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Interview: Diversity and Sexuality – Part 2

Interview: Abstract shapes symbolising diversity of voices

For the interview section of this month’s In Plainspeak, we spoke to a few individuals (details in Part 1) who continue to push the boundaries of their work, art, and social norms, and expand the understanding of diversity and sexuality. A warm thank you to Dr. P. Balasubramanian, Meena Seshu, Navtej Singh Johar, Shamini Kothari, Dr. Subha Sri Balakrishnan and Sujata Goenka, for taking out the time and space for this interview.

In Part 1 of this interview segment, we presented our interviewees’ responses to a question that was common to all the interviews.

Here, in Part 2, each interviewee addresses aspects of sexuality and diversity from their own particular space of personal knowledge, as well as work, advocacy, art and activism across diverse fields. Three themes appear to emerge commonly through some of these responses and we have organised this interview segment as per these: (1) On being different (2) Expanding the scope and understanding of Diversity (3) Diverse issues of sexuality and rights.

On being different

Shikha Aleya: Navtej, in a 2008 interview, you responded to a question about having been called the ‘dancing sardar’, and said: “All I know is that I am a bearded Sikh, and I am a dancer, and I am very OK at being that!” For those who appear to represent difference and diversity, not conforming to the accepted norms, what do you feel are some key factors that foster resilience and self-acceptance?

Navtej Singh Johar: Again, my answer to this would be: not buying into the idea! As a child of five I was able to tell that a) I was different, i.e. sexually, and b) that there was gender disparity, and that I did not want to participate in it.  Children are far more capable of making major decisions than we credit them with.  And I feel it is that simple choice that has kind of left the door for freedom open for me.  Because, if I don’t buy into one fundamental idea, then it somehow readies me to take all other ideas that are afloat in our societies with a pinch of salt. Ideas that I personally remained relatively unfazed by are namely that Sikhs are “masculine” and thus don’t dance, that Punjabi is an unsophisticated language, that Punjab denotes low-culture whereas the cultures of Tamil Nadu or Bengal are high, that India is a spiritual and non-violent nation, that mind is mightier than body, that work is worship, that sensuality is anti-Spirit, or religiosity implies supplication, and so on. These are ideas that were constructed to serve someone’s agendas, but they are actually baseless and very far from the truth.  And, in fact, each one of them ties into an idea of identity, my identity as a Sikh, Punjabi, rational, productive male. But my truth lies not in my identity but in the sensitivity and the sensory responses of my body.  We have to clearly realise, that identity, for which we are shrilling and killing today is a construct.  And I am firmly of the opinion that no construct or idea can parallel the unbiased, uncensored, unpredictable, innately insightful sensory intelligence of my body.

I became a Bharatanatyam dancer because I saw it and loved it! I instantly knew at a visceral level that a) I could do it, b) that I could do it well, and c) that it would satisfy me deeply. There was no more scope left for decision-making.  I could not even entertain the idea that this form did not belong to me or that I would be stopped from doing it. I knew that my decision would be met with resistance, of course, but that it would also wash away like water off a duck’s back. As it did!  Also, I never ever saw it as a brave or rebellious choice on my part, as I am often told, because I am neither.  For me this decision was simple and instantaneous, and it was so, because I was fundamentally never ever convinced about social norms or ideas of being.

Section 377 had to be struck down because it is an idea. The idea that homosexuality is criminal is a bogus and an absurd idea and it directly impinged on the sensations of my body.  I fight it not to uphold my identity as a gay man; I do not want to be made conscious of something that is so intrinsically mine. My fight is not to make you conscious that I am gay, but that how dare you make me self-conscious that I am gay. I want to preserve the right to be unselfconscious of my gayness, I want to preserve and protect the ordinariness of my gayness. Because it is in the safety of ordinariness that I can sensorially settle into and own my own body.  My awareness and sensitivity flourish in the freedom and safety of unselfconsciousness. And I will fight for that! Because my destination is the sensory body, not the male, Sikh, homosexual body. Therefore, I don’t even want the resistance that I have to pose to encroach upon the poise which I require to be open to the sensitivity and beauty within my own body.  So, I guess that what I am proposing is to fight battles when needed, but without polarising, so that there remains no residual drama to deflect or overwhelm the poise that is most favourable for sensorial self-delight, self-reflection, self-awareness, self-assimilation and self-acceptance. And to directly answer your question, my self-acceptance lies in not being different but in being ordinary, just the same as the person next door. And I will fight for that!

I also realise that this might be easier said than done.  But I really don’t see any other way to get out of this frightful conundrum that we are getting deeper into with the constructed binaries becoming more absurd and cruder with each passing day.

Shikha: In an online article, Sujata, you have written of marriage and sexuality, and said, “In India sexuality is a taboo. I was not only living a happy life with a partner outside the framework of marriage; I was teaching sexuality to the teachers who dealt with adult disabled persons.” Please share some of the insights you have gained over the years on this subject.

Sujata Gidhla: People with disability – are not considered good prospects for marriage. Today more than before, the perfect image is sought after. Thin, fair and tall is the description in any matrimonial advertisement. If you happen to be dark, it goes against you. So what happens if you have an imperfect body which cannot be repaired by any cream or surgery?

In India being a woman itself is a challenge, and I was also short, with a permanent disability. I simply focused on my strengths. My hair and my eyes. It worked. Men fell for both.

As a young woman I grew up with a feeling that I was not attractive. The world did not see me as perfect and would label me a poor thing. The poor thing meant that no man would be attracted to me. But I was a person who loved wearing a sari and bangles and bindi. All symbols of sensuality and of being female. I was simply in love with Meena Kumari’s haunting eyes. I was attracted to Rakhee‘s eyes too and later Sharmila Tagore. My sketch book was filled with their eyes. I loved these heroines, not for their acting so much as their looks. Was I lesbian? No certainly not. I was equally in love with Rajesh Khanna, the super hero of our times. Nor did I miss any movie of Shashi Kapoor. His cute smile had stolen my heart.

So it is not about who you are attracted to but the image you carry of yourself. I always felt comfortable with my femininity. I had no doubt about myself.

Marriage is an aspiration every person has a right to. It is natural. Often, it is denied to a person with disability. I was lucky that my parents did receive proposals for me but then I chose to be single and carefree. I had seen bad marriages and did not want to go through one. I realised beauty had nothing to do with good or bad marriages. I made the choice to be single. Yet, when I did find a partner I had no hesitation in having a relationship with him. After all, what is marriage but a legal sanction for sex and children?

Disability has many challenges and one of them is your image of yourself. We need to address this in the teenage years when we first become aware of our diversity. We are different. Accept it.

Expanding the scope and understanding of Diversity

Shikha: Nirantar has a long history of working in the digital space, for example, the experience of setting up and sustaining Khabar Lahariya, the rural, women-run digital news platform. Shamini, please share your insights on issues such as access to digital content and to opportunities for content creation, in the current socio-cultural environment. What aspects do you consider crucial for effective engagement with a vast diversity of lived realities and experiences in the digital world?

Shamini Kothari: I can’t speak for Khabar Lahariya except out of solidarity; it has its own story to tell now independent of Nirantar today, but I do think what it has managed is quite incredible. There is no way to escape the digital today and the digital moves beyond ‘owning’ a computer. Our lives are digitised by the State, law and various other institutions. It is how we consume the world and also how we articulate the self. While the digital space has allowed for various, complex negotiations and expressions of the self (especially for trans and queer folk) it has also led to very polarised discussions of politics. While the digital is discourse itself in some sense, it has made discourse almost impossible. I think the digital has also given a new form to politics, one where the idea of protest becomes more fragmented through forms such as a ‘tweetathon’, or viral hashtag campaigns that may be ongoing, simultaneously, so that even while people may be taking to the streets to protest, they are also tweeting about that protest. As part of my work at Nirantar and in previously having mobilised queer communities online, I feel that one of the primary mistakes we make (that I have also made) is to think of target audience as different identities precisely to maintain ‘diversity’.

More and more, I am inclined towards creating content that deals with an abstract idea that is also simultaneously collective, for example, what does it mean to create content or write politically about ‘grief’ or an idea of ‘home’? The more collective the concept, the more room there is for differences and fractures within identities to reveal themselves, because they will be produced from an interiority that is not labelled from the outside. Fundamentally, I am moving away from thinking through digital content that is ‘specifically’ for say LGBT+ people or ‘Women’. I want to read and write content that does not assume pronouns or gender, that is carefully thinking through how identity is mobilised in X piece, and find vocabularies that produce diversity and difference beyond the gender and sexuality jargon we have received from digital social justice trends in the West. And as a last take away from Khabar Lahariya, also provide space for people to write their own stories when clearly they can write them better.

Shikha: Sujata, you have written and shared posts in the Facebook group you created in 2011, Gurgaon disfriends, about the lack of visibility of persons with disability in media and advertising, and about issues of accessibility in public spaces, such as malls and airports. Looking at disability as diversity, what do you feel can help change the restricted understanding of diversity in mainstream public and commercial spaces and ventures?

Sujata: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which India is a signatory, specifically directs under Article 9, that Governments “take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas”. Yet the government focuses mostly on building ramps, and most of these do not follow specifications.

How can people with disabilities enjoy inclusivity? By making public places accessible, we can experience more of life.

The architects and builders happily ignore our needs. They forget that adhering to the principles of Universal Design makes a place user friendly for many people, pregnant women, mothers with prams and the elderly too. The UNCRPD defines Universal Designas “the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design”. People with disabilities equally have a right to the malls, the best seats in a movie and other public spaces. Why not? Just ramps on the sidewalk will not help, if there are poles which block the entrance to the bus stands. The sidewalks dotted with tress and poles can prove dangerous for a person with a visual impairment. These small loopholes prove to be major barriers. Many restaurants have only steps and no ramps. This, mostly, is the norm. The exceptions are few and we note these few with great pleasure.

Society seems to think disabled people do not need to enjoy themselves. Once a restaurant owner blatantly offered to send me food to my house. He just could not see the point of why I was visiting a restaurant at night anyway.

I had the opportunity to do a research study on media images of disability. It was appalling. A person with a disability is portrayed as a weak individual who is to be sympathised with. The disabled community felt disheartened by the portrayal. Since then though, it has improved. I am pleased to note that programs like Sa Re Ga Ma, a reality musical show, had a visually impaired contestant competing on the show. She was given no concessions. This shift towards inclusion also gave a participant from the queer community the chance to showcase their talent. It is a good sign of change.

Recently at a restaurant in Cyber Hub, SodaBottleOpenerWala, a branch of Bombay’s iconic Parsi restaurant, I found that persons with hearing impairment had been hired as servers. To aid the customers, a small booklet had been provided with a guide to communication. Now is that so difficult?

Small steps can go a long way to address these issues. Awareness is growing and people are demanding their rights with more force. The old social taboos are now being challenged.

Shikha: Navtej, you started Studio Abhyas, a non-profit with a wide scope of focus areas that includes dance training, yoga, urban activism and the care of stray animals. How do you draw the connections across such diverse, seemingly independent, spheres of life and activity? Why do you feel it is important to do so?

Navtej: In all my varied interests and pursuits, be it yoga, dance, urban and animal activism, it is the body that is at the centre.  In both yoga and dance, the centrality of the body is quite evident. And I became an urban activist when I began to realise that Indian cities are unfriendly, unsafe, even contemptuous of the body.  Our urban design does not even consider the human body when envisioning and planning our cities. And this also ties into the class or caste issue. Because it is really the body of the poor that is subject most to this urban contempt. And likewise, when I began to look at the human body with care and concern, I could not overlook the body of animals that are held with even deeper contempt. As I said earlier, I am against buying into ideas, and today, the biggest and most heinous idea is the idea of “man over Nature”. If I am kept awake at night it is due to what Capitalism – an “idea” that we are all implicated and participate in – is doing to and with the bodies of animals; it is nothing short of a holocaust!

Shikha: In an online interview, Meena, you spoke of decriminalisation of sex work, pointing out “Because this is work, we are exchanging sexual services for money, and because it is work, give us occupational safety guidelines, safe working conditions, all of that in a decriminalised set up so that we are safe, our children are safe, our families are safe and we are able to work and live and make a livelihood.” Could a different framing of sex work lead to an affirmation of sex workers’ rights?

Meena Seshu: The sex workers’ rights movement is aligned with the human and women’s rights movements in condemning the abuse and violation of the rights of women, including sex workers. Sex work must not be equated with sexual exploitation or sex trafficking. As noted by the UNDP Global Commission on HIV and the Law, “Sex work and sex trafficking are not the same. The difference is that the former is consensual whereas the latter coercive. Any point of view that casts “voluntary prostitution” as an oxymoron erases the dignity and autonomy of the sex worker in myriad ways. It turns self – directed actors into victims in need of rescue.”[1]Any argument that seeks to define sex work as violence and exploitation forecloses discussion over the rights of people involved in sex work to pursue it as a livelihood.

Sex workers in many jurisdictions are the targets of frequent harassment, physical and sexual abuse, and forced “rehabilitation”. Police wield power over sex workers in the form of threats of arrest and public humiliation and use condoms as evidence of illegal activity, undoing years of effective public health promotion and campaigning around STIs and HIV.[2][3][4] Upholding the rights of sex workers and others involved in sex work has been globally recognised as a crucial strategy in responding to HIV, as well as enabling sex workers to challenge abuse, be acknowledged as rights bearers and to access justice.

In environments where many aspects of sex work are criminalised – including, for example, soliciting, living off the earnings of a sex worker (the latter generally penalising families and children of sex workers the most), or other provisions criminalising third parties – sex workers face discrimination and stigma which undermine their human rights, including to liberty, security of the person, equality, and health. Evidence suggests that sex workers’ risk of HIV infection is inextricably related to their marginalised and illegal status, which drives their work underground and increases police abuse and exploitation. According to the UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work[5], “even where services are theoretically available, sex workers and their clients face substantial obstacles to accessing HIV prevention, treatment care and support, particularly where sex work is criminalised.” In countries where sex work is decriminalised, there is evidence that violence directed at sex workers is reduced, relations between sex workers and the police are improved, and access to health services is increased.

Shikha: Please share some of your own stories and insights, Subha Sri, on the intersections between healthcare, health-seeking behaviour and diversity; are there significant ways in which projects and programs have had to adapt to include diverse communities and client groups?

Subha Sri: Health-seeking behaviour is definitely different among diverse groups and this largely stems from their own cultural beliefs around health and illness, their power to seek health care, both in terms of financial access and decision-making, and the way they perceive the health care system as dealing with their needs. So as a health care provider, one needs to take care to address these various dimensions if equitable and universal access to health care is to be ensured. This is equally true of the public health system too. For example, we often have young burkha clad Muslim women seeking health care in RUWSEC’s clinic. One needs to be especially sensitive when asking them to remove their burkhas for a physical examination, ensuring that they have adequate privacy to do so. Some of these small things can go a long way in ensuring that health care settings are sensitive to the needs of the clients/patients who approach them. This also means investment in sensitisation and training of the whole health care team.

Diverse issues of sexuality and rights

Shikha: Balu, as a researcher, what would you say about recent trends in India on issues of gender, sexuality and rights?

P. Balasubramanian: Despite the fact that the status of women has shown positive changes over the years in India, gender disparity and gender-based violence against women has increased in households and in the public domain. Domestic violence and sexual harassment at the work place are common situations. Women have no negotiating power towards making decisions about their own bodily rights and integrity. In India, lack of awareness of sexual and reproductive health is common. As a result, coercive sex, unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortion are prevalent. This affects the health and wellbeing of millions of women. There are attacks on young women in public places, and an increase in the number of ‘honour killings’ in the southern states of the country. Both patriarchy and heteronormativity affect our understanding and approach to sex and sexuality.

Shikha: Subha Sri, please tell us something about RUWSEC’s work on Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) and the process of preparing the training manual on this subject. Was it important to identify and address issues of diversity in the content, with your adolescent target group, and for the training of trainers? What are the key learnings that have emerged from this effort?

Subha Sri: RUWSEC has been working on Comprehensive Sexuality Education of both in-school and out-of-school adolescents for over two decades now. A review of the curriculum was done recently, and a revised training manual prepared. The manual preparation was through a consultative process that saw the participation of various groups from across the country with experience in working with adolescents and young persons. Participation was also ensured of groups representing the LGBTQI community, young dalit men and women, and of those working with adolescents living with HIV. The idea was that the experiences and perspectives of these different groups are captured in the curriculum development process.

The adolescents we work with are from the rural dalit community – both boys and girls. Our experience has been that even though they come from a marginalised community themselves, they often have stereotypical views about members of other marginalised groups, for example, about the Irulatribals who live quite in the margins in northern Tamil Nadu, about Muslims, about gender non-conformity and sexual diversity. It thus becomes important to address these prejudices during the training, not only with the adolescents themselves, but also with the trainers who are from the local community and often harbour the same prejudices.

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