'We are India's first batch of certified LGBTQI parents'
For six months, 30 parents earnestly turned students to learn gender roles, sexual orientation terminology and surrogacy rights from queer rights activists and lawyers, so they can be informed and cool allies to their kids
In 2016, when Navi Mumbai couple Rakesh and Renu Sharma's daughter Ria, came out as lesbian, they were accepting and empathetic. They had an inkling about the 16-year-old's orientation given the subtle signs. "For instance, her taste in clothes was androgynous and she would often head to the male section at clothing stores," says mother Renu, 45.
The coming out confession, therefore, wasn't a bolt from the blue. What did come as a surprise, was the subsequent declaration a few months later, when Ria identified herself as gender-fluid. "We didn't know what it meant, although she did try to educate us," says Rakesh, who along with Renu, runs Lilac Insights Pvt Ltd, a genetic-testing start-up in Mahape. It was in the same year that Oxford English Dictionary added the term to its fold, defining it as "a person who does not identify with a single fixed gender; of or relating to a person having or expressing a fluid or unfixed gender identity."
The Sharmas: Renu and Rakesh were taken aback when daughter Ria said she was gender fluid. Now, they understand the term. Pics/Suresh Karkera
The oscillation also applied to the pronouns a gender-fluid individual preferred to use and how they might choose to present their gender on any given day. Ria wanted be addressed as "they". "Having been raised in a binary, man-woman, s/he world, referring to my daughter as 'they' did feel awkward," he admits. But they respected her decision.
Well-versed in queer glossary
Two years down, the couple is not just familiar with the ABC of LGBTQI, but a host of other sexual orientation terminologies—over 50 and counting—that now make up the glossary. "In fact, I can wax eloquent on, say, how demisexual is different from pansexual, or what separates intersex from intergender," says Rakesh. On their part, the Sharmas aren't just parents of a queer individual, but proud allies. The term refers to a straight and/or cisgender person who supports and advocates for queer people.
Koninika Roy, catalyst at Godrej India Culture Lab, also had her parents, Nilakshi and Subroto, attend the course. The classes were one Sunday every month from 10 am to 5 pm and covered a range of issues, including legal rights, sexual health and self-care
The awareness and sense of empowerment is a result of a sustained six-month long programme titled Prabal, launched by Humsafar Trust in collaboration with Sweekar, The Rainbow Parents, a support group for parents of LGBTQI persons. "We are the country's first batch of certified LGBTQI parents," beams Rakesh. The pilot project was launched to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Trust on November 30, 2018, and concluded last week. The idea came from Sweekar, a three-year-old organisation. "We were a scattered group of parents. Although we would hold the occasional meet-up, there was a need to scale up efforts and have a more structured and intensive programme by experts to address parents of queer individuals," says Chitra Palekar, filmmaker, theatre personality and member of Sweekar. "The parents had questions. Tonnes of it."
The queries were compiled and formally sent to Vivek Anand, CEO, Humsafar Trust. He, along with Alpana Dange, consultant research director at Humsafar, and Koninika Roy, catalyst, Godrej India Culture Lab then designed a curriculum based on what they gathered from it. The first session was held at the Trust office in Santacruz East. "The first class had seven parents," says Palekar. The attendance swelled to 30 in the next session, which was held in February. The inordinate delay in holding the second class worked to their advantage, thanks to the first Pride March after the decriminalisation of Section 377, which saw more parents enroll for the course. The enrolment was voluntary and free of cost. The parents came from all walks of life with children who identified with gender identities across the spectrum. "Many didn't know what it meant to have a child who is transman or a transwoman or gender queer. So, we decided to have the first class on the terminology alone, because if you don't know what it means, how will you able to tell others?" says Dange.
Renu and Rakesh Sharma, parents to 19-year-old Ria, have hired a transwoman at their Mahape start-up. Ahead of her joining date, the Sharmas will also conduct a gender sensitisation workshop for their staff
No mincing words
The classes were held from 10 am to 5 pm and peppered with interactions with experts, talks by members from the queer community, presentations, dance, and even homework. Each session had a theme. Legal issues, sexual health, mental health and self-care were among the topics covered. Amritananda Chakravorty, Delhi-based lawyer, who was one of the petitioners against Section 377, was invited to explain the laws, rights related to surrogacy, tenancy and cohabitation. As per law, The Bombay Tenancy Act of 1954 gives a tenant every right on par with ownership and tenancy can be "inherited by close relatives and the spouse". But, due to the prohibition of same-sex marriage in India, the matter remains in the grey zone.
"It was important to address issues as they are. We didn't want to soften the blow. Along with rights, we discussed sexual health; what symptoms of STDs to watch out for, actions to take once you see the symptoms and how to address when your child complains about bullying. Many parents who had never broached the subject of sexual health as conversation, were now openly discussing it," says Palekar.
The session on gender and sexuality
The sessions also included freewheeling interactions with society's gender benders—a gay couple, a transman with his wife (who underwent a gender affirmation surgery) and a lesbian couple, who discussed their life's choices in great detail. Nilakshi Roy, English professor at Mulund's Kelkar college and participant, says when a child comes out of the closet, it's also a coming out experience for the parent. "Many expressed battling guilt and regret for not having been there for their child. There were also fears of whether their child would be lonely or who would look after them once they are gone," she says. The shared experiences, she adds, brought all parents together giving them a sense of community and belonging. Dange, who was the facilitator at the sessions, says even the most clammed up participants gradually opened up over the course of time.
"There was the mother of a transman, who said she had signed up only because her son wanted her to. She didn't speak much initially, but later opened up about her experiences. In fact, one of the sessions coincided with her son's birthday, and she brought a cake to celebrate. She said, 'This is for my son, who I am proud of'." It was cathartic," says Dange. Material to mull on Since classes were held on one Sunday every month, parents were given homework in order to keep them engaged with the subject. Assignments included critical appreciation of queer films, taking time out for self care, making drawing or posters on issues they feel strongly about. "Every drawing made by the parent featured the child. While we understand the attachment, we felt it was also important that they take time out for themselves," says Dange, who would often send reminders of homework to participants. The approach achieved results. While one parent got a cool haircut, another couple took off for a mini vacation, which they hadn't done in decades. The Sharmas say they would go home and binge watch LGBTQI-themed movies.
"We saw I Am by Onir, Marathi short film Daaravtha (The Threshold) directed by Nishant Roy Bombarde and Evening Shadows by Shridhar Rangayan, which we enjoyed the most. It's about a conservative woman who faces many challenges when her beloved son tells her and her dogmatic husband that he is gay." Their daughter, Ria, who was privy to her parents working on assignments at home, says it was heartwarming to watch them be more receptive to queer issues. "When I first opened up about my gender fluid identity, they thought I am saying this because of my feminist leanings. They considered it to be a social worldview. But now they know what I meant. It feels great to know that the people who matter understand who you are," says the SYBA student. These days, if her parents happen to meet one of her queer friends, they make it a point to ask a person how they would like to be identified.
"We never probe about their past, nor worry about pronouns or how grammatically incorrect a 'they' will sound. The point is to show support," says Renu. The Sharmas have now hired a transwoman at their start-up who will join the organisation later this month. And, prior to that, they plans to have a gender sensitisation workshop for the staff.
Looking back at the last six months, Palekar says it exceeded her expectations. "Frankly, I never thought it would turn out to be so cathartic. I call myself a 'stale old parent' because my daughter came out in 1993, but I felt so energised by the interactions in the class. By the end of it, we all felt like one big family," she says. Humsafar Trust now plans to chalk out the next module by the end of the year and take the course to other cities and towns. But for their newly graduated class, there will be a refresher course soon.
Also Read: Up your ally
Know your gender
Genderqueer: An identity for people who do not identify and/or who do not express themselves as completely masculine or feminine. Genderqueer people may or may not identify as transgender.
Intersex: Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.
Asexual: An identity for individuals who do not experience sexual attraction. Unlike celibacy, which is a choice, asexuality is a sexual orientation.
FTM or F2M (Female to Male): An identity for a person who was assigned female at birth, and who identifies as male, lives as a male or identifies as masculine.
MSM (Men who Sleep with Men): A term given to men who engage in sexual activity with other men regardless of their self-identified sexual orientation.
Gender Affirmation Surgery
A term used to describe surgical procedures which alter the physical appearance and function of an individual's existing sexual characteristics to resemble a different sex.
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