Yes, it’s another acronym: International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (I think the “T” was added later and that’s why it’s not in the acronym). Why May 17th? That was the date, in 1990, that homosexuality was removed as a mental disease from the International Classification of Diseases of the WHO. And just coincidently, I spent today interviewing and meeting with the community-based organization (CBO) Suraksha (“protection”), a self-formed CBO of gay and trans men, and community faculty and mentors from some of the other female sex worker (FSW) and men who have sex with men (MSM) community-based organizations.
The interviews with the community faculty and mentors were more difficult than I was expecting. I’m supposed to be writing up some success stories in the form of case studies to add a bit of a personal touch to the knowledge collection. I was prepared with my list of questions but translation was difficult and I don’t know that I really got much of a “personal” aspect. They were willing to talk about the work they do, successes, challenges, etc, but when I got to the part of “how has being a member of the CBO made your life better or easier?” I didn’t really get very good answers. For the mentors, I didn’t ask that since it wasn’t really applicable: they’re mostly social workers, not sex workers themselves. I don’t know if it was too personal or the translation wasn’t working or they just couldn’t think of a good answer, but I’m going to have to sort of work around what they DID say to determine the lessons-learned story since it wasn’t explicitly stated or told in any story-like way. I think I must have had 7 interviews back-to-back, and I’m really lousy at manual note taking so my hand was getting really cramped!
After lunch (curd rice, if anyone’s interested – I’m taking it super easy on my stomach these last two days), we went to Suraksha. It was in a more industrial area with lots of glassmaking, hardware, and autobody shops. We went down this alley and up some stairs and found the group on the balcony. I’d already met the leader at the annual meeting and had seen some of the community members. We all sat cross-legged on the floor and my feet fell asleep. It was a fairly decent sized group, probably at least 15-20 guys, the two CARE people I was with, plus me. We were outside and it was really noisy from the street traffic below, as usual, and hard to hear and understand them even with the CARE colleague who was translating sitting right beside me. I forgot my camera today, but to be honest I’m not sure I would have even asked if I could take pictures. While I’m pretty comfortable talking with male sex workers, I do recognize that it’s asking a lot of them to open up about rather personal matters to some white girl they’ve just met, and photos may have felt like an objectification of their lives. I am here to get their story, but the open discussion and trust is more important (my opinion, anyway).
These guys have not had an easy time of it, that’s for sure. Most of their families do not accept them. There is a very high risk of assault by the police and harassment from everyone else. They are highly stigmatized and mocked for the way they walk, speak, and their mannerisms (these particular individuals were more on the effeminate side of the spectrum). They are typically very poor. There seems to be a pretty wide grey area encompassing homosexual, transgender, and transvestite. When I was looking through photo albums, it seems like almost all the members participate in cross-dressing, at least for special occasions, some have had breast augmentation, but they were still all dressed as men, some with minimal makeup, when we were all sitting together. I found this interesting just because in Canada, there is so much sensitivity and debate, even within the LGBT community, about self-identifying with particular groups, labels, who gets called what, what pronouns to use and when in the reassignment process to switch over, whether “transgender” should have an “-ed” at the end and all that, whereas here I don’t know that the debate is the same – or even happening. Maybe when you’re so marginalized already, it doesn’t make much sense to engage in a nomenclature debate and open any other worm cans. As I said before, homosexuality is still illegal in India, but they have been lobbying the government and hope to have it decriminalized in the next little while. It’s before the Supreme Court right now, actually. People don’t usually get charged with “homosexuality,” they get thrown in jail for trumped-up charges and held for weeks, at times. This group has worked really hard to sensitize stakeholders such as the media and the police to gain their support. They said they’ve made some gains, police violence has been reduced by 8-10% over the last 8 years. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s in the right direction and considering the magnitude of the violence problem, it’s definitely made a difference for them. They also invite the media to all their events to show them what they’re up to. There is a big generalization problem with the media and the uproar one story about violence within the gay community can generate. Everyone will start saying that all homosexuals are violent, it’s a widespread problem, when it’s really only the one individual. They told me one story of a man who was charged with pushing someone off a train and people say “it’s because he’s gay, he asked someone for money and when they refused, he pushed him” when the accused said that the other guy saw him and recognized him as gay and jumped rather than interact with him. In any event, it’s one story that has been used against the whole community as some kind of testament to their inner nature. When I started digging about the “how” of what they do, though, I was really impressed. For such an ostracized group to have the courage to mobilize into a distinct organization and work this hard to effect change in a very traditional society shows not just guts but good administration, management and (Pfizer’s gonna love this) ownership. They are a Learning Site now and CBOs in the early stages of formation get a lot of support and hand-holding from Suraksha. They teach by example and encourage responsibility in the groups by giving tasks/roles to people who may have no experience but are willing to try. And this trust is usually returned in spades – people who are so alone are happy to finally have a community of their own. They rise to the occasion and in the process learn meaningful job and life skills. They want a voice in shaping their future and the world around them, and I have so much respect for people that are willing to fight this long and hard for their rights.
I asked Suraksha about gay women and female-to-male transpeople. It’s not really on the radar at all. I don’t think this group has been possible to mobilize; I understand they’ve been invited to events but it’s hard to issue an invitation when you don’t know where to send it. I told them about the Integrity group I know of in Ottawa (an Anglican LGBT/S group) and they were curious about the challenges that gay Canadians face. We talked a bit about civil same-sex marriage and the resistance of some people and religious organizations to it. As much progress as I think has been made in the human rights aspect, I think we still have a ways to go yet – and meeting with this community really reminded me both how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go. The situation in Canada was basically just like that in India not all that long ago, and look at how long it’s taken us to recognize gay rights as human rights – and even that’s not universally accepted. I really hope India isn’t going to take 50 years to get there.