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

Admin | 12-08-2022

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

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

Nazariya organized two events to document the oral history of early queer activism in India, particularly focused on 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 on 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, and 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 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 on 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 the 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.

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.

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Nazariya, a Queer Feminist Resource Group, was formed in October 2014 by a group of Delhi-based queer feminist activists.

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