FROM a drop-in centre that conducted workshops on HIV/AIDS issues and human rights of LGBTQ communities, to becoming the pre-eminent torchbearer for gay rights in India, The Humsafar Trust has come a long way. Founded in 1994, the Mumbai-based non profit has impacted lakhs of lives through its targeted interventions, online programs, advocacy activities focussed on LGBTQ rights and organising and mobilising the community for events like Pride March, etc.
The Humsafar Trust has also helped build other community-based organisations’ capacities on HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, and advocacy for LGBTQ rights.
In this tete a tete with GiveIndia, its CEO Vivek Raj Anand shares his journey with the organisation, the battles he fought, the lessons learned, and much more.
GiveIndia: How has the pandemic affected the LGBTQ+ community in Mumbai and the surrounding areas? Besides the survival question, how tough has it been on their mental and emotional health?
Vivek Raj Anand: In the initial stages my first observation was that LGBTQ+ has been invisibilized in the pandemic though they were among the most adversely hit. The transgender communities lost livelihoods, and many were thrown out of their houses as they could not pay their rent regularly. People living with HIV were finding it difficult to access medication.
Many young LGBTQ+ were confined to their houses. They hardly had anyone around with whom they could talk to or find some solace. This led to many youngsters coming out as they had no other option, while others came out of their free will as they could not lead stifled lives. This led to violence in families and serious mental health issues in the community. Reaching out to them was a challenge.
Humsafar started a #Humsafarfightscovid19 through which we approached a large number of corporates and allies, and the response was very positive. In one year, we could provide grocery support, medical and mental health support and cash transfers to nearly 44,000 individuals in 19 states in the country.
GI: While you are actively organising vaccination drives for the LGBTQ+ community in Mumbai, what are the on-ground challenges in getting them vaccinated?
VRA: They revolved mainly around the communities not having proper documents. In our first camp, we realised that a larger number of them were not even registered on the Cowin portal and did not have Aadhar cards. This challenge was very specific to the transgender community.
So, we set time slots for the camps. We keep around four hours for trans communities so that we can register them on Cowin, and then vaccinate them. There is always an in-house doctor and counsellors to help address any concerns or doubts that they may have regarding vaccination.
GI: It’s been a 27-year journey for you with the Trust. What was the initial struggle like? The movement has come so far, but what are the issues going forward?
VRA: The last 27 years have been a personal journey, and I see myself evolving with each passing day and becoming more sensitive to not just LGBTQ+ issues but that of other marginalised communities.
In the initial years, it was very difficult to explain to the authorities that LGBTQ+ exist and Humsafar made a strategic decision that our struggle will be from within and not outside. We are a model of dialogue and negotiation and not confrontation. That has helped us work around challenging situations. It has taken years of struggle to create an environment that is not looked upon as unnatural, or an aberration.
Some challenges continue like dealing with stigma and discrimination and violence towards the community. But the public health systems and the government bodies like the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), Niti Aayog and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment have been working proactively with us to create a favourable environment for the LGBTQ+ communities.
However, the biggest hurdle we faced was reading down Section 377 which took 18 years to change and it was a daunting task. Finally, on 6 September 2018 homosexuality in this country was decriminalised and now we look forward to integrating within our systems and become part of the mainstream society.
We have conducted six community consultations and identified some needs that need to be addressed on an urgent basis. These include the right to education, the right to equal job opportunities and the right to marriage. We have been working very proactively on these and other felt needs. I hope the day is not far off where LGBTQ+ will find equal space in society.
GI: Do you think film festivals have helped in highlighting the struggles of the queer community?
VRA: Cinema as a medium has the power to reach out and convey key messages without being preachy and bring change. Film festivals, especially LGBTQ+ film festivals like KASHISH, One World and Pankh showcase the community’s struggles and reach out to a wider audience that may otherwise not be possible.
KASHISH in the last 10 years has advocated the rights of LGBTQ+ communities and brought about a change. It is held at the mainstream cinema house Liberty in Mumbai. That helps increase the visibility of the issue and the communities.
GI: What would you advise a youngster planning to come out?
VRA: I want them to understand that identity is a reason for pride, not a reason to hide. But I would suggest completing your education, becoming financially independent and being confident before you come out. Come out from a space of confidence and not if you are not too sure about yourself. Meet a counsellor, talk about your concerns, and resolve your issues before you come out because there is a larger journey to be done ahead.
When we come out to our families we need to realise that their journey to understand us begins and we need to hold their hands. We need to be more supportive and understand their feelings. Even if they are harsh initially, they are our parents and love us, and eventually, acceptance will come our way.
GI: What is the most heart-touching thing that has happened to you through your NGO?
VRA: An 18-year-old boy had joined me in 2002 as an outreach worker. He was a high school dropout and very soon I realised that he was not very competent as an outreach worker and was wondering what to do with him. My counselling head suggested that she take him on and train him as a community counsellor as his understanding of LGBTQ+ issues and analytical skills were very good.
She trained him and he became our first community counsellor in 2003. He went back to college, graduated in psychiatry and joined the Tata Institute of Social Sciences for his masters in social work. Two years later he invited me to his convocation ceremony. When they called out his name for the best student of the year award, I could not hold back and I cried like a baby.
My father had once told me that being a single gay man, I will never experience the joys of fatherhood…That day, I realised I had experienced the joys of being a father. Life couldn’t get more beautiful.
GI: You have been forced to eat only four things for the rest of your life. Which four items would you choose? And why? Are there any memorable associations with them?
VRA: 1. pav bhaji (spiced mashed vegetables in a thick gravy served with bread) 2. misal pav (spicy curry often made with moth beans and bread), 3. roti–sabzi (chapati with vegetables) and 4. chai (tea). I made a family of choice at Humsafar, and as a family, we eat these four dishes most of the time. So, I would choose only these four.
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
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