Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pride and angst in Chennai

My Story, Jun '15
The Chennai pride march, now in its 7th year, is headed towards a wider social horizon, writes moulee

Photo credit: moulee
It all started with a single tweet. In early 2013, I tweeted criticising the politics between the queer groups in Chennai. The following week I was in the pride planning meet, discussing how to organise that year's pride parade. The Chennai pride parade (which started in 2009) was then organised by the Chennai Rainbow Coalition (CRC) – an informal collective under which all the organisations, groups and collectives that worked for queer rights in the city gathered.

When I moved to Chennai in 2010, I followed the queer scene and the political dynamics between the queer groups from a distance. I stayed away as I felt it was all power play between NGOs, informal groups and collectives. It was difficult for me to associate with any queer group as I sensed a reluctance to discuss any issue apart from sexuality. I would go further to say that the discussion around sexuality was also limited to 'upper caste gay men'. My queer politics was limited to the online space – I blogged and tweeted.

Growing up in a highly political background, I was used to the political nuances and the dynamics between political parties. The politics wasn't any different in the queer scene. This was another reason why I stayed away even from queer social groups. The power play was – well it still is – nauseating.

For a very long time, I identified myself as an individual not associated with any queer group – even now I do at times. We wittily call people like me 'unaffiliated'. Soon I realised I could navigate the queer activist scene in Chennai without associating with any particular group. The environment was encouraging. I could voice my opinions and ideas without hesitation. I had no restrictions. I found a place for myself even if I was not part of any queer group.

Later, I slowly associated with the informal collective Orinam. My primary association with Orinam was limited to providing technical and editorial support to the website. The non-hierarchical structure of the collective was something I could associate with and I felt encouraged to initiate other offline activities. My association with Orinam did not restrict me from volunteering with other queer organisations like Nirangal, or be ‘unaffiliated’ when I wanted. Eventually, I got actively involved in organising queer events in Chennai.

The year 2013 was also when the Supreme Court of India scrapped the historical Delhi High Court judgement that de-criminalised same-sex sexual activities between consenting adults. The queer political scene in the city changed. New individuals and groups came out in support of the queer community. Interestingly a few social groups disappeared. After the Supreme Court verdict, members of the CRC reached out to the larger queer community of Tamil Nadu at the annual meeting of South India AIDS Action Programme to discuss further action. The CRC transformed into the Tamil Nadu Rainbow Coalition after the meeting!

A scene from Naanga Ready play by Marappachi Theatre
Group - curtain-raiser for this year's queer pride events in
Chennai. Photo credit: Marappachi Theatre Group 
Till 2013, the pride parade in Chennai had been largely celebratory and a means to garner visibility. The Supreme Court verdict was still fresh in our minds when we started the discussions to organise the 2014 parade. Meanwhile the April 2014 NALSA judgement of the Supreme Court recognising trans* rights in India enthralled us. There was dissent from a small quarter of trans* individuals to not associate with the parade and related month-long pride events. This dissent wasn’t limited to Chennai or Tamil Nadu. The rift was serious in nature. The earlier political differences between queer groups were for power. But this rift could prove to be a huge dent for the queer rights movement. Fortunately, the dissenting voices faded and eventually budged towards rationality. The pride parade of 2014 was mixed – we celebrated the NALSA judgement and condemned the December 2013 Supreme Court verdict on Section 377. We also demanded that the state government of Tamil Nadu should amend Section 377 as it was on the Concurrent List.

A few of us in the Chennai queer activist scene had strong leanings towards the Self-Respect Movement, Dalit feminist groups, Left parties, and other progressive collectives and organisations in the state. These made us rethink our strategies for reaching out to larger society and building new allies. This also led us to align the queer movement in Tamil Nadu with the Self-Respect Movement during one of the rallies in September 2014 asking the Tamil Nadu government to amend Section 377.

In 2013, the pride parade route was moved to a narrow lane amidst automobile workshops and hardware shops for administrative purposes. Earlier, the route was along the Marina Beach and the upscale Elliots Beach. The new route disappointed some of us. The common argument I heard was “I don’t want to walk in that dingy place wearing my 7000 rupee shoes!” But there was also a growing realization that the pride parades were not just meant to be a show of visibility or celebration. They were a clear political statement demanding our rights.

Moreover, the Supreme Court verdict also made us realise that as a community we had failed to reach out to larger society. The visibility of the queer community still remains an urban myth. Now the new route makes more sense to us. Is the queer community exclusive to privileged voices and able bodied persons? Is the community failing to acknowledge caste and class privileges, as it steers itself towards mainstream acceptance by embracing normativity? Isn’t it important for the queer community to take a stand against other social inequalities? How fair is it that the queer community in India continues to demand the overthrowing of Section 377 but appears to ignore the constitutional rights of other oppressed communities?

Slowly our conversations are moving away from Section 377. We have a lot of social prejudices and issues to deal with even if our main focus area remains gender and sexuality. In this context, we dealt with an important issue this year – a group that focussed on gay men demanded that we have a pride parade only for the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities. This was opposed by everyone and the group was condemned for their divisive idea of the queer community.

It is a year and a half since the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377. This year, in 2015, there are pride events throughout June and July (month-long pride events have been a feature in Chennai right since the first parade in 2009). The events don’t just target the queer community, but other sections of society as well. The pride agenda started with our usual press meet at the Madras Press Club on June 1. The curtain-raiser event on June 6 was the play Naanga Ready (We are Ready) by the Marappachi Theatre Group. The play confronts society’s intolerance of gender and sexuality diversity with humour and poignancy.

Other scheduled events range from mass sensitisation of youth to the recurring support and sensitisation programmes for parents and families of queer individuals; theatre performances that talk about the lives of trans men and trans women to panel discussions on being queer and casteist and workshops on Internet vulnerabilities of queer youth. As usual, we will have our queer cultural event 'Vannangal' on June 27, the day before the pride parade.

After that we will take a breather of a few weeks as we make things ready to end our pride celebrations with the annual queer film festival 'Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival' from July 24-26, 2015.

moulee is a coffee lover, queer feminist, gender queer but identifies as a homosexual man for political reasons. He is actively involved in the queer scene in Chennai. If you fancy a chat with him, you can tweet at @BumpAhead.

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