would apply for registration, we would underline in bold that we were an LBT (lesbian, bisexual and transmen) collective. There was no question of cloaking facts, even if it meant a tough time at work. It was important to reach out to the mainstream.

So, Sappho still continues to be the informal space for interactions while Sappho for Equality (SFE) is the forum for activism. Anybody, irrespective of gender or orientation, can become its member. All the members of Sappho are members of SFE but not vice versa. So this means that Sappho members who do not want to be open about their sexuality can still come to SFE and meet other people or even take part in activism because there is a cloak that SFE is open to all.

“I know an educated woman who was raped by her doctor and threatened into silence. “Corrective rape” is such a common phenomenon. This girl was repeatedly raped and finally her only recourse was to get married and settle abroad. She had a box full of lesbian magazines which she read in the lurch. Finally, she has summoned the courage to walk out of her marriage and be herself. So many lesbians commit suicide. We do not even get to know about all of them.”

When we applied for funding, we did not have an idea about how to write proposals but soon picked the ropes. Mama Cash (an organisation that provides funding support to activist groups working for the rights of women, girls, and transgendered people) granted us an amount in 2005 but it took us four years to get FCRA! Those years were so tough. However, what I want to highlight here is how the politics of funding has completely changed the dynamics of the queer movement. When we started off, the whole discourse was around HIV and AIDS. We consistently tried to bring in an alternative voice to this paradigm. What about the violence against lesbian and bisexual women? Why should the F to M be invisibilised, just because they are not as susceptible to HIV as gay men, transwomen and MSMs (men having sex with men)? At the end of the day, gender becomes important here… and how it hierarchises the non normative sexualities too! I have seen some M to Fs talking so much about exploitation suddenly taking on a masculinist tone and swearing at network meetings where projects are allotted! But I cannot keep quiet when I see a girl working for an LGBT forum being made to sign a voucher for Rs. 2200 and then being paid Rs. 1400! Such a lot of noise about exploitation but who will look within?

It also depends on how you perceive yourself. We have never allowed funders to dictate terms to us. We have been extremely transparent about our financial transactions and tell our funders not to intimate us before coming for checks. It was with that first grant from Mama Cash that we had set up the Chetana Resource Centre (books, reading materials, audio visual documents). The name is ‘Chetana’ because firstly, it was a camouflage for who we were actually. Secondly, keeping budgetary constraints and our work in mind, we had to rent a space in a homely locality. By then, due to our projects and some media attention, some people were already aware of Sappho. So, openly displaying that name could become an issue. We would take Professor Ratnaboli Chatterjee with us so that landlords would give us some weight. We got a small room by a septic tank for a few hundred rupees. Then a friend’s mother rented out her space to us. How can I forget such friends?

You know what… I don’t believe that there is a uniform, one whole LGBT movement. Where is the B? They do not even exist in the discourse! They are often shunned as opportunistic, getting the best of both the worlds. But imagine the pain they go through when their male lovers do not trust them because they like women while their female lovers feel insecure because they also like men or may get married; such a lot of distrust from both sides when they might truly love both. Where are their issues, their voices? I attribute that partly to the fact that no bisexual leader emerged who could show a new way. And then there is L vs. G and T is of course a different ball game altogether! That’s where all the money is. What we are witnessing is an ‘NGO-isation’ of a movement. Look at the proliferation of identity labels. Earlier, they were all referred to as hijras, now we hear about kotis, transwomen. It has become a herculean task for people like us to establish that T also includes female to male.

This whole HIV business has become cancerous and now what we are witnessing is a multiple organ failure! I want to ask these NGOs, how will you function when there is an HIV vaccine? Your politics begins with what should come last: fund. How many hijras are there? Out of them, how many are transwomen, how many kotis, how many MSMs, out of the MSMs, how many are married, how many are HIV positive? The list goes on! More quantitative data upon data! Why is there no talk of educating these people, trying to provide them sustainable living conditions, an economic way out? Yet, I hear voices saying what’s the use of education when sex brings more money! After 40, when they do not even get clients for sex, who gives them shelter? You are not even equipped to understand how you are being deprived and exploited but you will shout for funds and more funds! There are those who are educated and do sex work for money. They exercise a certain degree of autonomy, but do these people have that autonomy? Can they say no to clients who refuse to wear condoms? Today, Manas Bangla (a network of 13 community based organisetions supported by the West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society, working with MSMs and transwomen) has disbanded and if rumours are to be believed, there was massive corruption. Every week, you will hear of 2 to 3 deaths from AIDS. Who takes responsibility for these deaths? In such a mess, how does one even begin to bring the lesbian narrative, which has already been cast aside by the HIV brigade? They do not even have a feminist perspective.

However, times have changed. Public spaces are coming up where people from different organisetions can meet and interact, exchange ideas. That’s why the addas organised by Kolkata Rainbow Pride Festival (KRPF) are important to me. These are not just everyday interactions. They have a political agenda. Even if 60 people turn up for these discussions, at least they will get to hear something different. Last year, we also participated in the Pride Walk. We have always maintained that we do not want our movement to reach a point like ‘buy one cream, get one free’ schemes offered on International Women’s Day. This has been our stand against commodification. We are all for visibility and that is why we march with ‘Lesbian Rights, Human Rights’ posters on women’s day, but visibility of the cause and not the person, that is more important. Do you want to become an object or the subject? The ideology of the pride is what is problematic.

The last year, when they came up with the theme, ‘Violence against women’, we became a part of it. This was a public space and we loudly claimed it with slogans but it was the slogan that was important, not the individual. What ultimately became of the pride walk is a different matter, of course. I wanted to give feedback but there was no feedback meeting. I did not see the theme running through the walk apart from the leaflet, which was shabbily written. There was no sense of history or perspective.

Is it enough to just crunch numbers on the HIV-affected? It was a miniature version of the international gay pride events. It was like the difference between Bollywood and Tollywood. The same patriarchal flamboyance without any political agenda! Look at the images of the international prides – or, rather, the nude marches! Gym-toned, waxed chests on display! Mind you, I am not raising a red flag of Indian culture here! But my question is simple and basic. What is your socio-cultural location? Where are the people who you meet every day, who live on the margins? How are you incorporating their realities into your pride? We come back to the question of homo-nationalism. We raised this issue long back.

Yes, I also agree with you that it is a precarious walk, but I believe in becoming a part of the system and raising a critical voice. Our girls went to the American Centre for the mask-and-poster-making workshop prior to the pride march, but what is important here is the kind of posters we made. Did our slogans question the hegemony? Majority of our funds come from the US and Europe. But the question is, are they dictating the terms of our work? Will our work benefit our community or the funders? We are not ready to open fake data centres in every district of the state because we do not have enough infrastructure to furnish you with authentic quantitative data. We will only do qualitative research. A country where girls do not even get to exercise the choice of getting married but are simply married off, where scores of lesbians continue to be married off, where is the scope for quantitative analysis? Also, is the girl willing to publicly identify herself as lesbian?

Since the Section 377 verdict, even Anand Grover (the lawyer and member of the Lawyers’ Collective, who led the Naz Foundation petition against Section 377) and other lawyers are talking about filing harassment reports with the police. They have a legal justification, that is to prove that we are not just 25 lakhs strong (the figure quoted by the Central Government in the Supreme Court), but much larger in number; that we are not ‘miniscule’ (as per the judgment). But I have a fundamental problem with this approach. Why will the state not secure the rights of the invisibilised? Where are our fundamental rights? If it is all about coming out, where is the individual’s autonomy to choose whether she wants to publicly speak or not? You know, I can critique a lot more, but when a collective gets a voice, I would rather critique them through intrapersonal communication. Isn’t it more fulfilling to get those very voices to speak differently than to split a collective? For instance, till 2007, we had this bitter pain that these people talk so much about the LGBT movement but women were invisible in their struggle against Section 377. Later, we thought, we should become part of the system and bring in our narratives. Section 377 talks of penetrative sex and therefore technically, lesbians do not come under its purview but let’s not simplify women’s lives. It is no hypothetical situation that a lesbian could be forcibly married and left alone at the in-laws while the husband is working in Gujarat or Maharashtra. The husband comes once a year and gifts her with a child, and sometimes with AIDS, too, from all the unprotected sex he has had. This girl may have a girlfriend who is her only solace. What is penetrative sex here? It is compulsory heteronormativity and being forced to be who you are not. If I start narrating instances of violence, you wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Parents blackmailing girls into marriage or else risk being reported to the police… if a boy gets arrested, the parents can secure his release and slap him for ‘unnatural behaviour’ but for a girl, marriage is the worst punishment you can give. A girl may have visited a psychiatrist, against all odds, but even the psychiatrist tells her, “It’s a passing phase. Get married and you will be fine.” I know an educated woman who was raped by her doctor and threatened into silence. ‘Corrective rape’ is a common phenomenon. This girl was repeatedly raped and finally her only recourse was to get married and settle abroad. She had a box full of lesbian magazines which she read in the lurch. Finally, she has summoned the courage to walk out of her marriage and be herself. So many lesbians commit suicide. We do not even get to know about all of them. Girls are paraded naked to prove to the world that they are women. The educated woman might be married to someone working with a multinational while the girl from the lower class to a migrant labourer. But see how their concerns merge. It doesn’t matter whether we are subject to Section 377 or not; there are multiple ways and layers of oppression that need addressing. Since 11/12/13, more and more F to Ms are calling on our helpline. Their situation is no less unique. Firstly, many of them do not want to join organisetions because they feel insecure about losing their lovers in women’s spaces. Also, because they identify themselves as men, they may not connect with women’s organizations. Then, there are those who come to us saying that they are men but not like their male friends who objectify women. Neither can they connect with their misogynist male friends nor can they speak about themselves freely with them. These voices need to be heard. You are right in saying that the resources available for F to Ms are much less compared to resources for M to Fs. But for that we are also at fault. It took us time to understand their issues. I admit that there was a time when I thought they are women and wondered why they do not understand that. It took a lot of reading and research to understand that who am I to ‘fix’ their gender? Of course, now we are more than vocal about trans issues.

Another dimension is that we cannot say ‘let’s begin social reformation after legal reformation is over’. The two have to go hand in hand. There is such a thing as backlash. If you go into numbers, then you will see that countries where homosexuality has been legalised are also the countries where beer bottles are flung at homosexuals; I mean the instances of homophobic violence. Today, when our girls sell Swakanthey (‘In her Voice’,Sappho’s journal) at the book fair, it is an empowering moment for them. A girl may start by selling the issue to a woman who wears junk and has closely cropped hair. Then she will gain more confidence by approaching the woman with the kid and husband and then she may look eye to eye with the maulvi. You are getting my point? The confidence it gives…

It was in 2004 that Sappho participated at the Kolkata Book Fair for the first time. We were in the queue for table allocation (in the Little Magazine section) since morning. Later, when two or three forums that had got tables did not turn up, that’s how we got space. There are forums which are careful about not setting up beside us. There are also people who come to meet us. From 500 copies, today we are putting out 5000. Our girls take the local train and go up to Canning to interact with domestic workers who come to Kolkata each day for work. Sometimes they note our number, sometimes they ask questions, sometimes they talk about the ‘boys’ amongst them… the rich experience of reaching out…you know.

The media is also extremely important for reformation. We have had a very difficult equation with the media. We have always maintained that we will not commoditize our cause. If somebody chooses to paint her face and participate in a rally, that is her individual decision, not Sappho’s. Look at the coverage, post 11./12/13. Only painted faces and effeminate men were clicked. How many images of posters did you see in the coverage? The constant refrain is “377 is about gay sex” and then, when you have marginalised us with your presentation of news around 377, you will now grant us some rights and commoditize us with your coverage. Most in the media are not educated enough. Look at the quality of debate on channels. Everybody is screaming all sorts of things. Who listens, who observes and processes? But one has to work with them. We are planning a sensitisation programme with them. We are also thinking about whether we need to throw cocktail parties! If this is what is required to get well researched coverage, so be it.

This year, our thrust will be on youth mobilisation. We want to take up one sub divisional town and do a programme to reach out to a new audience space. The idea is to create spaces like Max Mueller Bhavan (which has been the venue of Dialogues, India’s oldest LGBT film festival) and the Academy of Fine Arts (an open space outside an art gallery and theatre where a lot of protest meetings have taken place). Also, we want to engage with colleges here, which could be through films or discussions. These programmes were conceptualised before the verdict came but now it is tough and easy in equal measure because there is a polarity; those who are ‘for’ will give you space and those who are ‘against’ will not. Outside of this, we wanted to run a survey with the LBT people on where they see themselves four or five years down the line. It is very important to know what the 20-50 population think, but with this verdict, the survey question might have to be reformulated, addressing a more pressing concern. It will run for a year, I think. We want to digitise our archives and document the helpline. You know, that’s a minefield. We have been feeling that we are losing the stories; they need to be recorded. Also, we want to appoint a counselor, a psychotherapist. Plus, hopefully, we can allocate a decent budget for a film. Our engagement with the police and medical community will continue. These are such violently masculinist spaces, breaking into them, talking about gender, sex and sexuality is such a difficult exercise. But such conversations are also necessary because there is such an astounding lack of awareness.

“Look at the coverage post 11.12.13. Only painted faces, effeminate men were clicked. How many images of posters did you see in the coverage? The constant refrain is “377 is about gay sex” and then when you have marginalized us with your presentation of news around 377, you will now grant us some rights and commodify us with your coverage. Most in the media are not educated enough.”

You know, a few days back, I was in Bangladesh. I had been invited by a group which works with MSMs. There they have to camouflage the whole issue under health. I used to always ask them “when are you going to bring in the women?” Finally, 18 women from different parts of the country came to Dhaka. I was with them for two days. The whole experience took me back 14 years. I shared my experience at Sappho with them, showed them a video clip of Sappho members, and there was an instant connect. Some of them asked me what are masculine women called. Their issues are so basic. I hope I can bring some of them for an exchange programme and do an orientation with them on the basics of sexuality. If they can form and sustain a group, I will feel that I have been to some good.

Today Sappho has grown up. A whole new generation has come up. While it is difficult to accept a lot of changes, there is no other option. We chat, we Skype. We go to coffee shops and spend time with people like us. Connecting has become so much easier. We understand polyamoury, polymorphosity, use queerness as an umbrella political stand…. Even I identify myself as a queer feminist, but how do I define my queerness? Is it just limited to the way I perceive relationships or is it a more rigorous, political goal? One thing that I keep reiterating is ‘let’s step out of this politics of otherisation. If I take LGBT as a unified category, then there is a non LGBT category, if there is a homo friendly category, then there is a category which isn’t. This ‘versus’ can just go on and on. But why can’t I simplify matters and say either you are a good human being or you are not? And those who are not, can they become good? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we thought so?

This interview first appeared in Kindle Magazine.


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