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Praying for acceptance

The first Durga Puja where the idol depicted a transgender was organised in the city in 2015.

kolkata Updated: Oct 07, 2016 16:58 IST
Rushati Mukherjee
Transgenders taking selfie with their idols at the studio of artist Chaina Pal, Kumatuli in Kolkata on October 16,  2015.
Transgenders taking selfie with their idols at the studio of artist Chaina Pal, Kumatuli in Kolkata on October 16, 2015.(Subhendu Ghosh)

Puja is here and virtually everyone in Kolkata are celebrating. For the city’s queer community, however, this is a time that ushers excitement as well as apprehension and fear of rejection by ‘normal’ people.

In 2015, the city witnessed its first Durga Puja that had an idol representing a transgender. Organised by Pratyay Gender Trust, a transgender group, it marked a historic moment in the city’s otherwise conservative society. However, the excitement was marred by several events of harassment.

Read: LGBT activists take out march against workplace discrimination in Pune

Queer rights activist Pawan Dhall says it is quite astonishing that despite the acknowledgement of gender-fluid characters, inhibition towards the community can be clearly seen at Puja pandals.

“The effects of exclusion from the community are devastating for every individual. Exclusion leads to feelings of isolation, alienation and depression. This tends to increase during times of celebration such as the Pujas,” Dhall said.

City- based psychiatrist and queer rights activist, Dr Tirthankar Guha Thakurta explained the importance of including people of non-heteronomative identities in positions of influence during Puja.

According to him, there tends to be an administrative hierarchy during all community events, where only people of ‘honour’ are elected to the higher positions.

Read: Rainbow of hope: Will India vote for an LGBT resolution at UN?

“People with non-heteronomative identities are not considered ‘honourable’ or eligible for such posts. The hierarchy also means that people at the top will dictate what others do. “The ‘normal’ people will not want to be dictated to by those they consider ‘abnormal’,” says Guha Thakurta.

He explained that general ignorance about the acknowledgement gender fluid characters in Hindu mythology leads to the discrimination against queers at puja pandals.

“Non-heterosexual and trans identities are not invisible in Hindu culture. Many mythological stories are about the experiences of queer characters because of their identities. Stories of Mohini, Ardhanarishvara and Shikhandi do help individuals,” he said.

The LGBT community of India has come a long way, but it still needs to cover a lot of ground ahead. (HT Photo)

The discrimination can come in many forms. Some are as brazen as jeering or taunting. Sometimes, it can be much more subtle. Gestures as simple as hand-holding by non-heterosexual or trans-couples in pandals can give rise to negative reactions.

Read: Social inclusion: Bengal govt rains sops on transgenders

“Puja is a time of celebration and it’s only natural for couples to express affection. But couples from the LGBTQ community find it difficult to do so. Love suffers,” said Guha Thakurta.

Change is approaching, albeit slowly. Pratyay Gender Trust’s Durga Puja and people’s reception of it show that understanding of non-binary identities is gradually increasing in the city. The proverbial rainbow is rising, even as the queer community prepares to celebrate Puja.

Souvik Shom, organiser of Kolkata’s Rainbow Pride Parade, the annual walk in support of the demand for legal equality for the community, said that they are planning a Rainbow Pride hangout after Dashami, as a Bijaya Sammilani “There will be a potluck lunch, followed by performances by members of our community. A reading session, presentations of music and dance and a stand-up comedy act are all on the cards,” he added.

Read: India’s transgender icon Manabi Bandyopadhyay to pen tell-all memoir

The informal get-together is as much about bringing the community together as it is about battling the post-Puja blues. “We do such ‘Hang-outs’ often. There are so many talented people whose abilities we don’t even know about. The hangouts offer them the opportunity to show us their passions,” explained Som. “But this Bijaya hang-out is a first. We’ve never done one specifically for the Pujas before.”

However, if the excitement is about sharing a good time with fellow members of the community, the apprehension is over harassments, taunts and even physical assaults at crowed Puja pandals or on the streets. This fear among members of the community is the result of a sequence of events reported last year.

“Last year, I was with a trans friend at a well-known Puja in South Kolkata, where we were subjected to abusive comments by the people. Our friends from the community were harassed on the Metro during Puja. Policemen even refused to accept a complaint. There were protests, following which action was taken,” said Som.

Read: Strong state, weak will: India’s deafening silence on UN resolution on LGBT

Criminal lawyer and queer rights activist, Kaushik Gupta, this year, has voluntarily come forward to update members of the community about their legal rights against such harassments.

According to him, the law does not differentiate between queer and the non-queer and the provisions for legal action are the same.

“A victim can lodge a written complaint at the local police station. Remember, the victim is legally entitled to get a free copy of the FIR. The police are bound by law to launch an investigation and take legal steps. If the police do not act, the complainant can approach a higher authority with a written petition,” Gupta added.

He also pointed out that every transwoman is entitled to the same rights to protection against harassment. “A victim should insist on filing of an FIR because if a policeman refuses to take action he can be prosecuted,” he said.

The efforts of the Trust, Shom and other members of the community have ushered in a silent revolution. As society evolves, perhaps the marginalization that the LGBTQ+ community endures may also come to an end. That’s their prayer for this year.