Exclusive interview: Harish Iyer - I am gay and fabulous
Harish Iyer, an activist and an organiser of the LGBTQ pride speaks about the community's grievances and his personal struggles, in an exclusive interview with mid-day.com
The streets of Mumbai were painted with diversity and colours by the LGBTQ community celebrating their freedom with LGBTQ pride on 2 February 2019. We caught up with Harish Iyer, a well-known activist for a number of causes including promoting the rights of the LGBTQ community, children, women, animals, and survivors of child sexual abuse. He is also one of the organisers of the LGBTQ Pride. In an exclusive chat with Surbhi Sharma, sub-editor, mid-day online, Harish aims to educate the viewers about the community and LGBTQ issues.
Please specify your full name, where you were born and where you currently live?
My name is Harish Iyer, I am equal rights activists. I live in Navi Mumbai and I'm gay.
Can you tell us a little more about the Pride Parade organised by you?
This is the 11th Pride march, we have been organising it right from 2008- 2009. And we have been having regular pride marches every year. Previously, we were fighting for equality so that Section 377 is read down, which happened in 2009. So we celebrated our existence and then in 2013, we became illegal and now we are legal again. So it has been a roller coaster of a celebration.
Can you describe what your sexual orientation is, and for how long have you realized the same?
I am gay. Since the past 15-20 years, I knew that I was gay. I was in the closet in the beginning because I thought I wanted to be straight like everybody else simply because I didn't come across other gay people at that time. But now you have an open culture where you have people who come out of the closet and also have people at mid-day who write about you. So although there are different avenues now, there was a time when people didn't know what homosexuality was. At that time no one wanted to be something that no else is. Because of which I didn't want to conform to my sexuality so I did go through a phase where I forced myself to be heterosexual but failed miserably. So I'm gay and fabulous. (states proudly)
Have you ever faced discrimination at your workplace due to your sexuality or gender identity?
I haven't faced any discrimination as such at work but even when I wasn’t sure that I was gay because I was a little feminine in my behaviour, there was a slander campaign in college. I used to study at Guru Nanak Khalsa Colege, Mumbai and there was a huge slander campaign where I almost tried to take my life. I am a suicide survivor. People used to draw my caricature in the loos and write 'For gay sex contact Harish'. Even when I wasn’t sure about my sexuality, people made up their mind that I was homosexual and bullied me for that.
Did coming out affect your relationships (parents, siblings, and friends) in a negative or positive way?
In the beginning, I wanted to conform to heterosexuality. I also had a girlfriend in college and that was the longest love affair I had with a woman (it lasted for 1 week). Although she was extremely sure I could be gay, I wasn’t willing to conform to my sexuality. When I used to watch television programmes or watch Tarzan, I would wait for Birje to arrive on-screen. I knew for sure that I was getting titillated by men but I didn't want to conform to it. I went to Singapore, had sex with a commercial sex worker. It was after that, I decided that I should stand up for what I am.
I was raped by my uncle when I was young and I became one of the first voices to speak about male sex child abuse in this country so I had to face a lot of stigma because of that. My mother co-related my sexual abuse with this and thought that it was my sexual abuse that probably led to me becoming gay. When I told my mother I was gay, she wasn’t very happy about it. So I decided to fix up an appointment with a counsellor for my mother. However, that did not happen and I opened up to her and told her the truth after which she hugged me and said I always knew you were gay. I looked at her and said, 'Yes mom I am gay but if you want me to marry a woman then I will. But if you had a daughter would you marry her off to a gay man?' That really moved her.
What motivated your mom to post the matrimonial advertisement?
I came out to my mother when I was 25 and she was not very accepting of my sexuality. At the time, I knew only 2 other people who were gay. I fell in love with people, had affairs but all failed. My mother was upset because I was 35 and like any mother in an Indian household will ask, 'Beta tu settle kab ho raha hai?' (Son, when are you going to settle down?). To which I told my mom that gay marriages are not legal in the country. She said gay marriages doe not have any legal sanction but you can get married if you really want to or if you find someone suitable. Can you look for someone on Grinder?. I said, 'Mom people don’t look for love affairs on Grindr and Tinder, they look for something else.' So finally she decided to place an advertisement. I reached out to 3-4 newspapers and they all rejected the ad. Finally, when it came to mid-day, they published the ad. Sachin Kalbag, who was the editor at the time, supported the LGBT rights and said that irrespective of anything, this newspaper will publish any type of ads because they believe in equality. I also happened to receive some good proposals, like a Sheik from Dubai who said he had five houses and wouldn’t mind having me in the fifth house as his keep if I really wanted to. (he laughs)
What are the challenges that LGBTQ members face today in a country like India?
One of the biggest challenges the LGBTQ people were facing, was section 377 and now it is out of the way. Besides that, there are many social stigmas. Even in a metro city like Mumbai, when certain places state 'couple entry' and if I walk in with a boyfriend, they wouldn’t allow me to. For them, a couple means a man and a woman. But a couple could mean any two people who are in love with each other. Your mind has to be open to the idea that people could love people. At workplaces, there is discrimination since most policies are not LGBTQ friendly. Language is a big problem. I remember forms that mention saying ‘What is the name of your wife or husband?’. It doesn’t mention ‘What is the name of your partner?.’ How does one deal with that? Workplace discrimination is one thing, then people looking down on you or as a sex object. People also objectify and ask 'favours' from you. In fact, all those things that happen to women can also happen with members of the LGBTQ community.
Did you face any kind of abuse as a child?
I was 7 when I was sexually abused by my uncle. He was bathing me and while that happened, he and I were alone and naked. My uncle then thrust my head on his p***s. He not only had oral sex with me but also anal sex.
While talking about his sex abuse, Harish clearly stated that his sexuality is not an outcome of the trauma or sexual abuse by his uncle.
If you had to advise or educate the society about the LGBTQ community, what would you say?
I think the LGBTQ people are just as normal and abnormal like everyone else. We are equal beings and don’t need special rights, we need equal rights. We have suffered for long enough because of an unjust law or social prejudice. This is not an opportunity for the LGBTQ community to come out and shine but an opportunity for the non-LGBTQ community to get up and correct the wrongs they have done for ages. Indian ethos always stands for plurality and diversity. So the most un-Indian thing to do would be to not accept people who are different from you.
What laws do you think our government should come up with to help the LGBTQ community?
We need a strong anti-discrimination law at workplaces, a law against misgendering a person. If it's considered wrong to refer to a woman as a man, then its also wrong to refer to a trans person in any other gender. There needs to be a law that penalises people for discriminating the LGBTQ people. I don’t believe in bans but regulations need to be brought in. We are equal beings and we are not going to settle for anything lesser than equality. We should have equal rights because we breathe the same air, contribute the same amount of taxes yet we don’t get privileges.
Also when asked about his book 'Son Rise' that is scheduled to be released this year, he said that what's going to come out in the book is a real piece of writing which he feels will be like thought-to-paper. The book will reflect all his struggles and dark days but still portray him as a hero because he survived and rose as an example to others. It is his memoir which will also give a glimpse of his recent boyfriend and pet dog, who are a major part of his life.
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