Convergence is the way ahead for true transformation

Written by Janani Sampath

It is Pride Month, the time when world over organizations working in the space of LGBTQ+ rights, their allies and society, amp up efforts towards inclusion. In India, the reading down of Section 377 by the Supreme Court in 2018 September, which effectively decriminalized homosexuality, has bolstered the movement and paved the way for inclusion across boards, including corporates. Transgender activist and motivational speaker, Akkai Padmashali— founder, Ondede, an NGO striving for a non-discriminatory society— talks to Avtar about the progress made so far, the drags, and what the future holds for the movement.

How has the reading down of Sec 377 translated into opportunities for LGBTQ?

AP: While the Supreme Court has delivered a verdict in favor of the group, the translation of the verdict to a common man’s language is yet to come. Of course, this has to be done by the lawmakers and the state administrators. The judgment is not just for us; it is pertinent to everyone.

It is the 21st Century; we have to address it through different levels of education and sections of society. We also have to see how to translate this for the working class — the poor and the middle-income groups. Only after it reaches the grassroots, can we see a visible change.

While things have progressed since the 2018 SC judgment, do you think inclusion has been equitable?

AP: I look at it from another angle. I think it is not about acceptance in cosmopolitan cities, metros, or tier-2 and tier-3 cities. One can’t say that they are satisfied with the progress since metros have accepted it and that we are not bothered about some backward districts where it doesn’t happen. Politics of sexuality is still unacceptable even in highly literate states. When I decide my gender and sexuality, the acceptance has to be uniform — be it a metro or some hinterland. The approach, I believe, towards it has to be across levels; we should have a system to address it.

How has COVID been a  challenge for the community?

AP: The pandemic has taken a toll on the vulnerable sections. More so, for the HIV+ve people and those on hormonal therapy. The pandemic has exacerbated problems like psychological stress due to social exclusion and non-acceptance among families. Now, vaccination is also a challenge. We have sought intervention by the local body in Bengaluru to run a separate drive for them, and they have come forward to address this.

The pandemic has shown us for the marginalized the challenges are multifold. And, we do not have a choice but fight it.

There have been several allies who have championed the cause of inclusion. How important is this kind of allyship for the cause?

AP: About 20 years ago, no one wanted to follow and support the issue, largely due to sexuality and gender norms. The working-class sexual minorities movement involved the marginalized groups raising slogans, holding agitations, and pushing for change, relentlessly. The NAZ judgment in 2009 came as a ray of hope, and it made many rethink the process of supporting it. The SC judgment in 2018 ensured that allies did not have to look for any conditions to support the community. These happened because of the efforts of the community. The change you see in the corporates is because one of them from the community got into the system and sought a change. Before the judgment, people were bound by legalities. However, if there has been one strong supporter throughout– it has been the feminist movement.

The representation of the community in popular culture has changed in recent times, and brands have been vocal about their support. What is the impact of such messaging on the ground?

AP: True, in the past, the community was shown in poor light. Such depictions not only undermined the dignity of the group but also prompted the viewers to see them in the same light and context. In a way, the SC judgment in 2018 has changed this–people have begun seeing us in a  new light. Today, the industry is cautious about the way they are shown. However, popular culture can only take it so far. Social inclusivity will happen only with awareness across.

While open campaigns are run to support the group and movement, inclusivity is yet to happen entirely in the corporates. Some of the branding exercises are just tokenism.

Is the struggle of the younger transgender population today any different from what you faced when you were young and beating the odds due to societal norms and stigma?

AP: The younger generation has more privilege. Almost 25 years ago, no family and no media would address us. There was no policy. We have made space for them—they can aspire to study well and have alternative occupations.

There is also a welcome change like the decision to give one percent reservation for the transgender community in government services in Karnataka. We have to look at scaling this across sections and levels.

What are your plans for the future?

AP: Ondede means convergence in Kannada. The work is always about bringing together communities. Be it child rights, women’s rights, or sexual minorities– it is about building consensus and solidarity among them for the group. We are into policy, advocacy, and research, along with organizing communities, fighting for justice, and addressing discrimination. Our next effort is a campaign called ‘No Violence against Gender Non-Conforming Children, sexual minorities and transgender community.’ We are focusing on Karnataka now, but after two years, we want to take it across South India, before going pan-India. We are building the base, educating people on the ground.

There are ups and downs— these are lessons for the future. While we have to debate and discuss the past, I see a lot of hope in the future generation.

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