Indian stand-up comic Vasu Primlani does not shy away from her sexuality in her gigs – even though until very recently, being gay put her at odds with the law.

One popular joke starts with the question she says many LGBT+ Indians are routinely asked – “how did you turn gay?”. The answer – “when I was 10, my mother told me to stay away from boys” – gets a laugh every time.

Primlani, 47, believes she is India’s first openly-gay comedian.

She uses humour to address the twin challenges of being gay and a woman in India, where gay sex was only decriminalised in 2018 and awareness of both women’s and LGBT+ rights is patchy.

But her style is not to judge. Instead, she seeks to promote understanding among audiences with little past exposure to the debate over LGBT+ issues in particular. “Very often these people are not included in these dialogues and no effort is made to bring them on board,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from New Delhi. “I am not preaching to the choir...people who actually do have questions are on the other side of the fence.”

That approach has made her popular among corporates, which pay her to run awareness training for their staff in India. At first these had to be conducted under the radar, but since the law changed in 2018, firms have been happy to talk openly about her work for them.

IBM India enlisted her to hold a session for Pride month in June, the first time it has used a stand-up comic. In her training sessions, Primlani starts with comedy, before moving on to offer tips on how to behave around LGBT+ colleagues.

“Do not go running up to them [saying]: ‘I didn’t know!’ or ‘You didn’t tell me!’, do not avoid them, do not act overly friendly and do not ask personal questions [‘So, who’s the guy between you two?’],” she said.

Indian stand-up comic Vasu Primlani at one of her performances. Credit: Vasu Primlani/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Tough subjects

Primlani said she was fortunate in having parents who accepted her sexuality. “Parents are your backbone. When they don’t accept, it really hurts the child. I am strong because of my parents,” she said.

Her comedy tackles tough subjects, among them sexual abuse of women and the everyday challenge of being stared at by men. “I offer a 100% solution to rape,” said Primlani, who holds an Indian government award for her work on women’s empowerment. “We keep telling girls to do this or do that, but just raise your boys properly and your girls will be safe.”

She does not judge those she trains who are struggling to accept their child or a colleague as an LGBT+ person. “It is not their fault they don’t know...employees come from villages and towns or cities where they are not exposed to these codes of conduct,” she said.

“I use comedy as talk about what we don’t talk about in the society. And nobody feels judged.”

India is home to nearly 56 million LGBT+ adults according to Paris-based firm Out Now Consulting, but coming out is still not easy as many fear family rejection and being subjected to homophobic comments at work.

Asked what she hopes to achieve through her comedy, Primlani said she wanted sexuality to be “taken off the table”.

“That you judge people by their thoughts, actions and goodness rather than what they look like, who they hang out with, or who they choose to love,” she continued. “I am not in the business of making people laugh. I am in the business of touching hearts.”

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters News Foundation.