CHENNAI: Gopi Shankar doesn’t like to be identified as male or female but would prefer being called a genderqueer person (one who doesn’t fit into the binary structures proposed by the community when segregating genders). The gender activist came out of the closet when ze (a gender neutral pronoun) was about 19 years old and since then has been helping those feeling the heat of gender issues, such as the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) community.
“At that time I was at Ramakrishna Mission as a pre-probationer. I wanted to explore myself and other possibilities in life before being a monk,” says Shankar, who is presently a research scholar at The American College, Madurai.
Ze is known for supporting athlete Santhi Soundarajan, who was stripped off her medal following a failed gender test after the 2006 Asian Games held at Doha. On the issue, ze says, “Santhi is a woman. It is sad that the International Olympic Association doesn’t understand that gender is a complex issue and just because Santhi doesn’t conform to their preset standards, it doesn’t mean she is not a woman or that whatever she won doesn’t have any merit anymore. What is even sadder is that the government didn’t lobby for Santhi like South Africa did for their athlete Caster Semenya.”
On what they want for Santhi, ze says, “Santhi has lost a good part of her life after the issue came up as she went into hibernation when nobody helped her. All we are fighting for now is for her medal to be restored, that she be allowed to claim her prize money, which is rightfully hers, and she be given a permanent job so that she can support her family and also see herself fulfill her dream of training the underprivileged to shine at the Olympics one day.”
Bringing the focus back to Shankar’s achievements, ze is the youngest panelist to share a chair at the University Grants Commission’s sponsored seminars on gender and sexuality that have been taking place all over Tamil Nadu since 2012. Roosevelt Academy, Netherlands, even honoured Shankar with a ‘queer person of the month award’ (October 2014).
With his genderqueer forums on Facebook, ze had even come up with regional terms for those wishing to identify themselves as genderqueer. For the uninitiated, the option to choose one’s gender on Facebook is rather new, and Shankar, along with a few others, have been instrumental in urging Facebook to consider ‘others’ too.
Ze even refused to apply at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, last year for postgraduation as ze didn’t find the “others” option in the gender column of the application form. Due to Shankar’s and the efforts of the student community at JNU, from this academic year onwards, JNU will also list the “others” option.
Shankar is also the founder of Srishti Madurai, a space that explores the interrelations of nature, humans and society to revisit the several significant facets of the world, knowledge, wisdom, nature, education, gender and sexuality, etc, started on September 2, 2011. In 2012, we started getting actively involved in taking the message to schools and colleges through seminars and workshops. Questions of sex and sexuality and alternative sexualities are almost seen as a taboo in educational institutions. Our aim is only to make people more empathetic towards queer people and also accept them even if they are different from them by societal standards,” ze says. Details at www.srishtimadurai.blogspot.com.
Shankar is also the author of Maraikapatta Pakkangal, (Hidden Pages) a collection of essays on gender and sexuality. Ze was also instrumental in arranging Asia’s first Genderqueer Pride Parade in Madurai in 2012, for which the flag bearer was the acclaimed LGBTQIA activist Anjali Gopalan.
Taking offense at the term in Tamil to describe genderqueer (Orina Saerkai which pervasively hints at homosexual activity), Shankar and team have been doing their bit to change it to Orupaal Eerpu (which ze says is a better term to use which signifies attraction towards those of the same sex). They are trying to create awareness about the usage through blogposts and on social networking platforms they claim that the former is a derogatory term to use.
Shankar doesn’t accept donations for the campaigns he runs and mostly raises funds by teaching yoga to foreigners in Madurai. On future plans, ze says “There is a lot to be done and I try to keep doing it too; like we helped Swapna, a transgender woman, by taking up her case; and today she is the first transgender to have appeared for the UPSC exams. We have been trying to raise awareness about transmen too (a female transitioned to male, who was assigned the female gender at the time of birth but has male identity), which is not the same as transgenders. Santhi akka’s fate also hangs in the balance. There is a lot to be done,” says Shankar who turns 24 today.