Pride over prejudice

A year since the law against gay relationships was struck down, art is moving slowly but surely towards LGBTQIA+ integration

A year since the Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised homosexuality, the commemoration comes with guarded optimism.

LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual and others) activists call it a step towards inclusion and social acceptance, but voice concerns over skewed provisions in the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill.

They also see a perpetuation of stereotypes in popular culture, and continued rejection of sexual and gender minorities by families.

The big takeaways are a new-found openness, a readiness to speak out, and the potential of art, as a medium, to drive change.

Taking questions and concerns from the fringes to the mainstream, from closed community groups to the big city walls, this could be a key shift to steer discussions on LGBTQIA+ rights in the country.

Collectives that showcase works of LGBTQIA+ artists are, at once, taking a new road to integrating and empowering the community with employment. The voices are bolder, and brighter, as they morph into messages on the walls of streets, schools, train stations and corporate offices.

The politics is making a statement through music (Pragya Pallavi’s Queerism, India’s “first openly queer” album, was released this year), comics, indie films, literature and theatre.

There are doubts over the efficacy of these projects, considering that a sizeable non-urban section of the community is still untouched by these slivers of progress. It, however, is hard to miss the shift they are bringing in; stories on the community are still being told by the outsider but now, they are also coming from within – stories that are raw, real and lived.

SHEDDING VICTIMHOOD

In popular culture, the narrative of gender inclusiveness is, increasingly, discarding the victim identity and drawing from pride – an ebullient counter-voice that questions and dares to reclaim rightful spaces. As LGBTQIA+ artists try to make careers on sheer talent, these pursuits also become important because their identities and lived experience promise to shape a new context for people outside of the community.

Kalki Subramaniam, transgender activist and artist, sees a rise in the number of LGBTQIA+ people who have come out, since the Supreme Court judgment. More are shedding forced notions of guilt to embrace life – “that’s the big lift in our spirit” – but it’s a long road to life without fear.

Kalki speaks a day ahead of an event her Sahodari Foundation is organising in Madurai, where about 250 trans-persons present testimonials, tracing lives defined by shame and fear.

Art is medium and message in this new narrative. “It’s a part of Shut Up, a series of protest-art events. I see art as a great influencer here; a powerful tool in communicating with the society,” she says.

The testimonials – from victims of physical and sexual violence – are collected as part of the Pollachi-based foundation’s Trans/Hearts project and are displayed for public viewing. Through Walls of Kindness, a project of the foundation, transgender artists renovate walls of anganwadis in rural and tribal villages with paintings and murals, free of charge. Kalki, while endorsing the power of art as change agent, feels it’s time art also created livelihoods.

There’s a start, a hint of promise, in LGBTQIA+ artists who are establishing themselves as professionals. “These artists are getting work in the metros but we have a long way to go. Unlike in Europe or the US, we are not very generous in our appreciation of the artist, any artist. But yes, this is a starting point,” she says.

The stories are coming out and they are setting off a change in perceptions too. The potential of art and cultural spaces in shaping inclusiveness as an organic, everyday idea is, however, realised with greater reach.

CINEMA AS MEDIUM

Vinay Chandran, Executive Director of Swabhava, an organisation that provides support services to LGBTQIA+ populations in Bengaluru, sees cinema as the medium which could expand the reach. Chandran co-created the city’s first queer film festival, in 2003, and was director of the Bangalore Queer Film Festival (BQFF) between 2010 and 2016.

“In 2003, when we started out, we were the only ones. Now, there’s a festival in almost every city. When we talk about art collectives, we are also talking about privileged spaces; for people who have access to these avenues, these are important stories but they can’t be the only way forward. It’s also important to see trends in literature – people from the community are coming out in poetry, essays and personal stories. We now have LGBT panels in literature festivals,” he says.

The relationship and family dynamics portrayed in television content remain far from inclusive. “Normalising same-sex relationships in popular culture is a slow process but we also see a LGBT storyline being cleared by ALT Balaji (Romil and Jugal, a Hindi web series based on a same-sex relationship),” he says.

Poornima Sukumar, artist and founder of Bengaluru-based Aravani Art Project, acknowledges the impact of the Supreme Court judgment but takes exception to contradictory provisions in the Transgender Bill. “Even within the community, the law discriminates against trans-people. The focus is still on urban sections of the community and there’s ignorance on sections that don’t have access to social media or news reports. Changing perceptions, by speaking more about the issues, is the way forward and also the biggest challenge. It’s time we took the discussions outside of the community,” she says. Aravani Art Project is a women and trans-women collective that works on public art/wall art projects. The collective identifies streets as integral to its scope because “it is in these public spaces that the bodies of Transgender identifying people attract violence, harassment, social negligence and pressure”.

Prijith P K, founder of Queerythm, a Thiruvananthapuram-based LGBTIQ organisation, looks at art projects as a natural choice to complement ongoing efforts to sensitise the society on the community. In March 2018, the organisation launched Q-Rang, billed as the country’s first LGBTIQ theatre group.

The group’s opening act had seven people narrating, as characters, experiences from their lives. “We are also collaborating with arts colleges on art and sculpture shows. Queer festivals have been organised in eight college campuses. The talent pool within the community is diverse; now, more people are writing about their lives. These art collectives have them open up on struggles with their identities. They are building new approaches to problems faced by members of the community,” he says.

The activists believe that more stories from within the community could impart sensitivity to portrayal of the community in media and mainstream cinema, which continues to mine the transgender identity for laughs, dark themes or token sympathy.

“Crores of rupees are spent on a movie; they could do better than Google research,” says Kalki. Prijith points out that the LGBTQIA+ community has a quiet presence in the country’s cultural spaces as its voices remain distant, insignificant – “Change happens when they are heard,” he says.

Change is still elusive for sections of the community that grapple with trauma and depression but ideas that unify make a good start.

It’s the kind of start which Chandran feels BQFF made with the screening of LGBT films from across the world – “These are fantastic spaces for members of the community to affirm themselves. So many had thanked us for the festival, for the opportunity it gave them to come together; and to watch your own stories on screen, it’s liberating.”

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