This past December (2008) I conducted preliminary research on queer collective action for social change in Calcutta. This was part of my graduate studies in anthropology at Syracuse University in New York. The oral history of queer activism in this city can be traced back to 1989 when a small group of gay men got together to form a club. In 1999, Calcutta was host to the first queer pride parade in India. Today, the city and its surrounding districts are home to a network of at least 25 different organizations and groups that work on issues of same-sex sexuality.
A couple of stressful days after my arrival in Calcutta, I was finally ready to go out into the city all by myself. By this time I had found an expensive paying guest accommodation in the Salt Lake neighborhood that was willing to host a non-Indian Muslim. Understandably, most landlords were tense in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. After two noisy rickshaw rides, 30 minutes of standing in a crowded bus, and 15 minutes of walking along dust-laden streets, I finally reached my destination. Taking this route to the Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII) office became a part of my daily routine for the remainder of my month-long stay in Calcutta.
The author (third from right, kneeling) with SAATHII staff and volunteers
The primary goal of SAATHII, an NGO where I volunteered, is to create an awareness of HIV/AIDS and to strengthen efforts towards the prevention and treatment of the infection. I spent my time at SAATHII working on several ongoing projects, such as, analyzing surveys from media advocacy training workshops, and editing interview questionnaires for a baseline project on coalition building amongst community based organizations. I spent every opportunity I had speaking to the organization’s employees about their work, life experiences, and views on social change. I also made good use of the SAATHII reference library by watching short independent films made by local activists on issues of same-sex sexuality.
SAATHII employees, many of whom are queer activists, welcomed me wholeheartedly, and I was immediately comfortable in their company. Amitava, a transgendered social worker and musician, adopted me as her son and insisted that that I call her “Mummy.” Soma, the Documentation & Library Officer, and Pawan, the Calcutta Office Director, encouraged me to speak in Bengali, and Souvik, a SAATHII programs coordinator, treated me as a friend and confidant. I was also invited to office parties and other social gatherings where I met with activists, scholars and supporters from various queer networks.
My friends at SAATHII introduced me to representatives of other key organizations like MANAS Bangla, a grant funded coalition of 13 community based organizations (CBOs) located in different parts of West Bengal. I learned that each CBO has its own drop-in- center (DIC) that functions not only as a clinic but also a safe space where local queer support groups can host their monthly meetings and social events.
I visited two of the four DICs based in Calcutta. The Kadapara DIC was a small apartment with two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. One of the rooms was set up as a clinic, complete with a bed and medical supplies, from where a doctor administered treatment to patients. The other room was used as a common area. Here, I observed a meeting in which peer educators narrated their experiences from the field. The role of peer educators is to go to cruising areas, such as parks and public toilets, to advise men on safe-sex practices and on the risks of sexually transmitted diseases. I discovered that fieldwork is fraught with dangers for peer educators; many of them are effeminate men who are routinely harassed during interventions with target populations.
At the Dumdum DIC, I attended the monthly meeting of a queer support group called Swikriti. This group aims to empower sexual minorities, sponsors community building initiatives, and organizes programs to create an awareness of alternative sexualities. I sat cross-legged on a large thatched floor mat with 15 other people consisting of gay men, kothis (an indigenous queer identity category), and male-to-female transgendered individuals. Amongst those assembled were a university instructor, a law student, two social workers, and a former male-sex worker. On the agenda was a discussion of the progress towards the group’s annual publication, “Swikriti Patrika”, a compilation of essays and poems on queer sexuality and activism. Each year Swikriti sells these anthologies at the Calcutta Book Fair.
My time in India was well spent. I met a large number of people, made new friends, learned fascinating details about their lives, and gained valuable knowledge about queer activism in Calcutta. I hope to be back for more detailed research!
Contributor: Faris A. Khan, New York