Making sure everyone gets a homecoming4 min read . Updated: 15 Feb 2020, 10:40 AM IST
Online platform G.H.A.R helps LGBTQ+ folk find queer-friendly homes and acceptance from neighbours
In 1998, when the Indian queer community and its movement for equality was beginning to make its voice heard, Sachin Jain, a Mumbai-based Spanish language teacher, created an online community to facilitate information-sharing on safe housing options for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“At the age of 22, I had to rent a place in Thane near Mumbai because of my job. As a gay man, I experienced a lot of difficulties with nosy neighbours, homophobic flatmates and inquisitive landlords. When I asked other gay men, who had come here from other cities, they had had similar experiences," says Jain. He decided to help fellow members of the gay community in India figure out a basic necessity: a roof over their heads.
Initially, Jain hosted the online community as an email group. Then, in 2002, it became a Yahoo group. In 2012, as social media platforms proliferated, it transformed into a closed Facebook group called G.H.A.R (Gay Housing Assistance Resource). Today, it has over 13,000 members and acts as a pan-India resource to help queer folk find suitable housing or flatmates.
It functions in a simple and systematic manner. The cover image of the group’s homepage on Facebook offers easy instructions on how to create a post on finding or offering rented accommodation across the country, while new members are directed to a database of existing accommodation requirements, which is updated weekly, through a pinned post.
Historically, Indian society has been slow to integrate the queer community. While Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizing homosexuality was struck down in 2018, the Transgender Persons’ (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, criticized by many for not being effective enough, was passed last year. Even today, it’s a struggle for the community to get ready access to services such as accommodation. Sometimes people are obliged to pass as straight to rent secure housing. Sometimes they don’t have the option of doing so because of their gender or sexual expression. And even if they do, they can be made to feel unwelcome and uncomfortable by flatmates or neighbours.
Jain says one of the bigger challenges he faces is screening the group to include only genuine members united by the same need of finding a home. “Initially, I had to break a lot of misconceptions about it being a dating website, as both queer and straight folks alike couldn’t understand the need for a safe space that was solving a specific problem," he says. There was also the task of protecting the privacy of people while getting out word about the group, and this was especially true of the years before 2018.
For, under Section 377, the group could have been looked at as “aiding and abetting" homosexual practices, then illegal. “All queer collectivism came under it as openly admitting to gay sex was tantamount to admitting to a crime, and openly being gay was an invitation for harassment from moral vigilantes," says Jain. However, the community has become more visible since and things have improved.
“It has helped more community members to come out. Other stakeholders in the housing sector, such as realtors, brokers, landlords, neighbours, are more sensitized and vigilante troublemakers no longer feel they have the impunity to harass queer folks," he adds.
While challenges still exist, this visibility has empowered people to cultivate friendlier relationships with queer residents. “It’s easier now to embrace free personal expression, from something as simple as bringing a partner home without raising eyebrows to making friends without having to self-censor," says Jain.
It’s usually easier for cisgendered men and women to find accommodation and acceptance even if they are gay—things are much more difficult for transgender individuals.
Maya, a 40-year-old trans woman from the Hijra community, works with an LGBTQ+ government initiative. While she lives in Mumbai with her family, who she’s out to, she worked in Delhi for some years and lived with her guru (a tradition where older Hijras adopt younger ones as their kin) before moving out. “Even though my gender expression doesn’t always coincide with my orientation, I was sure to let the landlord know about my orientation, and he was fine with it," she says.
Her neighbours, however, were unaware and had issues with Maya living in the flat. “Once, I had other trans-women friends over and some strangers who were men followed us in. People from the building wrongly accused me of sex work, so I had to explain to them about my background and why it was important to hold these men accountable for following us. That initially calmed things down but the relationships were still tense," she says.
It took a lot of time and many interactions for Maya to build a good rapport with her neighbours. “I had to keep my main door open, so my neighbours weren’t suspicious, and had to be patient with them to come around. It took a year of such trust-building for things to get better."
Jain believes that queer people living with security fosters a greater sense of a joint and inclusive community. “Such a home leads to better self-acceptance and builds a stronger sense of identity in the communities we belong to," he says.