Yesterday, I posted part 1 of an interview with Aashi Gahlot, the founder of “Shor,” an online portal targeted at the South Asian LGBQT community. Broadly speaking, Shor is spreading a message of tolerance. Specifically, the site is spreading the message of eradicating homophobia through creativity, and hopes to be a resource that those in the LGBQT South Asian community can turn to for support. Read on below for Part 2 of my interview with Aashi. See Part 1 here.
Roopa: In India, the LGBTQ community saw a major set-back with Section 377 being upheld by the Supreme Court. How do you think the LGBTQ community can respond to this and push for change?
Aashi: Firstly, I feel that it is really important to not lose heart.
After a long 7 year campaign, homosexuality was finally criminalized in 2009. However, just because Section 377 is back again, this does not mean that we cannot abolish the demeaning law for good. In fact, this time, we will not even abolish Section 377 but the misunderstandings and stigma surrounding being LGBTQ once and for all.
The return of Section 377 is demeaning, unfair and heart breaking. However, Section 377 has created increased awareness on LGBTQ matters- albeit some of the awareness is negative and rather stupid- i.e, the holy men who are claiming that they can cure homosexuality..
We have to all work together to eradicate the ignorance and homophobic attitudes. The LGBTQ community and supporters should be in dialogue with those who oppose. Once we have the chance to communicate perspectives, we can challenge the homophobia and get rid of the misunderstandings. I realize that this comes with its own set of complications, but change towards equality will only happen if we continuously speak up for our rights and educate away the ignorance.
I would say to the LGBTQ community to not give up.
If you are a writer, then write. If you are a film maker then make a film. Whatever you do, make eradicating homophobia your mission- especially by talking to people and sharing your perspectives.
Roopa: What advice would you give to South Asians who are gay, but are too scared to come out?
The most important thing is to realize that there is nothing wrong with how you feel and there is nothing to be ashamed of.
If you feel that you are born in the wrong body, then that does not make you abnormal. If you have feelings for persons of the same-sex, that does not make you abnormal. Understand that you are not alone. However frightening it is, get in touch with a support group. Do not hide. You need to have set that foundation of acceptance and believing in yourself first, before you can do anything else.
The crux of my advice is, embrace who you are. The challenges that you face may or may not be the same as others, but once you accept yourself, you will be able to meet the challenges head on, persevere and get the life you want.
“Coming out” as discussed earlier is a personal journey and perhaps, a lifelong process for some. Focus on being comfortable with who you are. Doors will open.
Roopa: Are there any stories that people submitted to your site that have really resonated with you, and that you can share with readers of UrbanAsian?
Aashi: All of the stories on Shor are a reflection of what it is to be human – the pain, the success, the acceptance, the rejection, the obstacles. What is important to understand is that creative writing is an organic process and it is so raw. It cannot be forced and it cannot be faked. Some of the stories are inspired by real life incidents and some are inspired by “happier” messages, or messages that the author wishes to convey. All of this is part of the person.
I remember the profound realization that we are all in this together- whether you are homosexual or transgender or queer. A short story, “Baggage”, written by Shor author Sani, touched a chord in particular.
The mother’s reaction, of telling her son to “meditate” to get “better” and to physically abuse him because he reveals that he is actually born into the wrong body, made me feel shocked. Although I knew that this reaction is not unusual in theory, it moved me.
Rejection is difficult in all its shapes and forms. Being rejected by a parent is something that is damaging- both for the parent and the child:
“I knew it was time. I felt my legs shake, my throat become dry but I walked into the kitchen where my mom stood.
I told her: “Yes. I want to be a girl”.
She did not talk to me for a few days after my declaration.
She beat me up.
This time it was serious.
She reminded me about the family reputation. I choked back the feeling of vomit, suppressing it down my throat.
She told me that what I am is a “hijra” (3rd gender). That I am running away from my life problems.
What she couldn’t see is that I was finally facing my life problems.
I took the ultimate bad decision to end it all. I tried to commit suicide. I failed.”
– Baggage (Part 1; Author: Sani)
What Shor stories reflect is the strength of the human spirit. No matter what we go through, there is something inside all of us that is stronger. The celebration of LGBTQ lives is our pride. Every story has a hero for trying- especially as the author has had the strength to pen these emotions and struggles into words.
A piece particularly close to my heart is entitled “My Dadi”. Through this piece, I describe the humiliation and shame that I saw my grandmother go through after I had returned home.
“I will never forget how you looked at me and said:
“I used to have many dreams for you. But now, I don’t dream anymore. I’ve stopped dreaming. That thing you said, it made my skin go cold.”
The people you had to face, the questions you had to bite away your tears at- “Where is your granddaughter… We haven’t seen her for many days… We heard she ran away?”
Your friends would ask.
But now they stare. I notice you don’t introduce me at a family party or smile when I’m near.
Yet I notice, how you do secretly still dream for me.
It’s just, how those dreams manifest, will be different to how you expect.”
Roopa: In the US, gay rights came to the forefront when celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres made the bold move to come out openly. Why do you think Indian celebrities are not taking such a step? Do you think it would help the mindset in India regarding the gay community if celebrities were to come out?
Aashi: Bollywood for example, is a huge part of being South Asian and Bollywood celebrities are respected and loved with a semi divine aura. I do feel that if Bollywood LGBTQ celebrities did come out, it would have a positive impact. This is because South Asian’s globally would see that being LGBTQ is not unusual and that LGBTQ persons are individuals. This would also challenge the stereotypes that some people hold towards how LGBTQ persons “should” look like, act like, be like.
However, I do understand why this is not done so. I guess being famous makes you even more vulnerable. Yet- being famous gives you power and with that, responsibility.
This power and responsibility should, in my opinion, be focused towards bringing equality.
What may hold back a celebrity from coming out is the stigma and the fear of rejection. The stigma must be challenged because everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. Another factor may be that their popularity my go down because of the negative connotations associated with being anything other than heterosexual. It’s a vicious cycle! Until people are honest about whom they are and find the strength to want to make equality happen, positive social change will be all the harder to achieve.
I dream of making a Bollywood film that focuses strictly on the emotional aspect of being homosexual and falling in love! There will be no sex but lots of singing, dancing and emphasizing that homosexuality is about love.
Roopa: What other message do you have for our readers?
Aashi: Do not be afraid to be who you are. If you feel that you cannot, then do not lose hope. As long as you have that hope, the time will come when you are living your life as you are and be accepted and loved for whom you are.
Ignoring or suppressing will not get LGBTQ rights or you anywhere. Deal with it. Deal with it through healthy means. Understand that you have the right to live your life with honesty.
I would also like to say, life is full of miracles. Whatever you are facing, face it with an honest heart and you will surprise yourself with how strong you are and the supporters you get.
I never thought that I would see my family again and now, I am fully accepted by some family members close to me. I still have a lot of work to do, but I am not afraid to do it. Please don’t be afraid to do so either.
We will get there.