If you don’t want to get married, start with that, advises Vinay Chandran.

He could be talking to any single Indian who’s being pressurized by family to take the plunge, but Chandran mostly counsels gay men who call him on the Sahaya helpline for sexual and gender minorities. As counsellor and executive director of the Bengaluru-based Swabhava Trust, a non-governmental organization that works with the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community and runs this helpline, he’s been doing this for the past 16 years, mostly as the lone voice on the other side of the line, and with not much financial support.

His first recommendation to people who want to come out to their families is always the same.

“Whether or not you’re ready to tell them who you are or why you don’t want to get married, start by saying you don’t want to get married. Prepare your family that you’re not interested in a traditional marriage," he says.

“And if they pester you…‘Why? Is there something wrong with you? We can get you treated’ then learn to say, ‘I’m not ready to tell you, give me some time while I prepare myself,’" he says, adding that it’s okay if this stirs things up a bit at home.

Chandran asks them to use this time to teach themselves a life skill not practised enough in this country—the art of conversing with one’s parents. He believes that Indian parents don’t talk to their children. “They talk to them or at them. There’s no engagement or conversation. It’s just one-way traffic," he says. So Chandran wants them to start having conversations that they wouldn’t normally have with their parents. “I tell them to talk about anything. Open up about things. About health, general sexuality, family dynamics. Just communicate."

“The biggest struggle for the community is still the issue of marriage. No matter what background they all come from, they struggle to tell their parents they don’t want to get married, let alone telling their parents they are queer identified," he says, adding that it’s often a threat (if you don’t get married, I won’t take my heart medicine) that families give their children.

You can’t really monetize a free community helpline and even though Swabhava does lots of other things, Chandran is always low on money. At this time of the year even more so, because he begins the process of pulling together everyone who helps organize the Bangalore Queer Film Festival (BQFF), a well-bookmarked and attended event that has taken place for seven years now in the last week of February. The date coincides with the founding of Good as You, Bengaluru’s oldest LGBT support group, started in February 1994.

When Chandran, an advertising professional in his earlier life, discovered Good as You, he became an active participant of the self-funded informal support group, editing their newsletter and moderating events they organized. In 1998, one of the members suggested he set up an NGO that would work with the LGBT community. Swabhava’s trustees are all early members of that informal support group.

Set up as a charitable trust in 1999, Swabhava is a community space and a community resource. Members of Good As You and different women’s groups hold their meetings here. It’s also a venue for Queer Campus, a group of high school and college students who want a space to talk undisturbed about sexuality and gender issues or to plan their annual flea market. In the early 2000s, when HIV funding suddenly became a big thing in India, Swabhava worked at training professionals at these NGOs to understand HIV as more than just a disease. Counselling sessions and weekly film screenings are also held in this well-lit but basic large room lined with mattresses.

“Queer films have always been part of my life because people like me, we are constantly looking for representations of ourselves on cinema. So, in that sense, we’ve always looked for cinema that can help empower if not tell our stories," says Chandran.

Bengaluru’s first queer film festival was organized in 2003 but the current avatar of BQFF was launched in 2009. This year, the 50 films from 23 countries were screened at Alliance Française de Bangalore and Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan. “The film festival has always raised money from the community, it’s never been formally sponsored by any single organization," says Chandran, who’s always in need of money at this time of the year. He’s been bailed out by friends on several occasions, often just when he’s maxed out his credit card paying expenses at work and when he thinks he can’t absorb the emotional stresses of doing this job day after day, pretty much single-handedly.

One time, a retired army man came in with his daughter to talk about his son. Can you treat him, they said. We don’t want him to be homosexual. When Chandran told them there was nothing wrong with the boy, they burst into tears. “If in any other context someone told you there was nothing wrong with your child, go home and live your life, you would think it’s good news but for them it was the worst news they could hear," says Chandran.

I ask Chandran how his own parents reacted. His father knew, he thinks, but they never talked about it before he died 10 years ago. “My mother, she comes to the film festival whenever there’s a Malayalam film, but about my own sexuality, she would rather not talk. She’s traditional, one of those ‘if you ignore it it will go away’ types," he says.

Most parents still want doctors to “cure" their children. In Nothing To Fix: Medicalisation Of Sexual Orientation And Gender Identity (Sage Yoda Press), editors Vinay Chandran and Alternative Law Forum’s Arvind Narrain examine how psychologists and psychiatrists continue to be prejudiced in the way they treat homosexuality. “A lot of practitioners would say that if parents come with their child and say cure my child, we can’t say no," says Chandran, adding that the book features some good practitioners too. Since he’s in fund-raising mode, he’s hoping more people will want to give him money once the book comes out later this year.

Until then he’ll keep going, motivated by every success story. “Every time I hear someone say, I came out to my parents, they’ve accepted me, thank you for the courage or at least for helping me know what language/strategies to use, somehow it’s very, very satisfying," he says.

HOW TO GIVE

MAIN SPONSORS

Community contributions.

BIGGEST NEED

To build a corpus fund that can help with the long-term sustainability of support services provided by Swabhava to marginalized groups.

A DONATION OF 10,000 CAN

Help pay rent for one month.

VOLUNTEERS CAN HELP

With different projects, including organizing the film festival.

CONTACT

www.swabhava.org

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