Chennai : Moments of Pride [Part 4 : Finale]

Editor’s note : Chennai hosts its Third annual Rainbow Pride in June 2011, a month celebrating visibility of alternate sexualities and gender identities. There are events happening all through the month of June and the Pride march is scheduled on June 26th, 2011 at 10 AM.

We asked some of the community members and allies to share their memorable moments from the last two pride celebrations. L.Ramakrishnan shares his queer experiences spanning continents, communities, and two decades, culminating in the first ever pride march in his home town Chennai.

My Queer Pride: An abridged history

L Ramakrishnan

Chennai’s first Rainbow Pride walk in 2009 marked the culmination of a search I commenced nearly twenty years ago, when I gingerly stepped into my first LGBT support meeting at a college campus in the midwestern United States, two months after my arrival from Chennai, India.

My quest was for a community in which I could be myself, above and beyond the confines of the Indian Students Association whose members had welcomed me one bracing Fall 1991 evening at the airport, driven me to one of their homes for a hot meal of sambar-saadam and cabbage poriyal; and helped me obtain an apartment,  hand-me-down furniture, roommates, and a social security number.  The ISA was great, as was the Carnatic Music association and its impromptu late-night jam sessions and formal concerts. But there was something missing.

Usenet groups such as soc.motss and, and the landmark anthology Bi Any Other Name (eds. Lani Ka’ahumanu and Loraine Hutchins) helped me make sense of my bi self, but I yearned for a non-virtual group of queer people.  It was thus with high expectations that I landed up at the campus student group meeting.

My expectations began to sink as I, the only non-American non-white grad bisexual student, faced a group of gay white undergrads who assiduously avoided eye contact with me, spoke only among themselves, and only addressed me to hand me a sign-up sheet in which I wrote my email address. Heading to lab that night after the LGBT group meeting, I logged in to find a terse email urging me to “Go Home, Sand N|gger”. That incident summarily dispelled my notions of a welcoming rainbow community, and kept me from reaching out to queer groups for another three years, by which time I had moved to a much friendlier campus in Austin, Texas; and had become part of Khush, the first internet listserv for LGBT South Asians.

The queer groups on campus in Austin were much more welcoming, and, with a few friends, I was able to start up a South Asian campus queer-straight alliance called Trikone-Tejas (TT) in 1996, inspired by the California group Trikone. It was in Austin and through TT that I came into my own, with potluck socials, workshops and panel discussions engaging the mainstream (desi) community on sexuality issues, and the mainstream (predominantly white) queer community on issues of racism.  Suzanne Pharr’s incisive analysis of the links between sexism and homophobia was an eye-opener, and I soon got involved with a local pro-feminist men’s collective and with a South Asian group Saheli that provided peer-counseling and referrals for survivors of domestic violence.

Trikone-Tejas members at Austin's Walk for Safe Families, 2001

Coming out to members of Saheli, I found warmth, understanding and acceptance. Training in hotline counseling for survivors of domestic violence also helped me support more effectively students who contacted TT as they struggled to reconcile their South Asian, American and queer identities.  TT eventually broadened its focus to encompass East and Southeast Asian-Americans; and began forging links with other communities of color on and off campus.

Fortuitously, I also found a few queer and queer-friendly Carnatic music enthusiasts and performers who became among my closest comrades and co-conspirators in livening up an otherwise staid classical music scene. And cross-overs happened, with TT co-organizing music events such as Melakarta Day and Guruguhaanjali 2003 on campus.

In 2000, Sharon Bridgforth, through her poetry workshop Snap!, opened up a whole new world of creative expression for me, and drew me into the amazing group ALLGO (Austin’s Queer People of Color Organization) populated by stunningly talented and proudly queer African-American and  Latino/a activist-artists who got me thinking about music, poetry and social change in the same breath.

Also in 2000, I got to attend DesiQ2000 in San Francisco, where queer South Asians from all over the world – including

Ramki, Vini, Vega and Mala at DesiQ2000

many friends from khush-list and lgbt-india lists – gathered, the first bi South Asian caucus met, and I could visualize what a global movement of my people looked like.

During my mother’s visits to Austin, these were the friends  – the TT potluck gang, the ALLGO poets, the Saheli volunteers, the dyke couples, the boy with a fetish for both Leather and Lathaangi (raaga)  – who made her feel at ease with the notion of queerness, and helped her realize that this was by no means a life of marginality and loneliness as she had previously feared. Still, she pondered aloud, we were in America, not India. How would things turn out were her son to move to Chennai, where even a girl’s decision to marry a boy from a different caste could result in life-long rifts within close-knit families?

Fast forward to 2004. A doctoral degree and some years of work experience later, I landed in Chennai where my mom and extended family lived, and into the welcoming fold of MovenPick (now MP, with its associated website, a local queer collective founded in 2003 that aimed to create a safe, non-sexual social and support space for LGBT people. Through numerous weekend hangouts, long walks on Besant Nagar and Thiruvanmiyur beaches,  joint organizing of film festivals and other community events, and the Campaign for Open Minds, I was fortunate to grow into a circle of queer and straight-but-not-narrow friends who’ve remained solidly with me through times of personal grief,  celebration and everything in between.

At one of the MP meets, Adarsh mooted the idea of having a Chennai Pride march. While I was too polite to scoff, I did wonder aloud how something like that could ever happen in Chennai in our lifetimes, given the legendary conservatism of the city.

The city and its emerging coalition of fierce and dedicated young queers and allies proved me overwhelmingly, thrillingly, wrong.

And so it became that I found myself in a motley crowd of hundreds of LGBT people,  sex workers, NGO types, family members, friends and colleagues on Sunday, June 28, 2009, at the Marina. We were carrying rainbow flags, placards with Thiruvalluvar and Bharathiyar quotes, speaking Tamil, English, Hindi and combinations thereof; demanding the Delhi High Court read down Section 377, that families accept us and not attempt to change our sexuality, and that society end discrimination and violence against our community.

Our community.

My community.

In the city I had left in 1991.

I was, finally, home.

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