Politicians and public figures in India have long hogged the limelight for all the wrong reasons when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Now, a group of youngsters is working to bring allies of the community to the centre stage.
Twenty-two-year-old Columbia university graduate Anish Gawande, along with Quint reporter Devina Buckshee and freelance designer Smriti Deora—both 24—has launched a website called Pink List India, curating a list of 2019 Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) candidates who have publicly supported queer and trans causes.
“It took a little over three months to collate info from the public domain, from section 377 to surrogacy debates,” Gawande, the director of the Dara Shikoh Fellowship, told Quartz.
The website classifies the politicians into four categories:
- Trailblazers: members of the LGBTQ+ community who have taken the plunge into politics. For instance, India’s first intersex candidate is Ashwathi Rajappan from Kerala and M Radha is Tamil Nadu’s first transgender candidate.
- Changemakers: Lok Sabha candidates who have “taken tangible steps to the course of queer and trans rights in India through interventions in avenues ranging from parliament to the media,” Pink List’s website describes. A prime example is Congress MP Shashi Tharoor who introduced two bills to repeal section 377 in the Lok Sabha to supporting the transgender persons bill. South Mumbai’s Milind Deora, recently endorsed by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, also features on this list.
- Outspoken allies: Those who have gone out of their way, either through public statements on social media or through interviews or through remarks in parliament, to demonstrate their support for LGBTQ+ rights
- Allies: Politicians who silently supported LGBTQ+ rights through small statements or actions within parliament—primarily those who supported Tharoor’s private member’s bill to scrap section 377 in the Lok Sabha—feature in this section
Although in September 2018, a five-judge bench scrapped section 377, a law that criminalised gay sex in India, many strides are yet to be made to end discrimination against queer folk in the country. And that change will come from the people in power, believes Gawande.
Below are edited excerpts from Quartz’s conversation with him:
Why did you create the Pink List?
During my travels, I noticed that the state of queer politics in India is changing dramatically and it hasn’t been explored in activist circles or academic circles. For instance, we still assume that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has only right-wing, homophobic people. But that’s not true. We wanted to track this change in perception of LGBTQ issues. It’s the first place an archive has been created and then we can mobilise around queer issues, and hold representatives accountable.
How do you ensure no bias creeps in?
It’s not an award list or endorsement list. It’s a research project. Personal bias cannot come in here. If a candidate has made a comment in the public domain, it’s in the list. I would personally not endorse Jagadambika Pal (BJP candidate from Domariyaganj, Uttar Pradesh who introduced amendments to the Army, Navy, and Air Force Act) because I personally feel the queer movement is built on anti-armed forces politics and the rejection of militarisation. But there are people who might. Other leaders have made Islamophobic statements or casteist statements. They’re not progressive across all spheres so candidates have to be probed further. This is a useful, impartial archive that is an open possibility for researches and activists to build on.
Why is it important to have LGBTQ-friendly politicians in parliament?
2013 was a landmark year when 377 was introduced back in books. Everyone thought all it takes is a review petition to fix it. But it took us almost five years after that. If we didn’t have a progressive supreme court, 377 would still be there. But we cannot be dependent on courts; changes have to come through grassroots. Otherwise, it becomes an elitist project since a change of law only affects those in the top 10%. A public representative who is a queer ally is most directly in touch with people at a local level.
Which politicians do you feel have made significant strides for the community?
I know of Mumbai so I’d say two politicians come to mind. Milind Deora wrote a landmark op-ed in 2008 against 377 that galvanised the community like never before. It was the first time a national-level politician had taken a stand. It got much greater visibility in media, allowed for TV debates and more newspaper op-eds. Before that nobody was giving LGBTQ rights much credence as mainstream issues.
Supriya Sule is yet another incredibly outspoken trans rights supporter. She inducted trans women in the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) making her a mover and shaker within the party and within parliament. Her work got coverage even in regional newspapers in Maharashtra, reaching more people.
You debuted on Instagram just over a week ago. How has that helped you grow?
Instagram gave us a digital space to reach out to queer folk. It’s fascinating. We have a tremendous reach on Instagram already. For some young folks, access to queerness only exists digitally, especially outside the metropolis. The queer discourse in India is hogged up in many ways by metro voices or superstars like a Tharoor, names like Dharamvir Gandhi or Tariq Anwar or Badaruddoza Khan brings in diversity that gives queer folk other more than the upper caste Hindu narrative.
What’s next for the Pink List?
The next step is that the Pink List goes offline. After elections, all of these people get in the same room together to create an informal office in queer politics. Allies need to start talking to each other and reach out to organisations. We have to work on how allies become better allies and cultivate more LGBTQ-pro politicians.