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Jayati Godhawat

IWB Blogger

Activist Gopi Shankar On Ruthless Bullying Within The LGBTQ+ Community

  • IWB Post
  •  June 20, 2017


While referring to the LGBTQIA+ community, the real issues lie in failing to understand the difference between sex, gender, and sexuality, says Gopi Shankar, Founder of Srishti Madurai.

Srishti Madurai is a collective which explores the interrelations of nature, human, and society to celebrate all forms of life. It involves people from all walks of life, including human rights activists, independent scholars, and LGBTQIA+ activists.

“We determine a baby’s sex based on their genitals and reproductive organs, but that is not a reflection of their gender identity or sexual orientation,” ze tells IWB (as Gopi doesn’t want to conform zir identity to a certain gender, ze prefers to be addressed with a gender-neutral pronoun).

Born as an intersex, Gopi was raised as a boy and started understanding the difference in ze-body and zir identity from that of the binary gender, when ze was 7 or 8 years old.

“Most kids born as an intersex undergo a sex-selective surgery, which is a violation of the human rights as it is only after a few years that such children realize that they are different,” says Gopi.

Ze shares that the very first struggle that comes along is to accept oneself.Gopi Shankar, Founder Srishti Madurai

“I have gone through a lot of pain and trauma because even though I had understood that I was different from others, I couldn’t comprehend my feelings. A few of my cousins would bully me and be curious to know how my reproductive organs looked like. In the pretext that they were being playful, they had abused me sexually, too,” shares Gopi.

“At 13, I started volunteering at Ramakrishna Mission. It’s a very liberal space and embrace individuals beyond their religion, caste, or any other such societal constructs. It was the beginning of my learning, I would say, and it was during my work at Ramakrishna Mission that I gained the courage to accept myself. Later, I also started practicing and training to become a monk. However, I realized then that I was not at all attracted towards women, but a particular type of men,” ze says.

“I decided to explore myself and my true identity. Therefore, I requested a written permission from the president of the organization to move out of my practice,” continues Gopi.

It was a western psychiatrist that helped zir to understand the meaning of gender fluid.

“I questioned the core of all the societal norms that restricts a person in a frame. Unfortunately, we live in a world where we like to label everything according to our suitability. There are so many forms of life surrounding us, but, instead of celebrating them, we run behind money, fame, power.”

Recalling the relationship with zir maternal grandmother, Gopi tells me, “When my own family, cousins, relatives, and friends bullied me and shunned me, it was my grandmother’s unwavering support that gave me confidence and courage. She told me that, You are my blood, no matter what. Whoever you are, be that. We are all different from each other and what really matters, in the end, is how many lives have you touched before dying.”

It was in 2011, that Gopi started Srishti Madurai with an aim to educate children about their bodies in non-metro cities and rural spaces.

“We teach kids rocket science, life beyond earth, where’s America, etc., but we never teach them about their own bodies,” ze says.

However, being against the commercialization of the social work, ze didn’t want to work as an NGO. Started out with the money Gopi had saved by teaching Yoga for 17 years, ze began taking workshops in schools.Gopi Shankar, Founder Srishti Madurai

“We start by explaining the science of our bodies. There are over 58 gender identities and we explain them to the students. We even created regional names for the LGBTQIA+ in Tamil as there doesn’t exist names for us in the regional languages. From science, we then talk about religion, social structure, clothes, colors, and other such things. We also show them a PowerPoint presentation and explain them alongside for better understanding of the concepts,” explains Gopi.

“Have you ever faced any aversion from the school administration?” I ask.

“Oh, initially, many schools barred us. We were new and people didn’t trust us. But, now we have good network and influence,” ze replies.

“Influence?” I question.

“We have strong connections with the politicians who support our vision and so, if a particular school doesn’t seem to understand our work, we use our power to reach these schools,” explains Gopi.

I am a little surprised with zir outspoken attitude of exerting power to get things and sensing the same, Gopi clarifies, “I believe that we need to use our influence and power in good things. We are not concerned about what a headmaster or a principal thinks about us, we are bothered about the children in the school and their right to know about their bodies.”

Srishti Madurai has reached over 30,000 children in Madurai and Gopi proudly tells me that an initiative started at a corner of a street has now reached global spaces.

“Started out without any support or money in 2011, we reached to the Indian Parliament where I spoke of the LGBTQIA+ rights in the Rajya Sabha. In 2016, I won the Commonwealth Award for my activism and most now, I’ll be speaking at the World Pride 2017, in Madrid, Spain, on June 29, 2017,” ze reveals.

World Pride is one of the biggest LGBTQIA+ gatherings with over a million community people from all over the world attending it and it’s a joint initiative by the European Union and UN, adds Gopi.Gopi Shankar, Founder Srishti Madurai

“We are the longest floating LGBTQIA+ collective in India and many people have bloomed from Srishti Madurai and are contributing to the community in their own ways.”

“People do not need money, but, only a heart to serve others. And, I have the language, the voice, and the heart and I shall always stand for the justice,” ze speaks passionately and it warms my heart as I go speechless for a minute, or maybe two.

Srishti Madurai also runs a 24×7 helpline that counsels the community members in need. They also provide resources, research material, and literature on LGBTQIA.

“People interested to know about the community and the movements for LGBTQIA+ rights in India, and the literature available on it, are welcome to come to Madurai and pursue an internship under Srishti Madurai,” Gopi tells me.

Ze also shares that he writes research papers on various LGBTQIA+ issues and one of zir paper published for University of Virginia is a part of their syllabus, too. Gopi has also written Maraikappata Pakkangal which means Hidden Pages, the first book on gender variants, in Tamil, to spread awareness about the issues faced by the LGBTQIA+ community.

“I’m also working on writing a book on LGBTQIA+ that’ll serve PAN-India as no such work is available in our country. You may still find a few works describing the plight of our community in regional languages, but, that doesn’t reflect the entire community in India,” ze shares.Gopi Shankar, Founder Srishti Madurai

Gopi then opens up about the discrimination that ze had faced within the LGBTQIA+ community, “I was bullied by Hijras at a National level meeting on LGBTQIA rights where I was asked to remove my pants to prove my identity. It pains me to see that different groups in our community itself fail to understand that there are sub-groups and categories, too. If we do not accept and embrace each other for who we are, how can we expect others to accept us.”

Gopi also urges people to not politicize the gender issues and LGBTQIA+ rights.

“Another issue that I have faced and observed is that people have labeled a few political parties as non-supportive of our rights. This holds no truth. A few politicians who do not support LGBTQIA+ rights don’t mean that the entire party is against it. In order to spread our message, we will need to work together and to be able to do so, we must not politicize the issues and rather should focus on our work towards attaining our rights and spreading the awareness.”

In the end, Gopi concludes this enlightening talk by confiding in me zir biggest desire in life.

“I source inspiration from my life and celebrate myself by understanding my body and feelings. However, I always wished to be born as a woman, bear a child, and embrace motherhood.”

Photo Source: Gopi Shankar Facebook

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