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The glossary is good, but let’s not gloss over our oppressive mindset

Music & Noise
Last Updated : 15 January 2023, 01:04 IST

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Recently, the Tamil Nadu government released a glossary of words that must be used to address or describe members of the LGBTQIA+ community; probably the first state to take this step. More often than not, we discuss issues of marginalisation in material terms, such as access to education, healthcare and employment. We rarely attempt to address the underlying oppressive cultural conditioning that pervades dominant thinking. This measure by the government is a cultural step, a shift in semantics that hopes to change the way we think and speak about, and to, the LGBTQIA+ community. But recent happenings at the well-attended 2023 Chennai Book Fair (CBF) tell us that we still have a long way to go.

The Queer Publishing House, which publishes writers from the queer community, requested for a stall -- a first in CBF’s 46-year history. Apparently, the publisher was first denied permission. It required pressure from within the system and the media for a place to be finally allotted. I also heard from friends at the book fair that there is still a feeling among other publishers that QPH does not deserve a place there. But such rejections and negative vibes are not new to people in this community. We have made it their everyday life experience.

A few months ago, I watched Mihir Fadnavis’ magnificent documentary Lords of Lockdown, which takes us through the first few months of the lockdown in Mumbai. The film introduces us to a voluntary group that provided food for the poor during this trying time. As the film progresses, we watch them grow in capacity and delivery. An incredible story indeed. But one that needs to be tempered with alternative stories that emerge from spaces that we hardly notice, from people who do not have the power that comes with privileged social connections and the ability to scale.

When the Delta variant of the Covid virus was playing havoc with our lives, a group of 20 trans-people -- many of whom did not know one another -- came together at a home in Chennai and started a trans-kitchen. The person behind this initiative was Srijth Sundaram, a LGBTQIA+ activist and brilliant theatre director. The aim was simple: Feed people who are on the streets, including the homeless, destitute women, migrant workers, sanitation workers, those stranded on the road due to the lockdown, ambulance drivers, and even policemen on duty. Mainly catering to underserved areas of the city, what started as one kitchen expanded to two, and one meal became two and then three a day. Everything from the procurement of ingredients, cooking and delivery was handled by trans-people. Beautifully named Oru-pidi-anbu or ‘A handful of love’, over a period of a few months, this movement offered love in the form of food to close to one lakh people.

As a society, we have a tendency to pay attention to the good deeds of people who come with some degree of privilege. They have the social network to make us pay attention. We are also enamoured by scale. The larger seems more astonishing. So, when Chef Vikas Khanna collaborates with larger-than-life corporations for his ‘Feed India’ initiative or Sonu Sood supports migrant workers, we all know about it. I am not belittling their contribution, but the recognition they receive is sharply skewed. When people who have been pushed to the very edge of society put all their anger and fear aside, risk their physical and psychological wellbeing to help others, it is an act of unfathomable generosity. And I place this far ahead of whatever we, the privileged or the superstars, may contribute.

When the trans-kitchen was closed, they invited musician Sangeetha Sivakumar (my wife) and me for an evening of celebration and remembrance -- celebrating the work and remembering those from their community who lost their lives. Every team member spoke about their experiences. One repeated telling was about the noticeable change in people’s perception. Men who had hated their very sight and called them beggars and prostitutes now fell at their feet and thanked them for the food. The policeman who would exploit them in normal times ate the food they offered. Children came running with joy when they saw them. They were used to blessing people, but now they were being blessed by the elderly. Family members who had disassociated from a trans-person reconnected after watching the trans-kitchen story on television.

To the team members, the trans-kitchen work was cathartic and gave them tremendous self-confidence. It was an emotional evening and hearing each one of them speak was deeply moving, but it also left me disturbed.

The stories shared about perception-shifts made me ask myself a hard question. “Why do people from a marginalised community need to ‘do good’ or prove themselves to receive respect, dignity and love from the rest of us? For trans-people, being placed on a pedestal was an unusual happening and hence overwhelming. But we cannot claim that we have changed on that basis. This specific shift was under extraordinary circumstances and opportunistic. Has this feeling sustained in those individuals after the pandemic?

We, the privileged, also make model citizens of a few from the LGBTQIA+ community and use their rise to pat ourselves on our backs. This is a woke charade. We would have truly transformed only when their identity becomes irrelevant. But even then, only they can give us a certificate of having evolved; we cannot claim it on our own!

I will end by giving you the names of some of the volunteers at trans-kitchen, Chennai - Handful of love: Shankari, Priya Ezhumalai, Bobby, Sowmiya, Sowndharya Gopi, Rupakala Vedachalam, Ramya, Kaavya, Mageshwari Elumalai, Bavya, Preethi Ganapathi, Sandhiya, Madonna, Nazeena, and Maya.

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Published 14 January 2023, 18:27 IST

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