This month the sixth biggest city in India, Chennai, celebrates LGBT Pride for the fourth time since 2009.
Gay Star News talks to one of the organisers L Ramakrishnan (Ramki) about the unique trans women experience in Indian culture, why they’ve said no to corporate sponsorship and how they are working to make this Pride festival truly inclusive.
What’s new for Chennai Pride this year?
Typically we have one or two film screenings, this time it’s an entire series over three days, with 28 films from ten countries.
During the second day of the film screenings the theme is parents of LGBT youth. We’re following the films up with a panel discussion featuring a few parents who are based here in Chennai and a few other folks who are involved with the scene of getting parents reconciled with their queer children: a counsellor and a human rights lawyer who’s dealt with cases of estranged children and parents.
Is coming out to parents the most important issue for gay people in India?
In general it’s a very family-orientated culture in India. We can’t just generalise about gay people. There’s trans children who often bear the brunt of violence and harassment: very often they get very quickly estranged from their parents and traditionally there has been no option for them but to leave their families and join the hijra [trans women] collectives.
One of the nice things for Chennai Pride is that we have two mothers of hijras and they will talk about how they have embraced their children.
I think what’s cross-cutting, if I may be permitted to generalise, is a very strong desire to not be estranged from the family. And in fact the whole thing about coming out is that there are a lot of people who just want to come out to their parents and siblings and they’ve decided that it really isn’t worth coming out in a larger context.
Have you seen more parents come out in support of their LGBT children in Chennai?
We’ve been fortunate in Chennai in that there a few parents who’ve been supportive from day one. About two years ago we brought out a booklet which contains quotes by parents and some PFLAG-like material. But it’s very diverse it doesn’t talk only about gay children, but gay, lesbian, bi, as well as trans children and it has a glossary and it has quotes by parents.
As recently as a week ago, we gave a copy of the booklet in Tamil to a guy coming out to his parents who didn’t speak English and after 48 hours of drama they were completely accepting of him.
There has been a growth in the number of parents who are out and outspoken. And they are not just people who are educated and have multiple advanced degrees, though those are also there, but also there are women who don’t have any formal education at all and have just come out in support of their queer kids.
Why are films an important element of Chennai Pride?
In general everyone likes the celluloid screen and in India we’re particularly fixated by film – you just have to look at the feature film industry to know how popular it is. So it’s an effective medium for getting through to people.
We’re trying to do a balancing act where we look at films that relevant to and interesting to the communities themselves, as well as films that can be seen by a mainstream audience. So while we’re not being puritanical we are keeping that in mind. We don’t want to shock and alienate potential allies in the form of families.
I read on your schedule that you are showing some serious films, one about a trans woman who committed suicide?
Yesterday, we showed a documentary about a trans woman called Sowmiya who took her own life and another trans woman called Mariya who was murdered. That was a very sober event. It was entirely in Tamil [language] and I think an event like that is just as important as something that’s fun and entertainment.
Sowmiya had somewhat of a support system. She knew a few transwomen who she was friends with, but the burden of stigma from the family, discrimination in general and a relationship that went sour, was more than she could handle and she took to alcohol. And took her life. It was a sad story.
The entire is Chennai Pride festival is going to be capped off on 30 June with an LGBT day of remeberence.
How many people are you expecting for the Chennai Pride march on Sunday 24?
For the Pride march we’re expecting 500 to 600. This is not huge in comparison to Mumbai. But for the size of the beach here I think 500 to 600 is pretty good.
How are businesses involved this year?
What’s new is that we will have some contingents representing various businesses marching in solidarity with the LGBT community.
We have people across a whole range of ideologies, some of them say ‘great let’s have corporate sponsorship’ and there’s other people who are far left and oppose to anything other than community-raised funds for the march.
We had a lot of negotiations and what we decided is businesses are welcome to march and show support for the LGBT cause, but we’re not going to accept donations from them. And the banners need to be all about accepting the community, not marketing their products.
I know India is still waiting to hear the verdict from the Supreme Court’s inquiry into 2009’s decriminalization of consensual gay sex, how else are things looking nationally?
Yes, even though this legal issuing is hanging the supreme court has yet to announce its verdict, there are two or three really encouraging moves that have happened nationally.
The Government of India planning commission, which develops five year national plans, have mentioned the need to include LGBT communities for the first time in healthcare, social equity and anti-discrimination.
We hope it will actually translate to plans on the ground and it’s not just going to be tokenistic.
Do you have any specific aims of Chennai Pride 2012?
There are about 12 or 13 aims because there’s not one but several organisations putting it together.
The foremost aim is to urge the Supreme Court to uphold the 2009 decision to decriminalize consensual gay sex. It could happen any time now or it could happen a few months from now. And we’ll be of course thrilled if it happens now while Pride month is going on.
How have you worked to ensure Chennai Pride is inclusive of different groups?
We had to really sit down and speak with different communities. We acknowledge there is class privilege and a gay man earning several million rupees a year is not the same as a hjria from a very poor segment of society.
This is probably a little different from what you see in queer activism in Europe and North America where very often if you look at the contemporary movement it’s more or less led by middle class gay and lesbian people, and to a lesser extent bisexual people, and very often there’s a lot of transphobia and trans-exclusion from the political organizing.
Here in India, because there’s a long history of trans-visibility within the culture. There is a lot more ready recognition that trans people exist. And that their needs need to be addressed.
Chennai Pride is also consciously trying to reach out to populations from outside the urban area. There are some groups that specialise in using traditional street theatre to highlight issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. They go to small villages and perform and they are bringing their shows to our cultural event.
How is Chennai Pride funded?
It’s all community-funded which is difficult but we’re not overly ambitious about achieving a mega event. Focusing on community funding is important we feel for long term sustainability because the economy may go up and down, corporates may be interested in this issue some years, some years they may not. People from the community dip into their pocket and it works out.
The film festival is at the Goethe Institute the Indo-German cultural center. They are letting us use the auditorium for free. And they are an entirely non-profit institution. And they are picking up some of the printing costs. Last year we had the LGBT employees association of the United States foreign service at the Pride march.
But one issue that we are trying to strike a balance with is that although we welcome participation from corporates, cultural centers and consulates, we also want to make sure there’s a very strong local community presence. We don’t want to be bombarded with allegations that all of this is a Western influence.
While we welcome all of these people at the Pride march and to attend all our events, but we are making a very strong point that the conceptualisation and implementation of this event is entirely the local community.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Having a mix of events that are in English and the local language Tamil, especially when were trying to do programming for the film festival. There really aren’t that many films in Tamil for example. At the Pride march we have a lot of placards and banners that are in Tamil, some in English and some in other languages.
Also ensuring that we reach out to all segments of the LGBT community as well as all segments of potential allies is a challenge. If we have an event at a cultural center there are people of certain socio-economic groups that are probably not going to be comfortable entering a venue like that. We are trying to balance the kind of venues. The Pride march is going to be by the beach – a place where everybody hangs out in Chennai.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more people from the community who’ve come to learn about the existence of groups and reach out to us for support. Typically that’s always happened with all the media coverage we invariable get a lot of individuals contacting us who are trying to reach out for the very first time in their lives.