Last year, before the COVID-19 epidemic had set in, I was passing by a road near my locality when I happened to see a poster announcing an LGBTQ event in Agartala, my city. I took out my phone and saved the number of the event director and continued my evening stroll. Being a Youtuber and a journalist, that curious “Keeda” (insect) in me made me pursue the person who was in charge—Leena Sharma—and ask her for an interview. Such event being held in Tripura was itself a sign that Tripura is changing. People are becoming more conscious about their well-being which is a good thing.
The event was a success. It held academic significance for there were panel talks, a talk by Tanu Roy, a significant member of the community and also a non-scripted conversation between two gay men, related to the contemporary state of the gay community. Although worried about society’s prejudices, people from different communities participated in it. One of the indigenous participants was a transwoman and she became the showstopper of the evening. It was great to know that her parents supported her in her decisions and did not judge her for who she is.
Anyhow, fast forward to 2021 and the ongoing pandemic has continued to make it impossible to do personal one-on-one interviews. However, Leena agreed to calls, texts, and written questions. Leena is pursuing her PhD on Ethnographic Study of the Transgenders based on their Songs, Stories of Genesis and Personal Narratives. She is a warm and lovely person who kept her word and she sent me the answers to my questions over mail.
Q. How did the idea of conducting the first ever LGBTQ fashion show in Tripura emerge?
A. The idea emerged from my experience as a researcher. I met people who were willing to share their personal narratives for my PhD thesis. Bringing them together was another story that took a pretty good turn, I suppose.
Q. Were there any indigenous people in the fashion show?
A. There were 7-8 participants in the practice sessions but only 3 turned up for the event because they were worried that it would tarnish their identity. However one indigenous participant who had been active throughout the programme was a showstopper. She asked the organizers to speak to her mother and she agreed to join the show after receiving consent. It was great to know that parents are accepting their child as they are.
Q. How difficult is it to be a member of the LGBTQIA+ community?
A. It is nowhere easy for a person born as a third gender, around the world, whether it is a developed or a developing country like ours. For developing countries, difficulties might be more, as the basic needs in such spaces also possess a threat to personal living conditions. Even developed spaces that offer better living conditions to the third gender as compared to the aforementioned, come with their own set of challenges. The struggles could be related to the self and close society. It nearly exists in all varied forms of proximity or reoccurrence of the phenomenon with the individual. Now the way one makes oneself, in accordance with the contemporary social, economic surroundings is upon oneself. These situations do pose a serious threat to the well-being of a person.
Tripura is already a state of disagreeing political views between tribals and Bengalis. This acts as a rift between members of the community who are at regular tussle amongst themselves, thus divided into indigenous and Bengali groups. Pride is not based on discrimination catering to BIPOC, but this can be seen in Tripura, which acted as a major drawback to the event. An established member of the community, presently working as a prestigious makeup artist who wanted to be a part of the show, claimed, "I want to be a part of the show but it might tarnish my image on a whole." Such things act as problematic discourse to the Pride debates.
Q. What kind of changes would you like to see in society when it comes to LGBTQIA+ Rights?
A. Though rights are totally a concern of the policy makers, and Tripura up until now had no say in this aspect, with this event we were able to ring a bell in the ears of the State Administration. The Ministry contacted us to conduct another event in collaboration with Tripura State Aids Control Society and the Ministry of Health Affairs. It was a step in making the state aware of the community.
Q. Do people of the community face violence and discrimination?
A. Violence and discrimination is inevitable for any human, possibly and the third gender is no different; I would have said that prior to the conversation I had with a friend, Waikhom, during the practice sessions of the show. He found this statement totally baseless for gender is the reason for them being bullied since childhood and this has a serious impact on their mental well-being. This fact can't be overlooked. The violence and discrimination extends to a degree higher than that faced by other individuals of the society. Moreover, most of the individuals are raped in their childhood (based on the ethnographic data that is accrued from the field in the form of personal narratives collected by me for my PhD thesis). A continual taunting and rejection is faced by them on a regular basis.
Q. There is a belief that there is no LGBTQIA+. Young people are just confused. What about such beliefs?
A. Such beliefs are non-scientific. This is the only answer that I have. Studies have shown it to be entirely a process of Natural Selection. A mother's womb can alter genes based on the graph of a particular gender that is increasing in nature. Now when nature does not allow anything that is not natural, how can they be? Some studies have also dedicated genealogy of a family as a potential reason while statistics (in The Man Who Would be Queen) say that from a sample of around fifty (50) children who were studied since their childhood for being potential candidates of the third gender, one or two candidates deviated as perfectly straight males. The research is still going on.
Q. What message do you have for LGBTQIA+ members who are still too embarrassed to come out uncloseted?
A. "This is your fight, these are your rights that are hampered, It is your love that is crumbled and you will have to fight for yourself and to fight you must show up. To show up is the most crucial point at this stage. In India, mostly in places that are not metropolitans such as Agartala, if you do not stand up, no one else is going to stand up for you to fight your fight."
Since I am also a Youtuber, I was asked by one of my subscribers on random live chat about what I thought about LGBTQ community in Tripura. My answer was and always will be that LGBTQIA+ are no different from any of us and should be treated equally. They are smart, intelligent, affectionate and beautiful souls as everybody else and they deserve to be treated the same way as anybody else. We all want a peaceful environment to live in and it is only possible by respecting one another. So let us free ourselves of prejudices and stereotypes and let us respect them, raise our voices against bullying and let them breathe freely.
This article has been created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.