The importance of documenting India's LGBTQ+ movement

“Historians and eyewitnesses may work separately but at a certain point, they need to cooperate. Even if testimonies do not provide the same information as the documents, I often found that witnesses provide answers where documents cannot.”

- Author of Une vie contre une autre (One Life Against Another) historien Sonia Combe, Institut des Sciences Sociales du Politique (CNRS) Université de Paris-Ouest-Nanterre, France.

2018 is a momentous year for the LGBTQ+ community as the archaic section 377 of the Indian penal code has been read down by the Supreme Court of India. This was following the 2017 judgement on privacy as a fundamental right. This historic judgement not only decriminalised consensual sex between adults but also went much further in affirming the dignity as well as rights of all LGBT people in the country. What the decisions of the SC have made clear is that the legal apparatus of the country is finally recognising the rights of citizens and is also speaking to a transformative constitution in India. This SC decision is an outcome of almost three-and-a-half decades of various litigations to repeal Section 377. 

Gender and sexuality minorities have had a hard journey both in colonial and post-independence times. Earlier in 2013, When the Supreme Court recriminalized homosexuality, and overturned the Naz Foundation judgement, one of the main grounds was that there was not enough documentation related to discrimination and rights violations alleged, and that there was nothing called an “LGBT community”, just a bunch of individuals who may identify as LGBT. Whereas Queer archival spaces have existed and continue to do so in India. For example, Orinam, founded in 2003, is an all-volunteer unregistered collective of LGBTIQA+ people and allies based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. It functions as a support, cultural and activist space. The website lists helplines and also features a blog. Orinam also hosts a comprehensive timeline of the legal struggle to repeal section 377 along with its archive of opinions from the community. Koltaka based Varta, an older collective that also had one of the first magazines on gender and sexuality issues (Pravartak magazine - 1991-2000 and Counsel Club - 1993-2000) have modeled themselves as resource centre as well as a Webzine that features articles and stories from and of the community. There are numerous individuals collecting and documenting on their own as well across the country.

While these archives exist, there is a lack of a physical archive which allows people access to memories and the reality of the struggle. Visual, audio and text, curated in a way that comprehensively narrates the story of the community has been known to help break stereotypes and ideas that people may have of LGBTQ+ individuals. For example, the One Archives in Chicago Illinois. This space is of the belief that preservation promotes public awareness. The Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Florida also houses over 30,000 works of art history records and other material that is displayed in rotating exhibitions through the year.

Access to and housing archival material implies that people can get rare insights into what the first pride marches in Bangalore and Delhi looked like. From a sea of people mostly in masks to a largely unmasked parade in 2018, 10 years has brought the LGBTQ+ community a long way. A space where people can come and see that theirs is not a lonesome journey is what a physical reference centre can do. So, what is the material that can be archived? Raw footage from pride marches, interviews with representatives of the community, personal stories of family members of those who are no longer with us, photographs, letters and other forms of communication. Over and above this there are official documents from varied organisations that can help construct a history for the LGBTQ+ community. There is an ongoing effort to set up a physical archive in Bangalore and work is progressing towards linking it to legal aid. 

QAMRA (Queer Archive for Memory Reflection and Activism) as the name suggests, is a gender and sexual minorities archive in India.  It is a physical archive, located in the southern city of Bangalore. The idea for this archive is the brainchild of T Jayashree, an independent filmmaker who has been documenting the LGBTQ+ movement on video in India. She has articulated her position thus:

Looking at the transcript of the 2013 judgement, I wondered about all those lives, struggles, and stories that I had been recording. Thousands of gigabytes of footage that I have collected over a decade and a half – how does one make sense of it? Can these stories of intimacy, events, protests, anger, disappointment, violence, desire, and loneliness be translated into the realm of visual jurisprudence?  What could be the role of such documentary films and footage?

QAMRA intends to be a ‘living’ archive – not just to recreate nostalgia but going meaning to this nostalgia, grief, and memory into something present and active. The material in QAMRA is about the public history of the movement, but the focus is also on the private lives of individuals, of which there is very little existing documentation. The hope is that this archive will serve both as a repository of collective memory and platform for collective action.


Read:

A struggle against social morality

After Sec 377, what’s next for the LGBT community? 

Sec 377: State, civil society need to step up

Queer, confront it

Looking at mental health in the queer community

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