Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.
– Malcolm X
This is a philosophy that has stood the test of time. Even today, it acts as a tool for inclusivity, diversity, and above all, a better society. When Sadam Hanjabam, a young Manipuri founded Ya_All in 2018, his mantra was 'educate', 'equip', and 'empower'. Ya_All is India's first registered queer and youth-led organization based in the North East. From organizing queer games to curating India’s first football team for transfolk, Ya_All is making strides in bringing to light several issues faced by the LGBTQIA+ community in North East India and elsewhere. However, Ya_All’s journey started a year before it got its official registration.
In 2017, Sadam narrates that a support group was formed via WhatsApp. The group came to be as a result of a realization that there was a lack of visibility of young people coming out as queer openly. The informal WhatsApp group was formed to create a support system for the youth of the region to grow into themselves.
We wanted to be a group of people talking about issues and providing support for each other when we were in crisis. We started off as an informal group in 2017... as a collective.
Moving out of a small state like Manipur, and traveling across the country, gaining exposure and experience led Sadam, and a few others like him, to realize that there was a lack of a visible support system for the LGBTQ community in his home. This was when the seeds of Ya_All were planted in Manipur’s soil. Samad and his peers started talking about the issues they were facing, while also supporting each other. The idea of having a registered organization had not yet been discussed.
When the organization was being built, Sadam and his peers wanted it to be a space for youth to voice their issues and concerns. Sadam says that he recalls how there was a lack of organizations and spaces. This is because young people do not get a voice, or do not get to make decisions. “So that was the idea...to give young people the space, where they could take the lead." Sadam iterates that today's youth are our future and explains that they are best represented by themselves. This thought led to the formation of a peer support network. This was because young people can make decisions based on the experiences they have faced, are facing, or may be facing in the future.
The establishment of Ya_All, however, represents only the prologue of a long chapter that continues to take shape in many twists, turns, and colors.
The movement that we are having in the North East is very unique and definitely has taken a long time…and it will take a longer time.
After winning the internal battle for self-realization and acceptance, there was another battle for the revolution that Sadam was envisioning. Apart from belonging to a gender minority group, Sadam also faced racial prejudice outside his home state and grew up in political uncertainty. Manipur, like the rest of North East India, is connected to the rest of the country by a mere 20-22 km stretch of land called the Siliguri corridor. Over the years, his state has been plagued with several human rights issues, including but not limited to political extremism.
Racial discrimination and prejudice were some things he had to navigate across his journeys around the country, and bettering the human rights conditions of his state's people remained an ongoing issue that Sadam, like everybody else, wanted to prioritize in terms of raising his voice for equality and justice. "We feel that we know a lot about the country but the rest of the country doesn’t know a lot about us," he says as he explains that with his home state going through so many issues such as militarisation and conflicts, "our sexuality and gender" seemed to be the smaller issue. This was a dilemma he needed to battle. He decided to give equal weight to the self that belonged collectively to both groups.
Ultimately, Sadam's dilemma was addressed when he began to speak for the people of his state while creating a platform to voice concerns for LGBTQ youth. When Ya_All was conceptualized as an informal support group, there was a lot Sadam and his peers wanted to do. The end goal was of course to educate, equip and empower youth, but the path to it was complex. Ya_All ventured on several of those paths and continue to do so. While on this journey, Sadam also discovered a slightly different, but more accepting way to advance his cause.
One thing that I always trusted was sports in our state. If we wanted to do something, it should be around sports, but I never knew that we could use sports for Pride.
The competitiveness of sports has often been a pillar of inclusivity, awareness, and acceptance. With a lot of hope, in March 2018, Sadam and his group organized the first queer games in Manipur. The event, Sadam believes, was a huge success, and a question he had in his head before the event was answered: “How would people react when we use sports to talk about identity and inclusion?”
The answer that he received came in the form of people who came out and started cheering for the teams. This left behind the taboo and stigmatization that often shadow gender and sexuality. Queer games led to the formation of a transgender football team. This project aimed to inspire all LGBTQI+ Indians who wanted to play at one point but never got a chance. Sadam points out that he and his group also wanted to break the stereotype that queer people are not skilled at sports or physical activities. Needless to say, they were successful.
However, Sadam believes that there is still a long way to go. He says that while homosexuality may have been decriminalized by law, people’s mindsets will need to change. Sadam acknowledges that their movement is still very young, but asserts that it is timely. He points out the many changes that have taken place in the country over the last decade. As our conversation comes to a close, he reiterates a strong message with a chuckle:
Acknowledge that this will take time. There is (even now) a lot of stigma and discrimination and it will (continue to) exist… the best way to learn about it is to know what we will be facing, and the best way is to learn.