LGBT culture in Chennai
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Chennai has LGBT cultures that are diverse with respect to socio-economic class, gender, and degree of visibility and politicisation. They have historically existed in the margins, and surfaced primarily in contexts such as transgender activism and HIV prevention initiatives for men having sex with men (MSM) and transwomen (TG). Community development may be traced back to Sunil Menon's mapping of sexual networks among MSM and TG in the early 1990s and subsequent formation of Sahodaran, the oldest group of its kind in the city and state to provide spaces for community support and sexual health, primarily for working class MSM who visit public cruising spots.
Prior to this, the only known community spaces that existed for gender/sexuality dissidents were the traditional jamaat system for transwomen and gender-queer people assigned male at birth [ref needed], and cruising spots.
In the mid 1990s, Sisters, a lesbian group was formed and made its presence known primarily through word of mouth and ads placed in Trikone Magazine, published by the LGBT South Asian community in the San Francisco Bay Area, USA. The group folded because of persistent harassment from cismen. A gay men's group Chennai Mithran was formed in 1999 and functioned briefly out of the Sahodaran premises: it closed because many of its members - mostly middle-class closeted gay men - were uncomfortable being associated with a space known for hosting working class and visibly gender-queer people. The early-mid part of the new millennium saw a proliferation of activity on internet-based forums such as Yahoo's Chennai Global Chat Room #9, and listservs, many location-specific (gaychennai, gaymylapore, gaytambaram) or campus-specific (Anna University, IIT-Madras). The move from a largely hook-up culture to seeking out and creating support- and social spaces outside the HIV/AIDS context resulted in groups such as Movenpick (subsequently Orinam), Chennai Dost, RIOV and others in the early part of the millennium (see timeline below).
List of Organizations
There are currently over 15 groups in Chennai that work on LGBTQI issues. Most of them are community-run initiatives, and some are NGOs. These include:
- 4G Cluster (support group for gay men)
- Center for Counselling (specialized LGBTQI-affirmative individual and group therapy in English and Tamil for individuals and parents/family members)
- Chennai Dost (LGB group with social and support spaces for gay and bi men)
- Kattiyakari (theatre group that addresses transgender, women's and sexuality issues)
- Nir (queer feminist educational and activist collective)
- Nirangal (crisis intervention and education/advocacy on sexual and gender minorities)
- Orinam (LGBTQI and ally informal collective offering online-offline resources, support, advocacy and arts programming)
- RIOV (social group for lesbian and bisexual women)
- SAATHII (training to healthcare providers on LGBT issues, strengthening community groups, advocacy)
- Sahodaran (MSM HIV prevention and community support)
- Social Welfare Association for Men (MSM HIV prevention and community support)
- South India AIDS Action Programme (MSM, TG support and HIV prevention)
- Shakthi Resource Centre (spaces for dialogue on gender and sexuality rights)
- TAI (HIV prevention among TG, MSM and female sex workers)
- Tamil Nadu Aravanigal Association (TG advocacy and support)
- Thozhi (TG HIV prevention and community support)
- Vanavil Foundation (TG advocacy and support)
- V-CAN (coalition of sexual minorities and sex workers)
Most of these groups are part of the informal Chennai Rainbow Coalition, formed in 2009, to jointly work towards visibility and advocacy. The group was expanded in 2014 to constitute the Tamil Nadu Rainbow Coalition, with membership from groups around the state.
Other progressive groups such as Nirmukta (Chennai Free Thinkers), Prajnya, the Save Tamils movement, and the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association are also strong supporters of gender/sexuality rights, as are local offices of international cultural/education centres such as Goethe Institut, Alliance Francaise, InKo (Indo Korean Centre), and the British Council.
These are provisionally classified under four themes: Culture, Psychosocial Support, Activism and Research.
LGBT cultures in Chennai include social and sexual networking, community events such as the Pride march (typically held on the last Sunday of June), Vannangal (a dance-music-spoken word fest), a literary group Orinam's Quilt, and queer film festivals dating back to 2004. In 2003, a transgender troupe Kannadi Kalai Kuzhu was formed to raise awareness of community issues through theatre. Plays such as Manasin Azhaippu (The Call of the Mind) and Uraiyadha Ninaivugal (Unfrozen Thoughts) helped bring about a shift in public consciousness of and attitudes towards transgender people and issues. Transwomen writers Priya Babu and Aasha Bharathi reside in Chennai, and have contributed towards documenting transgender history and culture in the state. Besides local cultural programming, Chennai's LGBT groups participate in events in other cities (e.g. Bangalore, Hyderabad, Trissur), including Pride marches, film festivals and other cultural events.
Some vignettes in Chennai's queer culture and history formed part of Queering Madras Week, a tweet-a-thon conducted in parallel with the Madras Week, Aug 18-25, 2013.
Historically, psychosocial support has been mainly available to MSM, transwomen and other male-assigned-at-birth community members registered with HIV prevention programs. In May 2008, two cisgender women in Chennai, Christy and Rukmini, immolated themselves, unable to live apart from each other. This tragic event brought together several community and allies together in a meeting convened by Shakthi Resource Centre, and galvanised discourse on the need for peer support for LGBT, especially for lesbian and bisexual women, and others who remain outside the coverage of HIV/AIDS programs. In June and July 2008, Shakthi Resource Center organized a set of four sessions to orient community members on peer counselling, with presentations by representatives of other groups (Sahayatrika, Sahodaran, Orinam/MP and Lotus Sangam-Kumbakonam), on sub-group specific issues. In 2009-'10, Shakthi Resource Center, with support from LLH Norway, partnered with Center for Counselling for a formal workshop (27th Dec 2009 - 14 Feb 2010) that equipped community members from various city groups with peer counselling skills, enabling them to provide support to peers in crisis.
Currently, apart from peer support groups and individual counselling by the HIV-focused initiatives, the groups Nirangal, Orinam and Chennai Dost offer informal peer support and/or peer counselling services to community members facing crises such as family pressure to marry, blackmail and extortion. Additionally, the city has counselors, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who are sensitive to LGBT issues.
Functional linkages exist among community groups, mental health professionals and LGBT-friendly lawyers in the city, to enable LGBT people find support when in need.
Activism, Advocacy and Sensitization
LGBT activism and advocacy in the city and state represent the confluence, since 2008-2009, of three historically semi-independent streams of effort.
- Activism to raise visibility around stigma and discrimination faced by MSM, presented as an impediment to their seeking health services and a reason for vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.
- Activism by transwomen (called aravanis/thirunangais in Tamil Nadu) towards recognition as a community steeped in tradition and towards social protection measures that culminated in the formation of the country's first government-constituted transgender welfare board in TN and several schemes for education, housing assistance and pension.
- Coalition advocacy by class- and gender-diverse groups against Sec 377, and to sensitize institutions such as law/law-enforcement, education, and healthcare on LGBT issues.
In 2007-2008, the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society (TANSACS) launched a community-led police advocacy drive under the leadership of Supriya Sahu, IAS. Through this initiative, members of the MSM and transwomen community groups sensitised police officials across cadres in Chennai and other districts of TN on gender and sexuality issues, and highlighted issues of harassment and human rights violations perpetrated by the police and public against these communities. Effects of the advocacy drive persist to this day in terms of police permissions and support during public events such as Pride marches.
In 2009, the Campaign for Open Minds was launched in Chennai as a national online response to the surge in attempts at conversion therapy and other negative reactions to increased visibility of LGBT people, following Delhi High Court’s historic July 2 2009 decision decriminalising homosexuality. The campaign had three open letters. One was by healthcare providers around the country opposing unethical/unscientific attempts to change sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBT people and pledging to offer sensitive and stigma-free health care to the community. A second was by friends and family of LGBT people expressing solidarity with their loved ones and opposing discrimination. A third open letter was by LGBT community members appealing for non-discriminatory treatment from family and friends, healthcare establishment, media, educational institutions and workplaces in India. The Campaign for Open Minds brought many allies out in support of the cause of LGBT equality. Many of the healthcare professionals and family members who signed the Campaign letters went on to provide petitions to the Supreme Court in support of the Naz Verdict.
Press conferences sensitising the media on LGBT issues and drawing attention to local and national events (Union Health Minister's remarks, Supreme Court verdict, etc.) have been a regular event in Chennai since 2009. In 2013, for the first time, the press conference - typically led by kothis, thirunangais, gay and bisexual men, featured a transman and queer women activists discussing - in thefirst person - issues faced by people assigned female at birth.
Chennai has two research institutes that partner with community groups to conduct social science and biomedical research on LGBT issues. The Centre for Sexuality and Health Research and Policy has published extensively on issues such as stigma and discrimination faced within the healthcare system by MSM and transwomen, legal recognition of transgender identity, and other issues. The National Institute for Research on Tuberculosis (NIRT), in partnership with the community group Sahodaran and Harvard University School of Public Health carries out studies of mental health and HIV prevention among men who have sex with men.
Significant Events in Chennai's LGBT history
- 1986: Screening of My Beautiful Laundrette at British Council - same-sex love depicted on the big screen for the first time in Chennai
- 1993: Publication of Robert Oostvogels and Sunil Menon's mimeograph 'Men Who Have Sex With Men-Assessment of situation in Madras', prepared for the Government of Tamilnadu
- 1993: Sekar Balasubramaniam, a volunteer of Community AIDS Network (CAN), comes out as gay and HIV-positive.
- 1998: Sahodaran, first group for sexual minorities formed in Chennai
- 1999: Mailing list gaychennai started on yahoogroups.com, first listserv for the Chennai gay community
- 1999: 'Queer Madras of the mid-80s' essay circulated on Indian LGBT lists
- 2003: Movenpick group formed (later renamed Orinam) and mailing list started
- 2004: First LGBT film festival - Alliance-Francaise and SAATHII, with volunteer support from Movenpick/Orinam
- 2005: The Many Colours of Love: LGBT documentary festival - Alliance Francaise and SAATHII, with volunteer support from Movenpick/Orinam
- 2006: Conference on third gender organised by Nalamdana
- 2006: Orinam.net website launched
- 2006: March for transgender rights when legislative assembly was in session in TN, organised by Sangama, THAA, SWAM, and other groups. Catalysed TN govt initiatives for transgender welfare.
- 2006: Suicide by self-immolation of transgender teenager Pandiammal/Pandian, sexually abused by Chennai police
- 2007: Madras High Court ruling in Jayalakshmi vs. State of Tamil Nadu by AP Shah
- 2007: Sangama establishes Chennai chapter
- 2007: Police advocacy on sexuality issues initiated by Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society, implemented by community groups
- 2007: Shakti Resource Centre formed, organises film series Desire and Sexuality at LV Prasad Film and TV Academy
- 2008: Rose Venkatesan becomes first out transwoman talk show host on Chennai television
- 2008: Double-suicide of Christy and Rukmini
- 2008: Peer-counseling preparatory workshop (4 sessions: June 8, June 15, June 22, July 6) of Shakthi Resource Centre in collaboration with Sahayatrika, Sahodaran, Orinam/MP, and Lotus Sangam.
- 2008: Aravani (Transgender) Welfare Board constituted by state government
- 2009: Thirunangai.net, world's first matrimonial website for transwomen, launched by Kalki Subramaniam of Sahodari Foundation
- 2009: Shakthi Resource Centre and Orinam/MP joint meeting Sept 12 to assess needs for peer counselling workshop
- 2009: Peer-counseling multi-weekend course of Shakthi Resource Centre and Center for Counselling.
- 2009: Public screening of Milk, organised by US Consulate at Film Chamber, as part of the Oscars film festival.
- 2009: The Hindu, national newspaper published from Chennai, features editorial in support of LGBT rights post- Naz decision
- 2009: First Chennai Rainbow Pride March
- 2009: Campaign for Open Minds launched
- 2009: Chennai Rainbow Coalition started
- 2009: First meet for parents of LGBT people in Chennai organised by Center for Counselling.
- 2009: Reverend George Zachariah delivers inspiring sermon at Gurukul Chapel calling on Christians to be inclusive of LGBT people
- 2009: Transwoman Narthaki Nataraj conferred Nrityachoodamani title by Krishna Gana Sabha
- 2010: First edition of 'Our Children'/'Nam Kuzhanthaigal' booklet for parents of LGBT children released by Orinam
- 2010: Chennai Dost formed
- 2010: Launch of Tamil edition of the 'Love That Dare Speak Its Name' post-377 anthology by Sangama Chennai
- 2010: RIOV, social group for lesbians and bisexual women
- 2011: Maatruveli (மாற்றுவெளி), Tamil academic journal brings out a special issue on sexuality, guest edited by Ponni and Aniruddhan Vasudevan
- 2011: Chennai Dost website launched
- 2011: Chemistry Club campus groups launched by Chennai Dost
- 2011: Public protests against homophobic remarks made by Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad
- 2011: Standard Deviation: first essay published on campus by a gay IIT-Madras student (then anonymous) makes waves
- 2012: Orinam's Quilt (reading group) launched.
- 2013: First officially sponsored LGBT sensitization event at IIT-Madras
- 2013: Chennai Rainbow Film Festival, organised by Chennai Dost and Alliance Francaise
- 2013: Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival, organised by a collective of groups - Orinam, Goethe-Institut, RIOV, Nirangal, SAATHII, East-West Center for Counselling, Shakthi Resource Centre, Oye!Chennai
- 2013: Nirangal registered as an NGO (formerly Sangama Chennai)
- 2014: Orinam launches 377letters, an online archive of letters to the Chief Justice of India opposing the Supreme Court verdict
- 2014: First homophobic rally in Chennai, by Christians Against Homosexuality
- 2014: Christians Against Homophobia started in response to Christians Against Homosexuality. Mailing list goes national.
- 2014: Tamil Nadu Rainbow Coalition formed
- 2014: First book on Genderqueer in Tamil and first Tamil book on LGBTQIA from Srishti Madurai was released by BJP’s state general secretary Vanathi Srinivasan at the 6th Hindu spiritual service foundation’s sixth service fair, Chennai 
- 2014: Nir, queer feminist collective, formed
- 2015: Tamil movie "I" by Shankar released, with transphobic depictions, community protests throughout state
- 2015: Thirunangai (transwoman) Bhavana sexually assaulted by Pulianthope police after detention for an alleged crime (Jan 22)
- "Rediff.com". Rediff. February 26, 2008. Retrieved July 10, 2014.
- "Chennai Pride Organizations". www.orinam.net. Retrieved 7 July 2014.
- Menon, Sunil. "Gay pride month is here". http://www.thehindu.com. The Hindu. Retrieved 7 July 2014.