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Interview: Pawan Dhall on his own journey of building communities – Part 1

A photo of Pawan Dhall wearing a blue shirt, speaking on the mike with book shelves in the background

Community is most commonly understood as a group of people who share something in common. This commonality is typically seen in terms of geographical location or simply, place of stay, or identification with a socio-cultural or spiritual or religious group, or with others who pursue an interest or share a particular belief system. Being a member of a community does not necessarily mean that this community defines the complete identity of the individual, who may at the same time be a part of multiple other communities. Sexuality, which is integral to an individual, influences and is influenced by life experiences and opportunities. All of these are closely connected to individual interactions and engagements with all of the communities that a person may be born into, or may subscribe to.

In this issue of In Plainspeak, we interview Pawan Dhall, Founding Trustee of Varta Trust, queer activist, writer and social researcher. He is also the editor of the Varta webzine, promoting and sustaining dialogue on gender and sexuality, across diverse groups of people. As Pawan says, “We are all strung together on a spectrum of gender and sexuality, and we don’t have to be fixed at a single point on the spectrum throughout our lives.”

Shikha Aleya: Pawan, I’d like to begin by congratulating you and all your team members, associates, friends and supporters, as you celebrate the fifth anniversary of Varta this year. Thank you for taking time out for this interview. To begin with, please trace the beginnings of your journey – how did the concept of Varta emerge and evolve into the organization Varta Trust?

Pawan Dhall: Essentially the emergence of Varta is a continuation of what I was doing in the decade of the 90s and early 2000s. I was doing community mobilization through one-to-one meetings, group meetings, events, media work and the journal we used to publish which was called Pravartak. As the queer movement has grown, the priorities have also changed. There was a phase when journals like Pravartak or Bombay dost, or Swakanthe – which is still published in Kolkata by Sappho – or Scripts published in Bombay – these journals were like a lifeline for the movement. The media would also write about these issues, but it was rarely that someone from the community was writing in mainstream media.

By the 2000s the Internet came up and there were many more options. Publishing became a little secondary. You could communicate faster, through Google groups, later Facebook and other platforms. This was so much more efficient in terms of transmission of information and ideas. Our energies started going in a different direction. Also there were other major aspects of the movement that came up such as the legal reforms campaign – the Public Interest Litigation against Sex 377. The Rainbow Pride Walks started happening. Also earlier the groups were much simpler in structure. As we grew, we got caught in bureaucratic tangles such as audit reports, registrations, annual reports and other kinds of compliances. A lot of groups, especially those working with men who have sex with men, they were often funded by government bodies for HIV work in particular. Dealing with compliances takes away a lot of energy. I have experienced that and it leaves very little time for creativity. I was working on these issues through Counsel Club and a sister NGO called Integration Society. Counsel Club (1993-2002) was a safe social space for LGBT people, while Integration Society (1999-2005) grew out of Counsel Club to become a registered body to provide sexual health services and legal aid support.

Then I got into SAATHII. [Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India] There my role changed. Instead of running a support group or forum, my role became trying to build the capacity of other support groups and forums. In a nutshell, the idea of Pravartak folded up in 2000. I also left these organizations (Pravartak and Counsel Club) around the same time. The others, who were there, did not continue. While with SAATHII I wanted to restart the idea of a publication. In 2012, on the 3rd of June, we had the first meeting of Varta. I was still full time in SAATHII so it was a bit of a while before I could get things going. It took me about a year before we finally decided that we are starting off. So it was the 1st of August 2013 when the first (online) issue of Varta came out. Before this happened, the idea of a print version was there, but it was more my fancy and the others were not convinced. There were feasibility issues. I was quite disappointed with that,but when the blog started materializing, it was a newfound love. I immediately got into it and haven’t looked back since then.

Shikha Aleya: In the process of building Varta as a platform for holding dialogue on gender and sexuality, what are your insights on building community, and engaging with communities, both online and offline?

Pawan Dhall: In relation to your initial note above, I think gender and sexuality as community markers are the most ‘troublesome’, the most pushed-under-the-carpet! Historically, ever since the rigid categorization of genders and sexualities took place, the need to hide anything considered non-normative has grown stronger and stronger. Community building around gender and sexuality is not just about gaining equality for all genders and sexualities, but also about reclaiming the fluidity that was and should be seen as an integral part of these aspects of humanity. We are all strung together on a spectrum of gender and sexuality, and we don’t have to be fixed at a single point on the spectrum throughout our lives. Sadly this point is lost not just on people who are not non-normative, or at least those who think they are perfectly normative, the general public, it is also lost on various sub-sections of people with non-normative genders and sexualities.

I think – and this is not just me but also other people in Varta – when speaking of the spirit of Varta and the strategies of Varta, one thought has always been that if we consistently take the approach we have taken, that we are writing about gender and sexuality and a whole host of issues and there are people who are regularly reading Varta – then we are building a community of readers. Somewhere along the line we are planning to have a readers’ club. So perhaps one day we will have a meeting in Kolkata or some other places where we will invite local readers of Varta to interface. The online community can also meet offline. This idea is there in the business plan of Varta. Our entire group is basically a voluntary group, we haven’t gone into major fundraising, so things take time. This is one of those ideas where things have not happened in a concrete fashion; but online, we see readers who come back again and again.

Shikha Aleya: So in the online space, what are the kinds of interactions that you have observed amongst your readers?

Pawan Dhall: Some articles that attract a lot of comments also have a lot of counter comments. In fact, what you will see in one the latest issues is that we have written about sexual consent,about a man and a woman who got into a sexual experience after alcohol. This was essentially a reader’s query. Later the woman felt that she had been taken advantage of, and the man was confused because he thought everything was based on consent. The question that came in was, “What wrong did I do?” One of our trustees, in his column, has explained sexual consent in the legal context. The law as you know will be cold and neutral – but one of our readers has written back saying this question cannot only be answered in terms of law. Another of our members has written a piece on consent accident. She is a mental health professional. She is basically telling the writer of the query that – if you were to come to me, yes this is what the law says, but beyond the law there are issues, such as of trauma, or of taking things for granted, it is not about accusing you, but is also about our culture, and many grey areas that we cannot talk of in just legal terms. This is how one article from a reader receives many responses. We continue the chain,we publish many sides of the story and more readers come in to the discussion.

There is another example. About two years ago another mental health professional was working with someone who had depression. This person had recovered quite a bit, stayed in touch with the mental health professional and they co-authored a piece for Varta – ‘Battling the depression demon’. The article was appreciated quite a bit. A lot of people wrote to say it was unique. Everyone can go through depression. ‘Not my problem?’ is a Varta article that illuminates the principle behind why we want to talk about a whole lot of issues together with gender and sexuality, but this is so much a work in progress!

Shikha Aleya: Would you say then, that community building is not always something to be approached in a narrow, linear way?

Pawan Dhall: I think overall community building can be a very subtle process. So at one level you have queer communities – built on the basis of shared issues and problems. This is one obvious and in-your-face way of community building. The other is where you are being more indirect and subtle – over a period of time conveying the same message, you are bringing people together. So when I’m saying ‘reader’, I’m talking about all kinds of readers here. There would be people not from the community who may be reading about these things, and they may not come forward, but are engaging with these issues. Speaking from past experience working with young people, in fact recently as well, the boundaries between normative and non-normative sexuality are blurred. On behalf of Varta I was talking to a group of young social workers and while talking about LGBT issues, there was a young man who got up at the end of the session and said, “I have to say this, I think I’m gay”. There was no compulsion for this person to stand up and say this – there may have been others who thought so but did not say anything.

Shikha Aleya: What has your experience been with expanding the dialogue on gender and sexuality across communities, that may not be familiar with or accepting of non-normative expressions of sexuality? For example, the Qatha ‘Queer Kolkata Oral History Project’, what sort of responses have you received to this project and to the narratives collected as part of the project?

Pawan Dhall: When you put out QKOHP [Queer Kolkata Oral History Project] there will be many who will feel that it makes sense to them, whether they speak about it or not. Take this article, ‘Through the prism of gender diversity’, written by a mental health professional. There were four comments on the article, though normally this author’s articles attract several more comments. Also from the comments on his article, it’s quite clear that most of the people responding are from his professional circles, and they never seem to comment on any other article in the webzine! Similarly, responses to the QKOHP have been mainly from within the queer communities and not so much beyond. However, offline I have had (a few people) giving me feedback on the webzine, discussing the issues covered in it, and appreciating the fact that it is a comprehensive publication. So there are these instances beyond the activist / academic /queer communities. But on a large scale, I think we have a long way to go.

I don’t think we have had enough opportunities to interact with youth in educational institutions but we have had very good experiences, such as one at Haldia Government College last year. I never knew this institution existed, but they got in touch with us, because one of the faculty members had been at two of my sessions on gender and sexuality at the Anthropological Department, University of Calcutta. So some of us from Varta went over and had an interaction with students and faculty. Haldia is an industrial development centre – the college has a mixed lot of students, many of them first generation learners, and then there are also other students from rather well off families.

Shikha Aleya: How did these students respond to you during the session? Were they comfortable talking about these subjects?

Pawan Dhall: The good thing was that after the initial inhibitions were broken there was a strong flow of questions. We had to modify our presentation plan. We showed films. We explained concepts of gender and sexuality through images –such as bearded men wearing saris at a fashion show – to see responses, to see what sort of questioning they did when they saw such an image. But the response of students was great. One of the students got in touch and wanted to stay informed of all events happening in Kolkata.

I also appreciate the existence of the GSCASH, the Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment unit in college. They took the initiative of initiating this interaction. This makes our work easier as they themselves want to talk about gender and sexuality. We looked at some of the historical and mythological examples, mental health aspects, myths about homosexuality being a disorder, a little bit about legal issues, and the status of same sex love. Then there were questions from students, some about the end of society, a consistent question – ‘If homosexuality is accepted, won’t the human race die out?’ This has to be addressed. One important thing in all these sessions is to encourage young people to see through the lens of gender and sexuality.

We’ve also had sessions with church leaders. Father Philip Kuruvilla of the National Council of Churches in India has been running a particular project under the NCCI from Nagpur, promoting greater inclusion within the Christian community and within the clergy. They want priests to understand issues of gender and sexuality and talk about it to their congregations. I have attended one such session in Bangalore and facilitated one such session at Bishop’s College in Kolkata. The issue here is they are still hesitant to be pushy about it but they have plans to publish literature on the subject. So these sessions have to be more about reflection, and encouraging acceptance.

Part 2 – continued in the next part that will be published on July 15, 2017.

Cover Image: Pawan Dhall