Indian LGBT Activist: We’ll Do Gay Rights Our Way

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday June 22, 2011

When India's high court, in Delhi, struck down the law prohibiting homosexual intercourse between consenting adults nearly two years ago (on July 2, 2009), it appeared that a new era of equality had begun in the South Asian nation -- a particularly significant victory for LGBT rights in the international arena India is the second-most populous country in the world.

But despite the court's decision, legal challenges to the court's decision have persisted and, perhaps more significantly, many queer Indians continue to face harassment and discrimination from police and others. That is truer in some parts of the country than others, and in some of the nation's Tamil regions, access to resources concerning topics such as gender, sexuality and politics can be difficult to come by.

One activist currently working to change that is Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who celebrates his 29th birthday on June 25, one day before his hometown, Chennai, marks its third annual Pride celebration. But Vasudevan won't be home to take part in the parade this year. As a dancer, writer, peer educator and activist who travels often, Vasudevan is a busy, multi-tasking man who we caught up with just as he was preparing to set out on a U.S. performance tour with fellow dancer/choreographer Lakshmi Sriraman.

Vasudevan took out some time from his packed schedule to speak about his life, art and activism, as well as the status of LGBT equality in his home country as part of EDGE's Future Queer Leaders interview series.

EDGE: Hi Aniruddhan! I understand that you work at the Shakti Resource Center in Chennai as its director. Tell me about the work the center is involved in there.

Aniruddhan Vasudevan: The center's aim has been to be a place where people get together to work out different models of talking about sexuality and to generate new and productive discourses. [The center's co-founders, including myself] felt that while social conventions prevented the development of a discourse of sexuality, rights, pleasure and health in a certain way, the other frameworks that did talk about sexuality in a certain way -- the HIV/AIDS public health framework, for instance -- were framing it in a narrow health, 'vulnerability,' 'risk' contexts.

We have been conducting workshops, holding panel discussions, performance events and talks toward this end. We have also done one round of training for LGBT peers in counseling others, the idea being that it is good to have a lot of peers trained in the art of listening, empathizing and helping others, in referring people to medical, psychiatric, legal services if need be.

EDGE: How has your family reacted to your being openly gay? What about your activism, blogging and performing?

AV: My family is the most amazing group of people I have ever met! My 'coming out' was anti-climactic. I was given no chance to do drama and they were very accepting. Even though they did not fully know the implications of my being gay in this society, and all that it entails for them and me, though they were concerned, they first affirmed their love and acceptance for me. That is the bedrock on which all my life and work since then have been built.

EDGE: What have those implications meant for you? Have you ever received any threats?

AV: There have been moments when I have felt very threatened. Not too many times. A general sense of vulnerability and discomfort with having this private aspect of my life sort of open to public view prevails. But that it is because for all my gregariousness, I am a private person and I constantly feel that sense of privacy compromised. But it is the knowledge of this that also keeps me working. We need to go to a place where we don't have to discuss our sexualities so much to demand equality, rights and opportunities.

EDGE: That's a fair point -- as an activist your personal life becomes intensely political. On that note, what inspired you to take the plunge as an activist anyway?

AV: Moving to Chennai [from Kumbakonam] exposed me to a lot of a campaigns working on different issues. Traveling for performances also really expanded my horizon to places, people and issues. As far as becoming an LGBT activist goes, I still take on that label with a lot of unease, only because I grew up thinking it referred to people who had great vision and worked doggedly towards that. I am not like that. This is not false modesty. When I entered public sphere as an "out" queer man speaking about being queer and about queer rights, I was called an activist, and I said to myself, "Oh.."

Prior to that, I had done a little bit of work related to environment, industrial pollution, communities. It was not much, but while being part of that work, I did not feel implicated in it as a person, as a gendered person with a specific sexual orientation. With being an "out" queer person, I suddenly felt very vulnerable and exposed, and that in turn became the source of my energy. This feeling of acute vulnerability caused by public knowledge of sexuality, I realized, is what needs to go!



EDGE: Tell me about your childhood. When did you first realize you might be different than other youth around you?

AV: I think I always knew it. I always had a hard time fitting in. I think I was saved by the fact that I was a good student. The teachers loved me. I don't think the other boys did! It was not easy, but I am not going to romanticize it. Since I knew I was different in a way that was going to be difficult to be accepted, I think I chose to 'make up' for it by being very good in this and that. I flagellated myself into excelling in things. It drained me out. At some point, I gave that up. It was tiring.

I don't agree with LGBT people from the West thinking of it all as one continuum of growth and that we are in different stages: "We were there many years ago. You will get here." We won't necessarily get "there," but to a d

EDGE: And when did you get into dancing? What role do you feel performance plays for you, politically, spiritually, and emotionally?

AV: I was six when I started learning dance. I chose it. Watching me drumming on the dinner table, my parents thought I might want to learn to play the drums. So they took me to this institution where drums, music, dance and singing were taught. I saw people dancing in a classroom, and I chose to learn that instead.

It has been a fabulous journey. As an adolescent and a teenager, dance was at once a source of joy, anguish and therapy. Dancing gave me great joy, but it set me apart from most of the other boys and was a cause for taunts and jibes. And the same dance also provided the therapeutic space to heal from those many little wounds.

Later, more complexities came up. I felt that the history and the texts of the dance form I was performing were filled with the sway of hetero-patriarchy and heterosexism, and that made dancing very difficult. So I started looking at other modes of expression including theatre, contemporary dance and performance art. But I missed dancing. I decided not to give up and to find my own space as a practitioner of a traditional dance form.

EDGE: What are some of the biggest struggles facing LGBT Indian people today? How do the struggles for folks in larger cities compare with those in more rural areas?

AV: For one, the case in the Supreme Court is still on. The hearings have been postponed. Several parties have challenged the Delhi High Court's verdict in the Supreme Court of India. These challenges are largely on religious, cultural and moral grounds. It is precisely these challenges, not only from the parties to the case, but also from fellow Indians that are big ones for LGBT persons to face. We need to stand up to these challenges on an everyday basis from our families, neighbors, work place, the state and institutions.

Besides these, we need to be able to institute policy changes at various levels, ensure non-discrimination in various settings, engage with media and the unevenness of sensitivity in reportage. We also need vocabularies for these various conversations in the regional languages. So creating discourses in languages other than English is crucial.

People are working in non-urban areas. The best way to help them is to work with them, see what resources they need, and also be humble enough to know that they could have resources that we need. It is important not to be patronizing or paternalistic. Also, for a lot of work to happen in places other than cities, work has to be done in regional languages. It is not just a question of translation. It is a question of really experiencing our queerness in another native language.

EDGE: So, though the court's decision to decriminalize homosexuality is somewhat in limbo today, would you say it had an impact on LGBT Indians' lives?

AV: It has definitely had an impact. To begin with, it is a boost to our morale and reinstates our faith in our ability to change things. And such a crucial verdict by a High Court gets a lot of attention and provides a lot of space for discussion. In the wake of the verdict, even I, an individual, get to interact with the media a lot, appear on talk shows both in English and Tamil, and speak about LGBT rights.

At another level, for those who were engaged in conversations about their sexual orientations with their families found it useful that their rights were vindicated by the Delhi High Court. Parents could watch and listen to these several discussions and get to know more about the issues. The verdict was certainly a defining moment.

EDGE: Is there anything you feel Western LGBT activists misunderstand about Indian culture and specifically the queer community's experience within it?

AV: I think cultural misunderstandings are mutual. Having said that, I am also aware of the fact that we not on a level playing field and so our misunderstandings have uneven effects. I often find LGBT persons and activists from the West being patronizing. Earlier, that used to annoy me into an argument. Now I just smile and say nothing. It is also frustrating when people speak without any real understanding of specific contexts. All of Asia gets lumped together; it is sometimes spoken of seamlessly along with the Middle East. I engage in these discussions only if people are genuinely interested in getting to know and share.

I also do not agree with it when LGBT people from the West think of it all as one continuum of growth and that we are in different stages: "We were there many years ago. You will get here." We won't necessarily get "there," but to a different, better place that our own journeys might lead to. But considering the hold Western images -- largely American ones -- of what it is to be LGBT have over all our imagination, it is highly likely that we are moving towards one hegemonic mode of being queer which, I think, is sad.

But this should not make me strangely nativistic and only wanting to emphasize something as non-Western, "authentically Indian" way of being queer. We need to continue working on our different cultural productions, studies of history, literature and language to see what works for us. I find language fascinating. I think I am different when I speak in Tamil, when I speak in Tamil about queerness, I feel differently queer. I need to look further into it.

EDGE: You are due back west for some performances this summer. How do you enjoy traveling?

AV: I enjoy this thoroughly. As a young boy growing up in Kumbakonam, a town in southern Tamil Nadu, I dreamt of traveling and performing. It has come true. What's more, I write and talk as well. I am loving it all.

Learn more about Vasudevan by following his blog. Activists previously featured in the Future Queer Leaders series include Nikolai Alexeyev (Russia), Kyrsten Sinema (U.S.) and Georges Azzi (Lebanon). Check back for more features of young, up-and-coming queers working to further LGBT equality throughout the globe in the months ahead.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.