Pride Month is typically a difficult time for me; it was worst in the years when I was trying to find a space within the LGBTQ “community.” For many, no matter what label(s) one lines up under, it can be an uneasy fit. Definitions are at once elastic and exclusionary and today, more than two decades after I first recognized myself as a trans man, I find myself drifting away from identities (in all aspects of my life) and exercising caution with language I do use to talk about who I am. However, there was a time—in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when self-identification was critical and a “queer” network (print, virtual and face-to-face) helped me come out, make the decision to transition, and cope with the fallout. Although my location and circumstances were far from those detailed in this book, it brought that time back to me all the same.
Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by activist and writer Pawan Dhall, traces the challenges, achievements and evolution of a fledgling queer initiative in West Bengal and Odisha, one that was driven by a need to provide connection, support, and sexual health resources to a variety of individuals who otherwise faced isolation, stigma, discrimination and physical threat. To read this account, one senses a time of darkness, concern and excitement, yet, although much has changed for queer people in India, especially in recent years, significant challenges still exist.
This slender, illustrated and referenced volume, part of Seagull Books’ Pride List series, presents a sort of textual and visual documentary of the early queer movement that began in Kolkata, eventually spreading out into rural areas and across state lines. As such it is a part of a broader story of queer life in India and across the globe, a story that in many countries still remains to be lived, let alone told. The author is a journalist with an archivist’s calling, and his intention is neither to explain nor justify the need for a queer movement; his focus is on the how, not the why. He relies on research into the archives of some of the earliest support forums in the area, and introduces many of the individuals who were involved with these groups or who sought their assistance at a time when resources were few and far between. Where possible follow-up interviews were conducted in 2017. Allowing this story to unfold through real-life experiences, framed historically and in the present day, makes for a remarkably engaging read.
Central to the early queer mobilization as explored in Out of Line and Offline, is a support group called Kolkata Counsel Club, formed in 1993 by a small number of gay and bisexual men including the author. Dhall had already started publishing a queer themed newsletter on his own and it soon became the house journal of Counsel Club and a beacon for countless isolated, uncertain and questioning queer people who wrote letters seeking advice, validation or contact. As Dhall says, “This was the pre-Internet era; even acquiring a telephone connection was a tough task.” Younger folk coming out in the age of social media and a ubiquitous online world likely have little understanding of how vital books, photographs, and newsletters could be to people desperate to come to terms with feeling different, uncertain if anyone else like them exists. I remember it well.
In time, the group would grow and its sphere of influence would expand beyond that of men who have sex with men. Two female university students wrote to them, wishing to find a way to be together away from their families’ objections, so arrangements were made to help them “escape” to Delhi, a success that would not always be feasible for other such young women, sometimes with tragic consequences. Transgender women (often, but not always, hijras) would also find a place the queer movement, as well as representing an important target of sexual health advocacy, especially in poorer, rural communities. Of particular interest to me was the account of a young student who wrote to Counsel Club in 1999 from the small state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. An article on “women in love” had drawn their attention and through it they found the group’s mailing address. This individual (called “Ryan” in the book) claimed that although born a girl, they had the attitude and behaviour of a boy. Ryan was seeking help to have a sex-change. Dhall was struck by the absolute helplessness expressed and wrote two letters in response offering what empathy he could, albeit with a clarification that article that inspired the exchange had been about lesbians. Ryan did not write back, leaving much unresolved. Today Dhall is careful not to assign any label to his troubled correspondent—his own understanding has evolved with the changing awareness of a range sexualities and gender identities. This sensitivity is the mark of someone who has spent many years directly involved with the expanding queer community in India:
But I have also experienced the pitfalls of activist enthusiasm to get the terms right at the expense of the priorities of the person across me. Many of us have come around to believe (through day-to-day interactions, research and training) that there is no one way to be a man, woman, gay, lesbian, transgender, transsexual, Hindu, Muslim, Indian or anything else. Thus it should not have been my place to ‘correct’ Ryan if they somehow felt kinship with the women in love portrayed in the magazine.
Of course, Ryan’s sense of kinship makes perfect sense to me and, like Dhall, I hope they found a way to reach their goals. But I also wish more activists were similarly open rather than dictatorial in their approach.
In fact, Pawan Dhall’s holistic, inclusive perspective is the greatest strength of this book. He accepts the choices others make without judgement even if they are not immediately easy to understand. He sees value in all the people who become involved in advocacy and activism, recognizing that no matter what their background or identity (several of the key figures here are straight, drawn into work with queer communities by virtue of their professional or academic interests). Recent events—the repeal of Section 377 which decriminalizes consensual same sex activity and the passing of the controversial Transgender Bill—point to significant, if complicated, progress. Class inequality is still a critical issue as many queer people are marginalized, in urban and rural settings alike. And, of course, the ubiquitous online world of dating apps, support groups and hyper-visibility is at once a blessing and a curse. So there is always more work to be done and more people who need to be reached.
Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall is published by Seagull Books.