Q. Since you work at a social organization called “Humsafar” can you explain what work it does? How long have you been working for the organization and what has been your contribution to the organization? Can you share some experiences of the members of the organization?
I was initially interning with Humsafar during my college days, but started working with them 7 months back. Despite being relatively new, being employed gave new opportunities to explore the unexplored. Humsafar works for the marginalized communities, such as Sunni Muslim women, and Dalit and OBC women, in the outskirts of Lucknow City. Thus, my experiences are associated with working at the grass-root level, in areas such as Sitapur, Hardoi, and so on.
The most memorable of them all was when Transgenders and Gender Non-Binary people saw and had a conversation with me. In one such incident, a transman, who did not even know what the term meant, came and spoke to me, saying how despite being a female, he did not feel like one and liked having short hair, wearing shirts and pants, and having a lot of male friends.
I spoke to him and made him understand that it is normal and okay to feel like it, and should be proud of it. He wrote a letter to me, saying how much it helped her to have met him, and he felt happy. These experiences mean a lot to me.
Once, a group of village women came to me and said “Sister, you look so good! We have been always afraid to talk to people like you, and we never knew that terms like ‘transgender’ existed. We always ignored people who look and speak like you and sometimes talk ill of them too. Forgive us for that, but it felt so good to talk to you!” Many women, especially from the Muslim community, call me Bhaji, or elder sister, and they get excited to see me.
Working with Humsafar also helped me change perspectives. We always think that huge organizations, groups, and collectives that work for the LGBTQIA+ community only cater to the Upper Class who live in cities, but people from the queer community are born in these villages, and live in these villages too! We have this bias that terms used to address people from the queer community are only applicable to upper-class people, or “Videshis”.
This bias is the reason why this movement has not yet reached the grassroots levels. I have to thank Humsafar in this regard because they have taken huge steps to reach out to the grassroots levels in this regard. Even I was doubtful about going to the outskirts of Lucknow, to villages, and introducing myself. But the trustees of Humsafar took the step and made sure that if it is a woman’s organization, it also includes women with a penis.
What is the use if the Indian Constitution and the laws are structured around a binary society that believes that there are only two genders?
Q. Being an active member of the ‘Awadh Queer Pride Committee’, can you shed some light on the kind of work the community is engaged in and which areas of Uttar Pradesh are they predominately active in.
The Awadh Queer Pride Committee functions only in Lucknow, but has outreach in areas such as Kanpur, Sitapur, and Hardoi – any place from where Lucknow is accessible. It was started under the guidance of Mr. Yaduven Singh Darvesh, who we consider as the father of the Queer community in Lucknow; someone who introduced us to “us”. He encouraged us to introduce ourselves to the limelight, and work towards our liberation. With these thoughts, we started this committee 5 years back, while we were protesting against Section 377.
We organized the first Queer Pride Parade in Lucknow, the first Queer Literature Festival in the city, and conducted anonymous workshops on mental health and Queer awareness. Now, we are a large group of so many people, living and enjoying our lives together.
Queer spaces are so important because our society still revolves around binaries. Unless and until society does not set its norms around the binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’, it will be difficult for the queer community to create safe spaces. I always say that the future will be non-binary. I am not saying this because I belong to the queer community, but because a binary society is harmful to both men and women. For example, when we go up to a man who is crying and telling him not to cry because crying is what girls do, I am harming him, because I am not allowing him to express his feelings and emotions.
Social hierarchies based on gender also prevail. For instance, one issue we have with the LGBTQIA+ laws and rights in India is that we are seen as the ‘third gender’. The male is often seen as the ‘first’ gender, and women, the ‘second’. This should change. We need horizontal lines, not vertical ones. It will happen one day. Till then, the queer community needs safe spaces, and the Awadh Queer Pride Committee works towards that.
The one thing the lockdown affected us, in this regard, was taking away those free spaces. There is only to a limit we can be “us” in our homes, in front of our fathers, despite being so understanding. We missed out on friends, and the Queer community coming together.
Q. Since you are an active member of ‘Humsafar’ a renowned feminist organization based out of Lucknow. Can you elaborate a bit on the role of the NGOs and the government during the lockdown?
Even the Government doesn’t know what it is doing. It doesn’t care about what it is doing because they know they have a monopoly, and a majority of the people will blindly vote for them. The NGO’s, though, have been very helpful in this regard. For instance, they fed migrant workers who were traveling to their native places. We saw agony and heard cries of people traveling to states like Jharkhand, all the way from Delhi on foot, and some realized they took the wrong route after traveling hundreds of kilometres
The issues are more prominent amongst closeted people, as they do not have the free space to explore and express their sexuality. There are no friends or people like them to talk to and hear their problems.
These stories are important, especially with respect to policymaking, because these stories never came up. In his ‘Mann Ki Baat’, the Prime Minister tells us that rations have been increased, but in reality, people have lost access to these rations because their names, in large units, have been removed. These stories never come up, in debates or during the decision-making process.
There are a lot of organizations that have been helping the underprivileged by providing them with rations, essentials, and even clothes – volunteers would pick up waste clothes and extra food from the doorsteps of many homes and provide it to the people grossly affected by the lockdown. Humsafar especially has been helping the marginalized because we have been working with them since our inception, and we have seen how many livelihoods have been destroyed.
I know a person who was a school bus driver. As the lockdown began, schools were shut and so, school buses were not running. Even if schools reopened, it was only for classes that normally did not use buses. So his livelihood was ruined, and he never recovered from that.
Q. The lockdown brought along with it several issues and challenges for everyone. How was your overall experience of the quarantine? How did it impact your pre-existing challenges?
I would like to answer this question by distinguishing the queer community into two: one who are still closeted and are living with their family, and the other, who are already out. In the latter, for people like me, it is hard to say because our family does not speak openly about it to us.
The man is often seen as the ‘first’ gender, and women, the ‘second’. This should change.
My mother does come to me and say that these things are happening and comes to me with news about our community. But she never speaks to me directly about the issue, and so, I never know how my mother understands what the LGBTQIA+ stands for or what they mean. So for now, I am happy, living in a world of possible lies. The issues are more prominent amongst closeted people, as they do not have the free space to explore and express their sexuality.
There are no friends or people like them to talk to and hear their problems. Even more problematic issue is that they face ill-treatment and discrimination even in small things, like small debates. For instance, if an upper caste person engages in a debate with a Dalit, and realizes that s/he is going to lose, they would just go on and say “Shut up Chamar!”. Similar things happen when a man and a woman debate, even when there are debates between brothers and sisters, where the brother would tell her sister to shut up and behave like a “woman”.
I want to highlight another important issue here, that a specific community amongst the transgenders, called the “Hijras”, face many economic hardships. These people, whose main source of livelihood is “Badhaai Dholi”, or begging, and singing and dancing during auspicious events like weddings and childbirths, have lost their main source of income during the lockdown because weddings were not happening, and childbirths required stricter protocols in hospitals.
Though organizations worked during the lockdown to uplift them, what was more beautiful was, the people belonging to the “Hijra” community, who were privileged and rich enough, came forward to help them. They sacrificed their rations and donated them to the less privileged.
The people from the “Hijra” community, especially during the lockdown, faced issues when it came to accessing healthcare. These people do not go in broad daylight in front of the public as they are met with discrimination and ill-treatment. They had to go in secret, like right before the clinics close. Now with the lockdowns and more focus on healthcare to so many people, this was affected.
Q. One thing the pandemic has brought to light is the importance of the health and well-being of an individual. How have you and other members of the community been able to take care of your/their health? Have you faced any form of discrimination such as not receiving the same benefits and support as others at healthcare centers or hospitals? Have you been denied access to any hospital because of your identity?
Facing discrimination is not new for us. The queer community always faces discriminatory and illogical behavior from people all over. For instance, when I volunteered myself and was feeding stray dogs, I overheard two people walking past me saying “It is a female stray dog. Leave those alone, at least!”. More painful is that we people face ill-treatment in places where justice is promised to be delivered, especially in places like the police station. We always are faced with illogical, and derogatory questions, like “Are we men or women when we get married, or when we are in bed?”.
Once, a policeman looked at me and called me a “Half-woman”, in a derogatory manner. I turned back to him to say, “Well, I am a half-man too! Don’t you think that is derogatory too?”. Even when they try to insult us, they see “being feminine” as something inferior from being and feeling like a man, and not the other way around.
In one instance, which happened during the lockdown, one member from our community got duped and cheated on a dating website. So, when I, along with the person, went to the police station, the constables asked whether we were “those gay” people. When we replied yes, one of them commented “Look what the Supreme Court has done! It is because of their judgments that we have to face bad days like these, where we have to register complaints from people like them.” These forms of ill-treatment were meted out to people like us throughout the lockdown.
Coming to medical facilities, was hard because we weren’t able to go to hospitals and access their facilities in broad daylight in front of the public. We had to go at a time when there are fewer people, as they make discriminatory comments there. It is less seen in private hospitals, as doctors there treat us, sometimes anonymously, because no one says no to money. It is only when we go to Government hospitals, where facilities are cheap, where discrimination and ill-treatment are meted out more, especially by the people who are there waiting to get treated.
Q. The economic crisis surfacing from a pandemic also brought along high levels of poverty, food insecurity, and joblessness, especially within the community. How did it impact your financial security and mental well-being? Has there been a change in your environment pre/post the pandemic? Did you face any form of discrimination or harassment in your workplace or educational institution because of your identity?
Educational institutions, as a whole, cannot be blamed. It is only those individuals who are to blame. Some offices and institutions are smart. They advertise that they are LGBTQIA+ friendly, but met out subtle discrimination against people, especially when it comes to dividing work, or how colleagues treat us. In my case, I did not face any discrimination from professors who took courses with respect to Social Work, but my experiences with professors taking other courses were terrible.
The problem is, people do not take the effort to learn about us, and are not willing to learn.
The problem is, people do not take the effort to learn about us, and are not willing to learn. Many people think that learning is a process just to get a degree and all forms of learning stop when you graduate and go for a job. They do not take the initiative to learn how to treat us, or how to address us. The worst case of the same is seen in the way how media, especially the Hindi media, report stories based on us. While taking interviews, they do not ask us how they want us to be addressed, and they report us like there is something wrong with us. For example, one victim told us how a news channel twisted her story, saying that her “girlish habits” are a result of her upbringing amongst her sisters.
Thus, this learning should happen, and that is when society becomes non-binary. We celebrate the values of equal opportunities and equal rights promised by our Indian Constitution on Republic Day, but what is the use if the Indian Constitution and the laws are structured around a binary society that believes that that are only two genders? This is where feminism becomes important because for us to come up and be vocal about our struggles, women have to rise, from the kitchens and other places, and pave way for us. Be it the Shaheen Bagh protests, or the protests against the farm laws, the women need to rise up and take charge of these protests, to pave way for our voices to be heard.
Queer spaces are so important because our society still revolves around binaries. Unless and until society does not set its norms around the binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’, it will be difficult for the queer community to create safe spaces.
About Mx Das
Mx. Ritwik Das is a Non-Binary person from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Is pursuing their masters in Social work, from the state University. Is also a poet and mythologist. They works at Humsafar women support centre which is a renowned feminist organization working for the womxn of Lucknow and few other districts. Is also one of the Active members of Awadh queer pride committee which is working in Lucknow since five years for the upliftment of the LGBTQIA+ community.
About Humsafar- Support Centre for Women
Humsafar, a Support Centre for Women in Crisis was set up in Lucknow in November 2003 to ensure a holistic response to women’s gender and human rights violations and to work towards gender equality. Registered as a Trust in Lucknow 2008, it has been collectively managed by a group of Trustees, full time trained and experienced staff, and a large number of vigilant volunteers in communities, educational establishment and professionals.
HUMSAFAR has a multi-pronged approach to address gender-based violence. A rigorous curative side – the casework unit, provides a wide variety of support services to women survivors. This includes support like paralegal, legal, medical, social mediation, counseling, rescue, shelter and rehabilitation. During the last ten years HUMSAFAR has intervened in more than 7000 cases.