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A photo of Pawan Dhall speaking on the mike

Shikha Aleya: What are some of the biggest barriers you have faced in your efforts to create dialogue and visibilise sexuality and gender rights issues across communities? How did you respond to these?

Pawan Dhall: In a way all of our work is about breaking barriers. Our whole job is to try and break down these barriers of attitude mainly. There are other barriers such as raising resources. A couple of years ago we tried to raise funds from a city based network of entrepreneurs who claimed they wanted to help NGOs doing charitable work. There were two rounds of interactions. We made it through the first round but not the second. In the second round they did not even give a detailed response in writing of why they were rejecting our application, but we heard from insiders that they are keen to explore gender issues, but sexuality is a no-no. This is also a hurdle with the government bodies.

People have begun to appreciate gender as an issue, in terms of women – as if men don’t have a gender – but to talk about genders beyond this binary, two men or two women sleeping together, running a home, this either doesn’t ring a bell or is too revolting. The reactions from some people is that – this is disgusting. A lot of people always have this question, ‘how do they do things?’ I may have a negative reaction to this but it needs to be addressed. If it is curiosity it has to be addressed, if it is deep-seated prejudice it has to be broken. It has to be explained that it is not just about sex, but about emotions and relationships. Then there are arguments about population and the end of human society and then those arguments have to be addressed. One can at least say, “It is alright if you don’t want to be like this or change your sexual behaviors but you should not force anyone else to change theirs”, and “It is not a disease, it is not a crime”. Then this leads to arguments about hijras, which further leads to discussions on social structure. Then you ask other questions –“What would you do if denied all opportunity? Wouldn’t you beg or become aggressive?”

Even about ‘the doing’ of it, one cannot shy away from it. It has to be demystified. You have to explain just as there is vaginal sex, there is anal sex, there is hugging and kissing. Then there is another barrier. When one speaks of demystifying sex and sexuality, one hopes the government won’t come and arrest you. This is a barrier in terms of law and policy. There are also opportunities to counter this and deal with this aspect. The government has come out with initiatives such as Saathiya – a teaching aid package on sexual health and reproductive health – and taken a positive stand in content towards homosexuality and transgender issues etc. These are opportunities, a typical situation for a SWOT analysis. All individuals and organizations talking about these issues have to deal with these challenges.

Shikha Aleya: Pawan, what are your observations on the intersections between sexuality, and community identity based on diverse rights issues, such as disability, mental health, human rights, education, and environment for example?

Pawan Dhall: The main thought here is that I wonder if this is an issue meant for a reader or a social activist. In the past we have not consciously realized we are dealing with a lot of interrelated issues, so programs were designed in a very stratified kind of manner. There were many things we were doing which were about intersectionality, but that is a buzzword today and we did not do it consciously then. We see issues of intersectionality reflected in the writings of Pravartak or the activities of the Counsel Club. For example,a couple of people with disabilities were connected with the Counsel Club and Pravartak, and we were conscious of their needs. For example, there was one individual with polio who would need to travel from out of station, from Jharkhand, and we were conscious that we had to be careful about access issues, but we just did this naturally. But it’s not that if we were designing a program, we consciously thought of talking about disability.

Shikha Aleya: How do issues of intersectionality manifest in the LGBT movement?

Pawan Dhall: In the LGBT circles, there are differences between men and women in terms of their requirements and priorities. For instance some gay men will be sensitive about issues such as that in a meeting it is not always possible for men and women to sit together, but that does not mean that they know why it may be a problem. In the history of the queer movement in India there were many instances that came up. When one group of people wanted to set up a separate organization, many people felt it was not the right thing, saying ‘we should be one and unified’. This is a good sentiment, but not practical. For instance, some lesbian women have two issues, being a woman, and being lesbian. Sometimes men are blind to the privilege that they have, or the issues that women have.

There was a time even I thought we should all be together. Yes we should be doing many things together, fighting an unjust law together, but one also has to be conscious of specific needs that different groups have. This has been a great learning for me and for many of us. Many lesbian women and trans men have become more vocal and visible. Pointing out to gay men that ‘what you are saying is wrong’.

Suppose we discuss STDs. Can it be easy for a mixed group to sit together and talk about in a certain cultural context? It may be desirable for all to sit and talk about it, but as a first step perhaps not. In general you need separate groups for people to be comfortable and come out with their concerns and confusions. This is the difference between equality and equity. This is where awareness of intersectionality was there earlier, but not a conscious part of the effort. It doesn’t mean that today we know how to deal with intersectionality fully – but we are talking about it.

Caste and sexuality, class and sexuality – class has always been visible. But caste and sexuality? Being dalit and transgender? Who are most of the transgender people in a certain income bracket? (Varta republished an article from Feminism in India, ‘Privilege 101: Your handy primer to oppression and privilege‘, where the author deconstructs privilege, caste, class and related issues, explaining her perception of how these factors operate.)

Today in Varta, we are trying to take an intersectional approach. It’s there in the position statement of Varta. We look at gender and sexuality through the prism of intersections with age, class, caste, religion, race, marital status, geographical location, sexual and reproductive health, HIV, disability, mental health, education, livelihood, social security, environment and human rights. The challenge is in terms of how clearly you can talk about these issues on the pages of Varta. It will not always be obvious in an article, since Varta is not a text book with chapters sub-dividing content, but it will be inbuilt into the content.

Shikha Aleya: Sexuality and gender based communities are diverse and the issues are not the same for everyone. When referring to the gay community for example, popular imagination may tend to look at gay people as a homogenous group. How do you address issues of diversity across communities and sub-cultures in your work and what are some of the key learning points that have emerged for you over the years?

Pawan Dhall: Addressing this issue, one has to say it out aloud within and beyond the queer community that ‘there is a lot of diversity’, and explain how this diversity exists. For us, in terms of the webzine, we have to make visible different kinds of communities and sub-communities. These days we’ve been writing a lot about disabilities. Sruti (Kolkata-based Sruti Disability Rights Centre working on disability and gender rights issues) is very appreciative of the fact that we are approaching the issues in different ways. Shampa Sengupta, founder of Sruti writes a column for us.

Varta is one of the few websites that has built in access for people with visual impairment. We have installed software to enable such access but more feedback is needed on its functioning. This we started earlier this year. It changes the content process for us. It is very interesting to write the long descriptions of photographs in the context of the person who cannot see them. It can be tiring but is very satisfying. The feedback is that it works very well. The irony is that hardly any government websites have disability access features.

Shikha Aleya: Would you say that the Varta webzine reflects a strong consciousness of intersectionality?

Pawan Dhall: When I look at the content of Varta stories I think we still have a long way to go. We have not written about intersex people enough. Asexual people, lesbian and bisexual women need more visibility on these pages. Given the composition of the Varta team, intersectionality was never difficult to understand but the challenge is to translate it into reality. We have done this with disability issues.

Our collaboration with Ebong Alap is another example. Ebong Alap is a feminist group that talks about gender, society and citizenship with young people. They are helping us with the Bengali language by translating and summarizing our articles. We were hoping for our own volunteers to translate some of our articles into Bengali, but it is difficult to find someone willing to be a Bengali editor. There are people, but they have other commitments, and we need some original writing. It is not just about language and grammar. So Ebong Alap’s offer is a godsend. Even if they publish a few articles in a year it gives us a wider readership. Also some of the Varta team will write original articles for them.

There is another tentative plan. We are looking at creating a training program, a citizens’ journalism program, for young people marginalized due to gender or sexuality or associated issues. We plan to take five to ten individuals through a series of workshops and help them write about gender, sexuality, sexual and mental health, inclusion and human rights issues and publish this writing in Varta as content from the grassroots.

Since I work so much in Manipur, there is a lot of oral history from Manipur also which needs to be recorded. Manipur is a hotspot of intersectionality. We want to do a Manipur oral history project. Being gay in Manipur is not the same as being gay in Kolkata or Delhi. This is where your point about non-homogeneity of gay or lesbian or queer communities comes in. There is tremendous diversity and at the same time competition for a limited share of the socio-economic pie! So in this race for a share of the pie, we forget about working together to make the pie grow. Working together is not about losing one’s identity, rather about being more secure about one’s identity by building bridges of support and understanding.

Shikha Aleya: Do you think that the ethos of Kolkata has contributed anything to the LGBTI community-building efforts there? Would it be different if you were elsewhere?

Pawan Dhall: This is a mixed bag. Yes, people have often argued that the cultural, historical and political consciousness in Kolkata / Bengal was the reason why LGBTI community building here has had an early start with strong foundations that are visible till date. But then I think such claims are usually only half way there. Yes, Kolkata for the longest time was probably the only city that had a pride march. That is among the key contributions of the city to the Indian queer activism scenario. But then the pride march here did not succeed, till recent years, in galvanizing the kind of diverse (not just numerical) and inter-sectional participation visible in places like Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. What does that tell you about certain ‘cultural’ presumptions?

For me personally, I know I would have wanted to do something or the other wherever I would be, but this is so subjective, isn’t it? It all depends on time, place and these efforts are always group efforts (if they have to be meaningful and sustainable), so it would also depend on what kind of people I would be with. Overall though, I would definitely be contributing in some way or the other.

Shikha Aleya: You have also said that you aspire to be a rainbow journalist and that you “believe in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!” Does this reflect your perspective on truth? That there are many more manifestations of truth and sides to a story than just one? Do you see this in your work, politics and/or the community-building efforts around you?

Pawan Dhall: A big yes. I have learnt the hard way that taking a stand means taking a stand that I believe in. And this has been true since childhood and surely inspired by my parents. I would so often end up trying to bring together friends fighting with each other, and sometimes getting caught in the cross fire. I felt I could see both sides of the story, but others would often not be ready to. I don’t know how much I succeeded though, and I don’t really care. I would rather build a safe haven that will have space for everyone with a sense of reason and accommodation. I abhor rigid positions.

So, for instance, if a specific set of people want to break away from a larger group and be autonomous, they should have the right to. But they should also reflect on their own positions and past actions and check if tomorrow they will have the ability to let go people from within their own fold! If not, how much moral right do they have to ask for autonomy?

Specific to how this has been reflected in my work, please see this article: ‘To CC with Love’, an article based on archival material about Counsel Club’s birthday parties. The birthday party was an annual affair but there came a time when the differences among group members made it appear as if there were two different parties going on at the same party. Quoting from the article, “The ‘winning solution’ was the inclusion of a ‘community dinner’ in the party agendas – the one hour that the party organizers insisted all participants gathered around for a meal and chat together, irrespective of their ‘differences’…”. Credit for this can’t go to me alone – my closest colleagues in Counsel Club worked on this solution with me.

Shikha Aleya: Pawan, please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Pawan Dhall: My age is 48, I love reading, badminton, baking cakes, eating out, travel, am in a relationship, and dream of building a house with space for my dearest friends and queer family members, for endless coffee adda sessions, and with an urban forest in the neighbourhood!

Click here to read part 1 of the interview

Cover Image: Pawan Dhall