[Reader-list] Second Posting - The Lesbian Voices

Sappho for Equality sappho1999 at rediffmail.com
Wed Apr 7 12:19:19 IST 2004

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Hymn To Aphrodite

Throned in splendor, immortal Aphrodite! 
Child of Zeus, Enchantress, I implore thee 
Slay me not in this distress and anguish, 
Lady of beauty. 
Hither come as once before thou camest, 
When from afar thou heard'st my voice lamenting, 
Heard'st and camest, leaving thy glorious father's Palace golden, 
Yoking thy chariot. Fair the doves that bore thee; 
Swift to the darksome earth their course directing, 
Waving their thick wings from the highest heaven 
Down through the ether. 
Quickly they came. Then thou, O blessed goddess, 
All in smiling wreathed thy face immortal, 
Bade me tell thee the cause of all my suffering, 
Why now I called thee; 
What for my maddened heart I most was longing. 
"Whom," thou criest, "dost wish that sweet Persuasion 
Now win over and lead to thy love, my Sappho? 
Who is it wrongs thee? 
"For, though now he flies, he soon shall follow, 
Soon shall be giving gifts who now rejects them. 
Even though now he love not, soon shall he love thee 
Even though thou wouldst not." 
Come then now, dear goddess, and release me 
>From my anguish. All my heart's desiring 
Grant thou now. Now too again as aforetime, 
Be thou my ally. 

[Greece's greatest female lyric poet Sappho (ca. 610-580 B.C.E.) spent the majority of her life on the famed island of Lesbos. Passionate and breathtaking, Sappho's poems survive only in fragments following religious conspiracies to silence her. Sappho penned immortal verse on the themes of romance, love, yearning, heartbreak, and personal relationships with women]

The entire effort of this research work is to document how "Sappho", the only support group for lesbian, bisexual and transgendered women in eastern India, became organized as a mediator  of lesbian activism and how issues of personal preferences gradually transformed into issues of political discourse addressing the various aspects of sexuality and sexual preferences.
The course of lesbian visibility in India has been like scattered fireworks, an isolated episode here and there which consumes itself in its own sensationalism and leaves no trace of the life that was its context. As far literature is concerned, at least for Indian context , there is no such instances where lesbian activism in organised form, can be referred. To be very honest  hardly any reflection of lesbianism is present throughout socio-economic-political-religious life of an Indian. To an average Indian, the term lesbianism itself is a myth that gives rise to misconceptions. Our social structure further define and defend rigid notions of what it means to be a man or a woman, how the two should relate, and the family unit that should result. All those who dare to think outside this perfect ideal are considered threats to "morality" and to society at large. In response to this threat, the system either tries to altogether deny the existence of those deviating from the norm (as in the invisibilising of lesbians), or dismisses them as imports from the West ("Its only a handful of urban, westernised elite who are gay"). When their presence is difficult to ignore, they are punished in ways that deny them a life of dignity and freedom.  In such an atmosphere lesbians often hate themselves, live in shamed secrecy, try to 'cure' themselves by restoring to quacks or forcing themselves into marriage, and even attempt suicide, individually or jointly. All of these oppressions and sufferings have been completely ignored by most political  parties and social activists, including the supposedly radical ones.   Most of them believed that "such issues" are not important since Indians face other "life - and -death " issues.   For many Indian women with same sex preference their sexuality does remain a "life - and -death " issue. Under this circumstances  most Indian lesbians have been compelled to become invisible. This invisibility becomes more enhanced due to the threat of Section 377 of Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality.

This was actually the backdrop on which Sappho has emerged in 1999. Primarily it was  like an oasis where the lesbians could share their emotions, concerns, beliefs and rights  without any fear or shame. This organized effort  gradually helped them to come out of the cocoon and  exposed to the urge to  be recognized as a part of the larger society that  discriminates and ostracizes in manifold ways. They raised voice to name the violence against them,  name the rights that they are looking for.  Sappho felt that the rights of the sexually marginalised women should be discussed and acted upon  from human rights perspective. The journey to search for the documents  is basically for the need felt to associate themselves to any existing reflections.

The 90's were quite productive from this aspect. In 1990 the magazine "Bombay Dost" appeared and in 1991 Aids Bhedhbhav Virodhi Andolan (Anti AIDS Discrimination Campaign) known as ABVA published a pioneering report "Less Than Gay". 1998 was another important year in the history of lesbian emergence in India. The huge controversy about "Fire", film by Deepa Meheta, after the right-winged Shiv Shena attacked the film for its lesbian theme, enabled a public debate on homosexuality, especially on lesbianism. For the first time in India lesbian organisations, identified as such, demonstrated in the streets along with civil rights group. First was CALERI, (Campaign About Lesbian Emergence In India), whose notion was simple, to push forward the issue of lesbian rights at the level of people. CALERI vociferously protested against homophobia, proclaimed public as well as private space for lesbians and boldly pointed out the problems faced by Indian women with same sex preference. In 1999 the Indian lesbians including the whole LGBT community was greatly benefited by Humjinsi, a resource book on lesbian, gay and bisexual rights in India, edited and compiled by Bina Fernandez, published by India Centre For Human Rights and Law.

And then, within an year "Facing the Mirror" edited  by Ashwini Sukhthankar was published. Acccording to the editor, "we share our lives in these pages. We did not necessarily have a collective goal in mind, but certain impulses came up again and again. We put pen to paper so that one less woman might have to experience the isolation we did. So that the anger and the passion which chokes us might begin to mean something beyond itself, the emotional energy set free from our individual, distinct lives to help other women chart theirs. So that we might make a shared language for the feelings, which have, been robbed of their name. Claim a public niche beyond the ignorance, which has been our license to live, beyond general tolerance to the acceptance that presupposes understanding. Challenge those who would say that our lives have nothing to do with theirs: I want to tell them, I wear the face of your loved ones: the contributor Anasuya asserted .I could be your mother, friend, wife. I want to tell them, I am both lesbian and one of you, like it or not.' And so we try to articulate the many connections of shared faith, shared blood, shared experience, writing of similarities without hiding the many points of difference."

Penguin published another collection, "Selections from Feminist Fables" by Suniti Namjoshi, which bore some interesting short stories about   women and their emotions and passions about women.

Scholarly and journalistic interest in the field also has accompanied the growth of LGBT movements, as is evident  from Jeffrey Kripal's work on homoerotic mysticism and the recent anthology of scholarly essays. "Same-Sex Love in India" & "Queering India" by Ruth Vanita and Salim Kidwai examines homosexuality from multidisciplinary perspectives. The preface of the book, "Same-Sex Love in India" actually works as a pledge for the LGBT people in India.  "We hope this book will help assure homoerotically inclined Indians that large numbers of their ancestors throughout history and in all parts of the country shared their inclinations and were honored and successful members of society who contributed in major ways to thought, literature, and the general good. These people were not necessarily regarded as inferior in any way nor were they always ashamed of their loves or desires. In many cases they lived happy and fulfilling lives with those they loved. Labels like "abnormal," "unnatural," and "unhealthy" are of relatively very recent origin in India. Even the inventors of these labels, Euro-American psychologists, have already retracted them and come to the conclusion that same-sex love is perfectly natural, normal and healthy for many people.  We hope that people who are not homoerotically inclined will also profit from this book, by learning to acknowledge that some of their ancestors were so inclined, that their   writings and writings about them constitute an important part of our common Indian heritage as well as world heritage, and that such acknowledgment is crucial to building a more tolerant, better-informed, less conflict-ridden society that is accepting of all its members and encourages all to explore their full potential for life, love, and creativity."
Writings on love between two women are also found in letters of Amrita Sher Gill and stories of Ismat Chughtai (Lihaf 1942, Tehri Laakir 1945).

The regional scenario was surprisingly quite different from its national counterpart.  While on searching regional references  we toiled our sweats but hardly got other than a few poems, short stories or novels such as "Mallika Bahar" by Kamal Kumar Majumder,  "Bama Bodhini" by Nabaneeta Dev Sen , "Jhara Phool" by Nilima Basu, "Chander Gaaye Chand" by Tilottama Majumder. Besides these,  few articles or parts of novels are also available which could be homoerotically interpreted. e.g. "Indira" by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, "Sheiy Shomoy" by Sunil Gangopadhyay, "Gora O Binay" by Tapobrata Ghosh. Recently, a research paper titled "Politics of Sexual Identity from the Margin: Listening to Lesbians of Calcutta" by   Dr. Amit Ranjan Basu, an independent researcher in social science and mental health, has drawn public interest. The paper was presented at the Seventh Subaltern Studies Conference, CSDS, Delhi in January 2004. For this research paper, Sappho has actively collaborated with Dr. Basu.

It also needs to be mentioned that a few newsletters / magazines like "Mirch Masala" by Sangini, New Delhi, "Script" from Stree Sangam, Mumbai, "Arshi Nagar" by Pratyay, Kolkata and "Naya Prabartak", newsletter of Counsel Club, Kolkata 'been brought out, though all the said publications are either short-lived or very irregular.

Actually for Sappho, the society around was totally barren of any reflections of lesbian existence. The literature, the cinema, the serials, the soaps, the politics, the social welfare groups even working for women, the health & hygiene programmes either dared not to speak up or ignored to spaek for women with same sex preferences. Sappho made her maiden voyage through this unexplored land with a few well-wishers. Starting from 1999 and till date, we are crossing our hurdles and we have gathered courage to speak out through our newsletter "Swakanthey (in her own voice)".  The first publication came out on 29th January 2004 in 15th Kolkata Book Fair, an event of international fame. The members were courageous enough to hawk the copies in the fair openly, and received an immense support and warmth from common people, which ended up in selling out all the 500 copies even before the book fair ended.

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