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Queer Collectives

How to Start a Queer Collective in India

It's a lot harder than just setting up a Facebook group.

by Parthshri Arora
19 June 2018, 12:30pm

The Indian social sector isn't the easiest place to work in, and it's tougher if you're working with sexual minorities. Illustration: Pawan Singh

“There was a lack of organisations working with Lesbian Bisexual Women and Trans issues apart from HIV in 2013-14,” says 31-year-old Ritambara Mehta. In 2014, Mehta and 37-year-old Rituparna Borah started Nazariya: A Queer Feminist Resource Group, with the aim to “sensitise the work and culture of groups and individuals that are working on issues of gender-based violence, livelihoods, education, and health from a LBT perspective”. Mehta and Borah worked out of coffee shops in South Delhi, and at one point even out of a Mahindra Xylo, with a printer in the backseat to print out flyers.

In 2016, they found a possible home in Aurobindo Apartments, in one of Delhi’s wealthier neighbourhoods. But the owner refused to rent it out to them on meeting Bohra, whom he knew from before. Borah says he was aware of Mehta’s sexual orientation and attributes this to his refusal to rent to them. “Aap aayenge toh nahi denge (If you come, I won’t rent it out),” Borah recalls him telling her. Nazariya finally found an office in South Delhi’s Kalu Sarai. It was one room of a four-room apartment, already occupied by three other research teams.

Nazariya's office in Delhi's Kalu Sarai. Image: Ritambara Mehta

The challenges of setting up a queer collective don’t just end at finding office space. Nazariya soon discovered that funding was an even greater problem for collectives not working in the HIV space. They couldn’t use familial contacts either, as that meant having to come out.“My parents still don’t know what I work on. They just know I do gender-related work,” says Mehta.

To raise operational funds, Nazariya started workshops in schools and colleges, but these weren’t without problems. Mehta recounts an instance where students of a school had written in asking for a workshop, “but the principal didn’t want us, as we would use many explicit words”.

A Nazariya greeting card, with a still from the film Razia Sultan (1983). Image: Nazariya

They’ve also tried the merchandising route, dropping a calendar/planner tracing the history of the queer movement in India commissioning only queer artists. This worked surprisingly well, as they sold 850 of the 1,000 they had printed.

Funding isn’t a problem limited to small organisations. The Humsafar Trust, one of India’s oldest LGBTQ organisations (established in 1994), started its Delhi chapter only in 2017. According to their programme officer, 27-year-old Gautam Yadav, funding is a constant problem. “Because Humsafar is a community-based organisation and not a donor agency, we have projects running for two to five years; so we have to apply for funds time to time for sustainability,” he says.

They have a wide range of projects. A long term one like a skill-building program that works on research based evidence gathering and communication with 25 Community Based Organisation partners. It’s currently funded by a donor agency but it ends later this year, leaving the team scrambling for other projects to keep the Delhi office afloat. For regular cash flow, they also run a campaign called Khushpudi, where they sell a care-package containing two condoms, one tube of lube and a booklet on usage and HIV awareness for Rs 20.

Writer Shambhavi Saxena gives a talk at TISS Queer Collective titled, 'Queering The Asexual'. Image: TISS Queer Collective

For collectives that do not have to generate income for their employees i.e. collectives in schools and colleges, the problems are different. “One of of our members kept getting stopped at the entry gate, and trolled by the staff,” says Sai Tejo, a member of the unstructured Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Queer Collective in Mumbai. In spite of TISS’ foundation of social justice, the members face a fair bit of hostility. “Students stare, pass comments. There have been various instances of trans members being put in binary hostels despite their insistence otherwise,” adds Tejo.

Tejo and other TISS Queer Collective members build awareness via their blog The Glass Closet. They ask other allied publications, such as Feminism in India to boost their pieces, hoping for greater visibility.

For people with fewer connections though, visibility is not that easy.

Founded late last year, Queer Chennai Chronicles (QCC) aims to collect stories of queer life in the Tamil Nadu capital and publish them in Tamil. Their first collection, titled Vidupattavai (The Leftouts) written by writer-activist Gireesh, is a semi-fictional collection of stories and poems about a small-town gay man moving to the city. Unfortunately the response hasn’t been great, with criticism over its structure and concerns over it not being accepted by libraries or nominated for awards because it doesn’t fit into a genre.

Copies of Vidupattavai. Image: Queer Chennai Chronicles

“This trying to fit everything into a box is why QCC came into existence. Why should our writing fit into the boxes set by the heterocentric world?” ask QCC founders LJ Violet and Moulee. “We are here to tell our stories the way we want to. And for me, it doesn't make sense to again fit into a template,” Moulee wrote over email. Violet and Moulee claim that “a couple of English media houses contacted us about doing a story on the book. But their tone was patronising”. “Rather than something like outright discrimination, the problem has been a lack of sensitive understanding about queer issues.”

The topic of the mainstream media’s sensitivity or lack thereof brought me back to the one-room office of Nazariya in Delhi, where one of their projects was a workshop for journalists on sensitivity regarding covering queer subject matter.

The number of journalists that attended?

Two.

Follow Parthshri Arora on Twitter.

Tagged:
INDIA
LGBTQ
trans
lesbian
bisexual
queer spaces
lgbtq spaces
Nazariya
Queer Chennai Chronicles
TISS Queer Collective
Humsafar Trust