CHENNAI: Heritage exhibitions, photography contests, quizzes, virtual tours, webinars... August was all about celebrating Madras. While many events focussed on the diverse aspects of the city’s past, a virtual panel discussion by Nam Veedu Nam Oor Nam Kadhai threw light on how the city embraced queer identities over time.
Moderated by Muhilann Murugan, the panelists included Malini Jeevarathnam, filmmaker; Harish Subramanian, artist; Gokuleshwaran, artist; Jaya, activist; and L Ramakrishnan, activist. The hour-long conversation threw light on the involvement and contributions of queer and trans communities to Madras’s culture, history and life.
Recollecting an incident dating back to 1986, Ramakrishnan said, “My friend Sunil Menon and I had attended a movie screening of the film Beautiful Thing, which was on homosexuality, at the British Council. People walked out when homoerotic scenes appeared on the screen. That was one of the first public space depictions of anything to do with homosexuality during our times.” Soon LGBT support groups stemmed from interactions with like-minded people.
“The Sahodaran Foundation was formed in 1998. Orinam was set up in 2003. Pride-month activities kicked off in 2009. Eventually, we had Queer Film Festivals, queer cafes, and inclusivity spread its roots,” he shared. Besides including identities, employment opportunities also found its way. Jaya, now the general manager of Sahodaran, said, “I became a part of the community in 1996. I joined as a field officer at Sahodaran in 1998. I attended art events like drama and dance where my job was to spread awareness about the community. It was an eye-opener for me.
When people started accepting me for who I’m by addressing me with ‘vaa di’, ‘po di’, my joy knew no bounds.” But Malini didn’t have as many struggles when she stepped into the city with big dreams as a small-town girl from Paramakudi. After completing her media studies from Loyola College, she directed her debut documentary film, Ladies and Gentlewomen, on lesbian relationships in 2017. “The city embraced me with open arms.
I took part in the pride walk for the first time in 2014. There was support from the LGBT community and that helped in accepting my identity. Beyond my sexual orientation, people treated me well as a human being,” she said. It is this acceptance that made it possible to tide over the challenges of equal opportunities. Artists Harish and Gokul assert that talented people within the community have contributed to the theatre, dance, open mics, painted graffitis, and been part of queer festivals. “Art has been a medium for spreading sensitivity.
It’s nice to see people recognising our talents and giving us opportunities. However, there are also instances where due credit is not given to our work,” shared Gokul. The city’s embrace has touched their hearts. “It’s been my dream to have a discussion on this topic for a long time. An old friend of mine told me that he knew of people from the LGBT community way back in the 1960s. He even felt that couples hung out openly and boldly, and people seemed to be more broad-minded back then. Such real-life anecdotes give me hope,” summed up Muhilann.