Coming out elsewhere: Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall

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.

Who am I now? Slouching toward queerlessness.

I’ve had a strange and sombre day. Surrounded by hundreds of books and thousands of pages of words, with a couple of vague essay ideas sketched into notebooks or percolating in fragmented Word documents, I found myself thinking: What is the point? What value is there in this mass of words, written and unwritten?

Certainly we all hit creative impasses, as writers and as readers, but the impact is stifling all the same. For those of us who traffic in words, what are we when they cease to flow?

I have frequently posited my literary intention as an act of writing myself into being. By that I mean that I am acutely aware of my life, my being in the world, as an unfinished process—as is, of course, every human existence—but for me that process has grown increasingly undefined and undefinable over the years. I’ve been hunting for an existential language. I have, at heart, hoped that in my words someone else might recognize themselves; that I might not feel so alone.I’ve been thinking a lot about what drives us to tell our own stories. Some might argue that it is an essential element of human nature. We are story telling creatures. But to what end is it helpful to try to impose a narrative on lived experience? And what do I hope to achieve writing personal essays when I don’t have a very strong personal memory? There are huge swathes of my life that I cannot clearly remember or that are buried beneath the distractions of mood disorder and the disorientation of decades of gender insecurity. If I cannot clearly remember who I was, how can I hope to uncover any truths about who I am?

It might be easier if I was inclined to fiction, to creating shadows and echoes of myself and allowing them their own experiences. Play with variations on a theme. But my imagination is tethered to the hollowness that troubles my inability to find comfort within this real life lived. The only life I have. Queered and queerless.

When I started writing and publishing essays after an extended period of closeted post-transition existence, I hoped and believed that I could reclaim for myself an identity and a sexuality I had buried. Four years later I own even less than I started with. How do you write about an increasingly meaningless way of being in the world? It’s not a happy story; not the trans narrative that finds a ready audience. From the moment one comes out as transgender, the story you can tell defines your validity and access to services and support. Twenty years ago that was a very specific story, one I could not tell and so I had to carve my own path. I should assume it’s better now, but with the explosion of trans discourse, the narrative essentially remains the same. At odds with my own.

What do I know? All I know is that in my experience, this journey is intrinsically incomplete and unresolvable, lonely, and, in the wrong situation, dangerous.

I have friends who question my continued efforts to find myself within a conversation that cannot contain me, especially when my search for queer comfort causes so me much pain. I have good people and good things in my life, but when your history and your body are skewed against the norm there is a driving need to find a chorus to which to add your voice. A chance to a love song even. No matter how hard I try to believe, I cannot dream there is one. At least not for me.

Who wants words to that effect? There is no catharsis in writing or reading to that end. There are simply words, strings of syllables leading nowhere, achieving nothing at the end of the day.

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Of course, I will find refuge in books again. And I will write. I just wrote this. For what it’s worth.