‘Queer lives in small-town India are not visible enough for anyone to take notice. So, nobody knows what our stories look like.’
On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalised homosexuality by reading down parts of Section 377. Two years have passed since this historic judgment, for which the queer community and its nation-wide allies came together – but there’s so much work still to be done. Marriage equality may be a progressive step for the community, but there are other pressing issues, such as an anti-discrimination law and greater acceptance of queer individuals who live outside of cities.
Queer people in semi-urban India, who grow up feeling and often looking different from their peers, live their whole lives with a complex mix of names, identities and ways of being. They don’t grow up to be who they want to, they end up playing a version of themselves that is inauthentic, to minimise the humiliation and prejudice that will come their way.
The massive undertaking of their adult lives is to separate those parts of their identities which are truly them, from the parts they’ve created to protect themselves.
With the lack of societal awareness and acceptance, it is difficult – and sometimes impossible – for them to be their authentic selves.
They are treated with hostility rather than being understood for who they are, and this negativity can be a hurdle to queer individuals coming to terms with their sexual orientation. They are also more vulnerable to violence, discrimination and homophobia.
These individuals, who live in non-metropolis cities, Tier 2 and 3 cities, towns and villages, don’t know who to reach out to, or how to educate themselves. One significant issue they face is bullying, as rumours and stories spread like wildfire, changing the way society sees them and also harming their own self-image.
To combat this, it is necessary for the community to come together, so that they can empower each other and create safe spaces, which are a necessity when faced with rejection or violence from their families.
Two points are central to the issue of semi-urban queer individuals becoming empowered: recognising their voices and giving them space in the larger Indian queer narrative, and building solidarity between them and queer people in bigger cities and metropolises.
LGBTQ+ individuals in semi-urban India face two battles: being accepted by society as someone who may be different but still deserving of respect and rights, and being accepted within their own community, by their own people.
More privileged people, who often belong to cities, make fun of their English-speaking skills or the way they dress, which can make them feel isolated and unworthy. Such people leave their homes in semi-urban spaces in the hope of finding a sense of belonging and acceptance elsewhere, which is why such negative experiences can be damaging. “A lot of people in small towns don’t have access to the same resources as an urban person, so they may not be aware of certain concepts or their vocabulary may not be as diverse. A non-judgmental approach will help folks based in small towns to reach out for help and some sort of support,” says Ankush, who was born in Agra and is now based in Dehradun.
The LGBTQ movement in India is currently urban-centric and places so much emphasis on this section of people within the community that it becomes difficult for those from other parts of the country to be represented and seen. Their stories are simply not heard.
Take for example Indian cinema: It is only in the last few years that we have seen films such as Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, where the backdrop was not a city. Most pop culture that features queer characters inevitably shows them as having an urban lifestyle. “Queer lives in small-town India are not visible enough for anyone to take notice. So, nobody knows what our lives look like, because these stories are still in the shadows,” says Noor, who is based out of Jabalpur.
Notably, queer activism, too, is plagued by the issue of lack of representation. This means that aid and support is less likely to reach the places where it is needed the most, where there is a lack of safe spaces and platforms like support groups, collectives and publications writing about queer issues. “Living in metropolitan cities makes the media and government stakeholders more accessible. In this regard, small-town people always remain neglected,” notes Ritwik, a non-binary person who hails from Lucknow.
Ankush says gatekeeping is a prevalent issue too. “Gatekeeping, expecting us to fit into elite structures, bullying. For example, a person in a position of power may expect you to work for them without any pay or perks,” he explains.
Some city-based people within the community are often threatened when they see new faces, quite forgetting that ‘outsiders’ aren’t trying to snatch their platforms, but rather make a place for themselves. “Urban people can be classist. They have their own groups who find representation everywhere, thereby blocking new voices from coming forward –this needs to change. Because of their internal relationships, they transfer their power and privilege to one another, rather than using that power to uplift those who deserve it,” says Ritwik.
In a small town, having a peer or close one who believes in you is rare, and getting to know other queer people is rarer, since most individuals are still in the closet. “If people were to come out to their families, all their freedom would be taken away, their phones would be confiscated, and they won’t be able to spend time with anyone who looks remotely queer… In some cases, they can be put through conversion therapy camps and hormonal therapy,” says Noor.
One often hears of cases of suicide and depression, which are direct consequences of the isolation and hostility these individuals have to face.
Noor says that since the beginning of the lockdown, it has been even harder for queer people in small towns, since they’ve lost whatever little sense of community they had.
This is where platforms can serve a crucial role – to give individuals the opportunity to flourish, grow and explore. “Organising online community build-up programmes and seminars, where people from all backgrounds can come forward and seek some sort of mental peace, in an otherwise toxic/hostile home environment is the least queer people from cities can do to be more inclusive,” Noor says.
But platform building is far from being an easy exercise. Ankush recounts an experience where a queer collective he is part of tried to organise a meeting in a café in Dehradun. “We were denied space by a renowned café, who said their clientele is ‘not of this sort’,” he says.
Since pre-existing support infrastructure is limited in smaller cities and towns, urban queer individuals can lend a hand in building such platforms, as well as their experience, and put their weight behind these platforms while they are still in the nascent stage.
With time, queer culture will become more mainstream-ised, and in turn, society will become more accepting and less heteronormative. But for this, a shift within the queer community is necessary, where exclusivity, an elite attitude and hypocrisy are left behind. The idea of who is queer in India cannot be limited to those who speak English, live in cities and have an urban lifestyle, because this is far from the truth – queer culture is on the rise all across India, and queerness is not bound by geography.
Being queer is a political proclamation. When you accept yourself for who you are, you’re suddenly in opposition to everything – society, religion and the State. It can be both liberating and daunting simultaneously. We can make the experience more positive for those who live in semi-urban India by empowering and supporting them. As Ritwik puts it, “If your freedom and access to rights are only applicable within the boundaries of big cities, then you are not free. If the most vulnerable section of your society is deprived of rights and freedom, then your rights and freedom have no significance.”
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