As the LGBT community fights for acceptance in the mainstream, are they at all accepting of the sexual diversity within their umbrella? Preksha Malu scrutinises the gaps in public and private access
Radhika is a Hijra who does 'magti'in Mumbai, locals. The 21-year-old is well known for her unique looks and sense of humour. Radhika has never attended any of the famous LGBT parties in the city. "I know there are parties in Mumbai but where, when, I have no idea. If invited, I would definitely go," she says. She, like many others, feels excluded by the extended sexual minorities that fall under the LGBT umbrella. "I mean, if men want to wear heels and dress like women, why don't they join us?" Radhika rues.
Radhika, like many other LGBTQ persons, feels sidelined by her own community. Harish Iyer, an LGBT and child rights activist, says that trans and internalised homophobia amongst homosexuals do exist. "Usually, what happens is that if you are gay and don’t want to be discovered, you portray that you are the opposite - you become the abuser, the homophobe. The nastiness, the comments are not uncommon. I know of domestic violence and abuse that exists between gay men as well," he says.
An article by Joe Stone for the Evening Standard in the UK attempts to explain precisely what Iyer has witnessed, in the story, 'Does London have a Homophobia Problem within the Gay Community?'. “In our society, we have these fixed gender norms, which we’re expected to abide by,” says Guardian columnist Owen Jones. He believes that the root of gay camp-shaming (loud behaviour) lies in a pervasive sexism resulting from gendered expectations. “The biggest killer of men aged 18 to 50 is suicide, partly because men are afraid to seek help for fear of being seen as weak or effeminate.”
Feminine gay men, although are not targeted for being hypocrites. Before becoming the advocacy officer for Humsafar Trust and UMANG (a safe space for LBT women), Sonal Giani had to face bi-phobia from the community. "The community, in general, is not accepting of those new to them. The phobia against bisexuals has always existed. The community still feels that bisexuals are hypocrites or confused about their sexuality," she says.
As a former party planner, Namrata Bajaj had to look for venues that would allow trans people to attend her events. Even after, she found glaring divisions within her community. "Our parties were publicized as LGBT parties. Even then, only two or more trans people would turn up. Many fear being denied entry or being humiliated. I know of people who don’t allow transgenders or cross-dressers in their parties," says the 30-year-old marketing professional.
Sakshi, co-founder of Gaysi which organises Dirty Talk, says she has not seen any parties that discriminate against certain people from attending. “There may be a venue restriction in place, but I have not seen parties where people are asked to keep out. DT is open to all and we use it as a medium for advocacy and sensitisation within and outside the community. It is apparent that there is a phobia in the community, but that is true for the world. People who are respected, heard and are influential in the community have to take extra steps to counter these fears," she says.
In a KABP (Knowledge Aptitude Behaviour Practice) study by Humsafar Trust, over three hundred male respondents answered questions about their backgrounds. Over 40 percent of the 100 respondents were migrants from Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai. Of all the respondents, only around 28% of the people had completed Standard 10, while only 8% of them were college graduates. More than 50% of the respondents lived with their parents. If these statistics are to go by, the divisions are pretty clear on the social front. Sonal adds that activists work in tandem with each other and are accepting of the diversity within the community, but the same can’t be said for the community in general. "Caste, class and colour-based divisions exist everywhere and the community is no different. There is a language barrier as well. For example, elite gay men won’t interact with Hijras. There's stigma against HIV positive people. What we need to understand is that divisions exist and we need to talk about this," she says.
What does the data say on women, you ask? Chayanika Shah, member of LABIA - a Queer Feminist LBT Collective, says that in public spaces men have an upper hand. "A demographic study is possible because men have access to public spaces. Women do not enjoy the same level of access, especially in case of a space to explore sexual desire. Even if we needed to do a study of Muslim women, for example, where will we find them? How then will we have a number for a demographic study then?"
Sonal further adds that when you go to the parties, you see about 20 women among the 500 men. "It is not exclusion per se because the population is lopsided by itself. There are more online dating places for men. Women don’t come out for fear of not finding like-minded groups to socialise with. I have noticed that men walk out of lesbian or women-centric films during screenings. They feel their space is being invaded," she says.
Chayanika says that access is what differentiates us. "Caste, class, home and the social spaces differ for everyone. A lesbian in Peddar Road and a lesbian in Dharavi, for example, don't share a common meeting ground. Many people are closeted, and this makes them vulnerable as well as phobic. A 'butch' looking woman could threaten another lesbian's 'safe' life where she can live without being noticed. She carries her own society's biases, as it is a visible gender transgression that can probably out her. Bias against bisexuality exists quite often and some may ask how can anyone be attracted to both genders? It could also be due to the belief that a good relationship is strictly monogamous."
It appears the bisexual and trans people are the most marginalised within the umbrella. Is there a hope to see the unity of the community extend beyond pride marches? "We have to confront our irrational fears. We need to get to know more trans and bisexuals," says the pioneer of the LGBT movement in India, Ashok Row Kavi. "The barriers go both ways. I still have a problem with bisexual people because I feel that they are gay but want the best of both worlds. How we confront hetero homophobia, we need to do that by ourselves. It is not that gay men don't want to know more about gay women. They have such homo-social surroundings that they don't know how to react when women are around. There is misogyny and a fear of competition and cross-sectoral transgression," he says.
All is not lost though. "Equations within the community are getting more complex. Mumbai is more egalitarian when it comes to religion, caste and class, especially during the Pride march. So many parents, friends, office colleagues and even trade unions came to support the last march," he says.
When she put up the fundraiser for her sex change operation, 28-year-old Joe Paul did not expect her gay friends to desert her. "All the friends that came to my house for parties started ignoring me. Activists are supportive but if you ask me about the community in general, it is a dark area. I know many Hijras who are good but so many still harass and abuse me in the streets. I think they can’t see a transgender going beyond their line of work. There is existing transphobia in the community. I feel discriminated against and humiliated. I know of gay men who fear that by being around trans women, they will be found out," she says.
She questions the unity of the community. "Unless we come forward against the abuse of our community members, we can’t take our fight for equal rights forward," she says.
Salma Khan, president of the Kinnar Maa Samajik Sanstha trust for Hijras, says that we can find a solution together. "We should discuss our differences on a common platform, where we can hear everyone and figure solutions for this," she says.
Amanpreet Nagpal, a psychologist, had visited Humsafar several years ago. " At the time, the Hijra community seemed warm, caring and at the same time fearful. They have to go through numerous phobias, major ones being rejection and non-acceptance. The phobia also comes from within. They are capable of dealing with the rejection of the world but what they fear is rejection of self," she says. To quell these phobias, one must accept their own uniqueness. "Uniqueness is difficult to accept in regular people. It becomes even more difficult when a person feels they have a different body," she says.
Harish says that the only solution to counter this internal phobia is counselling. "We need more visibility, events, articles about this. Everything has a role to play, journalists like you too," he concludes.
(We have changed Radhikas name to protect her identity. Many other party organisers were asked to comment, and while some agreed that a bias was evident, some said no such bias existed. They didn’t want to come on record.)