When you decide to be true to yourself and live life without hiding a significant part of your identity, it’s common for people to make you feel like you don’t belong and are not accepted. A safe space to share your story and know that there are others like you gives you a sense of connection and comfort.
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Valerie– Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today we have with us Deepthi, one of the founders of Chennai Queer Cafe, an online and offline safe social space for anyone who is a cis woman and identifies as Queer or Questioning. She has been a member of the Orinam group and mailing list since 2011 and has been volunteering with the Queer community in Chennai since then. She has been a part of the organizing team at Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival since 2013. She is passionate about movies, women in sports, mental health issues and intersectional feminism.
Deepthi– Hi. Thank you, Valerie. Thanks for the introduction. One quick thing I would like to say about the introduction is that the group is not just for queer cis women, it’s actually for queer AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) individuals, which sort of includes anybody who is cis gender, identifies as bi, pan or lesbian, and who are assigned female at birth and are trans masculine, gender fluid, as well as non-binary.
Valerie- Thank you for the clarification.
You were part of the core team that started Chennai Queer Cafe, about 3 years ago, in order to create a safe social space for queer cis women in and around Chennai. What was it that compelled you to start this initiative and how did people receive it?
Deepthi– So, since 2011, like you said, I’ve been a part of Orinam and other queer spaces in Chennai but there wasn’t really an exclusive AFAB space. When we started, there were very few, less than a handful queer women who were coming to the meeting. Not necessarily out in their own spaces but even coming to the meetings. So at that point, like I think around 2013 or so, I had a really bad breakup and I was in a really low point and there was a lot of marriage pressure from the family. At that point, I really needed a space like that, where I could talk to people who could relate to my issue.
Not that there were not but then, it would have felt better, is what I had in mind and then in 2014-15, when I had the time, there were a little more people. Then we thought of a space like this and then we started an online space and slowly moved it to the offline space. So we meet once every month. Now because of the lockdown we are not able to, but before this, it’s been about three years, we started in September, three years back.
Valerie- So, how did people receive it when you started this initiative? I mean, from then to now, obviously we’ve probably had more people who are coming in and sharing their stories but at a time like then, what was it like?
Deepthi- So, the film festival is usually in June-July-August, early August or late July. So, we started sort of talking about this group around that time and quite a few people had come to the film festival and they were looking for a space like this as well. From them on, we’ve been associated with the film festival so we sort of put a word out during the film festival and the queer events. So, initially we had about 7-8 people, now we have roughly about 20 odd people that come for the offline meetings.
So just as you said, a lot of the reason you started the initiative draws from your own personal experience. When you realised you were queer, what was your initial reaction? How did you decide to come out to your loved ones and how did their reception to it impact your mental health?
Deepthi– There are a lot of layers in that question. I think I figured out and I knew I liked girls when I was around 16 or so but I never really understood the kind of impact that it had on my life or on my everyday stuff. I think it was only when I was 25 that I accepted my sexuality and slowly, I started talking to friends about it. Even at that point, I wasn’t a part of the queer community. So, slowly I started talking to friends. I knew it was a sort of taboo subject and I can’t just randomly come out at work or spaces like that. So, I was very careful as to whom I spoke to.
I had come out to the family when there was a lot of marriage pressure and stuff. At that point, initially, they were pretty hesitant saying “You were in hostels, maybe it’s because of that” but then they took me to a counsellor in Chennai. That wasn’t a very good experience, that counsellor was pretty homophobic and the they gave me some time and then they took me to another counsellor that was in Bangalore. So, the counsellor in Bangalore was pretty accepting and at the end of the session, she called in my family and she was like “She’s pretty clear about what she wants. She’s pretty clear as to what she is, so there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you should change about it. Just let her be.” Since then, there’s sort of been no discussion.
So again, when you talk about the mental health aspect of it, I would say the first session that I had in Chennai was pretty traumatic. So, that put me in a lot of pressure. At that point, I was in touch with the community but I never really was in a space to mix family and community yet. There was still a lot of pressure from family and the first experience I had with the counsellor didn’t help at all. I think at that point or even early on, when I knew I was queer, I think if there was right representation in the media or access to materials with which I could educate myself, I couldv’e guided myself better, guided my family better and have done away with a lot of trauma that I had to face.
Even now, even in this day and age of social media, we have queer Pride events happening in cities, we have newspaper coverage, there are still people and parents who believe in this conversion therapy concept. I’m sure you would’ve recently heard that a girl from Kerala committed suicide because of all this. There’s still a lot of this happening and I would say that the solution for that would be on a certain level, educating these touch-points, whether it’s somebody who works in a school or somebody who is a mental health professional or people who are in the media to do the right representation. Even articles sometimes written in the media end up being homophobic. All that put together, a conversation in every space, is what would have helped me when I was 16 or when I was 20. That’s what would help parents normalize it or kids to not feel traumatized about what they are.
Valerie- Right. I liked that you said that right representation is important and access to material so that people can be educated, which makes it an easier conversation when you decide to come out and when you decide to talk to people.
Valerie- So, you’ve been vocal about how queer women often lack access to the same benefits and legal rights compared to heterosexual cis women. This can have far-reaching consequences, especially impacting someone’s self-esteem and mental health. What are your views on this? Can you describe it for our listeners?
Deepthi- Sure. In my personal experience, I can talk about somebody who is queer cis but again, I would also like to talk about people on the AFAB spectrum because it’s quite different how the AFAB people experience discrimination or oppression. When it comes to me, I would say that queer relationships, especially, are not legally recognized so that has its own complications- whether it’s starting a bank account together or adding your partner as a beneficiary, say for example, on life insurance. Adoption is another huge challenge. Staying together isn’t always easy. People talk. There will be people that say “Oh, two girls are staying together.” Parents don’t make it easy. Even if you’re out to them, you’re not out to them.
I think, far more traumatic will be situations like if your partner is in the hospital going through something very serious, you don’t have the kind of authority in those spaces. If there is a consent form that needs to be signed or something, they would want somebody who is a blood relative. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been living together for like six, seven or ten years, they would still ask you “How are you related?”. I would imagine that can be a pretty traumatic situation.
When it comes to somebody who is AFAB and identifies as non-binary or gender fluid, I feel like since their gender expression is different in the sense that somebody who is gender fluid would want to dress up like the opposite sex one day, the societal opposite sex notion, that can cause a lot of judgement. That can cause a lot of judgment from people around in work spaces. Restrooms are again a messy situation when your gender expression doesn’t match what the society expects it to be. When it comes to documentation, it’s a huge challenge- whether it’s a government space or otherwise. So I think these can take a huge toll on especially gender fluid and non-binary people on an everyday basis.
Valerie– Right. So, we’ve talked about what it is like for queer women when it comes to benefits and legal rights but even when it comes to interacting with people in our own community, a lot of people have come out in support of the queer community but I think we’d all agree that we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to complete acceptance. What can we do, as individuals, to ensure we can be a support system to the community?
Deepthi– Whether it’s individuals or brands or organizations, especially when it comes to brands, it’s sort of very triggering when it comes to the whole Pride month because some brands, all they do, is change the logo just for PR. The sensitivity that they show or all that they talk about does not reflect in their policy. Do they have samesex partner benefits in their policy? No. Do they have a gender neutral sexual harassment policy? Maybe not.
So, similarly, for individuals as well, when it’s Pride month, everybody has a hashtag thing going on, everybody has these frames that they put up on Facebook but a lot of them are not very okay when it comes to starting the conversation around the community when it comes to their friends’ circle or family. I think that would be a huge change. It’s very hard for somebody to recognize and admit to biphobia, transphobia and homophobia.
If you want to be the person who wants to help the community or be a support system, I think learning, educating, starting conversations and creating a safe space. If it’s the workplace, you want to create a safe space for queer people to come out. So, just compassion, just learning and being a bit sensitive as to what and how. Introspect. I think mainly, starting conversations is what it is but also, along with that, being sensitive and compassionate.
Valerie– So, what are the kinds of reactions that you’ve seen when people come out, that have been negative and can possibly impact people the wrong way? As you said, people do lack compassion and very often, people are insensitive to the whole thing, right? So, what have you seen?
Deepthi– So, I’ve seen people say “Oh, it’s just a phase. You’ll get through it.” or even worse things like “Oh, you just didn’t find the right man.” Not a very good experience but this is really early on in life where I was like okay, you guys are not going to be very sensitive about it, let me just move myself away from spaces like this. I had the luxury to move away. Not everybody would.
Valerie– Right. So, from the experiences you’ve had, when it came to starting the Chennai Queer Cafe as well as your own personal experience- because you’ve heard stories of people who come to you and talk about their own journeys- what would you like to say to the people who are struggling to come out?
Deepthi– I would say that you don’t have to come out. It’s always a choice but then sometimes it’s not easy for a woman because of marriage pressure but there are usually work arounds. One thing I would like to say is- assess your situation because nobody knows it better than you do. You have to figure out if you come out to your parents, how receptive they are. Is there danger of violence? Is there a situation where you can be in like a house arrest situation? So, those are the things you first need to assess.
I would say test waters. If you are somebody who identifies as non-binary or trans, just drop a word about some actor coming out as trans or some actor coming out as bisexual, just to test waters and see where they stand. I would say, after that, depending on the situation, either you move out of your house whether it’s to study or to work, get your own financial freedom, get your own social support system, like at least five or six friends. They don’t have to necessarily be from the community but some kind of support system that will help you stay sane in times like this, when you’re accidentally out to the family. If and when you choose to come out to the family, you need to have the financial confidence and the emotional support system for you to stay sane.
So, I think these are the two things that I have pretty much told a lot of people who are like “I think I’ll come out.” Figure out what your situation is. Figure out how open your parents are to listening. Then you take a stand, if you choose to come out.
Valerie– Thank you for your insights on that. I think it’s very important, like you have mentioned in the past, for us as well, it’s important to start initiating conversation and not just turning a blind eye and being ignorant when somebody wants to speak to us. I think it’s very important for us to take part in creating a safe space and being supportive and compassionate towards people so that in turn, we can be a community that does become completely acceptive.
Deepthi– One last point I would like to add is that when I say conversations, it can be around anything. Whether it’s somebody talking about a policy in a workspace or whether they’re taking a domestic violence seminar, you have to understand that queer people exist everywhere so queer identity or queer conversations are as relevant in domestic violence cases as they are anywhere else. So, whether it’s a start-up culture, I am a queer person working in a start-up, so there’s like a two-layered pressure on me, when it comes to my mental health. So, in any space, I think these conversations need to be normalized and so they need to be started.
Valerie- Correct. It was a lot of information that you gave us today, a lot of insights when it came to the legal rights, when it came to how we accept and how we should be around people who decide to come out so that we can be there for them. So, thank you for all of the information and thank you for this conversation.
Deepthi– Thank you for the opportunity. Thanks, Valerie.