[Reader-list] Kolkata, the City & Lesbians, a Marginal Discourse - 6th Posting

Sappho for Equality sappho1999 at rediffmail.com
Wed Jul 21 11:00:51 IST 2004

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Kolkata, the city of protest, the city of radical politics, the city of art and culture, of intelect and literature was almost an exile for persons, in particular, for women preferring same sex. The city did not care or bother for them and indulged indifference and ignorance about the issue to dominate minds and conscience.  It seems that the silence around homosexuality and related issues were quite constructed and calculated, which in due course changed into homophobia. Thanks to colonialism, which brought this disciplinary gaze to push homosexuality into invisibility.  Yet lesbians lurked through the work of fiction in the ambiguous representation of shoi, bakulful, shokhi, leaving only traces for our imagination.  The public and private spaces were reinforced against everything that challenged the prevailing norms of heterosexual, monogamist, and patriarchal culture. The discourse of same-sex love between women remain marginal, more than other marginal discourses, as the city showed its hesitation to discover desirous women in the public domain.

‘Sappho’ as an organized effort to create a parallel space for women with same sex preference, was an initiative of late nineties but surely it seems unbelievable that the city lacked any lesbians before 1999.  Not even a single reflection of the violence and immense societal pressure faced by women with same sex preference came up in any form or manner in the cityscape throughout the preceding years. The city did not lack radical feminists; human rights activists, intellects but lesbianism, never occupied a better place other than gossip or alien problem. When Kolkata’s public domain started to discuss (hetero)sexuality and ramp shows glamorizing women’s body became a regular event, lesbians only appeared in few popular clinical descriptions, as a passing phenomena. 

This was indeed a starking difference in comparison to other metropolises. Mumbai and Delhi had support systems for women with same sex preference much earlier than Kolkata. Though in hostels, shelter homes and other captivities incidents of same-sex relation was not unfamiliar but they were never addressed in a just way, treatment and punishment were the only remedy prescribed if anything or anyone was ever detected! And to worsen the situation most of the Mental Health Professionals treated homosexuality as a disease and even advised steroids to cure! The stigmatization and social ostracization was growing stronger and stronger but the city remained numb and indifferent. 

Thankfully this barricade did not sustain forever.  The film ‘Fire’ and the related controversies actually paved the way for the visibility of same-sex preference between women and the city whether willingly or not had to accept the fact that lesbians do exist.  It is interesting to note that a large member including the founders were from the suburban area and tend to perceive them as non-elite. While discussing this visibility and invisibility of same-sex relation between women, it would be useful to remember that heterogeneity; plurality and diversity were inseparable characteristics of Indian life and tradition.  And not only the ancient and medieval age but also the modern era has instances of homosexual relation, or precisely homoerotic ones which is usually neglected or forgotten or interpreted in a non-homosexual manner. 

In slow but steady pace the city-scenario started changing with the advent of Sappho. It was significant enough that Sappho did find out groups and organizations that were liberal and homosocial even at the preliminary stage. We gratefully remember, Veena Lakhumalani, the head of social governance cell of British Council Kolkata, whose eagerness and endeavor helped Sappho to make their first public appearance in this city. One of the posters, displayed in the programme, bore the words “Support or Deny We Exist”. The message was clear enough and the city could not but accept it.  The other incident was Sappho’s inclusion in “Maitree”, the city based largest network of women activists and NGOs. It was never an open armed embracing, but Sappho never gave up. The reason behind was simple; women’s movement cannot bypass the fact that lesbian rights are women rights and human rights as well.  The last four years Kolkata witnessed Sappho in participating and celebrating International Women’s Day, and International Human Rights Day along with Maitree to propagate their rights and demands. 

Issues of same–sex relation with women, gradually started becoming visible within the city-life. Printed media had already given a good coverage, and then there were serials and telefilms in local TV channels where parallel sexuality was addressed in a decent manner. Though it did not come up in good numbers but the effect was more or less satisfactory. Academicians of different fields addressed the issue in their research work and the city intelligentsia was stirred up. But the most important and unique was the emergence of  “Sappho for Equality” an activist forum with members from all the cross sections, irrespective of sexual orientation and gender, to voice against the marginalisation of sexual preference of women and upheld rights for women with same-sex preference.  The city was late to start but actually proved to be a topper in this respect, at least till date.

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