Queer Identity and Rights: Experiences From Assam

Session Report
Krishti Khandelwal

Decoding the prevailing conditions of the Assamese queer community from an insider point of view, Dr Prateeti Barman, an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Assam downtown University, Guwahati, Assam, shared with the attendees her own encounters with the LGBTQIA+ individuals on the fourth day of  “Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India” – a  Five-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course by the Gender Impacts Study Centre (GISC) on behalf of IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute of India on the instance of Pride Month.

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Dr Prateeti Barman started the session by introducing herself and the research project that she was currently undertaking structured around the theme of Queer identity and their rights in the society of Assam. To give the attendees an insight into what queer people face on a day-to-day basis in Assam, she drew upon her own childhood. Growing up in Assam she never witnessed a single queer person around her, nowhere in the main market region or main city area. So many like her didn’t even know they existed. As time passed, and more and more people started accepting them, they were finally visible in Guwahati city and were no longer confined to the outskirts of the town.

Socio-Cultural Problems in Assam

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Talking about the socio-cultural context in Assam, Dr Barman said that being a minority state with different kinds of tribes, people practising Islam, Hindu etc, it was only the ‘Marwari’ community, that travelled to Assam several decades back, that would invite transgenders to perform on auspicious occasions.

However, Dr Prateeti said that the community was secluded from others in the society due to which their tradition could not pass along to others. Adding to it, she said despite all the hatred there was one tradition where everyone welcomed transgenders into the society. It was when a man dresses up as a woman to perform in ‘yatras’ known as “Chokras” (Mobile theatres) and “Ankiya Bhaonas” ( A traditional form of drama to spread religious messages. This practice was introduced by Srimanata Shankradev in the 16 th century.)

As compared to the past, Dr Barman believed that the situation has improved for the better. The first queer pride in 2014 in Assam presents proof of that. In addition to this, many support groups like Xukia and organisations like ‘Xobdo’, ‘Xomonnoy’, Rainbow Home of Seven Sisters and All Assam Transgender Association (AATA) have been formed in the past few years for providing guidance and the necessary pillar to the queer community. Many of these organisations are even funded by the government and are focussed on HIV/AIDS and counselling on safe sex.

Dr Prateeti along with several others conducted a field study on transgenders and gay men in Guwaht City in Assam. The study revealed that the problem faced by such people are fourfold. These include family rejection, physical and emotional violence, discrimination on the basis of gender and childhood sexual and rape. All of these together are what is called HOMOPHOBIA.

Citing from her own conversations with transgenders and gay people in Assam, Dr Barman narrated an unfortunate incident where a boy who left his home for freedom to express his sexuality is called back to perform the last rites of his late mother. However, as soon as he reaches home, he is forced into a marriage and forever confined to matrimony. Thinking it was not fair to him or the other person involved, he fled from his home again and decided to never return back. Just like him, there were many others who were forced into marriages and societal pressures, some of whom shared their journey with Dr Barman.

Not only forced marriages but the constant discrimination and rejection render the people jobless with no means to sustain themselves. As a result, they end up selling themselves and indulging in prostitution. Because of no proper homes and security, many of them are also subjected to rape and abuse. Dr Barman even held several counselling sessions with some of the rape survivors who told her how easy it is for the criminals to go away free because there is no justice offered to them because of the way they dress and behave.

Dr. Barman claimed that such pressures and negligence often take a negative toll on the individual’s mental health causing stress, depression and even as serious as suicidal tendencies. During such time, all that is required is a support system which acts as a pillar for all the suffering the LGBTQIA+ community withholds. The professor declared how her team and many other organisations are constantly working for the cause, organising counselling camps and support groups.

Way Forward

In the end, the professor reiterated the challenges and difficulties faced by the queer communities in Assam. The most important of them all was the sense of identification as a human in not only social terms but also official. The enactment of the NRC (National Register of Citizens) in Assam provides the biggest barrier. In Assam, the NRC essentially serves as a directory of all Indian nationals residing there.

The goal of the citizens’ registry is to catalogue all foreign nationals living in the Bangladesh-bordering state. But this is dangerous for the queer community as well because most of them have fled their homes to stay elsewhere and thus do not have the possession of adequate documents to verify that they are indeed citizens of India.

The absence of familial and societal acceptance of LGBT people continues to be a serious problem. Many people experience rejection, prejudice, and even violence as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Increased incidence of mental health problems, such as sadness and anxiety, are caused by this lack of support. Furthermore, social preconceptions and stereotypes contribute to a cycle of marginalisation and prevent gay people from fully participating in society, especially in healthcare, work, and education.

Dr Prateeti BarmanIt concluded her session by stating that is crucial that we work to promote settings that celebrate diversity and the rights and well-being of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We must also work to achieve more acceptance, understanding, and support by conducting more studies and producing more data for better redressal of the problem.

Read more session reports from Day 1 of Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India:

Maya Awasthy on Historical Aspects of Trans Lives in India.

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    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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