Ya_All, an NGO based in Imphal, continues to achieve the unimaginable. With the latest edition of Queer Games North East turning out to be a huge success, Sadam Hanjabam – founder of Ya All – speaks to me about expectations, anxieties and achievements of the queer community in Manipur.
Q. What was the motivation behind organising Queer Games for the first time?
We cannot do Pride walks in Manipur. In midst of conversations around religion, AFSPA, human rights and other concerns – queer issues are sidelined. So, we have been using sports. Through sports, we hope people accept our identities.
Holi, in Manipuri we call it Yaohsang, is celebrated for five days. It is one of the biggest festivals in Manipur. In every locality, five days of sports events are celebrated. Games are conducted for boys and girls, men and women.
We, at Ya_All, realised that even during Yaohsang, which is a celebration of colour and sports, queer people do not have the space to be themselves. We are not included. Especially trans persons – who are mocked at. Most queer persons end up not taking part in such games. Even if they take part, they are usually brought in for entertainment purposes.
In March 2018, we organised the first Queer Games in Imphal to show how a whole section of society is left out. There were so many games, and so many people came out to watch it. They were curious. It gave us hope.
Q. What sets this edition of Queer Games apart from previous editions?
This time we received more moral support from local startups and organisations. Earlier, we did not receive that kind of support. We don’t live in a big city where corporates and CSR come out to support our events. This time, many smaller organisations started sharing their resources with us. Some provided uniforms, some provided refreshments. We went to them to discuss our event and they agreed to support us happily. They were very welcoming. Even though resources were limited, this kind of moral support is very encouraging.
Even though the pandemic situation caused a lot of trouble, the players who were interested stayed back and more players started joining in. They felt that this is a safe platform, and is supported by many people hence [it] can be trusted. We are proud we are doing something out of a small state like Manipur, which doesn’t have a lot of visibility or support in terms of LGBTQI+ concerns.
Local clubs were also very supportive of the game. The club that was hosting the ground also offered to support us in every way possible. Last time when we tried to approach another locality to play on their ground, they refused to provide us the ground. They said that, “transgenders ayenge, halla karenge, woh kya karenge?” which was very disheartening. We had to pay money to rent a turf. We had to sensitise them and then they agreed. Even this time, we sensitised everyone on-ground. We told them that a trans woman will open the ceremony and light the torch. Which is a big step, we never see trans persons holding a torch.
This time, many people, startups and organisations started joining and supporting us through different resources like providing uniforms and refreshments, writing articles and it feels like what we’ve been doing for the last 4 years is bearing fruit and this team can do a lot of things.
This time, the U.S Consulate General herself came from Kolkata and inaugurated the event. The Director of CDC was also present. It was a very big thing. People started recognising the importance of our event. It gave everyone something to think about.
Q. What are the various athletic events being featured in this edition? Have they been chosen for a specific reason?
In the first editions, we included track and field and other sports but eventually, we chose football only. In North East India, people love football. We realised that if we have to mainstream our issues, we have to choose something which binds people. In Manipur, every locality has a football ground. We use football to attract people, highlight our concerns and set an example. There are many players who want to play other games but it is difficult for us to organise multi-disciplinary games because of the problem of resources. We might include other games in the next edition.
Q. What were the biggest challenges in organizing the Queer Games this time around?
Covid has had very harsh consequences for us. It has been very hard to keep the team intact. In the last one year, we have provided our team with financial support, ration and sanitary kits. We have been supporting them morally and mentally through counselling services.
There were very low expectations from us. People thought we would just kick a ball and call it a day. Even when we went to the local authorities to ask for permission, they didn’t see it as a very important thing even though we got permission at the last hour. We got permission after the game ended! Everyone doubted us. When the event was over, everyone was surprised at our success. People started saying we should do it at a regional level next. In fact, we want other teams to come out. Our time might be the first team but we want other teams to come out and play with us. If we are the only Indian team, it will be a big failure for us.
Q. Do people hesitate in participating?
This time around, players came to us on their own. Earlier, we had to call the players so that they could play. We are providing a platform, right? For them to play. But in the earlier editions, they did not get any time to practice before the game. It was more like, they were also not able to give consistent efforts because of lack of resources and time. In addition, they were doubtful about what this team could achieve.
This time we had training sessions which players attended happily. Earlier only 2-3 players would turn up. Even though there was a break during the peak period of Covid, the players said that they wanted to play and it motivated us even more. They would come to the field at 5-6 AM and play skillfully. We are confident this team is ready to play with any other team. Even the audiences wanted us to start early and waited eagerly. Young trans men played so well that audiences were surprised at the quality of the game.
We are hoping we can represent India in Gay Games 2022 which will happen in Hong Kong. There are no other teams from India. We are really looking forward to it, because we have a complete team now. Everyone is absolutely ready for it. We have one more year to practice. This is something out of our expectations. The players really want to showcase their talent. They want to go outside and play with other teams.
Q. What is the importance of inclusivity in sports?
In Manipur, trans women are very visible. They earn their own by running parlours and doing make-up. Trans men and other queer identities are always invisibilized. We use our event and our platform to visiblize trans men.
We are dealing with a community of people who have been discouraged at every level and not given a platform. Even though some of them are open with their families and friends, they don’t have any support. Everyone always asks “Why don’t you join a women’s team? Why are you asking for a trans women’s team?” There is no recognition in sports. There was a common question we had to face from everyone. The question was why we wanted separate teams for trans persons. They wanted us to register teams according to biology. This isn’t about how we look, this is about who we are and how uncomfortable we are in that body. There are so many issues like sharing changing rooms, dormitories, washrooms which make them uncomfortable and ultimately less productive. There are also cases of sexual harassment which come out. Trans persons are always scared. When they have their own team, they feel so free and can play without inhibitions. When we explain all this, people realise and give us a chance.
Q. How does local media report the event?
I will be very honest, last year we were only reported by only one local newspaper. We didn’t get much coverage. We were covered globally but we still have to fight for the local media to cover us. No one has written a story for us in local papers till now. Last year, one or two papers shabbily published a translation from another paper on the last page. They didn’t reach out to us or interviewed us. Some media houses like The Hindu, Scroll, The Print started doing stories on us. Local media is not interested. Many initiatives get erased because local media isn’t ready to document it. We want them to acknowledge us a little bit more. We have created the first transgender team in Asia and second in the world, we want authorities to respect that.
Q. Do you expect to see any changes in the attitude of governing bodies towards LGBTQI+ concerns through events like this?
The only thing we can do is that when we have such events, we invite them. None of them have turned up properly. We have tried to invite various authorities but they are still doubtful. We know it isn’t a one-time thing where we play and they attend, but we have been playing for four years. Funny thing is, when we went for registration, they knew about our team because we were in papers, but they didn’t know where and how to include us.
Q. What message do you hope to send out to the sporting world?
The supreme court has acknowledged trans persons as “third gender” – which we aren’t happy with – but it is a welcome move. However, it is just the beginning. Trans persons need to be included in healthcare, livelihood, education and sports. That is why we started with sports. Let’s talk about inclusion in sports on ground instead of on paper. Why are there no categories for trans persons in sports? Is it because they think that there aren’t many players? Is it because they think we cannot play? That is the question. We need a space of our own in sports too.