These Crusaders Are Working for LGBTQ Rights to Live and Love With Dignity

With the scrapping of Section 377 that outlawed consensual gay sex, LGBTQ people are coming out with a confident new voice. In a two-part series ‘It’s Only Love’, we feature individuals and organisations working to ensure dignity in life and love for the gay and trans communities.

MONISHA AJGAONKAR

Even after the positive Supreme Court verdict decriminalizing gay sex, Indian lesbians continue to live in the closet, rues Monisha Ajgaonkar, the 29-year-old Mumbai-based founder of The Photo Diary, a firm that specialises in commercial and wedding photography. “It’s a lot to do with social mores that dictate women’s sexuality,” she muses, while adding that even in a metro like Mumbai, girls are confused and afraid of revealing their sexual identity to their family and society at large. “I have no hopes of finding a partner in India,” she says with a trace of regret.

The LGBTQ activist has put her professional skills to good use, and has taken on various photography and videography projects to bring light to the challenges of the lesbian community in India. One of her projects commissioned by Ogilvy, which informed people how to answer questions related to being lesbian, was featured worldwide and won an award at this year’s DMA Asia ECHO Awards.

In another project, she presented a lesbian wedding, playing the role of the ‘groom’ herself (lead image). “I shoot weddings for a living, and I’d just broken up with my girlfriend, so this shoot had a very personal relevance for me. It’s something I don’t have for myself,” confesses Monisha.

LGBT-Monisha-3According to Monisha, “Gay men and transgenders do find portrayal in pop culture from time to time. They have some voice. But lesbians are largely invisible. Many of them are married, and hide this side of themselves from the world.”  Which is why one of her photo essays featured a real-life lesbian couple shot at different locations in Mumbai like just another couple in love (below).

Monisha has been “out and about” by herself since her late teens. She set up her photography firm five years ago shooting weddings all over India besides taking on personal and corporate projects. Her friend Nidhi Shetty is now her business head, and they have a core team of six, with another 30 assistants hired on a contractual basis.

LGBT-MonishaIt’s not easy to come out openly as gay, admits Monisha. She had to  break ties with her folks when they found out her truth from an interview of hers in a newspaper. “Family can sometimes be the greatest obstacle in your coming out. That’s why friends and financial independence are so important,” she emphasizes, adding that the road can be rough. “Have courage.”

 

KESHAV SURI FOUNDATION

The best part about attending a day-long conference dedicated to the rights of the LGBTQ community is the fashion. Exciting and enthralling, the variety of looks on display – from elaborate makeup and nails to gender-fluid clothing – are enough to put most fashion weeks to shame. If anyone needed convincing that the LGBTQ community has a better sense of style and the expression of it, the Keshav Suri Foundation’s ‘Queering the Pitch’ conference was all the evidence they’d need.

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L-R: Keshav Suri, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and Jyotsna Suri with Ishaan Sethi, Anubhuti Banerjee, Diogo Vieira da Silva and Maya

On a more serious note, the event, spearheaded by Keshav Suri – the executive director of the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group and one of the petitioners who filed an appeal in the Supreme Court to scrap Section 377 – marked the launch of his foundation with a mission to “embrace, empower and mainstream the LGBTQ community”.

The foundation has tied up with the It Gets Better Project, a global platform to uplift and connect the LGBTQ+ community. “With a feeling of acceptance and belonging, the foundation aims to skill people from the community and help them live a life of dignity,” says Keshav, who has won numerous awards in the fields of entrepreneurship, hospitality and for being an agent of social change.

The conference saw influencers from various fields take the dais, such as acclaimed author Devdutt Pattanaik and noted media personalities Barkha Dutt, Faye D’Souza and Shekhar Gupta. Topics of discussion included ‘queering politics’ and moving beyond 377 and mainstreaming those from the LGBTQ communities.

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L-R: Parmesh Shahani, Sangita Reddy, Faye D’Souza, Amita Karadkhedkar and
Amit Mahtaney

Other personalities who graced the event included openly gay and transgender people from the corporate world, such as Ishaan Sethi, CEO of Delta, India’s first homegrown app that connects LGBTQ persons, Parmesh Shahani, head of the award-winning Godrej India Culture Lab and TED senior fellow, and Anubhuti Banerjee, manager IT customer relationship management at Tata Steel Limited.

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, author of two books and acharya mahamandaleshwar of the Kinnar Akhada, who has represented Asia-Pacific at a UN task meeting and at the 20th Internatonal AIDS conference in Melbourne, spoke about the need to recognize the historical heritage of the kinnar (transgender) community in India. Diogo Vieira da Silva, an LGBTQ activist from Portugal who helped established It Gets Better Project’s first affiliates in Europe, talked about the need to bring the project to India and the challenges ahead.

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L-R: Kusha Kapila, Apurva Asrani, Shekhar Gupta, Faraz Arif Ansari, Vasu Primlani, Santu Misra

Important points about representation of the gay community were raised in the session ‘Queer the Content’, and it was interesting to see two very talented (and openly gay) film directors respectfully disagree on the subject. Faraz Arif Ansari, the filmmaker behind Sisak, India’s first silent LGBTQ love story which went on to win over 50 international film awards, spoke about his as-yet unsuccessful search for a transgender woman to play the lead in his upcoming film Sabr but why it was important that he not give up.

On the other side of the debate was National Award-winning director film editor and screenwriter Apurva Asrani, whose films Satya (1998), Shahid (2013) and Aligarh (2016) created talking points on vital subjects. He was of the opinion that merit (talent, skill or training) was more important to him while casting an actor – even if the on-screen character was gay or transgender – rather than selecting a gay or transgender person as a token to represent the community.

The evening came to an end with drag performances that left the audience awed across the spectrum, including by Maya the Drag Queen, Betta Naan Stop, Tropical Marca and the stunning Ivanka, who makes quite a statement with her bald head and expressive eyes. Standup comedian Vasu Primlani evoked much laughter with her sharp commentary on life as a gay woman, and the cocktails went on late into the evening.

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A drag performance at The Lalit after the ‘Queering the Pitch’ conference

An event that brings together rational debate with a passionate expression of selfhood is bound to leave its attendees moved, whether gay or straight. Human rights cannot be ensured by laws alone. It takes a mighty commitment from all sections of society, the community and the economic stakeholders to make sure that the marginalized are skilled, given a voice, and assured of their personal dignity and freedom of expression at workplaces, in public and at home.

The Keshav Suri Foundation has taken a noble step towards a more just and inclusive society. And a more fashionable one.

The feature ‘It’s Only Love’ was first published in the Winter 2018 issue of eShe magazine. Read part two here.