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Poet Rohini Malur On Living Her Life – A Radically Queer Thing To Do

  • IWB Post
  •  January 4, 2020

‘Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, define yourself’

And that is perhaps sometimes the easiest as well as the hardest part – to define oneself. To love and accept our own self is true for everyone at some level. But for the queer people, this task is prominently more enhanced. They have an additional burden, thanks to our societal norms, perceptions, and laws to truly define themselves, first as equal human beings and then as an equal part of society.

Society has for long shunned away from the queer people who do not conform to the perceived notions of ‘normality’. Yet, there is a change, albeit slow but discernable. It’s only when we are willing to see the deeper nuances and crevasses that underline their lives, we are able to question ‘the normalcy’. I had the opportunity to speak with Rohini Malur, a poet, writer, tarot reader and founder member of the group All Sorts of Queer.

Rohini comes across as someone sensible, educated, compassionate, and empathetic. But she is definitely not a walkover! She doesn’t complain about her struggles, in fact, is thankful for she comes from a place of privilege. The anguish in her voice is palpable as she explains how laws and society need to up their game, to have a warmer and more accepting understanding. But, she is not the type to point fingers or pass the buck around. She is also not the type to bicker and complain. She believes strongly in hope, in toiling away at advocating, amending and educating.

“It’s a time when it’s easy to give up hope I think. There is a lot of despair about, but I would think that there are a lot more of us speaking out and speaking out to each other. So despite everything I hold out hope for the country to be better tomorrow than it is today”, says Rohini.

Truthful, thankful and hopeful, we spoke to Rohini about her life, depression, her coming out into the open, the LGBT community, laws, society, and much more. However, most importantly the conversation was also about loving and living, of using your place to make a difference and to be unapologetically the true definition of yourself.

Excerpts,

Tell us a little more about All Sorts of Queer. How did it start, what it aims for?

Rohini: Let me give a little background. The Queer women community is much smaller for various reasons. Women tend not to come out just as much and tend to be in their small groups and be on their own. In 2000, there were groups saying we are looking for other queer women. So a group called We’re Here and Queer! was formed but that was specifically for people who identified as women. But what we realized was that there was a need for queer spaces for other people that included those who were affected by sexism and patriarchy and that include Trans men. So these are people who identify as male, but they have an experience of the patriarchy and sexism from their lived experience.

All sorts of Queer was formed as a group for queer people broadly LGBT people, as long as you are from the queer community you are welcome. The group is a peer support group, a hangout group, it is mostly online. We all put it together, what the group should be, its inclusion, what we wanted from the moderators and admins, and what we wanted the principals to be. But we are not a registered group; it’s an informal support group.

I read that you had battled depression and that you chose to go for therapy. Tell us about that time in your life.

Rohini: Yes, I have clinical depression. I had been diagnosed in 2009. Medication for mental illness is difficult, but I am of those people who are very lucky and for whom medication works immediately. There was a time when I was in bed 24/7, I couldn’t get out of bed and my parents, (I have a very supportive family), literally dragged me to a therapist. In fact, the psychiatrist prescribed the medication for me and within three months I am not saying I was cured but there was an immediate improvement. Therapy helps you to break out of certain patterns of thinking and points out to you when you are doing something that’s not sensible or if it’s you falling in a pattern or blaming yourself or hating yourself for no reason. I am not saying that you should not take responsibility when you do something wrong but therapy helps to be able to do that in a mature manner.

Basically, it’s like living with a chronic illness. You are no longer at the place where you need to be hospitalized every ten minutes but you are living with it. It’s not gone. You maintain with it, you have things you do to maintain with it. Yes, I am still on medication. Right now it’s living with something that I am not looking at with perspective of curing but I am looking at living my best life with it.

What do you think is harder – staying mum about your identity and pretending to not be yourself or actually facing the society’s gaze once you come out ‘open’?

Rohini: Everyone will have a different answer for this but for me, it was easier to come out. To break it down first, I come from a lot of privilege. I am upper middle class, I am Brahmin, I look feminine, you might look at me and say, ‘she is wearing too much makeup’ and you might think, ‘why has she got to color hair’, but you will not think I am trying to look different from my assigned gender. And that is also a kind of privilege when they look at you and are not thinking, ‘Oh, how dare she try not to be a girl.’

That didn’t happen to me but it happens to a lot of people. My parents accepted me, I have money, I speak English, I am in a very large city in the urban areas of that city so these are protections. When you take away the threat, that particular kind of threat, and when you take away the threat of your family throwing you out, immediately I was like I have nothing to worry about. It would either hide or be ashamed and keep a secret. It is so hard when you are keeping a secret; the psychological toll on you that you are always having to worry about it. And in our world people are always talking about being married, if you are not they ask about it. If everyone shuts up about love, sex, sexuality, and romance, coming out won’t be that hard. But this is a daily part of our lives, to act is a difficult thing to do and it brings in its own fear. It becomes about ‘don’t tell anything to anyone’, constantly keep checking what you say, be careful, be careful and it eats at you and becomes a huge pressure. Once I said I am going to be out, I didn’t have to watch my tongue anymore. When I come out now, if I tell someone I am queer, I am watchful about how they react but I am not worried about, ‘Oh, they will tell someone’, because I have already told everyone. That particular pressure is just gone.

Also, if you react badly that tells me something about you. I have the right to judge you now. That’s what happens when it’s no longer a secret. I have the power to judge these people back to say, ‘Ok, you reacted well I will keep you in my friend circle’, if you don’t react well and I can see from your reaction that you are uncomfortable, I can decide what I am going to do about it but I know who you are now.

When did you accept yourself as you are? And when did you decide or rather what motivated you to come ‘open’ about it later?

Rohini: I came out in 2010 and no one motivated me as such, I was just tired of keeping it as a secret and as a shame. So when I was a teenager I had internalized queerphobia, biphobia, the cycle of one man and one woman, and I believed that. By the time I was 21, I was depressed but I had done enough reading to know that this is ok, there is nothing morally wrong with it, and I understood that it was the heterosexual society that was wrong and not me.

I couldn’t keep it a secret! Also, it was in 2009 that the Delhi HC ruling happened and that’s when I realized that there was a large community; and in 2010 I marched in a pride march and then I realized that if this was going to be a large part of my life I don’t want it to be a secret. I don’t want to lie to my mom that I am going to a restaurant when I am going to a pride march. It was just that I want it to be a part of my life and I can’t make this a part of life if it’s a secret.

Would you love to share any incident that revealed to you how unaccepting the world can be or hurtful comments that you can remember that came from people once you opened up about your identity? How did you heal yourself?

Rohini: Again I am very fortunate because my family protected me from comments. At work I heard a few things, they wouldn’t say directly about me they would say about queer people in general. I am bisexual, pansexual rather, and they said something like you don’t know what you are doing and I found it very hurtful. My boss came to me and asked me what was wrong and when I told him he went and spoke to that person about it and told him to be more sensitive about these things. I was also unapologetic. If they said anything sexist or homophobic I would question it. I would start questioning even micro-expressions. You can’t expect people to get away with saying these small things and then be like, ‘you can say the small things but when it comes to fundamental rights you have to respect us.’ There were people who spoke behind my back about it but I realized that the only way to do this was to be clear. It was clear that I have drawn this line and I am judging you, so you must behave yourself. And I think to this day, I left the company in 2017, I was the only person who had been out in that company – and it is a multinational corporate finance company and no one has come out ever. I was the only person and I wasn’t advocating for anyone else, but if some of us show up there, at least, they will know there was another queer person who was here some years ago, those of them who remember me. And they will remember that she didn’t take any bullshit so even if we are going to say things we are not going to say it to the face. But talking behind one’s back is unavoidable.

You have been vocal about the advocacy of transgender issues. With the recent Trans Bill being passed, what do you see as a way forward for the community? 

Rohini: The Trans bill as it stands now is incredibly violating. You can’t say that it’s a bill and it tries its best and that should be enough. You can’t say you made an effort because if a bill hurts the community you can’t say it’s a good intention and stop. When it comes to improving one’s country, talking about human rights that affect one’s country, there is no such thing as enough. We are never going to achieve a utopia so we all have to be there saying it’s not ok.

The current Trans bill allows me to identify as a trans officially but it also demands that to make those identifications you should have had surgery. You have a medical checkup by a board of people who are not certified or trained in any way, so it’s basically saying you have to strip off and show your body, but what is showing them my body do? So let’s say I am assigned male at birth when I take off my clothes you are not going to see a sign that says she might be a woman but she was assigned male at birth. What have I stripped for? Why have I got naked in front of strangers? What does that prove? It’s the violation of my dignity for nothing. So if a cis woman goes for a breast examination for cancer, even there are ways where they are preserving the dignity of the patient. This Trans bill as it stands doesn’t consider the dignity of an individual. What it essentially says we have to fit within this very stringent binary of what a girl and boy look like. It doesn’t allow for Trans people to leave their homes. As long you live on your own, you live your own life you are fine. A doctor has to examine you and while trying to do a gender confirmation surgery you have to be under the family or government. You have to toe all these lines to change your name and gender. It is discriminatory.

There is also a bit that talks about rape. The rape laws of this country are terrible, the marital rape laws, for instance. A large part of the conversation is about rape laws where the penalization is less for raping a Trans girl than for raping a cis woman. So if a Trans woman and a cis woman being raped by the same person, for the same thing the offender will be penalized more for raping the cis woman than for raping a trans woman, but it’s the same crime. It’s the same pain and trauma, so why is there a difference in law, why is it penalized less? Our Trans community is prone to violence; sometimes they are running away from home they don’t have the privilege. Trans people don’t even get to be a part of the conversation because, forget punishment, the crime isn’t being recognized as a big crime at all.

People from the LGBTQ+ community are more vulnerable to violent crimes and many of them lose their lives to homophobia. Do you think laws formulated to protect the community are a response to these hate crimes or the solution lies somewhere else?   

Rohini: The laws are definitely not enough. But nothing is ever only about law. Social norms and law in an ideal world have to work side by side. India, and I am making a broad statement, is socially a patriarchal society whichever religion you are looking at. The norms of patriarchy are seen everywhere. Why was the Trans law written so badly? Because social awareness or sensitization is nowhere near enough. They wrote this in a malicious way and they don’t care because probably we have not been able to reach them. And the more of us are aware and awake and sensitized and are talking to each other about the norms and ways we treat each other, whether it is women, queer people, the LGBT community as a whole – this thing has to happen on the ground in our homes, in our families as well as it has to happen in our legal systems. There has to be a law that states you cannot discriminate on the basis of caste. There has to be a law even if the society hasn’t caught up with that. It has to be in the books, we have to have a constitution that says these are our principles. Section 377 was struck down on the basis of principle, the principle of the constitution. The NALSAR in 2014 was a very good judgment for the transgender people and if the law was drafted in line with that judgment we would not be complaining as much as we are. The NALSAR judgment was seen as a huge victory but that was just a judgment in court. Its implementation is very far from that judgment. So yes you must have the law, you can’t say let’s wait for social norms to change to then do a law. We must have laws; agitate for the law to be written properly. And if the society is jumbled then the law has to correct that.  And when that doesn’t happen you have a real problem. Now we have to ask for the law to be repelled, to be amended.

NRC, for example, also affects Trans people. Some Trans people who have been fortunate enough to change the identity in the official documentation, their real name and real gender, now through NRC they can’t prove that because they have changed all of their documentation. Generally, I think issues are intersectional. All issues affect the queer community because the queer community is there across all states and religions.

What changes or plans do you propose for the seamless integration of the LGBTQ+ community? Not just in terms of laws of the land, but also in terms of perception, workplace environment, social communities, etc.

Rohini: I don’t think I am going to see a seamless integration in my lifetime. It’s like talking about perfect feminism or perfect gender equality and we have been talking about these for 100 years. It helps if educational institutions sensitize a few things. Sex education has to be equal. It should be mutual and I believe children should be taught about consent and they should be educated about sex and sexuality and it should be done in a sensitized manner. So that means then who trains the teachers and how do we create a nation of teachers who are sensitized to gender sexuality and for that I don’t know. But you do capitalize on the growing middle class where people have the money and you do say to those to add that money in supporting mentors. Where there is a class privilege, it’s easier to send across a message like you have the internet, the news, education that allows you to frame arguments and present them. So if I have economic independence I am not reliant on my parents I can walk out and say I am clear. But if my parents have control over me they can lock me in a room. So how do we educate an entire adult generation? It is not really about a seamless integration then.

Again at work you already have a lot of corporates making these efforts, like gender inclusivity, etc. I think one of the great things in the workplace is if you have an LGBT support group. So it’s not enough to say in your bylines or laws that there is no discrimination. What kind of practical steps is the institution taking to say there will be no discrimination? Is there a support group for queer people who are trained for queer issues and know what to say? Do you have guidelines that also include harassment against queer and Trans persons? What are the actual practical steps you are taking? It’s never enough to say I support, it’s important to show how you are supportive.

Good intentions are great, but how do you transform it into actionable plans? And so what can we do ourselves besides continue to educate, educate, educate or take a stand. It could be through joining political parties or becoming lawyers who advocate the political parties to say this is how we want the law to look and this is how we want it to change. And if you can’t understand, you at least have to accept. I am queer, you have to deal with me, you can’t hide me, can’t punish me, put me into compulsive therapy, rape me into straight, you have no right to deny education to me or not give jobs to me. I think a lot of us who are able to do so, those of us who can and should come out in open and live our lives. Sometimes I think just living your life out without even saying anything is a very radical thing to do.

You have often said and written that you imagine yourself as a starship captain in the alternate universe. Why do you imagine yourself as one? 

Rohini: It is just something that I like to think about. I am a huge star trek fan and you do wonder what would your life be like, who would you be if you were in a different place and that’s my image for myself.

Being a tarot reader, do you read or try to figure out your own destiny? What is in store for you in 2020?

Rohini: I don’t read the future like that. I don’t think that the future is set in a way. I believe that tarot is a great tool for personal reflection. It’s a great tool to say what your actions are making you, what energies are working in your life and what are the things that you can do and what you have control over.

As far as my future plans are, I want to write more, speak more, to continue working at the NGO I am working at and I think to continue and continue to be alive.

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