On the last Sunday of every month for a year now, a group of people have gathered in the city of Ahmedabad to ask questions. Queries are raised anonymously – the participants write them on a chit of paper and put them in a bowl.
Subjects range from sexual expression (“Where can I find a sex toy?”) to the law (“How does Section 377 affect my life?”) to society and family (“I am queer and my parents are forcing me to go to a psychiatrist. What can I do to stop this?”). Nothing is off limits, and everyone is welcome to participate. There is only one condition, though – the answers must come collectively, from the community itself.
Hosted by the city-based group QueerAbad, the series of events is called Ask What You Will.
“There are no experts here,” said Anahita Sarabhai, 28, who co-founded QueerAbad with her partner Shamini Kothari, 22. “The idea is that we know our lives best and have the information that we need.”
The event series is attended by young people aged between 20 and 30, the majority of whom identify as queer. It forms the backbone of QueerAbad’s ongoing work to provide one of the few safe spaces in Ahmedabad for the queer community.
Sarabhai says that the participants’ attitudes have changed since the group first started hosting the events. “The questions went from being shy and basic – and containing a lot of stereotypes – to becoming much more nuanced.” For instance, where questions were often laced with transphobia, now they are about grappling with issues of identity, such as navigating the experience of being both religious and queer. “We find that allies are now asking better questions, and lots of allies come just to listen, which we think is hugely important,” said Sarabhai.
The conversations have led to a concentrated effort by the participants to come up with collective solutions for complex questions. “People have managed to be incredibly empathetic and sensitive in how they answer each other,” said Sarabhai.
Building a community
Community-making is at the heart of what QueerAbad does. It is a response to the lack of community-oriented safe spaces that Sarabhai and Kothari encountered when searching for a place to both explore and express their own identities.
“Growing up queer in a city like Ahmedabad is an interesting experience,” said Sarabhai. “My need to have community and seek real-life representation only grew over the years.”
After five years of living and studying in New York, she came back to a city where queer spaces largely remained invisible and silenced. “It had been easier before I had left, when I knew no better, when I had never known what it meant to have a support system or group of people who you could see parts of yourself in, when the isolation was the only point of reference,” she said. “But this time around, there was no way to erase the memory of solidarity, there was no way to find comfort or come to terms with it.”
The queer spaces that did exist felt difficult in their own ways. “There was internal politics, incredible transphobia, and the group didn’t really want to do anything for the larger community,” said Sarabhai. “It was about social interaction alone, and not really about engagement. It wasn’t queer in any of the ways we mean the word to be – and for us, that wasn’t good enough, it couldn’t possibly be the only space that the city had.”
It was around then that Sarabhai and Kothari met, and encountered other people who were interested in creating an empathetic, engaged queer space of the sort they felt the city needed. This is how, two years ago, QueerAbad came into being.
The two firmly believe in increasing spaces for engagement with people who may not identify as queer or trans, but are interested in being allies. “We know there are allies out there who want to support the movement, but don’t know where to go or how to do it,” said Sarabhai. “We believe that we are in a space in which we can make a change, but we can’t do it alone. We need allies to come out and stand with us.”
Part of the group’s engagement with allies come in the form of media advocacy. Through an informal network of queer-friendly and gender-sensitive journalists, they engage in a dialogue over the way gender and sexuality is covered by the mainstream media.
At the moment, the group is not registered. But they plan to set up an organisation and hire a larger team. “We have lots planned for this year but a huge part is going to be really articulating a structure and vision for the space and hiring people to be part of our team,” said Kothari. “Hopefully this is the year that certain systems can be [put] in place as the organisation gets bigger.”
Kothari works in research and publications at Conflictorium, a museum of conflict in Ahmedabad, while Sarabhai teaches English literature and theatre to high schoolers. Both have been engaged in work around gender and sexuality since before they co-founded QueerAbad.
Aside from the weekly Ask What You Will events, QueerAbad has organised a stream of one-off events, including readings of poetry and queer erotica and film screenings. They also hosted an event featuring Indian American gender-nonconforming performance artist Alok Vaid Menon. The group is planning to host a mental health day, and a digital security training for the community in collaboration with other groups.
Perhaps the single biggest event the group has organised is a Pride festival, which included a two-day academic conference, a Queer Pride march, and a Pride mela that showcased art made and performed by queer and trans people.
“Ahmedabad has had three other Prides, but they were very small,” said Sarabhai. “Not many people knew about them. We really wanted to do it on a larger scale, and we reached out to a lot of people. The result was that over 300 people attended, a first for the city.”
Beyond organising events, the group also publishes informative booklets in Gujarati and English that people can take home. These provide essential information that people may not otherwise have access to. “They have gone like hot cakes,” said Sarabhai, with a laugh.
Funding has so far come in the form of personal donations, and more often in the form of the sharing of skills or spaces rather than money. People have given what they can, including their personal homes and office spaces for the group to host events in. In that sense, the ongoing existence of QueerAbad is truly a community-led effort.
This article first appeared on Ashoka.