Dear We Are the Youth,
I’ve been in India for close to two months now, and I wonder how my mind can fit everything I’ve seen, experienced, and learned. Last time I wrote to you, I was in Udaipur, which provided me with a comfortable platform to look beyond the discomforts I was feeling in Delhi and meet some young folks working on alternative education and community building. But it wasn’t until I got to Mumbai (Bombay) that I felt like things started to get into full gear for my project.
I had a couple of contacts who are a part of LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action) which publishes two magazines a year, runs a hotline and conducts research on members of the queer women and trans community. I took the local train to get to the trendy neighborhood of Bandra to meet up with my contacts, getting looks the entire way since I chose not to sit in the women’s compartment. It’s an interesting phenomenon whereby any women in the “general” compartment are hassled to go to the women’s compartment.
Once with the two members, I had a great time learning about the history of LABIA and was excited to get a few issues of their publication “Scripts” plus a queer erotica book one of them had recently edited and published called “Close, Too Close.” Turned out there was a queer party happening that very night as well, called “Salvation”, so I decided to check it out with my new friends. It was my first time going out to a queer party in India and although the ratio of men to women was unsurprisingly disproportionate, I had a great time watching the performance by queer artists and got to know some community members. After the party, we all went to a popular late night snack joint close to the main promenade of Bombay, Marine Drive, where according to my friends, on weekends hoards of gay men hang out.
Bombay gave me the impression that you could be who you wanted, with the anonymity a big city provides. Never had I felt safe to go out after dark until then, and standing with three visibly queer women at 2AM eating snacks was a truly unique experience.
After the brief visit to Bombay, I took a 36 hour train ride to Kochi, Kerala in south west India. I had been told by a friend in Delhi that there was a group of artists (some queer, the rest very open-minded) under the name of “Backyard Civilization” who were living together in a gallery, making art, doing activist work and generally being radical and awesome. Besides, Kochi was hosting the first contemporary art festival/biennale until the 13th of March, so I was excited to be there. After visiting the gallery and some careful thought, I decided to move in with them. I couldn’t seem to find any other remotely queer/LGBT organizations in the area, and I had been wanting to settle more in one place in India so I went for it.
To paint a picture of the setting: the climate in Kochi is hot and muggy but there are so many mosquitoes biting you that for a few days you wear long sleeves and long pants. Of course, after that you just have to surrender, wearing barely anything but getting ruthlessly feasted on by the mosquitoes despite wearing bug repellant. The state of Kerala has such an interesting history politically, what with being the first state to democratically vote on a communist government. Furthermore, there are people of nearly every religion there, with a Jewish population settling there in the 14th century. There are many practicing Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus coexisting in harmony in Kerala.
One thing I love about the streetscape in Kerala is the number of men who wear what’s called a lungi (or mundu). They’re essentially large pieces of cloth that are wrapped around like skirts and can be folded up so that it’s easier to walk and are cooler in the heat than pants. They come in a variety of bold colors and patterns and to a first timer in Kerala, the sight of all of these men in all the colors of the rainbow, and not wearing pants was so fantastic! Then the reality set in that none of the local women were wearing the same comfortable garb. The imbalance shouldn’t have come to me as such a surprise, but I couldn’t help but look at these men in lungis with a mixed bag of emotions. While I knew that wearing a lungi as a foreigner would raise issues of appropriation, I just had to see for myself how comfortable they were to wear, as my packed clothes were unbearable in the heat. One of the queer women artists at the collective, A., had done some serious lungi-watching and she demonstrated the way men strutted down the streets, readjusting the cloth–untying it with a single movement of the arms, momentarily flashing passerbys, kicking one foot back to grab the hem, brusquely folding the front flaps and finally tucking in the edge so that a precarious knot formed in front of their crotches, their legs bare to the world. A. showed me how to then walk with the lungi as men did, (and as many men do regardless of what they’re wearing) with their arms back and feet outward, taking up a lot of space.
Inspired by her lungi class, I had taken a liking to wearing lungis around the gallery and was quite comfortable in them, finally declaring that I would go out in one to get some spices we needed for dinner that night. The streets were eerily silent due to the two day all-India strike that was happening, and only a few daring shops were open. But like any other day, there were heaps of men loitering in groups on the streets. Though I only had to walk a couple of blocks down one street to get to the shop, I quickly regretted my premature confidence. In the sweltering heat, I had decided not to bind my breasts and instead try to pass as a boy with a pack of empty cigarettes in my breast pocket and a slight hunch. Little did I know that for walks of distances greater than the interior of a gallery would require more lungi-wrapping talent than I had acquired in just a few days. My lungi kept threatening to fall down as I frantically tried to maintain my hunched back, but I ultimately had to choose one or the other. I didn’t have the capacity to be concerned with passing as male, since I was so close to mooning everyone. Of course then I was self-conscious because not only was I a foreigner wearing a lungi, but a female transgressing strict gender codes. I got a fair share of laughing, some even dared to call out to me and address me as “sir” hoping to get a rise out of me.
With my cheeks flushed, I nearly turned back, but then because it was a straight street, I’d have had to deal with even more attention. So I ignored the men and finally arrived at the shop, purchased some red chili powder, ducked into a dark corner behind a building and tied my lungi really tight, hoping it wouldn’t come undone once more.
The walk back was the same, except my heart was racing faster. I finally reached the gallery and eased my anxiety by laughing with the other artists about my misbehaving lungi. But deep inside, I felt anger and frustration well up. Later on in the night, I finally discussed these feelings with the group, expressing my frustrations with the rigidity of gender roles. Earlier that week, I had told them about the piece on masturbation I had performed while in South America, to which many of the members expressed an interest in showing at Backyard Civilization. My reaction was one of prejudice, since I said I didn’t feel as comfortable doing that performance in India–a feeling that was further enforced after the lungi incident.
At the moment, I’m trying to put a piece together that addresses my own prejudices while trying not to belittle the reactions I’ve had towards Indian men here. I’ve received a lot of support from the guys at the gallery, which helps, and I’m looking forward to getting their feedback after I perform it in a couple of weeks.
Last weekend, I went to Bangalore–12 hours away from Kochi–to attend the fifth Bangalore Queer Film Festival. Not wanting to miss out on all of the large-scaled queer events in India during my stay (as I skipped queer pride in Mumbai last month), I had booked a train ticket to this fast-growing IT hub in Karnataka. It was Such A Treat to attend the festival because A) I’d never been to an official film festival B) everyone was so fabulously dressed C) queer folks from all over India had flown/driven/taken trains to be there and so I got to meet more than a dozen amazing queer artists and activists. Some of the films were amazing, others mediocre and then a select few, absolutely detestable. But a group of us found ourselves discussing the horrendous films with so much passion, that I understood why the committee had chosen to accept them. As a committee member later told me, their duty was to challenge us and make us shift in our beliefs.
Bangalore, I learned, was quite the hub for queer life in India. Unlike traditional Kerala where folks with alternative genders and sexualities were harassed–at times to death–Karnataka was a state that seemed to accept outsiders, and its large number of ex-Kerala and Tamil Nadu residents indicated as such. Thanks to an ex-Kerala, Bangalore-based queer contact, Gee, I had already been connected to a great number of queer artists and activists around India. Finally meeting him and his three partners in action–Kaveri, Sumathi and Sunil–was truly inspiring, as they were working passionately on issues around slum eviction. They told me about how queer the slum communities were in the ways in which they formed families, how the people they worked with in the slums never slipped up on their preferred gender pronouns, and how inspired they had been by slum residents to think of their queer activism in the context of casteism and classism in India.
Outside of their work with Dalit people on slum eviction problems, they were also working on films that captured FtM (female to male) identified folks and other people with alternative sexualities. Sumathi, who was trained in classical Indian singing was creating pieces that queered traditional rules for female singers. Furthermore, they were working with the group LesBiT (Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans women) which unlike many other prominent LGBTQ groups in India, catered towards the non-English speaking queer community, which often tended to be from a lower class background. They would use theater to tell stories of their genders and sexualities.
A couple days after the film festival, I also met up with the poet/performer, Joshua Muyiwa. He asked me to meet up with him at a restaurant/cafe called “Koshy’s” where I was surprised to see dozens of queer faces I had encountered at the film festival. Joshua told me that it was always like that at Koshy’s, and aside from a minor incident 12 years ago where Koshy’s tried to turn away a hijra customer (which was of course protested), members of the queer community had found the cafe to be a comfortable and welcoming environment. Joshua and I talked about how the film festival had encouraged many queer Bangalore residents to take up film and because it had been around for five years already, it wasn’t just a film festival, but a place for people to come together and meet and support each other.
To top off my already incredible stay in Bangalore, on my last day, I visited the Alternative Law Forum, where I finally read the brilliantly written judgment made by the New Delhi High Court in 2009 decriminalizing homosexuality. Here’s a brilliant quotation:
“Section 377 violates constitution not only because it criminalizes acts taken place within a special zone of privacy, but also because it criminalizes individual choices which are central to personal dignity.”
And on the impact of anti-sodomy laws even if they’re seldom enforced was a passage by Harvard professor Ryan Goodman:
“Individuals ultimately don’t try to conform to the law’s directive, but the disapproval communicated through it, nevertheless, substantively affects their sense of self-esteem, personal identity and their relationship to the wider society. Sodomy laws produce regimes of surveillance that operate in a dispersed manner, and that such laws serve to embed illegality within the identity of homosexuals.”
I learned that the Indian constitution, which was written by Ambedkar and Nehru, is in complete opposition to the law that still remains from British rule. In line with my naivety on this simple but important fact, I was captivated by the eloquence and openness of the Indian constitution.
Although many people in India don’t know about the change in the law, I read the judgment with such a newfound appreciation and respect for lawyers and for folks that work for places like “Alternative Law Forum,” who strive to create a more accepting society. As Ambedkar put it, “constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated.”As you can tell, I’m encountering a mountain of information each day, learning as fast as I can, though it feels taxing and stressful at times. The work being done by artists and activists on the ground in India is as diverse and complex as the history of this large country. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me in my last 3 weeks here.
In other news, I finally finished and published the Singapore queer art and activism zine.