Note: This article was first published on July 17, 2018 and is being republished on February 14, 2018.
Discrimination against the queer community in India has never been a secret. And now, the discontent and agitation on this has manifested itself into a national conversation. It is safe to say that the stigma, harassment and violence that queer people endure in their everyday lives, in private and public spaces, cuts across privileges and categories of class, caste, religion, region and language – it is truly intersectional.
The courtroom battle regarding the validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was truly monumental, but legal change doesn’t necessarily mean a change in attitudes. Despite various efforts to bridge the gap, the LGBTQIA+ community is very frequently subjected to discrimination – especially when it comes to projecting queer identities and characters in ways that are free from stereotypes.
“When I was around 5, I had watched this Sanjay Dutt movie called Sadak on the sly because no one would let me watch it otherwise. The antagonist of the movie was a transperson who was the evil madam of a brothel. That was way back in the 1990s. If I think hard enough, I think I can still remember how much that movie scared me, even though 25 years have gone by,” recalls Solo, an independent artist and comic writer, and co-founder of Striptease – The Magazine, an online zine about comics, graphic novels and pop culture. Of her many ventures, Solo has worked with Gaysi Family, a platform meant to initiate a dialogue about the LGBTQIA+ community in India. One of her pieces for the magazine tackled the subtle kinds of homophobia found in India and another dealt with the sort of prejudices lesbian or bisexual women face in the country.
For young people, who now have access to online shows, graphic novels, films, music and theatre that normalises queerness, cultural self-expression by queer artists has played a large role in changing how they see LGBT issues. These artists have fought against stereotypes and discrimination, and tried to change public views in the way they best know how – through their art.
Successful pop culture interventions require working with themes the audience will find relatable. Solo’s work deals with themes ranging from how hard it is growing up and the watertight gender binary roles imposed on children, to consent in queer relationships, using logic, wit and aesthetic. Both a writer and an artist, ideas flow seamlessly from one medium to another in her work. Her comics are the best example of this.
The decriminalisation of ‘unnatural sex’ is one thing; eradicating social stigma in the family and neighbourhood/workplace is altogether another. And when we talk about stigma and enforcing gender stereotypes, the silence in the mainstream media is almost deafening.
Most of these artists have got to where they are today without the help of anyone else in their circles – they are self-made. Many have faced career obstacles and marginalisation within the (non-queer) artistic community. This is most stark for those engaged in the performance arts.
Sandipta Chhetri (Sandy), a transgender activist who represents the issues of her community through dance, says,”I have faced a lot of problems in the professional sphere due to my sexuality. In my personal experience, when a trans person gathers the courage to venture into the field of regular employment, the whole society becomes their roadblock. I am also a model and a thespian. I very often find myself in situations where my gender is questioned. People are so inquisitive to know if I am a boy or a girl.”
Her work is mostly aimed at highlighting the struggles of the transgender community, while also demanding equal rights. “I try to reach as many people as I can through my dance, show them the pain that discrimination brings. Now I wouldn’t say that I have changed the way society looks at us, however, I can see some hope afloat among the youth.”
While performance art like dance and street theatre has allowed queer artists to engage directly with their audiences, others have also used visual and other kinds of non-performative arts to bring queer perspectives into current affairs discourse.
“I don’t think I can go as far as to say that there has been an impact in popular discourse. However, an illustration I made (in response to the mob-violence against a heterosexual couple in the Kolkata metro) did the rounds on social media for quite some time. While heterosexual people were crying on social media for their right to embrace in public, I presented a parallel situation depicting what might have happened if the couple were same-sex. I hope with that I have sparked some discussion,” says Reya Ahmed, a digital illustrator whose work often focuses on everyday life in Calcutta.
In her illustrations, she “always presented a female perspective, no matter the sexuality. In the last couple of years, as I grew as a person and started discovering aspects of my own sexuality, I started incorporating female sexuality as a theme more consciously into my work as an effort to counter the age-old heteronormative narrative in art.”
And sometimes, it is not about awareness but about social acceptance and acknowledgement in the profession. Ojoswi Sur, an illustrator based in Bangalore who investigates the theme of sexuality through character creation in the science-fiction and fantasy genres, echoes the same feelings. While admitting that he doesn’t see any revolutionary changes, he says his work has had a huge impact on his own life, his own pace. “My art has brought me a safe space with zero homophobes and bigots around me.” Ojoswi, also known as Oz, is the head of art at Strip Tease – The Magazine. His significant works also include designing the cover for Gaysi‘s first comics anthology in print, the first of its kind in India.
How much weight artists give to activism and how they choose to disseminate their message – challenging the system or normalising diverse sexualities or a combination of both – varies from artist to artist. “I’m inclined to normalising diverse sexualities, which I believe would change people’s pre-existing notions. It would be part of changing the system because the state has no business interfering between consenting adults in their private lives,” says Deeganto Joardar, an independent artist and architect based in Mumbai. He recently worked as a part of the art team for a critically acclaimed short animated movie called Death of a Father.
The queer community has been represented by some loud and educational voices, highlighting the issues they face. However, the effectiveness of their social interventions remains limited due to the lack of mainstream support. If the art world as a whole were to openly embrace queer artists, one can only imagine the noise these voices can create, especially on newer digital platforms. And if real change is what we’re after, this noise is what we need.