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How Lesbians in India Redefine the Idea of Community

“Coming out, for me personally, was not an easy thing. I didn’t know what to say, how to say it and, most importantly, who to say it to. But, once I had accepted it to myself, I just HAD to tell someone that I am queer. Around that time, I met Raahi on PinkSofa. She was in Mumbai then. I remember shivering slightly when typing out the words ‘I am gay’. It was harder to use the words ‘lesbian’ or ‘queer’ back then,” says Sathya*. “She identified as pansexual. I had to Google it,” she adds embarrassedly.

I came across Jill on Twitter. With about 700 followers and more than 9000 Tweets at that point, she Tweeted about her fandom and queer fanfiction from her quirky Doctor Who-based Twitter handle. “My Twitter account doesn’t actually have my name, and I don’t follow people from my ‘real’ life on Twitter. When I realised that I had a crush on my roommate, I took a deep breath and sent out a Tweet saying ‘I think I like women,’ and that was that. About six more months passed before I could say this out aloud to my best friend,” admits Jill.

I have always loved the Internet. Its potential to provide information and connect people has always amazed and enthralled me. Hence, I decided to look at how queer women in India, lesbian and bisexual women in particular, use the Internet to meet other queer women. I looked at three dating sites in particular, PinkSofa, OKCupid and Mingle2, apart from the usual social media sites.

“I was back home in Kuwait when Priya pinged me on OKCupid. We spoke over GChat a bunch of times and then decided to meet for coffee. It was she who helped me come out for the first time ever, to my best friend from school. I was staying the night at my friend’s place and was gathering up the courage to come out to her. Priya kept messaging me, encouraging me to speak to her, telling jokes to calm me down and so on. She was so happy for me when it all went well,” says Noor, smiling fondly.

Coming out is quite a hard and continuous journey for many queer folks. It is especially hard to come out to those in your immediate physical world, as the repercussions can be quite severe. “I was in one of those Catholic colleges back then, and didn’t really know how my friends would react. Not to help matters, I was also staying in a hostel. You know how some girls can be. I didn’t want to risk anything going back to my parents,” says Sathya. “Raahi was outed by her then friends when she was in school. She understood my fears and slowly helped me assess my friends. She was so proud of me when I came out to my best friend.” “How did it go with your best friend?” I asked. “Oh she was brilliant about the whole thing! She then helped me come out to others after that over a period of time. Raahi and she used to jointly pick out my outfits over Skype for my first few dates,” she laughs. “Two friends of mine from PinkSofa, Gita and Tia who were in Delhi when I was in Chennai, actually sent over a care package with hot chocolate powder, popcorn, a book and a bunch of other things to cheer me up when I was dealing with the sadness my unrequited love,” says Sunaina with a dramatic flourish. “I must admit, it helped very much. My roommate in particular appreciated the package,” she chuckles, and then adds, a little sadly, “No, she didn’t know who had actually sent it.”

EROTICS: Sex, Rights and the Internet (2011), an exploratory research study carried out in five countries, speculates that queer communities might have been the first ones to actually use the Internet to ‘socially network’ given the lack of physical spaces afforded to them. They lived out their largely secret queer lives online, socialising and supporting each other over cables which connected them to one another. According to sociological studies, there are three minimum characteristics that usually make a community: locale, common ties, and social interaction (Bernard, 1973 as cited in Correll, 1995). When Giti Thadani created Sakhi1 in 1991 and started getting letters and writing back to women who identified as lesbian in different parts of India, she started creating a network and a community. Here were a group of women who had never met each other in person, and probably never would, and yet felt like they belonged somewhere finally (Dave, 2011). Hereafter, the characteristic of locale loses meaning. With the development in technology, people are more and more connected to one another. Now, your geographical location does not really matter for you to interact with someone. Most of these women, Sathya, Jill, Raahi, Sunaina and others, have never met each other in person till date. Therefore, it is time to change the idea of what makes a community. More than one’s locale, personal intimacy despite physical distances between one another becomes a more important factor for a community to be formed, and personal intimacy is something that they had in abundance.

The Internet brings together people who might otherwise never have interacted with one another. Whether it is over a movie that many loved or in solidarity with a queer boy who committed suicide or to protest a dictatorial government and a draconian law, there is a sense of belonging which has risen through social interactions between strangers. Similarly, when women who are romantically and sexually attracted to other women interact with one another over emails and chats, the shared experience becomes the basis of the “imagined community” (Anderson, 1991). Cyberspace, supported by ever-developing technology, fosters interactivity and promotes relationships, establishing the said community. When I was discussing this idea of a community with Sunaina, she thought about it for a bit and said, “There was this woman, Leela, who messaged me on Mingle2. We haven’t spoken more than two or three times. The first time when we chatted, she sounded a little upset. When I asked her what’s up, she said that her ex-girlfriend was getting married in three days. They had been together for about four years. Leela was quite devastated. She started sobbing when we spoke over voice chat. But she sounded much better once she got it all out. I guess it is like a community, in that manner of speaking.” And similarly, “It took me a lot of time to accept that I’m bisexual. I spoke to a lot of people on (microblogging site) Tumblr to figure things out. I have the support of my friends and everything today, but it is still a very important space for me as a queer person. I have friends in different countries who still check up on me every month or so and make sure that everything is fine,” says Asha happily.

Relationships formed via the Internet happen for a specific reason at that point in time, whether it is one person helping the other piece together a broken heart, or an older lesbian woman helping a young queer girl come to terms with her sexuality, or just someone who you can talk to about your queer issues. Sometimes these relationships, after they have served their main purpose, slowly fade out. “Priya and I became really close over a period of time. I got her out of a bad date feigning an emergency. She helped me come out to more friends. I was kinda sorta responsible for her and her girlfriend getting together. She was there when a school friend turned out to be homophobic and helped me deal with whole thing properly,” said Noor. She added, “But we don’t really talk as much as we used to earlier. It’s not because we have grown apart or something. We still care very much about each other and are updated about the big stuff. It’s like she entered my life for a purpose. Now that that purpose has been served, we are simply there for each other now. It’s a different kind of a friendship.” “Gita is currently in France and Tia somewhere in interior Jharkhand working with an NGO. I have met Tia but not Gita. We catch up if we are in the same city, but that’s that. They are still a part of my safety net, but our relationship isn’t an intense as it used to be, if I’m making sense,” explained Sunaina.

As fantastic as this network of unseen and unsung queer heroes is, it’s not all hunky dory either.  “In spite of being close and all that, there are things which you have no idea about since you are kilometres apart,” says Sathya. “Raahi passed away a year ago. She cut her wrist, was taken to the hospital, and I actually heard about it only a few hours before she died. Her family had been quite homophobic. There was no way I could have gone for her funeral in Mumbai from Chennai. I didn’t know how to explain my grief to my family,  room-mate or the girls in the hostel, and so hid at my best friend’s place for a few days. It is during times like this the double life gets to you,” added Sathya bitterly.

Some may never see or meet each other. But they still have faith in the fact that there are others who have their back. Nina, one of my respondents from Mumbai, once told me, “A friend once asked me how I can trust someone who I have never met. What she did not get is that there are certain things which beat having to meet a person in real life to trust them. Having to accept to yourself, and then others, that you’re a part of a criminalised minority who may soon face ostracisation kind of brings you together. I’m not saying that other interests are not important. They are of utmost importance to actually have shared interests and other commonalities to become friends. But to be a part of a support system for someone does not require for you both to love the same TV shows.” The community formed on the Internet among these queer women is one that is built over a sense of common reality and with bonds formed through mutual openness from behind closed doors. It is a space where the queer woman feels a sense of camaraderie and can be her very own very queer self.

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the persons quoted

1 Sakhi was the first explicitly lesbian organisation in India. The organisation asked those who also identified as lesbian to write to them. They usually replied to each letter and, once it was clear that the writer was a woman, would enclose a list of others who also wrote to them with their postal address, thus enabling a networking system amongst lesbian women across India.

References

Anderson, B. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of

Nationalism. New York. Verso.

Bhattacharjya, M. & Ganesh, M. (2011). Negotiating Intimacy and Harm: Female

Internet Users in Mumbai. EROTICS: Sex, Rights and Internet. pp. 66-108. Retrieved from Correll, S. (1995). The Ethnography of an Electronic Bar: The Lesbian Cafe. Journal

of Contemporary Ethnography. pp. 270-298. Retrieved from http://jce.sagepub.com/content/24/3/270

Dave, N. 2011. Affect, Commensuration, and Queer Emergences. AMERICAN

ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 38. (No. 4) pp. 650-665.

Image: Lesbian Postcards, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Article written by:

Smita is currently Second Lead, Digital Projects, at Point of View, India, and works on gender, sexuality, and technology. They hold a Master's degree in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Their areas of interest include gender, queer studies, internet, technology, stories, history, films and television, counterculture etc. Smita can generally be found wandering the internet and/or hunting for good coffee.

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