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From growing up in Punjab not being able to define himself, to becoming part of India’s LGBTQ movement, the manager of Humsafar Trust’s LGBTQ programmes discusses the changes through the generations, and how the abolition of India’s homophobic law (Section 377) is really just the beginning.
“My identity is very clear,” says Yashwinder Singh, 40, also known as Lisa Nova Jena. “I am bi-gender.”
“It’s not like I’ll die without either gender, but I’m both Yash and Lisa.”
It hasn’t always been clear. Not for the colonised or post-colonial India which had the British Empire’s binary way of thinking foisted on it. Not for the community Lisa grew up in. Not for her parents. Not for Yash himself.
Yash works at Humsafar Trust, a Linking Organisation of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, where he manages a Delhi-based programme aimed at LGBTQ people. A landmark ruling in September 2018 decriminalised homosexuality between consenting adults. The Supreme Court’s decision overturned the infamous Section 377, which was brought in during British rule in 1864. Humsafar Trust was one of the petitioners filing to overturn the discriminatory law.
Lisa celebrated the decision with colleagues and friends. These were some of the same friends she celebrated Delhi’s first Pride with back in 2008, 10 years earlier. She was one of the people fundamental in making that happen too.
The celebrations felt like “a world away” from Punjab in the 1980s and 90s: “I grew up in a society that was very heteronormative, like any part of India. It was during adolescence that I found myself thinking that I was totally different.
If you don’t know something now, you go to Google and just type it in, but there was no internet back then. It was the time of those big encyclopaedias, but if I don’t know what to look up, how am I going to go through millions of words to try and find myself, to see if ‘I’ am in there?
It wasn’t until 1997, at age 17, that I heard the word ‘homosexual’. The following year the pressure to marry started, so I used the excuse of study to postpone it. I did a lot of courses!” says Yash, who has numerous qualifications and degrees in pharmacy, biology, maths, and social work.
I never saw a single article referencing homosexuality until 2000. It was an interview with the then Chair of Humsafar. It makes me realise, looking back, how Punjab and other states had been absolutely untouched from reality for a long time.
Of course, back then, I was dating other men, but it was just hook-ups or sex. Interestingly, even today, if you go to a remote part of the country, people don’t consider sex between men as sex. The attitude is ‘if you’re not getting women then it’s fine to try men’, it’s just releasing some energy, or a bit of fun.”
Yash’s dad caught him ‘releasing some energy’ on the rooftop one night. “From that night my sexuality was an ‘unsaid-said thing’ for my parents for a long time,” says Yash, recalling how his father had quietly descended the steps pretending not to have seen him but the next day made his message clear in a coded way. “I applaud my dad. He didn’t act like any other Indian father and shout or throw me out, but the message [not to be homosexual] left an impact on me.”
Soon after, Yash moved to Delhi for a job, starting his career with LGBTQ and HIV charities. “In 2009 my parents saw me talking on TV about LGBTQ rights. Also, if they came to visit me in Delhi they’d see transgender people staying at my house. My sexuality remained ‘unsaid-said’, so when the topic of marriage came up again I’d simply say, ‘I’m not getting married’.”
A generational issue
Although marriage was never on the cards for Yash in the way his parents imagined, he believes “we need to start talking about gay partnerships. It’s now seen that two men can have sex, but only sex, not form a family. The society view still needs to mature.
When I went to Europe that gave me loads of confidence, I thought ‘if it’s accepted there than why not here?’ That’s when I really started talking to people about it, to try and shift the dialogue.
It’s not like it’s not happening, I know a couple in Delhi who are raising their children - and adoptions often happen unofficially - but I believe it’s a very small, minuscule, population thinking about partnerships, especially outside of the metropolitan areas.
With heterosexual families there is an in-built support system, of children looking after parents and grandparents, but for unmarried older gay men the traditional support system doesn’t exist.” It explains why the issue of marriage is still a recurring theme with Yash and his dad.
Decriminalisation has only just happened. The new law includes an article on the right to form your family. We need to mainstream this thing and maybe the 377 decision is the start.”
Yash believes the law will also have a positive impact on HIV testing. “A lot more people will test,” he says based on his professional experience. “People have been coming to us [at Humsafar] rather than the doctor for advice on anal STIs. If someone is injured by a bullet, it’s mandatory for the doctor to report it to the police. Section 377 meant doctors thought along the same lines.”
The stats on new HIV infections are also showing a generational issue.
Now the homophobic law has been revoked Yash believes it paves the way for people to start going to doctors and clinics without fear which will increase access to essential HIV treatment and prevention services.
Lisa and the latest prevention technology
Yash couldn’t Google ‘gay’ when he was younger, but now uses social media and dating apps to reach the LGBTQ community to raise awareness of their rights and the support and services that exist. Lisa has taken to 아메리칸 룰렛YouTube and social media to promote PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a daily ARV which can be taken to reduce the risk of HIV infection. “I’m a PrEP champion and started it myself last year. Before taking it someone has to have HIV and STI screening. I see it as part of the ‘prevention toolkit’, to be used alongside condoms not instead of.”
Presenting the video as Lisa has helped get the word out. “Being a drag queen attracts attention,” she explains. Lisa is aware that ‘drag queen’ may be interpreted differently in other countries, i.e. as a persona or entertainment rather than necessarily a gender identity, but chooses to define herself this way nonetheless. “I’m bi-gender, I’m a drag queen, I’m a woman, I’m a cross-dresser, I’m a man, I’m gay, and I’m only attracted to cis-males.”
She believes that if that’s complicated it’s the binary mind at work.
Gender is ever-evolving
Lisa was on TV again recently, after the 377 ruling. “My dad called and asked what channel I was going to be on! Can you imagine?! It’s huge, the difference in them. I now have their full support.”
“At times they do still come back and be like ‘why don’t you marry?’, but I’m like ‘Daaaad!’”
She explains her parents no longer expect a ‘traditional marriage’ but perhaps for her “to marry a divorcee, someone that needs looking after and can also look after me and them as they’re getting older”.
“Gender and sexuality issues are ever-evolving,” says Lisa. Despite the gentle probes about marriage she’ll never forget what her dad said after seeing her on TV the last time.
“He said: ‘In India we never had such laws prior to the British who brought that law, and that was less than 200 years ago. So why so much fuss? They brought something and imposed it on society and we have thrown it out. The Supreme Court has restored the ancient value system, so let us celebrate it and let us celebrate the diversity of LGBTQ’. I was like, ‘Oh my god, Dad!’ I took a recording and put it on social media.”
Lisa laughs and sighs heavily. “Coming out… it takes a long time.”
Find out more about Humsafar Trust. Check out its website ‘Come home to Humsafar! Where your identity is a reason for pride, not a reason to hide.’