Queer Feminism: LGBTIQ+ Activism in India with Nazariya

Pride month is celebrated across the world every June to mark the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in the USA, a watershed event for LGBTQI+ rights. This year, because of Covid-19 pride celebrations have been cancelled in most parts of the world and/or have gone online. We have gathered five stories of young LGBTQI+ activists from across the globe to showcase their resilience in the face of uncertainty and how they are celebrating pride during the pandemic. 

This interview is part of our Pride 2020 series spotlighting LGBTQI+ Activists around the world. In this instalment, Aapurv and Jenny spoke with Ritambhara Mehta and Rituparna Borah from Nazariya and organisation in India.

Read more from our pride2020 series.

Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, Nazariya and your activism?

Nazariya was formed in October 2014 by a group of Delhi-based queer feminist activists. It was started to sensitise the work and culture of groups and individuals working on issues of gender-based violence, livelihoods, education, and health to queer perspectives and issues. We do this through research & evaluation, capacity building, and advocacy. 

Nazariya uses the word queer for people who have diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. A queer perspective helps build links between issues of people marginalised because of their gender and sexuality, and the existing work on violence, livelihoods, education, and health in order to impact the discourse on pleasure, desire, rights, and entitlements. 

We conduct workshops in colleges, universities and different organisations on gender, sexuality and LGBTQI+ issues. We have been working with the corporates to sensitise them to sexual harassment in the workplace and promote diversity and inclusion. We also run a helpline, do crisis intervention work, provide free mental health counselling and conduct research and advocacy. 

What are the biggest concerns of LGBTQI+ communities in India?

Domestic violence by natal families, lack of healthcare access, rampant homophobia and transphobia in the society are some of the concerns that impact the LGBTQI+ community in our country. Recently a young person named Anjana Harish committed suicide because of conversion therapy forced on her by her family. There is a lack of understanding of queer and trans issues within the medical community which leads to queer and trans persons not accessing health care services. The recent Trans Act does not talk about self identification which is a big hindrance for trans persons’ dignity and pride.

Nazariya in the news
Nazariya’s recent video series on familial acceptance of queer family members featured in an Indian magazine.

As well as this we have noticed pink washing in many places and a narration of homonormativity coming in from different quarters. 

How has Covid19 impacted the LGBTQI+ communities in India? 

As we said Nazariya runs a helpline. Before the lockdown we received an average of 1 call per week. Since the lockdown we have had 1 a day. At the same time our face-to-face counselling, which was run physically in three hour sessions on Wednesdays and Fridays, has had to be moved online. Similarly this service has had to expand. It still runs for 6 hours but the calls come in across the week, as many clients cannot get the privacy to speak with the counsellor for 45 minutes at a time. Additionally, we are getting more requests for appointments and therefore we have hired one more counsellor for 3 months.

As you can see the demand for counselling and support have grown during lockdown and largely fall into six categories. 

1. Surveillance: Many LGBTQI+ people are facing constant surveillance by their parents and being told how to dress and carry themselves (mannerisms) at home. Parents are ‘counselling’ them on how to be straight or telling them their orientation is a phase. Many have shared damaging experiences of homophobia and transphobia that they have been facing in their biological families.

2. Lack of safe spaces: For a lot of clients their colleges, universities, collectives, or organizations were safe spaces and this lockdown has meant a lack of access to these. 

3. Lack of Privacy: Many are unable to take a regular 45-50-minute session of counseling as there is no privacy in the house or a room where they can be alone. Some are also restricted from using or recharging their mobile phones.

4. Dysphoria: Gender non-binary and trans persons are being forced to wear clothes that conform to the gender assigned to them at birth. This increases their dysphoria. Trans people who want to undergo gender affirmative surgeries (GAS), have had the process abruptly halted, they are not able to take estrogen or testosterone. This has increased dysphoria and hormonal disbalances.

5. Violence: Queer women are facing heightened physical and mental violence from their husbands. Unmarried clients have also shared about the mental violence that they have to face during the lockdown which is impacting their mental health.

6. Loss of livelihood options: Many transmen are day wage labourers and many transwomen resort to begging and sex work for their livelihood. Due to the lockdown there is a serious clamping down on these livelihood options. Many trans persons are unable to pay rent or buy food and other essential items. 

How can International NGOs support LGBTQI+ communities in these times?

International NGOS and donors can make funds easily available for small Community Based Organisations. The protocols of many donors are very stringent making it very difficult for small organisations with fewer resources, but greater connection to people who would benefit from funding, to fulfil all the criterions. There are funders who are more focussed on programmes than salaries of people which is also a hindrance to small groups which work with a smaller staff. Reviewing, reducing, dismantling or helping smaller organisations to fulfill these criterions would move money quicker and more easily to the places it can have the biggest impact. 

And how did you mark Pride month?

Nazariya poetry zoom reading.
Nazariya’s Zoom poetry reading.

Nazariya partnered with a graphic design company to make zoom backgrounds with trans and queer messages. We started a campaign called Compassionately Yours which was aimed at amplifying voices of supportive relatives, parents and friends of queer people. 

We also organised a webinar series called Our Lives: Our Tales – History of LBT*Q collectives in India where we had activists coming in from different states and speaking about their victories, struggles and challenges. Apart from this Nazariya participated in several panels and organised a poetry reading session by queer women and trans persons who have contributed to an anthology of poems edited by Akhil Katyal and Aditi Angiras.

Jenny Bowie

Jenny Bowie

Jenny is a passionate advocate for youth engagement, gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights. Jenny grew up in London before studying African Studies and Politics at the University of Birmingham. After her studies, and a short stint working in pubs, Jenny moved to Tanzania, followed by Uganda to work with different community and youth organisations. On returning to London, she worked at Bond on campaigns and advocacy before joining AbleChildAfrica to support disability rights. Jenny joined Restless Development in 2017 as Global Capacity Building Manager working on the MTV Staying Alive Foundation Programme. In 2019 she transitioned into the role of Senior Youth Engagement Manager where she has led our youth engagement consultancy services. Outside work Jenny is studying for an MSc in Gender and Sexuality and enjoys supporting Queer arts spaces in London.

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Queer Feminism: LGBTIQ+ Activism in India with Nazariya

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