I'm challenging heteronormativity just by my mere existence.
Meghna Mehra, the founder of All India Queer Association (AIQA), doesn't underplay the disturbance and discomfort her asexual identity causes in our heavily sexualized society. Meghna has a deep understanding of the political landscape and, in our conversation, offers a queer and feminist critique of prevailing power structures. She talks with airy humor to cushion the seriousness of the heavy and emotionally dense subjects we discuss. Throughout our conversation with her, we are challenged to examine our inherited notions of what love, sex, intimacy, romance, and companionship mean.
Meghna unpacks her journey of understanding and accepting her asexual orientation for us, and offers a glimpse into the harrowing situations she has had to face. She tells us that there is a lot of societal and institutional misunderstanding about asexuality. Even within the queer community, we are just scratching the surface of accepting asexuality as a "normal variation" within the spectrum of human sexuality rather than treating it like a 'disorder to be cured'. This has been very evident to Meghna throughout her dating life.
She narrates an incident when someone she was romantically involved with used her disinterest in sexual intimacy as a justification to solicit the services of sex workers. Through this anecdote, Meghna touches on a popular notion here: the problematic idea that love without sex is not love at all. How cruel it is to demand that someone love you in a certain way, and then turn that demand into a threat of abandonment when it is not met! Speaking for her fellow asexuals, Meghna shares with us the pressure she feels not only from heteronormative ways of loving but also the type of love that comes with the expectation of reproduction.
It is very hard, it is very lonely. But I have only two options - either no partner or a very understanding one.
The tumultuous dating arena, however, has not kept Meghna from focusing on other things that matter equally, if not more, to her: writing books and the All India Queer Association.
Meghna has authored several articles and three books as a result of her avid love of the written word. When asked about the source of her inspiration to start writing, she entered a reverie. As a student, she heard about a doctor couple where the wife committed suicide. The husband was a homosexual man who married her under societal pressure. Faced with taunts from her in-laws to please her gay husband sexually, the wife took a drastic decision to end her suffering. Meghna breaks the reverie, and in a pained voice tells us, "the common denominator is patriarchy". Meghna wrote her first book, Marriage of Convenience, after studying marriage, what it means, and what it costs marginalised identities. The two titles that followed are The Ghost From Revolutionary Past, and Mini Dictionary Of The LGBTQIA+ Community. She tells us with a chuckle that the late Kamla Bhasin encouraged her to write a book a month, and that she negotiated the goal to once a year.
Speaking about her second love, Meghna describes her work with AIQA as a sensitive gardener would describe the recent bloom of a rose. Formed as a collective in 2019, AIQA is a feminist, socialist, and Ambedkarite non-profit organization that strives for the rights of various marginalized groups. In order to achieve a more equitable society, the association promotes educational campaigning, participation in democratic processes, employment generation, shelter services, and mental health assistance for women and queer communities. When the pandemic hit, the group witnessed an unprecedented wave of vulnerability women and queers were experiencing in their homes.
The victims of abuse had no choice but to leave their violent abodes to stand against their abusers, husbands, parents, landlords, and roommates. AIQA fundraised for building a shelter in New Delhi to provide safety to such folx. However, the process of creating or renting the shelter space was challenging, to say the least. Meghna eloquently explains the deep-rooted biases and inaccurate stereotypes people have about queers and trans folx in particular. Several people expressed reluctance to rent out their spaces due to concerns about safety for trans people, stating "they would". Meghna had to first question the prejudice against sex work because if one is to condemn selling sex, one should also condemn buying sex. Discrimination, however, never occurs on rational grounds. She then had to break the stereotype that being trans is not synonymous with being a sex worker. This meant standing up for those engaged in sex work in the first place.
Even if a trans person is doing sex work, unke paas jaa kaun raha hain (who is going to them)? Cisgender heterosexual men. Ye kisi ke baap hain, kisi ke bhai hain, kisi ke bete hain. Unko koi kuch kyu nahi kehra? (They are someone's father, brother, and son. Why is no one telling them anything?)
Despite the stigmatization and stereotyping of the trans community, AIQA was eventually able to rent out a space that now acts as a shelter. As a result of sustained efforts, AIQA supported several domestic violence victims (women and queer individuals) in getting back on their feet. Meghna excitedly told us that they also have a robust network of psychiatric professionals actively supporting these folx.
As our time together comes to a close, Meghna expresses gratitude to the many stakeholders who've built AIQA to its present stature. Despite feeling alone on her journey, her sense of commitment is something worth learning from. She wants to create a safe world for people who are discriminated against because of their caste, gender, and sexuality. Thankfully, she is not alone in her Ambedkarite dream.