When people from the hijra and kinnar communities in Cooch Behar became jobless during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, Moitri Sanjog, an organisation founded by 32-year-old Sumi Das, provided them with mental health counselling. The organisation also began employing community members in its catering, beauty parlour, and paper plate-making businesses.
"Moitri Sanjog also has its full-time shelter where community people can come and stay anytime whenever they have any problems," says Das who established the community-based organisation, in 2011 with an aim towards providing livelihood and supporting the community in the Cooch Behar and Alipurduar districts of West Bengal.
As the United Kingdom observes LGBT History Month through this month (in May in Ireland, and October in the US, Canada and Australia), it’s as good a reason as any to recognise the work of various queer advocacy groups in remote corners of India.
After legal reforms in India, like the recognition of transgender rights in 2014 and the decriminalisation of same-sex relations in 2017 , there has been a lot of focus on such work in metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore.
However, Moitri Sanjog is one among the many in small towns across the country – away from the circles of the big metropolitan cities, well-promoted NGOs and pride parade committees – that are doing quality work in queer activism, providing support and relief, advocating for rights, and collaborating with the local administrations.
Researchers Paul Boyce and Rohit K. Dasgupta argued in their essay, Utopia or Elsewhere: Queer Modernities in Small Town West Bengal published in the book Urban Utopias: Excess and Expulsion in Neoliberal South Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), that small towns are not just sites where queer identities originate and depart from for freedoms in the big cities; "...rather they can become an important site that stands in contrast to the predominantly urban neoliberal queer modernity that gets evoked as a marker of development," they reasoned.
That is certainly so in the case of the Xobdo Foundation in Tezpur, Assam. "Xobdo is an Assamese word, which means both words and sounds. So, through words and sounds, we are trying to create a dialogue; through the dialogue, we are trying to create a movement; through the movement, we are trying to restore the dignity of the LGBTQIA+ community," says activist Luku, who is a co-founder of the foundation.
Xobdo collaborates with colleges and universities in and around Tezpur to create a society where being queer is no longer taboo. In their sessions with students, they break down gender, sex, and sexuality and go into the depths of each. "We ask them [the participants] to ask any number of questions even if they (may be) derogatory because the more you ask questions, the more knowledge you gain," explains Luku. This approach is carried out with the hope that at least one person would go home or meet their friends and tell them what they have learned.
Luku, who is also a member of their district Sonitpur's Transgender Welfare Committee, says through these sessions, Xobdo also wants people to understand that transgender is an umbrella term, and it does not just refer to the hijra community. "Since people have this notion, it invisibilises other trans identities like nonbinary, gender-neutral, trans masc, and trans men for that matter," says Luku.
Educating people about the gender and sexuality spectrum is a major part of the work done by Rabi Raj in the Balangir district of Odisha as well. They are a primary school teacher in a small village and advocate for queer and Dalit-Bahujan issues in the district.
"I work a lot in the rural areas of the district, where they don't know about the LGBT community (at all). Even if they are transgender, they don't know anything else apart from that," says Raj. He attributes it to the lack of awareness and education there.
To address this lack, they organise events and gatherings. These help to recognise and address the problems faced by the community, especially of transphobia and homophobia in educational institutes, a major hindrance to the literacy of queer folks there.
While doing so, they have to deal with many challenges both from within and outside the community.
Raj shares that they have met with resistance from the local administration. They share that they kept on visiting the education officer to organise a sensitisation event with all the cluster coordinators on gender and sexuality but they were always given the excuse of the covid pandemic. Raj feels that they just did not want to talk about it.
Another challenge is that few people connect with them for such sessions because they get no material gain from it: "If they are not getting anything, why would they come?"
Caste remains a cause of discrimination within the community and in advocacy work. Even though many say they don't see caste and religion, it remains apparent in how people are called by their caste surnames, they say.
The spectre of caste also emerged when a Dalit trans person was beaten up in Sonepur in December. "If that person was rich or from an upper caste, that would have become a big issue. Since that person is a poor Dalit, no one is raising it," explains Raj.
Das too says that discrimination exists in the community based on caste and religion, similar to how it exists everywhere.
She shares another challenge regarding the use of terminology while working in advocacy in small towns. Even though not all trans persons belong to the hijra community, "There is a tendency to club everyone together. It is very challenging to make them understand [the difference]."
Unlike LGBTQ organisations in bigger cities, organisations in far-flung places and smaller towns do not get a lot of donor funds. Das notes how lack of resources, lower levels of education, knowledge of English and inaccessibility of emails are all disadvantages for such organisations to access funding.
"On the one hand, pride parades are happening in big cities with a lot of corporate funding but on the other end, many community members are homeless. During covid lockdown, we got to see how many hijra community people still do not have ration cards or bank accounts. We need to focus on that," said Das.
Despite challenges, such advocacy has led to increased visibility and conversations about queer lives and issues in these towns. For those who need it, they have provided a sense of community.
"In some of our sessions, people have come out to say that they have been looking for a community or a support system like this all their life. That makes me feel like we are on the right path," concludes Luku.
Anmol is an independent journalist and writer. They report and write on gender and sexuality, health and wellness, and food and culture, among other things