Our lives, Our Tales: Documenting Early Queer Activism in India

Admin | 06, Sep 2023

Our lives, Our Tales: Documenting Early Queer Activism in India

Nazariya organized two events to document oral history of early queer activism in India, particularly focused around New Delhi. The aim of this series was to archive earlier struggles for LGBT rights in the country which have been marginalized over time because of the increasing focus around Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which criminalizes ‘sex against the order of nature.’ Over time, they realized that there is a need to talk about queer activism of the 90s and 2000s which was not directly associated with the Law, especially around the issues of queer women.

The first panel discussion in this series was with Jaya Sharma, a queer feminist activist, Anuja Gupta and Ashwini Ailawadi, who were both associated with the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Aandolan (ABVA). Anuja’s brother Siddharth Gautam was one of the founding members of ABVA, an independent group that fought against discrimination against those affected by HIV/ AIDS.

The second panel discussion in this series was with Vani Subramaniam from Saheli, an autonomous women’s group; Pramada Menon, a queer feminist activist and Purwa Bhardwaj, a feminist activist, earlier with Nirantar (a center for gender and education).

The first panel discussion focused more around the HIV/ AIDS activism of the early 90s and the second panel focused around the emergence of queer women’s movement from within the women’s movement and the formation of intersectional politics for sexual rights.

Early HIV/ AIDS activism

Activism in the early 90s on LGBT rights came out of concerns around discrimination against those affected by HIV/ AIDS. The group that played a pivotal role in this was AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA). ABVA was formed to fight discrimination against those affected by HIV/ AIDS. Their work started as a response to draconian measures being taken by the government of India at that time against all those groups which were perceived to be at ‘high risk’ of contracting HIV/ AIDS. This included gay men, commercial sex workers, drug users and professional blood donors.

The group’s members included those who were working with people affected by HIV/ AIDS – doctors, professional drug users, lawyers, social activists. ABVA brought out a series of well-researched reports on discrimination faced by those affected by HIV/ AIDS. In 1991, they released ‘Less than Gay’, the first report on LGBT rights in India, also called by many as the ‘Pink Book.’ A comprehensive document covering human rights violations faced by LGBT people, it drew examples from other countries to argue for the repeal of IPC Section 377 and ensuring civil rights for LGBT people in India, including the right to marry, adopt and inherit property.

ABVA also held a press conference around the report which was not very well attended but got some coverage in the national media. Given that the issue was quite new for them they did not ask many questions. In 1992, the Delhi police conducted raids in a gay cruising park in Connaught place, New Delhi. Members of ABVA organized a protest against these arrests at the Jantar Mantar. This protest is also remembered by some as the ‘first’ gay demonstration in India.

Despite their reservations about the police’s reactions, the group did not face many difficulties from them. If anything, they were slightly embarrassed themselves. For many of them it was the first time they met other people with similar views (and sexualities). Some of them had to face trouble because of the media coverage of the protest. Ashwini lost his job and Jaya’s family was not happy to see her pictures in the newspaper. This, however, did not deter them from continuing their activism.

Their struggle took a legal turn in 1994, when Kiran Bedi was in-charge of Tihar Jail, she refused to distribute condoms amongst the male inmates arguing it will encourage homosexuality which is criminal by law. This motivated ABVA to draft a petition asking for the repeal of Section 377. With a tight string budget and help of friends in the other parts of the world who helped them get case law examples, they drafted a petition which they filed in the Delhi High Court.

When it came to choosing a lawyer who would fight the case in the court, the group got divided into two groups. Some of them argued that they needed a high profile lawyer to argue the case otherwise their petition will not be taken seriously. While others believed that given that ABVA was a local group they do not need a high profile lawyer. They did end up involving Soli Sorabji, a senior lawyer, to argue their case for two hearings. The difference in the judge’s attitude towards the ABVA lawyers and Soli Sorabji was quite evident. The petition, however was ultimately thrown out and not admitted.

Drawing parallels between the relationship between lawyers and activists then and now, Jaya remarked that for her the most striking part of this petition was that all activists involved were a part of the process and fully immersed in it. However, she believes that the context today, in the queer movement as well as the women’s movement is that the relationship with lawyers is very different. It is not that of equals any longer. There is this concept of expertise and professionalism which did not exist earlier.

Jaya also noted that it is important to remember that the first opposition to Section 377 came from ABVA in the 1994. This fact is often ignored and it is only the 2002 petition by Naz Foundation that is remembered.

Siddharth Gautam who was one of the founding members of ABVA passed away in 1992. He was one of the driving forces behind the group, especially around their work on LGBT issues. He had spent several years of his life in the US, and was influenced by the HIV/ AIDS activism there. After his death, his sister Anuja Gupta and some other family members got involved in ABVA. They also started a film festival to commemorate his death in 1993 and it went on till 2003. They called it ‘Images on AIDS and Sexuality’ to avoid any controversies.

Initially they showed mostly American films which they procured from their friends and relatives abroad and later they started showing some Indian films. One of the first Indian LGBT films screened by them at the festival was called Khush, which had LGBT people talking about their experiences. During the panel discussion, Nazariya played a few clips from the film for the audience members.

With many new LGBT groups coming up, the nature and complexion of the festival changed over the years. Jaya remarked that when she went to the Nigah Film Festival in late 2000s, she was pleasantly surprised to see many visibly queer people sitting in the audience. This was very different from the earlier days when they organized film festivals, as most people in the audience were either heterosexual or were very quiet about their identities.

Emergences of Lesbian activism from within the women’s movement

The relationship between the women’s movement and queer movement has not been an easy one. Vani talked about the first meeting of women who love women which can be traced back to 1990, during the Calicut Conference of autonomous women’s movements. It was organized by women’s groups like Jagori who were working on single women’s issues. At that time the language of sexuality was missing and what was used instead was something on the lines of – women loving other women, women outside the family structure, etc.

In 1994, however, the first public opposition to homosexuality came from Vimla Farukhi of National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW). She wrote a letter to the Prime Minister objecting to an anti-AIDS Gay Conference in Bombay saying that homosexuality is a western import and the conference should not be allowed to take place. This was the first time that women’s groups stepped out and signed a petition against NFIW and held a public protest.

Later in the same year the autonomous women’s conference in Tirupati had a session on women loving women and there was a huge blow up. There was a voice from within the women’s movement claiming their sexuality and at the same time there were those who said that the movement would not give space to these issues.

Another pivotal moment for queer women’s organizing in Delhi was the protests against the right wing attacks on Deepa Mehta’s lesbian-themed film Fire. Hindu right wing groups vandalized theatres in different parts of the country and called for a ban on the film due to its depiction of homosexuality. A group called CALERI (Campaign for Lesbian Rights) was formed in Delhi to advocate for lesbian rights after the attacks. While some of the left groups came and supported them, it was more against the right wing attacks on freedom of speech and less about sexual rights.

In 1999, when CALERI wanted to participate in the annual women’s day march with their banner, there was opposition from some women’s groups, particularly those associated with the left. They argued that that this is not an issue for their constituencies and if the media sees the word lesbian on their banners they will cover only this issue and ignore the rest. They also argued that lesbianism was not a political issue and their women will get alienated if they include this issue.

This led to a split in the annual women’s day march for some time. Groups even went ahead to change their routes. However, after a few years they realized that this cannot continue and the impasse was broken. The women’s day march united once again and after a few months Brinda Karat from CPI(M) wrote an opinion piece arguing for the decriminalization of homosexuality. She still, however, did not make any mention of lesbian rights.

As part of the annual autonomous women’s conferences, a resolution was passed in the end on issues around rights and violations. In 2005, Nivedita Menon, a feminist academic, proposed a resolution, supported by Jaya Sharma, which called for the repeal of Section 377. Jaya said that she chose to ask Nivedita to propose it as she was a safe heterosexual face to put forward for their demand.

The resolution called for the need to stop discrimination against behaviors and identities outside strict heterosexist gender norms and evolve a framework of citizenship which is not merely inclusionary but also transformatory and liberatory. Jaya recalled that the only objection that came to the resolution was from someone linked to a left organization who insisted that they keep the focus on 377 and rights and do away with subversion.

Vani also added that the women’s movement from the start focused too much on violence and there was no work around positive sexuality or pleasure. She opined that fundamentally a lot of understanding of the women’s movement comes from women’s oppression, women’s pain, women’s trauma and the structural, personal reasons and cultural reasons. However, they never got together and talked about positive sexuality. So in a way, it was the lesbian women within the movement who pushed them to recognize issues around positive sexuality and desire.

Apart from political activism, lesbians also started gathering together socially. Jaya mentioned about the first lesbian party in Delhi, which was organized at a feminist activist’s house, where only women loving other women were allowed. The gathering had about 35 women, a number difficult to achieve even these days. Jaya also talked about debates around coming out during that time. While some of them wanted to come out and make a statement about their identity, others preferred to stay quiet about it. There were also feminists who totally rejected and resisted the term ‘lesbian’ and argued that it somehow compromised erotic friendships between women.

Intersectional Politics 

Another galvanizing moment for the queer movement in India was when five workers from Bharosa Trust (an organization working on HIV/ AIDS) were arrested under section 377. They were charged against distributing pornographic material under the obscenity laws. Several organizations mobilized support in voicing their opposition to these arrests. Around the same time there were also reports of lesbian suicides in the country and as a response to this PRISM was formed. It started out of a need to form linkages and support from other progressive groups on sexuality related issues.

Founded in the early 2000s, PRISM was a coalition of human rights organizations working on women’s rights, LGBT rights and child rights. Their objective was to simply come together and talk to anybody and everybody on issues related to sexuality – parents, psychiatrists, organizations, movements, etc. For the first two-three years the group did not even talk about Section 377. The law became a central agenda only much later when they got involved in the legal battle against 377. Jaya recalled that one of the initial events they organized was on Sexuality and Fundamentalism and after the event was over, they realized that they had forgotten to talk about 377.

The group around the same time tried to extend their support to Medha Patkar who was protesting at Jantar Mantar for the Narmada Bachao Aandalon. She, however declined their support despite the association of many of the members with the cause. Pramada remarked that while individual support was welcome, support as LGBT was not acceptable.

Another important moment for the women’s movement’s relation to LGBT movement was the Autonomous women’s movement in Calcutta in 2006. This was the first time they had to deal with trans issues as there was participation from trans groups, mainly Hijras. The movement, however was not prepared to deal with these issues. Vani argued that with gender the anxiety that always comes is that of losing the constituency of women. There is an issue of articulating gender, especially marginalized genders and open definitions of gender. This stems from the fear of compromising the category of women, which is hard earned. In this situation the NALSA judgment has come and forced the movement to recognize trans rights and the fluidity of gender.

Rituparna added that while there is an acceptance of lesbian, bisexual, trans people at a surface level within the women’s movement, it is not reflected in the material published by them on issues like sexual harassment and domestic violence. Rituparna gave the example of one of the crisis cases handled by Nazariya, of a trans-man Shivi who was forcibly held captive in his house by his family members. It was, according to her a clear case of domestic violence and not LGBT rights as such. However, it was Nazariya who took it up and not a women’s rights organization. This, according to her is an important thing to reflect upon, for the women’s movement.

Pramada also highlighted that the queer movement has completely ignored lesbian issues. It is mostly all about gay men, HIV/ AIDS and now increasingly trans rights. The challenge according to her is the ability to create inclusive spaces  where trans groups would invite lesbians and women’s groups would invite trans groups. She believes that there is a need to bring lesbian issues to the forefront, otherwise lesbians will continue to be killed, beaten and forced into heterosexual marriages.

Vani remarked that there was a time when they used to say that Bombay has the gays and Delhi has the lesbians because apart from the ABVA protests, most of the organizing in Delhi for LGBT rights was around Fire and lesbian rights. However, the shift of focus to Section 377 and inclusion of lesbians in the agenda, did not help the cause of lesbians.

Another issue with organizing intersectional politics in the present times is that we focus too much on identities – only a trans person can talk about trans rights, only a lesbian can talk about lesbian rights, etc. Earlier at the time of Voice against 377, there were no such differences, everyone came together to fight a common cause. It was very difficult to differentiate queer people from non-queer people.

Pramada highlighted another issue with activism – people assume that just because someone identifies as a lesbian or gay, etc they would vocally come out and support the cause. She argued that for a lot of people, all that they want is a social space. She gave the example of Sangini, a queer women’s help group which came about in 1998. They ran a helpline for women loving women and put up stickers in toilets across the city. They, however, refused to get involved politically and sign petitions, etc. She argued that this kind of a space should be provided to groups within movements.