With a rainbow coloured badge that says “Your binary is too basic for me!”, I entered the Gender Mela organized by the Women’s Development Cell of Miranda House, DU, MenEngageDelhi and Centre for Health and Social Justice in the MH campus. In a time when most of us have misunderstood the ‘Q’ in LGBTQI, a session on understanding it organized by Nazariya was something I was looking forward to. Rituparnah Borah as the facilitator with panelists Aditi A (queer poet) and Jaya Sharma (queer kinky activist”), made up for an exciting panel. Starting from the origin of the word ‘queer’ to how, today, it “is a way of reminding us how we are looked at by the world”, Borah kick started the discussion. Giving an extremely vivid example of how the margins in a notebook are always considered the place for all the messy work to be done while the answers lie outside the margins, Borah reflected on the marginalization of the ‘queer.’ It was repeatedly iterated by the three speakers that it is important to understand that not all LGBT people are ‘queer’ because a lot of them give in to and conform to societal norms.

Jaya Sharma took over to say ‘queer’ can’t be seen as an ‘umbrella term’ for sexual and gender identities and that it has a meaning even without bringing in LGBT. With this, she went on to say that BDSM is not what Fifty Shades tells us and that ‘consent’ is a central force. In her well-worded poetic monologue, she affirmed that “Maybe I feel kinky is queer because the dominant can dominate only when I submit..” and talked about how BDSM is considered regressive even by a lot of feminists because of the assumption that “humiliation can’t be hot.” She mentioned that it is commendable on the part of the MH administration to host the Gender Mela but it is important that is supports the Pinjra Tod movement. She closed with a list of pointers in order to “qualify for queerness.”

Aditi A opened with a beautiful elocution of how, in order to understand the meaning of words, we are coded to be “dependent on what they are not, to know what they are.” She then went on to say that the word ‘queer’ for her is a “third space, outside the binary.” She talked about how she maintains a distance from the academic and theoretical approach to ‘queerness’ and how there is a need to challenge/ attack the campus politics. She then split up between her lesbian identity and her queer identity; the former speaking of her sexual orientation and the latter of her activism. Going to an all-girls’ convent school, she highlighted how the game of ‘hide and seek’ with the usage of pronoun ‘she’ in her first poem, queerness and poetry went hand in hand for her from the beginning. She called for a more engaged and aware approach to surroundings for one to be ‘queer’ and not just attending Gender melas. She ended with her poem titled ‘Privilege’.

Privilege

They always ask us so who’s the man who’s the woman I tell them,

Listen, I don’t think we have the privilege to pretend to be what we’re not when we’re too busy being people we really are

Listen, I tell them I don’t think we have the privilege to play with things we don’t believe in when we’re too busy feeling, fighting breaking, breathing and believing

When they ask us so who’s the man who’s the woman

I say, listen we don’t have the time to live in boxes when we’re too busy gazing the skies

You don’t have the privilege when you’re too busy digging burrows you call homes and we call burying holes

Listen, we’re too busy fucking and fucking your gender roles.

The session ended with a round of questions and comments from the audience. To one of the questions, Aditi replied that being queer is a big responsibility and you wake up every morning with the thought, “What more should I queer today?“. To a question that said “In a nutshell, can it be said that queerness is subjective?”, Jaya Sharma replied that it is but she’d still defend her idea of queerness. And I’d like to add to it by saying that defending one’s own idea of queerness is welcomed and justified when one is also welcoming enough to let others justify/defend their stand because ‘queerness’, out of all else, doesn’t work on the basis of exclusion or set standards. As Borah said, “it isn’t about mainstreaming LGBT, but about brining queer in the mainstream.”

Adding to this mela queerness, the mela-goers witnessed the screening of the The Danish Girl. The film screening saw a fairly good participation. Not followed by a discussion session, the experience of the film was a little incomplete. Amidst all that this movie is being lauded and criticized for globally, it is an undeniable fact that it sparked some discussions and dialogues around the much-less talked about trans* community.  And for this reason, I appreciate MH’s WDC’s decision to screen this film as a part of the gender mela.

Gender Mela
Credit: MenEngage Delhi

The queerness came a full circle on the last day of the mela with the session that brought together sex workers and their children, a transgender, a hijra and a lawyer, all in one panel. The session was opened with great enthusiasm by the powerful elocution of the facilitator Amit Kumar from All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW).

Kusum, the president of the AINSW, poignantly started the session by throwing questions to the audience about its views on sex work and sex workers. She reflected on how they realized the need for a collective voice for the sex workers due to the negligence shown to individual voices and thus came about the AINSW. She shared the marginalization and stigma that the community faces because of their work and said how “it’s the people of the society who come to us and then go out to stand against us.” She highlighted the exploitative behavior of the police and authorities even when she fulfills all her duties as a citizen of this country.  She talked about the Section 4 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), which implies that the children of sex workers above eighteen years of age (and financially dependent on them), are punishable by law. She then spoke about the Target Intervention Program by NACO and how the community of sex workers are making it a success by encouraging (and even teaching) their customers for safe sex, even with their regular partners.

After Kusum, Seema, a sex worker from Calcutta, said how she instills a feeling of pride in her children about her work by freeing it of the taboos associated to it by the society and to ensure that they are proud of her work, as much as she is. She then talked about the Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society  which was formed by and for the sex workers in order to make sure that the police does not ‘loot’ them of their income during the various raids. She then talked about the Self-Regulatory Boards (SRBs) in their area to curb and clamp down on any kind of harassment on their fellow sex workers. Amit then concluded by asserting how there is a demand and need for decriminalizing sex work and giving them the status of ‘laborers’ like any other workers in the country. And finally, he highlighted that it is extremely important for the government to include sex workers in the legal procedures that are carried out for them.

The next panelist was Sintu Bagui, a transgender and a sex worker child. Bagui shared how the children of sex workers are always seen in a type casted image and how they had to take detours to go to school so that nobody finds out that they live in the red-light area. They mentioned that the recognition of transgenders as the third gender is praise-worthy but there have been absolutely no follow-up procedures to ensure a normal life for them like everybody else, for example, no provision of toilets.

Next on the panel was Maya Urmi Aher, from the hijra community, who affirmed how it is important for people to stop being ‘afraid’ of the hijra community and try to understand why they do, what they do. They highlighted the difference between a transgender and a hijra by mentioning that it is important for a person to follow the customs and traditions of the hijra community before being a part of it and identifying as one. They shared how their life has been a struggle and that they were raped twice; the first time by four policemen. They highlighted how most of them are unable to complete their education because of the harassment they face outside and thus end up being unemployed, left with little to no options but to ask for money from people. They talked about how everyday harassment has become an inevitable part of their life, like brushing teeth is for all of us. They talked about the NALSA Judgment and how it is still incomplete because their sexual identity is still not accommodated in the presence of Section 377. They ended with an insightful remark saying that the so-called sex-ed curriculum in schools should be updated and revised, along with gender and sexuality sensitization courses being provided in the university space.

Finally, Tripti Tandon, a lawyer from the Lawyers Collective, highlighted the various loopholes even in a lot of feminist movements who do not support sex work, because it just reaffirms the heteronormative and stereotypical understanding of a woman’s sexuality. She later highlighted the various ways in which the Indian Legal System is flawed on various grounds and how it is still a long fight.

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