Stigma, discrimination and a lack of social support and safe spaces for interactions have left queer youth across the world unable to come out or seek help. The situation is no different in the state of Manipur. A conflicted border state, it has other issues that it prioritises like the citizenship crisis, insurgency, militarisation, substance abuse, unemployment, migration, high HIV prevalence and high school dropout rate, leaving its youth, especially the queer community, struggling to meet daily needs and wanting for help.

Sadam Hanjabam was one of them. “Growing up in Imphal, we saw violence and death at our doorstep routinely. But I told myself there were always more important things going on, bigger things to worry about.”

Hanjabam grew up afraid of not just the violence outside but, having been inside the closet since a young age, fearful of the turmoil inside of him too.

Often, for the queer youth in Manipur, migration is the way out, a way to seek liberation, explore their sexual identity and earn a living. For the ones who cannot afford to migrate, the obscurity of identity and sexual orientation continue to have a direct impact on their mental well-being and basic survival.

Luckily for Hanjabam, he was able to migrate for his higher education. He travelled from Assam to Kerala before moving to Mumbai – the city he had seen on television and dreamt of being in – for his MPhil.

It was here that he was able to express, and even celebrate, being queer for the first time. He began using dating apps and meeting men, going on dates and becoming part of a larger queer community.

But his troubles were far from over.

In Mumbai, he faced discrimination of a different kind. “I did not look like someone from Manipur because I am not fair and my eyes are a little wider,” recalls Hanjabam. For many, he became the “Nepali”. For others, he became the Muslim whom they couldn’t rent their house to.

After months of couch-surfing at the hostel rooms of friends, he changed his surname, using his father’s “Sharma”, and finally managed to rent a room. But a sense of rejection settled into him.

Perhaps it was this constant feeling of being alone and forcing himself to take up the scholarship and pursue a PhD simply to escape going back to Manipur, but when a partner he met on a dating app suggested they try having “high fun”, he agreed.

One night turned into two, and smoking turned to snorting and even injecting. Soon Hanjabam became an addict who would find himself in cycles of overdosing, recovering and relapsing for years to come.

But it all changed when he learnt of a friend dying from an overdose while he lay in the psychiatric ward of a hospital after overdosing once again. Hanjabam realised that he had barely escaped death twice himself. He decided to let go of his fears and come clean to the doctors.

“I told them about not being sure of wanting to do my PhD, about my struggles to fit in and about how I was a queer man.” Soon after, he looked for a queer-affirmative counsellor and began his journey of accepting himself with all the vulnerabilities and strength.

The experience in the hospital struck a chord with Hanjabam who recognised the critical need for a safe space where one can indulge in honest expression without fear of judgement or rejection, especially for the queer community that is often marginalised.

That is how Ya-All (“revolution” in Manipuri) began on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia as a secret WhatsApp group in 2017. It tried to initiate conversation about the issues faced by queer youth in Manipur – substance abuse that is rampant in the state due to its proximity to the “Golden Triangle”, known for illegal drug trading in the world; accessibility to sexual and mental healthcare; and employment. The group came out openly as a collective soon after and has since been working to help promote safe spaces for the queer community in Manipur.

Ya-All has set up Meitram, a space aimed to destigmatise conversations around queer issues and empower and equip the youth with a co-working space; and partnered with Mariwala Health Initiative, which has helped them create a mental health space for queer youths with free peer counselling.

They have also collaborated with Blued, a gay dating app, to report crimes like online bullying and extortion, which is often seen in cases of substance abuse within the queer community; and brought together India’s first transgender football team.

“My father raised me like a boy, and when he found out that I was a part of India’s first transgender football team, he was proud of me,” says vice-captain Chaoba Wahengbam, who used to play in the women’s category earlier. “My mother used to scold me because society used to mock her, but after the acknowledgement our team received, she accepted me as I am.”

Hanjabam has turned to kindness as a driving force in all his endeavours since his recovery, whether it is working to include a football team of transgender players, crowdfunding to support people with ration during the pandemic, distributing condoms and sanitary pads, supporting Manipur students who were racially abused due to the pandemic or assisting people through telephonic counselling. “Only once we accept our vulnerabilities can we find ways to turn them into our biggest strengths,” he concludes.

#KindnessMatters: 50 Inspiring Stories of Empathy, Compassion and Kindness from People all over the World

Excerpted with permission from #KindnessMatters: 50 Inspiring Stories of Empathy, Compassion and Kindness from People all over the World, UNESCO MGIEP, Puffin Books.