Prakash is an LGBTQIA+ activist, and co-founder of Xomonnoy, an intersectional queer feminist community group based in Assam. Xomonnoy runs a Helpline and the only queer drop-in centre of the state, and provides access to crisis management, general support, legal help and counselling services. Along with an academic background in Economics, Prakash is also a researcher and a trained Kathak dancer. Their specific areas of work engagement include mental health, public awareness, networking, and community mobilization.
Shikha Aleya (SA): Prakash, hi, and thank you for this interview! The first question jumps right into the subject of connections. Generally, in conversations on sexuality that you have been a part of, have you observed people linking sexuality to connections?
Prakash (P): Most definitely. As part of a sexual minority group, I feel we have always given ‘connections’ the centre-stage, be they personal connections or political connections. I believe that we cannot be certain that queer people are in fact a sexual minority group. If the existing laws and customs change, the number of people who come out as queer, or simply just are so, may be extremely large. Most of us were/have felt ostracized from families, relatives and friends and it is at these times that we long for connections. It is this isolation or the threat of it that has compelled us to build, nurture and sustain alternative connections.
However, I see that in the course of forming connections, people voluntarily or otherwise, end up replicating the same dynamics and relationship patterns in which they were trapped. I see numerous connections among queer people but in all of these I feel that the relationships do not give expression to queer lives; it is simply queer people living cis-heteronormative lives. What I mean by queer relationships is a range of different kinds of relationship paradigms – open and transparent relationships, non-monogamous relationships, purely platonic families, and other such diverse forms.
Coming to the political sphere, ‘connections’ is the trampoline upon which the entire LGBTQIA+ movement gets a jump-start. Especially for a small organization like ours, Xomonnoy, that has little to no physical or financial assets, it is these ‘connections’ that have helped us keep the community intact and serve them in times of need.
SA: Please tell us a bit about your personal experiences in the context of this theme. How do you respond to the word ‘connections’, in thought, feeling and spirit?
P: Personally, connections mean the world to me. Much like resources, the bandwidth of the individual human mind is also limited. The capacity to be happy, remain content or to heal is also limited. By ‘limited’ I mean that the human mind in isolation cannot be happy or content or heal itself in all situations or at all times. It has to have the support of others. This is where communication comes it. The form of communication may range from just sharing a meme that we know the other person would relate to, or plan a vacation together. During the lockdown, it was connections that made it possible to endure the shock. I stay with my mom in an apartment in an urban setting. However, contrary to urban myths, the residents are a very close-knit group. The doors of every household were kept open so that each of us could see each other from afar. Sharing of food, as a ritual, intensified. If any person was infected, the rest of the residents would do all the grocery shopping for them. Overall, the sense of community-care could be vividly seen and that made a humongous difference. Apart from that, I feel that connection is the survival language of the LGBTQIA+ community. The sense of a common struggle makes way for developing quick yet lasting connections among the community members.
SA: We deeply appreciate your description of community and connection, thank you. You have described Xomonnoy as an intersectional queer feminist group. What are some of the key challenges Xomonnoy identifies in the North-East, and specifically in Assam, that you address through your work?
P: I will limit myself strictly to Assam here. I think I do not need to expand on the institutional challenges that the LGBTQIA+ community faces in the state, because this is what they experience in all the states more or less. What I would like to point out for our state particularly are the problems of language, HIV and a socio-economic transition. For way too long, the movement was restricted to the English-speaking lot and it is still a struggle to percolate to the people who speak languages other than English. The usage of a lot of activist jargon is a barrier to effective communication in regional languages.
Speaking of effective communication, dialogue around safe (and pleasurable) sex, HIV and other STI/STDs is not yet widespread, which can be one reason for the large number of cases of HIV in the state.
And lastly, Assam is going through a socio-economic transition; it is neither a very deprived state nor is it among the forerunners. Socio-economic conditions deeply affect the values and behaviours of the people. The desire to replicate what is happening in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore is tremendous, but the will needed by a person to let go of age-old traditions is weak. People want to enjoy the freedom that they see in the developed cities but they are afraid and unwilling to let go of the customs that they have been following, lest it angers others and they are deprived of all the privileges that they have been enjoying until now. The resultant turmoil, within an individual, among families and among friends is taking a toll on people. For instance, people are happy and courageous about coming to the Pride Walk and uploading posts on social media to show solidarity. However, the huge pressure to conform to traditionally accepted relationships and the shame hurled upon people who do not do so, as for example people in non-monogamous relationships, or those with more than one partner, is very strongly present. This shaming and humiliation leads to people hiding their true emotions, and also creates rifts among peers. The huge number of crisis cases that we receive is burning proof of this. Currently, we are working on all these issues among others.
SA: Prakash, you participated in a recent event organized by TARSHI and Nazariya:QFRG (A Queer Feminist Resource Group) as follow up to on-going work on the self-care needs of rights activists working on issues of gender and sexuality. Please tell us if such engagements support you in connecting self-care and safety to your work? If yes, how have you seen this unfold for yourself?
P: This workshop has given brilliant insights. On the surface it looks like any other workshop but the little things that both the organizations did, need to be duly praised. The very fact that you have conducted a follow-up event proves that the concern shown in the first workshop was genuine.
The first workshop happened, coincidently, just a few months before of the pandemic, and this really equipped me in handling myself during the lockdown. My colleagues and I learnt to identify and address our own self-care needs, and this stopped us from burning out.
Even now, as we are working for the community that we are so closely and personally connected to, as well as engaged in our separate fields, we take time-out to sit back and reflect on our ‘batteries’. The workshop has helped us internalize the sense of self-care and community-care.
SA: Thank you Prakash! A last question. What would you suggest as a starting point for any of us to reflect on the relationship between connections and sexuality in our lives?
P: Sexuality includes in its definition, the attraction an individual may feel towards another/others. Therefore, it cannot be understood in a vacuum. The starting point would be to establish a connection with our own self. Let me cite an example. We deal with a lot of break-up issues. People come to us and accuse their partners of ‘cheating’. We had always presumed cheating to be when someone is in a monogamous relationship and they develop some relationship with another person, as for example may happen if a person is polyamorous. However, as pointed out by a friend of mine, is it not cheating (mainly to oneself) if a person is polyamorous and ‘trying/pretending’ to be in a monogamous relationship?
The initial lack of connection between one’s desire and one’s behaviour leads to shredding of connections with romantic partners, and friends (who are witness to such relationships). I think that relationships take forever to build in the first place. Therefore, I would say, even if it is easier said than done, one should REALLY take the time and develop the courage to look into oneself, connect with one’s own self, and acknowledge that true self. This means that sometimes one may need to make amends or else simply be at peace with what is.
Cover Image: Courtesy of Prakash