Over a decade ago, when there were no queer Indian voices online and no safe spaces for queer people to connect offline, Sakshi Juneja and her friends decided that they would begin the conversation about what it meant to be gay and desi, in other words- ‘Gaysi’. What started as a simple blog for queer desis to share their stories, has grown into a community that exists not just online but offline too. In addition to its forum for people to share stories, Gaysi features articles from prominent voices in the LGBTQ+ community, hosts events and screenings, has its own magazine- the ‘Gaysi Zine’, collaborates with major brands and has been featured in several national and international mainstream media publications. Want to learn more about Gaysi and the queer community? Keep listening.
Ruchika- Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m your host, Ruchika. Today on the show, we have with us Jo- a doctoral student of Anthropology and the Digital Editor at Gaysi. Jo, tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you became a part of the queer community.
Jo- Hi, Ruchika. Thank you so much for having me here, firstly. I’m Jo. I’m a 25 year old research scholar in London. I study Anthropology and my area of work is Queer theory, sex work, lots of different things which I will not go into because it’s a different conversation. Well, I have comparatively been pretty new to the Indian queer community because I grew up in Gulf countries. I grew up in Riyadh and Sharjah for most of my life and it’s only when I got to India that I had so much more information to access that I could actually explore my sexuality and understand where I stand within the spectrums of sexuality and gender. So, I’m only about six years old within the community but those six years have been such a learning curve upwards, only upwards of learning and continuously seeing, doing, being part of the community, being very heavily involved with the community.
So, I think the first time I was exposed to the existence of somebody who is not as hetero-normative as I had seen throughout my childhood would be a close friend, when I was in my journalism degree in Bombay. After that, it was quite obvious because there was the Pride Parade that was happening in Bombay and Bombay is a very queer city in terms of its queer history. So, I had access to a lot of people, a lot of stories, a lot of voices I could talk to and then I went to Bangalore for my Master’s degree and then I got introduced to the larger Bangalore queer community as well, which has a very different texture to the Bombay queer community. That’s how I learnt so much from them as well and that is when I joined Gaysi.
So, I joined Gaysi as a writer initially and that’s how I had applied to Gaysi and they told me that I can do well as an editor as well and that’s how I sort of landed my dream job because for any queer young Indian to work with Gaysi has always been a dream because they have been such a solid pole star kind of a voice for so many of us for like the past ten or eleven years. So for me, working for Gaysi was something I didn’t expect, to be working in the close capacity that I’m working in right now.
Ruchika- Yeah, I agree that working with Gaysi would be a dream for many in the queer community. So, Gaysi as an organization does not just go by the name ‘Gaysi’ but by the name ‘Gaysi Family’. So, could you elaborate on why and how the choice came about to name it this way and how do you extend this notion of being a family with the larger queer community through your online as well as offline events?
Jo- So, if you were to think about only the semantics of the name, Gaysi started as a space where- Sakshi felt like there needs to be a space where- all kinds of people can speak about anything that they want as long as they’re queer and desi because there was no space for them to even share the most basic things. For example, when you go to a movie and you see some sort of a female friendship that looked as though it had a queer subtext, there’s no friend you could have told it to because you might be a closeted queer person. So, Gaysi was that space where you could just come and write, even if it’s just four lines. It didn’t have to be a heavily edited article, it didn’t have to be a long form seven thousand word article. It could just be five lines of why somebody felt ‘Fire’, as a movie in ‘95, was a great film to begin with. It could just be those four lines or five lines.
I think Sakshi wanted to create that family and for us, within the queer community, the concept of chosen families is very very important and I think that’s something to do with most marginalized communities because in the case of whether it’s queer families or whether it is sex workers, it could be anybody. When I think of most marginalized communities, it’s very important to have external families. Most of us would call those families “friends” but it’s a lot more because in the case of queer folks, most of our biological families might have a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that our existence is completely normal because they’ve never been taught that our existence is normal. They’ve always been taught within hetero-normative structures, that being gay, being queer, being a lesbian, being asexual, not conforming to gender, is something that is deviant behavior and not something that is completely normal and that has been around for way more centuries than even colonialism has been in our country.
Being queer is nothing new although that’s the common misconception and the stigma that is attached to being queer, which is why chosen families play such an important role because let’s say for example, I have a very close friend of mine who has an extremely difficult family right now. They are continuously triggered, they are continuously told that they don’t matter, that they’re not valid, that they’re thoughts don’t matter. They are constantly put in pressure to go and seek therapy to make them “normal”. They find peace when they talk to me and my partner, which is why they call us their parents, their pseudo-parents because that sort of parental help that we can give like for example, when this person had to write their IELTS exam, which is an English exam, I was there to walk them through the entire exam because I wrote it with them so it’s not only about a friendship but it’s something more as well because they can actually fall back on you and those friends who are more family than friends are very very very vital to the survival of queer folks because without them, it’s a very difficult world to live in. We all know about the rates of depression and suicide that affects the queer community or marginalized communities more than it affects those who are in a space of privilege.
So, yeah, I hope that answers your question about why it’s called ‘Gaysi Family’ and not just ‘Gaysi’ although colloquially we just say ‘Gaysi’, nobody says ‘Gaysi Family’ but that was the idea and that segues into the fact that chosen families are super important.
Ruchika- Yeah. While the LGBTQ+ community on the whole still has a long way to go in India to find complete acceptance, the LBT individuals in particular do not have enough support. Gaysi, however, has made a special effort to be inclusive towards these individuals. How and why did this happen? Was it something that you did intentionally or did it come about organically?
Jo- It’s a very interesting question, first of all because it’s very central to Gaysi’s functioning, talking about LBT individuals. So, well, yes. Firstly, we do have a long way to go, specifically when we talk about the fact that we’re still not seem as equals even though because of the amendment of section 377, we can see that at least we can have sex equally, to heterosexual couples but that’s not enough because letting people have sex is obviously not the government’s purview but I guess that’s one thing to be grateful for because for a lot of us, we are more content with the privacy law rather than section 377 although section 377 is a very high-profile law which is why there was so much celebration around it but the Privacy law did a lot more for queer individuals because it very clearly started that sexual orientation and gender identity is a private matter, which is a very important step but of course, because of the Trans Bill right now, we have gone two centuries back because the Trans Bill is a horrendous bill that has come out and that’s the first thing we need to be solving.
Then there is same-sex marriage acts that we have to talk about, we have to talk about the anti-trafficking bill, which convoluted all kinds of different groups- it affects trans sex workers, it affects cis queer sex workers as well so yeah, it is a very messy journey but none of our rights, whether it’s feminism, Black rights, any sort of rights in the World, none of it came easily, none of it came without tonnes of us fighting extremely hard but it has to happen because otherwise there is no freedom for all of us together so, yeah, that’s one part of the question. For the other part of the question, about the LBT community, firstly I want to clarify that when we say LBT, it would include everybody who is a gender, sexual and romantic minority, it does not only include Lesbians, bisexual people and trans people, so I just wanted to make that clear.
Firstly, the fact that Gaysi was created by cis-gender queer women who identify themselves as lesbians already creates a space where the needs of those who are are not cis-gender gay men will be put forth more than the needs of cis-gender gay men, if I’m clear. So, I’ll make that clear in the next few sentences as I go. Gaysi was created because there was already some amount of a space for cis-gay men in the Bombay queer community for them to speak about, meet, stuff like that and I think one thing we forget is that patriarchy still allows for cis-gender heterosexual men and cis-gender gay men to access public space in a way that people who are not cis-gender gay men cannot access public space because for us, in most cases, let’s say cis women, will be shut off at home if somebody finds out that they are gay. They cannot ward of marriage in the same way that cis men might be able to, for example. There are lots of things we can’t do. So, keeping that in mind as well, the space that has to be built for people within LBT communities has to be different from the space that has always existed in public space for cis gay men, which is why when it comes to Gaysi as well, when we started doing our parties, our two-by-two parties, we wanted to specifically create a space that LBT people can access freely and as openly as possible, which does not have to be absolutely mixed with cis gay men because, because of the amount of spaces that are already available, I have been to parties where there were eight percent men and twenty percent, everybody else.
That made me feel very uncomfortable because I was not able to enjoy the space in the same way that I would have enjoyed it in any other space and especially when it comes to non-binary people or trans people or people who like to cross-dress or people who have any sort of different gender identity than cis-gender, that space is not available even now, I would say. Even after Gaysi, not enough spaces are available for all minorities in public space and this is still something Gaysi has to work on. I’m not saying we’ve created this epitome of awesome space but it’s something that we have very purposely tried to do because we have to do that. Making of space and ensuring that all communities and minorities are centred and given space, does not always happen organically so it is very important that people purposely be allies to these communities, very purposely ensure that their space is valued and kept in the centre, especially if they’ve not had that access. So, I hope this answer wasn’t too academic. (laughs)
Ruchika- It’s great to hear that Gaysi is being proactive towards this cause but I’d like to ask you another question. Members of the gay community are often stereotyped into moulds that can be very problematic. For example, lesbian and bisexual women of the community are very largely fetishized in pop culture. In your life and in your work with Gaysi, have you come across such instances and how do you suggest that we tackle them?
Jo- Yes, of course! Fetishization is a major problem. I mean of course, one of the first things I came across when I was a child that had to do anything with the community was lesbian porn because I though people were only lesbians when it came to porn, I didn’t think it was a real thing because that’s the kind of stigma that we’ve been fed. That it’s a preference, it’s a choice that you make in bed and not that it’s an actual romantic sexual emotional feeling towards another person which is completely as normal as heterosexuality, So, of course that totally exists and it stems from the stigma that any sexuality other than heterosexuality is not real, which is why a woman on woman kind of relationship is very stigmatized, it’s a sexualized view and even the first time when we talk about bisexiality and how stigmatized it is, for most bisexual people, especially if they are assigned female at birth, if they go on Tinder and they’re trying to look for somebody, usually you get couples who ask for somebody for a threesome so that’s what most people are reduced to. So, again that’s another thing.
That’s part of the stigma that’s attached to the community that says that this is all bisexual people and lesbian people are worth and that is what their function is in life and it’s sad because while that’s what they might be interested in, you are not taking an effort to learn more about them, about their likes, their dislikes and you reduce an entire person to their sexuality, which is the problem, right? So that’s that about the stigma, that it does exist. You don’t see it as much in the case of gay men because I actually know a lot of gay men who’ve asked me how I can like women and I’m like “just like how you can like men.” How does that make sense? So there is a lot of stigma within the community itself.
Within the community there are homosexual people who think bisexuality is a just a path to homosexuality rather than a very valid sexual orientation and I mean there is a stigma within the homosexual and bisexual communities, there are people who think that asexuality is not valid and I identify as asexual and it’s my lived experience that I do not feel sexual attraction towards a person I love very much on an everyday basis or there is a certain way that I have understood my sexuality and I would say that all these things have always existed within us, we just have words and a language for it, that is it.
All of us feel certain things. Human beings are very complex. If we can understand that our bodies are so complex and we can have five hundred organs doing five hundred things, why can we not understand that we have five hundred feelings and systems and this and that doing different functions for us? It’s as simple as that. I think this largely ties to the understanding also of mental health. If you cannot understand that mental health and physical health is very on par and should be taken care of on a serious level on par with each other, that is also why you cannot understand that emotions and feelings can be as diverse as your own bodily functions, if that makes sense.
Ruchika- Yeah, I completely agree with you about the continuum between mental and physical health. Speaking of that, there are studies that report that members of the queer community are at greater risk of developing mental health issues but for many members of this community, access to safe mental healthcare is a challenge. So can you elaborate for our listeners on this topic? What can we do to remove the barriers that the community faces?
Jo- Yes, I completely agree. There is a major issue with how much queer folks face mental health issues because the spaces that they live in and grew up in are extraordinarily different from how it is to live as a hetero-normative person who is adhering to most of society’s standards. For example, let’s say there will be a very clear difference in attitudes towards a heterosexual sibling and a homosexual sibling because the homosexual sibling is not seen as a normal part of the family at all. The family themselves have not learnt anything beyond hetero-normativity so the homosexual child will be treated differently. A child, for example, if they have been assigned male at birth and they are wearing a saree, they probably will be beaten up by their parents to sort of make them better or something, apparently.
Yeah, I know abuse is a different thing to be talking about but a lot of children in families that are hetero-normative and if they are homosexual or if they are just not hetero-normative like the rest of the family, will go through some amount of abuse, whether it’s verbal, physical, emotional or will even just be said some things that are extremely scarring and sadly, because we don’t have queer affirmative mental heath practices enough in the country, and just generally also there is so much stigma around mental health that parents are not going to reach out to a psychologist or a therapist to talk to them about how they can support their kid. Instead, they will reach out to psychiatrists to put their kids into conversion therapy, for example. So, it’s a completely opposite way to be looking at it, instead of trying to understand why their child might be having these feelings or how we can support them better.
So, that’s the kind of conversation that we should be having that we’re still not having, which leads to obvious mental health disorders, to illnesses, to just not very healthy practices at home and yeah, of course it ends up in young queer children having to take so much more therapy for all the nonsense that their parents have fed them, so it’s really sad. The statistics are right. A lot of us face a lot more depression and anxiety because we are closeted for most of our lives, so it is a very horrible space to be in- to continuously lead two lives- to continuously be inside the closet and outside the closet with some people but not with other people and not live our authentic lives, our true lives. That’s extremely tough.
Ruchika- I agree. I wanted you to elaborate a little bit more on the queer affirmative therapy. How does it help the members of the LGBTQ+ community?
Jo- So, the reason that we need to have queer affirmative therapy rather than just queer neutral therapy, very basically, we need to have therapists who have educated themselves on the community and who need to be affirmative to their LGBT clients. That is extremely important so that they don’t end up sitting over there saying something that further demonizes the community, that further stigmatizes the person sitting in front of them and makes them feel like they are of no significance to the Earth because that can really happen a lot. For example, something very basic like self harm and we have the person opposite just guilting them, that itself can make a person feel extremely horrible about themselves. Similarly, in the case of queer folks as well, if it’s not affirmative, if it’s not coming from a place where the therapist is well read, it can really have very negative side effects on the person who is seeking therapy and that can be extremely dangerous because we already don’t have many therapists in the country and we have more therapists in metropolitan cities than in any other place and that already is a big gap because smaller towns, tier I, tier II cities don’t have enough queer affirmative practices that work. So, there’s still a long way to go, that’s where I always end up. Such a long way to go but have I answered your question? Is there something else you wanted me to elaborate on? Because I’m not a therapist also.
Ruchika- Yeah, of course but I believe Gaysi has done something about this. They’ve compiled a list of practitioners.
Jo- Yes. So, first of all, we do have some really great organizations like the Mariwala Health Initiative and other tonnes of initiatives that try and push therapists to look at their practice and make it more queer affirmative. It’s something that’s coming into the mainstream right now and I’m glad that’s happening. More queer folks, thankfully, are becoming therapists and practitioners. So, we do need queer folks from the community itself to also take up counselling because I know trans men who are counsellors and who are amazing counsellors. It’s a different thing to be able to take from your lived experience and counsel a client, right? Because when a client sees someone who is exactly like them, it’s a different sort of affirmation than for example, a cis person telling them about gender dysphoria. So, when a trans person tells them about gender dysphoria, it’s a different sort of affirmation.
So, I’m happy to see that so many more queer folks are engaging in therapy. I, myself, am planning to take a few counselling courses over the next few years because I figured that I’m doing that on a day-to-day basis anyway and I’d rather be more well-read while I do it and be a proper counsellor than be a person who is offering free therapy anyway. With regards to Gaysi, so Gaysi is technically a media platform. We do what we do through content and continuously creating content to read. So, the resource tab is something we had thought of like five to six months back when we are like okay, you know what? We need to have some sort of really easy resource guide kind of things which can be accessed by anybody and which sort of delves into these concepts that we don’t see in the Indian context.
For example, the first resource guide we had put up was something about binders that are used by people across the spectrum- the non-binary spectrum, the trans spectrum- and we had not seen any information on binders that had anything to do with Indian queer people and we saw that gap and that’s another gap that we keep trying to fill. So, that’s how the resource section started coming up and within the resource section, we’ve had so many different articles, and within that we’ve had like for example, the ‘Gaysi guide to queer positive mental health’, under which we started publishing guides on whom to reach out to if you’re feeling depressed, some helplines that are queer affirmative, some practices or therapists who are queer affirmative and whom we can go to. So, that was the whole point of the guides that we’ve been trying to create because we figured that if a person is sad, if a person is depressed or anxious or not in a good space of mind, the last thing they want to do is go on Google and sift through tonnes and tonnes of material that is available. Instead, if we are able to streamline that and do that for them, maybe it might help, which is why we worked with our writers to do that research and there is this very cool database that we have created which I am personally proud of.
It’s thanks to our writer, Anna, who put all of this together on a work-flowy flowchart kind of thing, like if you press “Kashmir”, you will get therapists who will help you, who are queer affirmative or if you press “Andaman”, you will get the same. That’s very necessary and thankfully yes, there are tonnes of lists that keep going around. So, that’s what we’ve tried to do with the different lists and most recently, we did a little chat with a therapist who was talking about borderline and bipolar disorder in the context of queer communities, which is also important.
So, we’re trying to understand how most of these mental health issues work when it comes into a space where the person is also queer and thus, might have had a difficult family background or some kind of issue with their self and how they view themselves. That’s what we’re doing in the mental health sort of thing but again, none of us are therapists so we try to push them to actual therapists if anybody needs help from us. But yeah, first-aid is something we definitely pay a lot of attention on because all of us need to know mental health first-aid just like we know physical health first-aid.
Ruchika- Yeah, so it’s great to hear that Gaysi is not just a media platform but also a resource hub for people when they want to access mental health help. So, it’s been over a decade that Gaysi has been around and has given people a platform to share their stories. What major trends and changes have you noticed in the kinds of stories that people have been submitting through the years?
Jo- Definitely one would be that the articles are getting a lot more nuanced. People are writing about things very critically. I think that’s just our time and I guess we’ve just grown as a community to talk beyond coming out. To talk beyond acceptance, because usually the most common thing for people to talk about is coming out of the closet and how people accept it. These are the two questions that people are continuously asking queer folks but that’s not the only thing that queer folks encounter. So, it’s amazing to see that people really engage with media nowadays and they really question where media comes from.
The trends that I’ve noticed is earlier a lot of us would be completely okay with brands making Pride month all about themselves by putting a rainbow flag but now we are very critical about whether that brand is giving enough money into the queer community because at the end of the day, the queer community does not need more platforms. We have enough platforms. We’ve always had a voice, we’ve just been silenced. But what they do need, is jobs. What they do need is better policy. What they do need is anti-bullying policies, washrooms that can be accessible, spaces where the intersectionalities are visible because there are disabled queer people, there are people who have mental health issues and are queer.
All sorts of intersectionalities- there are dalit queers, there are upper-class queers, upper-caste queers, middle-class queers, there are all kinds of intersectionalities that we need to talk about. There are queers in smaller towns and villages. How do we make our things more accessible to them? It cannot be continuously speaking in this vacuum of privilege, right? So, I think that is something that has grown in the past few years because there are people who come and talk to us. Recently, we had a really cool article written by one of our writers, Abhishek, who spoke about how the English language both, helps the queer community but also restricts the queer community because it’s not accessible to so many people. I wouldn’t even say Hindi is accessible to enough people because again, it’s a very small population that knows Hindi. The whole of South India is not interested in learning the language. I mean I am South Indian so, it should be in languages that are for us as well.
So, thankfully the conversation has also moved forward to other things like I personally enjoy talking about and thinking about how localizing queer support is the way to move forward in the future because even though Gaysi or larger organizations exist in the country, we cannot provide support to everybody. It’s impossible in a country especially like India and Gaysi has a very clear population and there is only a certain amount of diversity that we can reach out to. We should be aware of that and we are aware of that, which is why supporting smaller organizations who can provide localized support is very important. For example, Yol in Manipur, they are looking after the Manipur community and the communities around there, and pushing in more money and more help and more resources there would make more sense than pushing more money and resources into larger organizations. Personally, I feel like money will come easier for us anyway so it’s important for us to push forward smaller, local community help and solidarity support systems that exist in smaller towns in Coimbatore, in Chennai, in Thrissur, whatever smaller spaces and pockets that exist.
So, those queer groups should be pushed more, should be supported and put in solidarity with more because I think that’s the future of the queer movement in India. It is not having more Pride parades. I mean yes, that’s fun but that’s not it. It has to be as accessible as possible to all kinds of people as possible and that’s not going to happen with one streamlined movement. It’s going to only happen with an intersectional movement that looks at all kinds of people.
Ruchika- Absolutely so yeah, I agree because the smaller organizations are the ones that understand the needs of their communities the best as opposed to maybe the bigger ones.
Ruchika- Jo, thank you so much for joining us on this show today and for giving us such valuable insights into the queer community.