Guwahati: A fair-sized portico room painted yellow on two sides and white on the other two; perfect to make the colours of the rainbow pop. Bookshelves to the left with a collection of novels; Shikhandi, Out of Line and Offline, Queer Potli, Same-sex love in India, among others. The room, full of people, has cheap furnishing that adds to the genuineness of this cosy abode.
Multi-coloured curtains, rainbow-coloured rugs, a couple of desks, stools and potted plants give an earthy feeling. A small bed covered in pink linen seats ten people. They sit with rainbow-coloured pillows and Frida Kahlo between them. Queer or not, this community space cum drop-in-centre could make anyone feel at home.
This space–Xomonnoy–is the initiative of one of Assam’s most active organisations for queer persons. The aim? Build bridges and help community members reach out to others in distress. With the Guwahati Pride March scheduled for March 21, the organisation hosted a house-warming event for the community on March 14, 2021, at their new cosy residence; Assam’s first such space for the community in Chandmari, Guwahati.
It took a lot of time, effort and planning, but finally, members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual/ Ally (LGBTQIA+) community have a place they can call home.
Assam now has a dedicated centre that not only ensures the safety of the LGBTQIA+ community but also provides them access to crisis management and counselling services.
In a detailed conversation with EastMojo, the founders of Xomonnoy outlined their aims and objectives. Shivalal Gautam, Debika, Nuzhat Nasreen Islam and Prakash Das are also the co-organisers of Queer Pride Guwahati, apart from being co-founders of Xomonnoy.
“The idea of this community space first came to our mind even before we set up Xomonnoy in 2016. It was due to lack of funds and a lack of credibility, unlike now,” said Shivalal. “Over and above, not everybody’ would rent their space to the queer community,” he added. “We do not know other organisations working for the queer community in Assam other than Xobdo, which is pretty active in Tezpur,” he added.
Living with stigma in a society that still considers homosexuality as an aberration, most queer community persons have always found it uneasy and uncomfortable addressing their concerns. Being themselves has never been as easy for them as the rest of us. As a result, they tend to build up walls and fortresses around themselves.
They found this place in Nuzhat’s parents’ home, who slashed the rent by half to support the initiative. Nuzhat herself had fought a long battle with those around her as a supporter of LGBTQIA+ rights. These queer rights advocates from Xomonnoy shed light on a plethora of problems faced by the LGBTQIA+ community at present.
The term ‘Xomonnoy’ stands for ‘bridge’ in Assamese. The team aims to bridge the gap between the queer community and the services they need access to. They plan to help members of the LGBTQIA+ community take a giant leap of faith and feel safe while doing the same.
“The idea behind this place was that a few years back, we all wanted a safe space, but never found one. Today, we know that queer people can drop by here by themselves, without having to worry about uncomfortable glances, judgements and they know it is their own community space,” said Shivalal Gautam, Co-founder of Xomonnoy.
There are Queer-inclusive places in Guwahati, but there is nothing that is Queer exclusive like Xomonnoy. The place is not only for queer people, but also their friends, family and allies or people that they feel safe around.
At Xomonnoy, the team aims to achieve a lot from under this one roof which might look like a small place but is actually the beginning of their execution of a long-term plan.
Xomonnoy started on November 1, 2018. Its formation was a result of the decriminalisation of Section 377 in September of 2018.
They started low-key with a few community gatherings, gradually moving towards bigger community events. “So far we have done 7 – 10 events or so, most of which have been cultural events where the medium of communication of the message had been dance, poetry, rap, etc. We’ve had queer art exhibition and queer games too,” said Shivalal Gautam.
Need for crisis intervention, legal aid and community mobilisation
The organisation and those associated with it have done a lot of crisis intervention. Shivalal and Prakash have gone to various districts and done a lot of community mobilisation. They have also set up a 24/7 helpline where they provide peer counselling to people from the community.
During the lockdown, they received calls from women who took a pause in life and had a lot of time to reflect on their sexuality. Shivalal mentioned a couple in particular, who had undergone counselling. They were directed towards seeking couples therapy, where a woman felt that she was queer and her supporting partner wanted to help her feel comfortable.
“We counselled both the queer person and their heterosexual partner. Our take away from that was they both had no idea about queer persons. We did not go and give them the certification of queer, but we explained to them what it means so they can discover whether they identify as queer. It must’ve worked for them because they kept calling for suggestions to sustain the friendship and the bond that they share. even if romantically and sexually, things don’t work out,” said Shivlal.
Adolescents also find it difficult to cope with the changes in their physical appearance, mental and emotional behaviour. Coming out as a queer person might be too much for them in a judgemental society. A mother of a child had approached them with the same issues, wanting to help and support her queer child.
They have helped people of their community through education and earning a livelihood, even during the COVID-19 crisis. They crowdfunded Rs 1.5 lakh rupees during the pandemic and helped people pay for rent and medicines.
HIV positive queer persons were also provided with help to cope with hospital and treatment expenses. Apart from this, they created a support group on WhatsApp with over 100 members from across the country. They receive request messages every day from more people to join the group. It gives them a sense of belongingness in their community. Through these support groups and peer counselling, they have been carrying out discussions on health and personal issues.
Virtual meetups through zoom have also played a huge role. It has helped them ensure acceptance of their issues by others around them. They now plan to do monthly meet-ups in this community space. Their helpline is free of cost for those who feel the need to seek advice from experts, or those in need of other such services.
“During the lockdown, we spoke with a mental health practitioner Dr Sampreeti Das, one of the few counsellors who are queer affirmative. We want to provide counselling services to queer persons and make it accessible for our community,” said Debika, Co-founder of Xomonnoy, and Co-organizer of Queer Pride Guwahati.
With this space, Xomonnoy’s aims to create a community centre where people can receive legal aid services. According to Nuzhat, a common example is that of Trans persons who need to change their documents. Whenever they do this, they have to go through long and tedious processes. “We want to provide these services to them at discounted or pro-bono rates,” she added.
People don’t usually feel comfortable going to a hospital or a clinical set-up, since registration and other processes can get expensive. This community space is a safe place for people to come and access various kinds of healthcare services. There will also be sexual health and reproductive health counselling by professionals, especially for trans persons not only those in Guwahati but across Assam. The centre also aims to help Queer people who face bullying, extortion, especially HIV positive persons.
Homophobia and fear of challenging societal norms
The organisation also plans to partner with a group that specialises in mental health. Even within the queer community, there is a lot of misinformation. People don’t know their rights or legal recourse when someone bullies them.
Trans persons who want gender affirmation have little to no knowledge about the process. People end up taking hormones without consulting experts or doctors and end up harming their own physical and mental health. “The sad reality is that these hormones are available in pharmacies, and are often sold without a prescription. This has even led to death in some cases and is very dangerous,” said Shivalal.
He went on to add, “ It is so difficult for trans persons to approach a friendly doctor. Even if they find one, gender affirmation surgery can cost between Rs 3 to Rs 5 lakh. I had visited GMCH in April of 2018 to find out more and learnt that not so long ago where I found out that there was only 1 endocrinologist in Guwahati who worked at Apollo. The doctors were unsure of how to go about it because they had no experience in such surgeries. It is a concern these hospitals have themselves.”
People willing to undergo such surgeries must go to Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai. Then, there is the cost of staying in these cities during recovery. “One has to be rich and have people to take care of them to get this surgery done. A trans man needs to rest at least for 1 to 2 months because of how severe the pain is,” explained Shivalal.
Shivalal believes that this is one of the main reasons why many people go into Castration which is the process of removal of testicles. This can be very damaging and can even cause death.
“A lot of people with female bodies are also forced into marriage and since there is this notion, ‘I do not fit into their idea of a good daughter’, they think that there is no agency and it is this fear that they cannot challenge anybody around them, opined Debika.
The task for Xomonnoy is monumental, but then, being Queer has never been easy for people in Assam. The new centre is their little Island of Calm amid a sea of uncertainties. On Sunday, Guwahati will host its eighth pride march. But as Nuzhat says, “Queer people do not stop existing after the pride march,”. Xomonnoy is a timely, and homely reminder of the same.