The first LGBT film festival I ever attended was almost nine years ago in Mumbai, called Larzish. I still remember the moment when I pushed open the doors of the auditorium. There was a sea of buzzing people mingling and embracing across plush chairs, beautifully and colourfully dressed up. The thrill of delight that ran through me on seeing so many of ‘my kind’ in one room! And in my mind this overwhelming, intoxicating and unreal feeling took the shape of two words – Queer World. Feeling lightheaded with bittersweet glee, I found myself astonished as well, that until this moment I hadn’t even noticed my own isolation.
That was a time when Fire had been the focal point of uneasy, hesitant but vocal discussions. In those days, when I snuck out of the house (with hair gel no less), it was an escapade. If I went home feeling transformed by what I had seen at Larzish, it was borne in silence at home. Now three years after the 377 ruling, attending Reel Desires 2013 in Chennai feels unalterably different, a quantum leap in consciousness, at least for me. Today my mother is aware and supportive of transgender rights, not because of me, but because of front page articles that regularly arrived at her doorstep in the past few years.
There is something about seeing a room full of queer people that still has the potential to astound. For some, being out is not a choice. For others like me, maybe we cannot always hide, but we can float in and out. Maybe we could not always speak or keep our love, but we had a home to fall back on and rebuild ourselves. We never had the choice to marry our lovers, but neither were we pressured into an opposite-sex marriage. There were always libraries to cure curiosity, poetry to cure depression, online communities to cure boredom, and academic spaces to cure everything else. There was money and time – to go away, to come back. Because of that privilege, it astonishes me what I haven’t faced, what was not a choice for others in my community.
Being a part of an LGBT event like Reel Desires made me aware of this privilege. The banner under which we met – Orinam, was a space where many groups came together, facilitating an enabling conversational and cross-cultural/linguistic open-ended space. It was here, among the enthusiastic, creative and dynamic volunteers, that I began to question my own silence and eventually found myself accepting visibility as a political necessity. Should I use my name on this article? Should I go to my college and make an announcement? When you know you can stand up – then shouldn’t you?
Every interaction with the LGBT community in India is defining and transformative. This is because it is only now that the question of ‘what it means to be queer in India’ is being elaborated, fictionalized and remembered through anthologies, websites, law courts and interviews. So to even attend an LGBT event – a film festival – is for many people a highly formative experience because they don’t know. We don’t really know what it means in our everyday lives, to be gay or straight or queer, because we’re only beginning – even now, especially now – to tell these stories and capture these fleeting ways of being that surface amidst a great deal of tension, fear and longing. We are astonished by the utter familiarity of what was always there but unrecognized, shaken by how much can be made of how little a difference – and the well-known destructiveness of the silent assent in which we participate.
Through such Queer film festivals we bring together stories from so many different cultures and spaces, across generations in some cases, with stories of coming out, of pain and heartbreak, of rock solid affirmation, of euphoria, of questioning and performance, documentary and drama, amateur and professional – because we want to say it isn’t just this – it’s also this, it’s also this, and it’s also this hard, and it’s also this easy. It’s also this much fun, and it’s also this much pain.
One film shows us how today maybe I’m not a girl or a boy, maybe I’m a bird. Another leaves us with more than clipped wings as the bodies of two lovers lie unclaimed in a morgue for days, rejected by their families even in death. Yet another warms the heart when young teenagers accept a transgirl as one of their own. In one story a boy rejects suicide as an option, and boldly affirms – Why? Why the hell should I?
It’s a new experience for me to talk to people and probably confirm their impressions of my queerness. I find myself making excuses for why they should support this festival. I begin a spiel about how this is being hosted at the Max Mueller Bhavan (white people approve of us), it’s an international festival with films from 12 countries (it’s like a free Europe trip), so many Chennai-based NGOs have organized it (really, the event of the century). And then I cough out a mumbled LGBT.
By this time they’re already reading the poster, and I know – I know the next glance is going to be silently screaming at me: O so this is what a lesbian looks like! It becomes really quiet and ominous and my toes feel clammy. My incipient paranoia lurches into hyperbolic gruesome scenarios. Will he tear up the poster and smirk at me? Will he tell me to wait inside and call the police? One second passes. He looks up and says “Sure. I’ll hang it in the elevator downstairs so everyone who comes in can see.” Then he smiles politely, and then I say thank you very much and I leave. I don’t really care if he hangs it up or not – I’m thinking of Arvind Narrain, Aniruddhan Vasudevan, and every other queer activist I can remember and every person who has ever walked in a pride march. And all I can think is –thank you for making this happen, for walking first.