Queer Habba: A festival of fun and understanding

Queer Habba: A festival of fun and understanding

After last year’s colourful and vibrant queer parade, various groups and individuals under the banner of Campaign for Sex-workers and Sexual Minorities’ Rights (CSMR) and its supporters successfully organized the Karnataka Queer Habba from Jun-21 to Jun-28. Starting with a cricket match, the celebrations included inter-group dialogues, public discussions and cultural performances that culminated in the Pride march.

Queer Pride’s significance dates back to the night of June 28, 1969, when drag queens (men dressed in women’s clothes) and others resisted armed police who raided the Stonewall Inn, a New York city pub, humiliating and arresting people. This was the first time that LGBT people defended their rights. In India, LGBT people face harassment from the police, organized rackets and even their own families, sometimes driving them to suicide. Same sex couples who have been partners for years cannot buy a house together, have a joint bank account or will their property to each other without being challenged by their families.

Accordingly, the sexual minorities and sex workers have been demanding:
1. Amendment of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code decriminalizing homosexuality and sex work. This is currently under parliamentary review.
2. Preventive steps from the state government against police/goonda violence towards sexual minorities and sex workers and effective measures to punish offenders.
3. The state’s legal recognition of trans-genders and subsidization of the cost of sex assignment surgery, irrespective of whether they can afford the surgery or not.
4. Addressing forced marriage of lesbian women and legal support from the state government when they face violence and threats from their families.
5. Special measures by the state government for the welfare of hijras and transsexuals (the most marginalized section of sexual minorities) like education, employment, savings-credit facilities, housing, skill development, etc.
6. Guaranteed provision of all entitlements by the state and central governments including voter id., ration card, passport, driving licence, housing, education, employment, savings and credit facilities, insurance, old age pension and shelter homes with no discrimination.

In this context, discussions on the current socio-cultural, legal and religious frameworks impacting sexual minorities and sex workers were part of the Queer Habba. While some of the conversations were in Kannada, those in English, Tamil or Telugu were translated into Kannada simultaneously. Here is a peek into some of them.

Dalits, Sex Workers and Sexual Minorities: A Dialogue
Jun-22-09 2-4 pm, ISI

In a first of its kind dialogue in Karnataka, each group shared its concerns and struggles initially and then identified the common and unique issues. Everyone agreed that they needed to understand each other’s problems better and work jointly for their rights and sensitizing the general public, the police and other authorities. Manohar Elavarthi, a tireless worker on minority issues who moderated the interaction and other participants felt that such exchanges should be regular and longer.

Some of the primary challenges facing Dalits (D) and Sexual Minorities (SM):

o D: Discrimination continues in government schools (despite majority being Dalits) in the form of separate noon meal utensils, segregated seating, etc. as in Anekal taluk
o SM: Humiliation by teachers and peers who question their behaviour and compel them to change forcing them to dropout resulting in minimal education.

o D: Despite the SC/ST quota for government jobs, vacancies exist due to fewer qualified people and lesser awareness. Even in private firms, where employees need not reveal their caste, subtle and indirect discrimination persists.
o D: NREGA benefits haven’t reached them although crores are allotted to them like in Anekal taluk. Rice at Rs. 25/kg (and more) is too expensive for the paltry daily wage.
o SM: In the private sector, colleagues, management et al view them as ‘abnormal’ in fundamental aspects like using restrooms, specifying gender, despite inclusive labour and organizational policies thus discouraging from revealing their alternate sexuality. Further,
o SM: Unable to find or retain steady jobs, Kothis and Hijras take to the streets for survival and become easy victims of sex seekers. Employers, land/house owners and others abuse and exploit them.

o D: No implementation and monitoring of the 17-18% reserved posts at the Gram Panchayat level.
o D: Land, especially agricultural is encroached/reclaimed by the government and others but with minimal or no compensation as in Teni district.

o D: Temples still discriminate against Dalits while accepting offerings or distributing prashad
o D: Similar sub-castes are classified differently in various states. For eg., Lambanis are BC in Maharashtra while they are ST in Andhra and SC in Karnataka causing inconsistencies.
o D: Caste determination and/or stereotyping often based on culinary preferences and personal habits persists
o SM: Parents who discover the altered sexual orientation of their adult children pressurize them to revert to normal behaviour. They classify them as mentally unstable and subject them to psychological counseling, heterosexual marriage, etc. They sometimes refuse to give them a share of their assets.

o D: Non-Dalits assume that Dalits have better family, social, legal support and umpteen benefits like job quotas, reservations in educational institutions, etc.
o SM: English news media (visual and print) highlights their problems more than the vernacular versions.
o SM: Obtaining financial and other support for them is tough except for HIV/AIDS related issues
o SM: They have no recognizable representatives like Dr. Ambedkar for Dalits

o SM: Suicide rates (especially among lesbians who are least understood and accepted) are high – highest in Kerala but mainstream media rarely reports it.
o SM: Many alternate sexual persons migrate to cities hoping for better acceptance.
o SM: They continue to experience discrimination in public transport, common spaces, etc. Some have countered this stating that they are also human beings deserving fundamental rights!

Religion and Sexuality: An Interactive Discussion
Jun-22-09 4-7 pm, UTC

Over a 100 people including students and the general public from different religious and socio-cultural backgrounds participated in this interactive discussion. “I am overwhelmed by the response”, said Shubha Chacko, a long time champion for the rights of sexual minorities, as she initiated the proceedings. Researchers, sexual minorities and grassroots social workers shared instances of the prevalent patriarchal interpretation of sex work and alternate sexuality in various faiths and society at large. Encouragingly, they all mentioned that education and awareness through sustained campaigns and public debate are changing attitudes, although very gradually.

Meera Baindur, a researcher on eco feminism mentioned that some Hindu that narratives/ myths equate bhoomi (the earth), with umpteen male rulers to a woman with multiple husbands, like a Devdasi, Jogini or prostitute who is ‘unclean’ and ‘illegitimate’. According to Evangeline Rajkumar a faculty member at Bangalore’s United Theological College (UTC), in the history of Christianity, there has been a negation of the body as against the soul, and further denial by looking at the female body, sex and sexuality as that which stands for sin (assigning everything a negative connotation). The root of the problem therefore is this linking of sin, sex, sexuality with the female body. Any change/transformation within the system cannot overlook the importance and urgency of affirmation of the body, sex and sexuality as a gift from God which we need to use responsibly.

Dr. Ali Khwaja, a social scientist and grassroots counselor at the Banjara Academy, (http://www.banjaraacademy.org/index.php) finds some parents shocked and confused on their adolescent daughters and sons seeking information and indulging in sexual acts. He notices parents condemning the former strongly while just admonishing the latter. And he continues to be surprised that in this ‘modern’ day, urban girls and boys who have been childhood friends are sometimes suddenly discouraged from even interacting from early teenage.

Father Cyriac, a Catholic priest who works with the “young at risk”, especially street children through BOSCO (http://boscoban.org/web/home/home.htm) revealed that although they are sexually active from early teenage, these children declared that they prefer to avoid it at least until marriage. As per Edwina Pereira, training director at the International Services Association, India (http://insa-india.org.in/) even NGO’s stigmatize HIV/AIDS training and religious groups reluctantly agree to proactive counseling only due to the high prevalence of this disease.

Dr. Surendra, an ophthalmology professor cum practitioner and a member MahaBodhi society of India quoted The Buddha’s humane approach to all life with a healthy mind respecting the laws of nature as the means to healthy living. While sharing the influence of Islam and Hinduism on the existing socio-cultural traditions and religious rituals, Revathi, director, Sangama (http://sangama.org/), a hijra and former sex worker reiterated that the community is very secular and genuinely respects all faiths.

For someone who received the ‘badhai’ (blessing) from a ‘hijra’ group as a newborn in Hyderabad, hearing and writing this has not only been insightful and enriching but also personally bonding.

Pushpa Achanta
(The author is a freelance writer, a Fellow of Citizen News Service (CNS) Writers' Bureau, and a community volunteer based in Bangalore, India)