How to meet lesbians in Delhi

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"I am a feminist Marxist", Ponni introduces himself at an international workshop in Colombo, Sri Lanka in October 2002. The youngest participant, at 18, adds: "In India that means lesbian." But that's not a coming-out, the other participants from all over South Asia are pretty deaf on this ear. The next few days will be about prejudices between the countries of the subcontinent. The politically active student railed against right-wing Hindu nationalism in India, stood up for the oppressed, called for changes, and listened eagerly to the others. When everyone is hanging on their chairs, exhausted, Ponni takes out her drum and the spirits come back.

Best friends hold hands

Later Ponni asks if people often fall in love at the workshops. It obviously happened to her, but none of the other participants noticed it yet. At the next meeting of the group, international understanding between the young Tamil woman and her chosen one continues to advance. The others still don't notice anything. In South Asia women can walk through the streets holding hands, best friends do it that way.

Back in Delhi, the spirited Ponni has to rearrange her life. The love across borders doesn't last, but she still breaks up with her long-time friend. A new woman is about to enter her life and she can finally dare to come out. Her first friend didn't want this, and so only Ponni's unorthodox mother and closest friends knew of the relationship. But now she no longer needs to stand up as a straight woman for homosexual rights, she can confidently say: "I am bisexual!" She founded the queer media collective Nigah with friends. With theater, film and exhibitions, the young students want to break the silence around sexuality, regardless of whether they are straight or homosexual.

Natasha, 23, heard from them in Mumbai in 2003. She is in the process of preparing Larzish, the first Indian film festival on sexuality and gender diversity. Unseen, she invites Nigah, because, as she explains to L-MAG: "They are young and have a different approach". A different approach than the pioneers of the movement, who do classical political work, write texts, organize demonstrations and give speeches. The new boys, among whom Natasha counts the people of Nigah and herself, do all of the above, but they want to reach people through culture above all else. Natasha makes films, Ponni and Nigah-Gruppe do theater. At the Larzish Festival in October 2003, their three coming-out stories "Teen Kahaniyan" were a complete success. Natasha raved about it a year later: "The audience loved them. The people of Nigah are great, as people and as activists."

Marriage is not the ultimate goal in life

Ponni cannot be described as a lesbian activist, that is far too close for her. She advocates queer content and understands it to be a very comprehensive approach: "Queer are anyone who is willing to question their sexuality and constantly renegotiate it." So queer is not only homo, straight people can also be queer. It is them when they question the social norms of sexuality, when they do not see marriage as the highest goal in their life. She also wants to stand up for their rights, because she knows: "It is difficult enough for women to be heterosexual." But it is not always easy to show a complex picture. "Sometimes," argues Ponni, "we have to focus on homosexuality. This is the only way we can tackle the taboos and myths."

Making homosexuality visible is not without its dangers. The now 21-year-old Ponni is now enrolled at the left-wing elite university JNU in Delhi. So far there have been no queer activities on the idyllic campus. That is why she and others founded the queer student collective Anjuman. You break the silence and meet resistance. Ponni tells how one of their events was disrupted by a right-wing student organization, violence was in the air, and so they preferred to vacate the place. "Every day," adds Ponni, "gays are harassed on campus. As a woman, things are a little better." She also gets angry looks and comments because her hair "is now wearing it short" and the sleeves are not long enough or because she smokes. But she is not recognized as a lesbian. Your gay friends do, and when they visit Ponni in the evening "their shared apartment is one of the few gay and lesbian meeting places in Delhi", they regularly tell of homophobic abuse and abuse.

But Ponni also knows that she is absolutely privileged as the daughter of left activists, with an English education and living in the cosmopolitan city of Delhi. It can deal with patriarchal structures, it can afford to be politically active, and it can create its own protective spaces. The majority of lesbians in India are not so lucky. They live outside the metropolises, without contact with others and without a word in their mother tongue to express their love for another woman. Ponni wants to work with these women. And so she does not see her future in Delhi, but in her hometown Chennai, in the conservative state of Tamil Nadu.

This article first appeared in: L-MAG, 2/2005, pp. 26-27.

 

Source: This article first appeared in: L-MAG, 2/2005, pp. 26-27.

This post belongs to the focus: Queer South Asia.