The Delhi University Queer Collective (DUQC), in association with Zubaan Books and the Gender Studies Cell at St. Stephens College, held a panel discussion on ‘Queer Identities in the Northeast’ on September 21, 2017 as part of Zubaan’s Cultures of Peace festival on Northeast India. The panel, introduced jointly by writer and publisher, Urvashi Butalia and DUQC founding member, Rafiul Alom Rahman, turned out to be very informative. The panelists for the afternoon, Diti Lekha Sharma, Pavel Sagolsem and Dona Marwein, and moderator Gertrude Lamare, spoke about queer activism and their participation in it, in the specific areas of Northeast India they belonged to. In conclusion, it was realized that there are several strands of the LGBTQI movement in the Northeast that separates it from ‘mainland’ India.
‘Xukia’, in Assamese means unique or different, and fits precisely, as the name of the organisation, that was started as the first ever queer collective in Northeast India, following the Supreme Court verdict of 2013 that recriminalized homosexuality. Xukia has worked extensively for LGBTQI rights in Guwahati, from organising workshops, to film festivals, to press conferences. In the beginning, as Diti, an active member of Xukia, recalled, when they used to have press conferences, reporters present would turn their backs as soon as the question of sexuality or gender identity came up. Nonetheless, members of the collective have consistently engaged with media organizations to dispel some of the myths around LGBTQI lives. For collectives like Xukia, which are not registered organisations, funding becomes a major issue. The only prominent source then, apart from personal contributions, is crowdfunding. The reliance on crowdfunding for queer events, in spaces where the difference between the terms transgender and gay is not even perceived, let alone understood, can easily be imagined. And yet, in spite of all these struggles, Xukia continues to grow and provide a platform to voices that go unheard.
Dona Marwein, a transgender activist from Shillong, associated with Samakami, a community-based organization working for the rights of transgender people, noted that she found the usage of the word ‘Transgender’ new to some extent, when used within the sphere of queer activism in the northeast. On a personal level, she recounted her horrific experiences at school that forced her to drop out at the young age of fourteen. People in the church her family went to, often confronted her mother regarding the ‘abnormal’ and ‘unconventional’ behaviour of her child, which she often handled powerfully. While some of these struggles continue, some others have translated into fruitful outcomes for Dona, she noted. Gertrude, also from Meghalaya, added a layered perspective to the discussion.
Pavel, who has actively been involved in the queer activism circles in Delhi, had a shock when he went back to his home, in Imphal. The exposure that he had in Delhi, did not reflect a single bit when he went back. It was very difficult for him to find like-minded gay men, who were comfortable with their identities, while accessing common public spaces. He realised, with time, that to communicate and interact, there was a certain code to be followed, one that did not involve much of a non-deliberate revelation. It was particularly interesting to see the contrast with LGBTQI spaces in ‘mainland’ India. Manipur has a vibrant transgender movement. Unlike in ‘mainland’ India, where transgenders (hijras) mainly make a living out of performances on special occasions at people’s homes, sex work or begging on the streets or trains, transgenders in Manipur mostly operate in the beauty industry alongside other traditional professions. For cisgendered gay and bisexual men, it is extremely difficult to participate in any public form of LGBTQI activism. Recently, the All Manipur Nupi Manvi Association (AMANA) helped form Empowering Trans Abilities (ETA), a group focused on queer women and trans men.
The panelists also discussed the importance of language in reclaiming spaces and building narratives. While cultural encoding of languages has led to the proliferation of terms like ‘Homo’, hurled as abuses, traditional Assamese words like Dangkati, implying someone who has crossed the threshold, could be owned up by the queer movement, as Diti explained. We are not really re-claiming these words that define us, they said, causing a lack of effective terminology, which at one level could be liberating, but is also leading to a reliance on words like gay, lesbian, bisexual etc., that are already in use, and carry negative connotations and stereotypical notions, due to their culturisation.
It’s important to understand that anything that does not fit into contemporary heteronormative and patriarchal structures is queer. Hijacking narratives, monopolizing avenues and mediums, is never going to render any help. It seems that activism in the northeastern states of the country, have already started, to at least try and take into account the intersections that happen, with race, ethnicity, class etc., which hopefully will lead to creation of spaces that are inclusive and open. Identities don’t work in the duality of gender and sexuality, as there are multiple layers to one’s identity, none in operation with the exclusion of the other. Like intersectional feminism, there is a slowly emerging wave of an intersectional queer movement in the country, one whose possibilities needs to be recognized.
Report by Aman Sinha, Ramjas College.