Saturday, March 6, 2010

Families, etc

I seem to have angered a few people by writing the piece that was published in the Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, 30 January 2010, entitled "What does your family value most." It has appeared to a few as my recommendation to lgbt people to valorize the family as a most sacred thing, to get married, to found their own families and blend in with the marital-familial normative world. Not at all. My concern in the article was about the several young people who are still staying with and/ or strongly connected to their parents.

Lack of acceptance in the family of a son or daughter's sexual orientation and/or gender identity leads to a lot of pain and suffering. We hear, almost regularly, about threats from parents to children, asking them to stop being gay or lesbian or bisexual and to marry a person of the opposite sex. There have been several instances in the past many years, and particularly in the past few months following the visibility around the Delhi High Court verdict decriminalizing adult, consensual, same-sex behaviour, where parents have approached psychiatrists and quacks for unethical and painful reparative therapies on their children to make them heterosexually oriented. We also hear of very violent exorcisms being performed on lgbt youth, often at the request of the parents.

For people whose gender identity and expression are very visible aspects of their personality, for effeminate men (gay, bisexual or otherwise), masculine women (not necessarily lesbian), for people who transgender -- for all those who are seen to be transgressing gender and sexual norms in a million different ways --the way their families deal with these changes is of crucial importance. A major reason for the great number of school drop-outs among Aravanis is the fact that during their adolescence many of them find their parental homes to be extremely hostile spaces that they must run away from.

These are of concern to me. Several of my friends, many of those who call seeking counsel, and many others who write in to share discuss situations that involve their parental homes, the pressures they face, the violence they experience, etc. I find it hard to see it simply as the response of weaklings. If some people want to engage with a situation, their families, and want to choose the best possible response that comes from a place of love and compassion, I support it. People often seek help to gather the courage to step out of their homes as well. And then there are those who feel their situations are not dire and want to think the issues through.

Not everyone has to walk out of their families. Just as not everyone has to found one. This calls for a larger discussion. There is a lot of potential for lgbt people to redefine relationships and families; our sexual difference has already called the role of family, marriage and other relationships to question. I hope these possibilities, new modes of relating, loving, communing and cohering (and new modes of not relating, not loving, not communing and not cohering, too) will be more widely discussed and realized and not swept away in some kind of a majority (within the minority) move to valorize only coupledom, marriage and the family. Yes, a lot of people could want these. And they should have them. But the desires of those who do not want it should not get erased in the moves to institutionalize only one kind of relationship, as it seems to be happening in the United States today. And when we want the marriage and the family, it would be great to see how we can ensure we do not replicate the structures of oppression and violence that do not only characterize many heterosexual marriages and families, but seem to inhere in the very structures of these institutions.

Friday, March 5, 2010

On The Shakti Resource Center

'Shakti' is right now what excites me, scares me, confuses me and possesses me. I am very thankful that I met Padma Govindan three years ago and we got together to found 'Shakti.' But it took me so long to feel sure of my desire to co-run an organization that with my flightiness I made myself exasperating to work with. Being an individual activist and out-queer man was hard enough for me. I repeatedly felt that my officializing it all with an organization and the attendant commitments was going to make me even more visible and vulnerable than I already was. And then there were the concerns about personal finances, and the kind of time that I would need to spend on setting up 'Shakti' with Padma. But at some point I stopped resisting it and started going with the flow.

The Shakti Resource Center is now a registered trust. In the last two and a half years, we have done some exciting work - media outreach, public events, trainings, workshops, film screenings, collaborating with other organizations in organizing Chennai's first Pride, etc. We are in the finishing stages of the LGBT peer counsellor training program. It has been a pleasure collaborating with the Center for Counselling in conducting this training program. So many of us queer folks find ourselves in situations where our peers seek counsel or are in difficult situations that call for active intervention on our part. But often we do not know if we are equipped to engage with certain problems; we do not know if we are helping. In some extreme cases, we get very drained in the process. These are some of the things that made Padma and me go for a training program for peer counsellors. Thanks to Padma's efforts, LLH Norway funded this program with a seed grant. The manual and resource book for peer counsellors, in Tamil and English, should be ready soon. And then the helpline. But all of us trainees are already seeing the benefits of this training program, for we are all engaging with our peers on a daily basis already.

The resource library is shaping up, too. Some years ago, when I started my PhD on queer literature -- a project that was aborted for various reasons -- I had a very hard time finding access to relevant material. Thanks to the fact that I was travelling a lot at that time, I could get my hands on some material. But this experience made me resolve to setting up a resource library. Padma and I pooled in all our collected material in our office space. Friends, members of local support groups, students working on issues related to gender and sexuality, and other activists started borrowing books. Now there are around 250 books on subjects related to gender, sexuality, sexual health, queer studies, etc. And some magazines, journals and pamphlets. There have been some excellent, recent donations of books from the USA. Once the collection is catalogued, we will have it open for people to use. You can donate us books and films themed around gender, sexuality, sexual health and reproductive health. Check with us at We have a list of stuff that we need. You can buy them for us! :)

The last film screening we organized at 'Shakti' went very well! Shohini Ghosh's "Tales of the Night Fairies" is an excellent documentary film on the collectivization of female sex workers at the Durbar Mahila Samanvay Committee, famously knows as the Sonagachi project. I never expected the event to be listed in the 'Engagements' section of The Hindu that day (20 February 2010)! It was great to have a mixed audience. It was not a congregation of the "converted," where everyone agrees with everyone else, where everyone's politics aligns itself very nicely with everyone else's. Different views and opinions on sex work, questions around decriminalization of sex work, etc., came up and were discussed. It was fun!

So we march on, I guess. Well, who is this "We"? There is me, then we have Asma volunteering a lot of time, tut-tut-ing me away whenever I feel terrible about not being able to pay her yet. We have Shakthi Nataraj, working hard on the English draft of the manual and resource book for peer counsellors and excited with several brilliant ideas. Ajay Gabriel is a wonder kid, juggling a night-shift job and several other commitments along with the tasks that Shakti requires his help with!

And then we have those wonderful souls who help us keep it all going - friends who give money when it is required -- we have so far needed very little, but still, to have it come when needed is nothing short of magical!

Oh, writing this makes me feel much less anxious now. We are doing good work. We will do better.

What does your family value most

A short piece of writing that appeared in the Sexualities page of the Zeitgeist Saturday supplement to the New Indian Express, 30 January 2010