Sappho's very existence challenges the patriarchal psyche of society.
We had the privilege of talking to two of the six co-founders of Sappho for Equality, a queer activist collective based in Kolkata: Malobika and Akansha. In our conversation, two of India's most prominent lesbian feminist voices describe how they navigated queerness in the 1980s and the series of radical decisions and developments that followed.
Studying together in primary school, forty years ago, Malobika and Akanksha wouldn’t have imagined the source of strength, love, and camaraderie they would end up providing each other. Malobika and Akanksha give us a glimpse into the revolutionary lives they have led, as individuals as well as co-travelers in each other's lives.
Music aside, 80s India was not a very welcoming place for queers. Legally, homosexuality was a criminal offense and the Indian masses were yet to begin an active discussion on queerness and citizenship altogether. Being queer was still synonymous with being criminal; socially, the horrors that queers faced after coming out of the closet were often a matter of life or death. In all institutions, be it the state, medicine, or the family, everyone was intent on snuffing out anything and anyone they perceived as a threat to heterosexual normality.
For Malobika and Akanksha, the first glimpse of queer existence came through regional publications that used derogatory terms to describe and refer to queer individuals. The west had begun some dialogue about queers and queerness, which inspired Malobika and Akanksha to seek out queerness in India. In 1981, the New York Daily News published an article about a tennis player whose sexuality was outed to the public. This made the rounds in Bangla newspapers which eventually set our two founders on this path. And they've never looked back.
Talking about breaking the closet, they confide in us the diagonally opposite experiences they had with self-acceptance as young adults. Malobika took her time to first negotiate with herself, as accepting her queerness would mean entering uncharted territory. Back then she did not know anyone who was remotely queer. A year later, she was standing in front of the mirror, muttering to herself, "Minakshi, you accept your sexual orientation. You are a lesbian".
For Akanksha, the journey started with avoidance. She began devouring every literary piece she could find on queerness. Determined to avoid parental disappointment and pressure to marry, Malobika left her parents’ home. However, when faced with the threat of being disowned by her parents, Akanksha did everything in her power to steer away from exploring her identity. But as fate would have it, Akanksha ultimately accepted her identity with a quiet and subtle rigor. And, it is very evident from the smiles we saw in our conversation, that she is more than happy for not abandoning her queerness - it led her to a life with Malobika after all.
Whenever two girls are falling in love - and the patriarch totally vanishes from every sense - this particular existence of lesbians was a challenge.
Having accepted who they are, and how they are, Malobika and Akansha now wanted to find others like them - a mighty task in the 90s when the mere release of Fire, a movie that portrayed lesbian love, got all Indian states worked up to a point that some states like Maharashtra even witnessed state-supported violence. What bothered Malobika, however, wasn’t just the uproar of hatred in the rest of the country - but the very silence in her own home state that invisibilized queerness altogether. Malobika and Akanksha began to engage with a myriad of women’s movements - they wanted to claim their space within these movements. And so they did.
Malobika and Akanksha spoke to us about creating Sappho with two other lesbian couples, and the challenges they faced in creating a safe space for LBT folx back then. The first challenge was a societal uproar about lesbian existence since lesbians remove the heterosexual patriarchy entirely from the equation. So, it is no surprise that there was a lot of collective silence when it came to coming out as a lesbian. But the founders of Sappho wanted to use the safe space they created to safeguard folx after they broke the silence on their non-normative sexual identities. However, this happened in the days before smartphones and social media.
Malobika and Akanksha, then in 1999, decided to do something risky, and brave. They gave an interview as a lesbian couple to a leading Bangla newspaper. They asked that the interview be published along with a PO box number where people could reach out to the six founders. Within three months the group was flooded with around two hundred letters from all over West Bengal. Through this outpouring, the third challenge prominently emerged: countless cases of domestic abuse of queer individuals at the hands of their own families. The atrocities included the withdrawal of educational support, house arrest, physical violence, psychological abuse, forced marriages, and conversion therapy that claimed to "cure" queers of their queerness.
The founders realized that efforts like theirs challenged the patriarchal beliefs that were deeply rooted in the non-queer psyche, and reducing atrocities meant bridging the gap between queers and non-queers. Engaging with non-queers wasn't negotiable, it was necessary. As a result, Sappho evolved as a space for queers and non-queers who believed that all lives had a right to live with dignity. Even today, the criteria for Sappho's membership aren't based on one's gender-sexual orientation, but one's belief in non-cis-heteronormative identities.
Those who want to get married, that is their right, but the state should provide rights to those who do not get married (as well).
Through an understanding of the history of the queer movement, we can understand how this resistance has developed and what the future of the movement holds. Through a constellation of factors, the mainstream queer goal has become all about the license to marry. And a lot of queers, including Malobika and Akanksha, disagree with this fixation. Their perspective is backed by a large global community, and the reasoning is this: same-sex marriage does not challenge the heteronormative and patriarchal nature of marriage, which is, in all senses, an economic institution under the capitalist order. And the laws around property, inheritance, and insurance confirm this. To be very clear, Malobika and Akanksha are not opposed to gay marriage. What they want is the freedom to marry or not and still be treated as companions in the eyes of the law. Instead, they ask that consenting partnerships be protected by law.
Speaking of shaping the future of the queer movement, they remind us of the civil liberties and rights that queers are still fighting for. All the challenges they faced while Sappho started to grow still exist in subtle forms. And mere decriminalization of homosexuals does not mean we have achieved queer liberation - we are far from it. The entire lifecycle of a queer person should be taken into consideration while setting goals for the movement, and efforts should be made to ensure all voices are heard: the young, the old, and the budding.