Lydia Garthwait interviews Gopi Shankar Madurai, an Indian activist who is the youngest and the first openly intersex and genderqueer candidates to contest in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election in 2016. Ze is also the founder of Srishti Madurai Student Volunteer Collective.
Garthwait is an undergraduate student at the Colorado College in the United States.
Lydia Garthwait: How did you become an activist?
Gopi Shankar: I never thought I would become an activist. Even now, I don’t call myself an activist. But whenever I see some form of life in struggle, if I can do something to bring peace and dignity to its life, I will just get into it. Serving is a very different kind of word from help. We cannot help everyone, I believe, but we can serve everyone.
LG: Would you still consider activism to be your profession?
GS: Well, when I was living as a monk, I saw for the first time people getting a salary for helping people. That is awful! Social work is being commercialized. We even call it social work rather than social service… helping others is not a kind of business.
So when I began Srishti Madurai in 2011, I started it as a non-funded volunteer movement. Every volunteer, including myself, works other jobs part-time in order to support Srishti. I have worked as a yoga instructor for five years, in order to help fund Srishti Madurai. It was important to me not only to run Srishti Madurai as a volunteer movement, but also to base it in a non-metropolitan area. Many other LGBT organizations run out of places like Chennai and Mumbai. They throw gay parties and host pride parades. We are not against parties, but what impact will it create? What will it do for struggling people?
There are a lot of class, cultural, [and] regional differences between these organizations and non-metropolitan areas. We tried to bridge the gap by starting in a non-metropolitan area like Madurai. Metropolitan movements can give the impression that the LGBT movement is a leftist movement, or even that it is a movement to make India like America. This is awful! Did you know Hinduism has gay gods?
GS: Yes! One of Srishti Madurai’s goals is to educate members of parliament on LGBT issues. We went to meet an MP from Karnataka, in order to request her to include intersex people. We were told she is a very conservative woman. She said, “Of course I am against these things, I don’t want us to turn into America”. So I asked her, “What god do you like?” “Shiva,” she replied. And I said, ‘There is a version of Shiva who is half female and male. That gender is called Neutrois. Shiva loved another man, Vishnu. They got married and surrogated a child, Aiyyappa.”
She said, “Oh, that’s wonderful”. And she realized that the ideas we were advocating for were not new to India. These ideas are connected with the very indigenous traditions of India. Metropolitan organizations may receive more funding, but we have been able to accomplish things in five years that that other organizations have not accomplished in 25 years.
LG: So, did you grow up in a non-metropolitan area yourself?
GS: Yes. I was born in a slum in Madurai. Kids are vulnerable; I was more easily vulnerable than other children. My own cousins actually exploited me, abused me. I was raped by maybe seven men from the family. That should never happen to any other kid! Something is wrong. There is something wrong with the system. We are neither completely Indianized nor anglosaxonized, we are stuck in the middle. In India, we follow Victorian values and Victorian systems, because the British ruled us for some 300 years and they changed everything, everything from the very education system to the very kind of education policy backing it. For me, getting education is not important, what you are getting educated about is more important.
LG: You said you were a monk once. Why did you leave?
GS: Many different types of people stayed in the math [the monastery]. One man, Tony MacMahon, a famous Irish accordionist, visited there. He was very passionate about the preservation of native Celtic music and language, so I had respect for him. He decided to write his memoirs and hired me on to help him with this. This was my first professional job.
At the math, I had also fallen in love with this cook. I slept with him, but beyond the physical attraction there was something more. As I was seeking to renounce all of my identities, this was not very truthful to that ideology. I thought, okay, I am too attracted and attached to this particular boy; I need to experiment myself. So I sought permission from the abbey. I came out of the order.
In 2011, I returned to Madurai and began attendance at American College, studying religion, philosophy, and sociology. Students bullied me and even some faculty would ask, “Which reproductive organ do you have between your legs?” But I became part of the students’ committee of the college, organizing cultural activities. A lot of the students who bullied me, I was able to turn into volunteers for the events.
At this point, we meandered off of the campus to a sweet shop next door. Everyone seemed to know Gopi, stopping zim to ask zim how ze was. Each time, Gopi mentioned that ze was a finalist for the Youth Commonwealth Award.
LG asks about the award.
GS: I don’t have much respect for these things, Nobel Prizes and other awards. But awards help give activists a presence and that presence and the connections it lends give the activist power to make change.
In 2012, one year after Shristi was started, we conducted the Tamil Nadu’s Asia’s Genderqueer Pride Parade in Madurai & first Alan Turing Rainbow Festival at the Mahatma school. We approached Lady Doak College to host it, but they denied us because they believed we were against Christian principles. But in reality, the church endorses us! So then, we managed to convince the Mahatma school’s president to host the event. Even though the school is owned by a Hindu, the principle is Christian.
More than 600 high school students attended. A girl approached me who likes to write and to play basketball. She is attracted to girls not boys. She likes to be friends with boys but not sleep with them. She understands parts of herself. One of Srishti Madurai’s core missions was that before a kid knows how to point out America on a map, the kid should know what is inside their own body. That girl was doing just that!
After the festival, the principal barred us. This discrimination was very painful. They felt we are spreading homosexuality. [But I thought] that when it comes to the principal, it is fine. If they don’t want to listen, I will go away, but what about the 3,000 kids in that school? These days, I can call the minister of education and he will call the school to let them know I was coming. That is why I go through the drama around the commonwealth [award]. These awards give that kind of power. The drama needs to be done so something good can be done. The people who once barred Shristi now salute me.
LG: What is Srishti Madurai’s strategy to create change? Is it mostly based in educating children?
GS: No. That is only part of the way we approach education and conversation. We put a lot of our efforts on educating medical fraternities, law-makers, politicians, religious leaders, and academics. In order to enable conversations, I located or created regional terms for gender types and sexualities.
If you try to educate people, they will tell you that you are imitating the West. But if you say, ‘In the pre-sangam literature, we have found that these things have existed for 3000, 4000 years,’ people are often willing to listen. The thing is when many western nations didn’t allow women to vote, we had women Prime Ministers. We don’t have to follow America in order to have acceptance for indigenous gender and sexual minorities.
LG: What has surprised you about the direction of your activism?
GS: [laughs] I never imagined I would get wrapped up in the politics of the Olympics. During physical education in school, I would sleep in the library. I never thought I would end up doing this.
LG: How did that happen?
GS: There is a woman whose name is Santhi Soundarajan. She was born in Tamil Nadu into poverty as a part of the lowest caste. She is an incredible athlete. She won 11 international medals for India. In 2006 she was subjected to a gender test at the Olympics and failed. Her medals and prize money were stripped from her. It was devastating. At one point, she attempted suicide.
In 2010 Caster Semenya, a runner from South Africa was also subjected to gender testing and failed. Santhi supported her by saying, “Who decides what is woman? Do not abandon your fight.”
South Africa supported Caster and said, “Caster is our girl, she is our dignity,” and she was able to continue to run for South Africa. India has given no such support to Santhi. Unity in diversity is bullshit. There is caste, gender, and regional discrimination occurring. We are talking about someone born a woman, living as a woman, being told she is not a woman and having her livelihood stripped from her.
LG: How did you get involved in this case?
GS: When she was stripped of her medal, I was young. I only heard about her on the news. But in 2013, I got in contact with her through a friend. At that time, Santhi was at her original home, working as a daily wage worker earning $1 per day. I called her and immediately said, “You are an inspiration. I am your first fan. I am your little brother and you are my sister. I will fight for you.”
Srishti Madurai supported her. [It] took a lot of time to console and heal her. Then we said, ‘This happened to Santhi, this should not happen to any other girl in sports. We must ensure that. History shall remember you not by the medals you won but the struggle and the torment you underwent. Woman will get more justice because of you.”
So, with Santhi’s help, we went to rural areas and found 32 girls who play at the school level. Our goal was to create a program which uses sports for social change. Its name is now ‘Ensuring Childhood for all Children’. When we initially found these girls, almost none of the parents were receptive. They did not understand the value of sports. One woman said she couldn’t send her daughter to us. “I cannot,” she said. “She does not have a father. She is 16. In one year, I want to get her married as I cannot look after her.”
It took me three hours to convince her, but that girl is now a national-level athlete and will represent India in the next Asian games. To fund these girls, we set up a program called ‘Adopt an Athlete’. A collection of common people are assigned to one student and they will help fund her clothes, food, and schooling.
LG: What is Santhi doing now?
GS: It took very long to convince the government to secure her a job. She studied to be a national instructor of sports and scored A+ grades. The central government appointed her as a coach on contract basis, which fails to give her a reliable income. We are going to take them up at the civil court. I launched multiple complaints to National Human Rights Commission of India and initiated the Justice for Santhi campaign which got her a permanent posting as an athletic coach at the Tamil Nadu Sports Development Authority.