Sonal Giani is a celebrated LGBTQ+ activist in India who is ready to pass the baton on to the next generation of queer leaders. She is looking forward to a lot of work done by intersectional leaders, especially individuals working from outside the metropolitans. She is quick to vocalize her immense pride and appreciation for these people who have been risking so much to spread awareness and to live life more truthfully. Despite them being more vulnerable to violence and having a quarter of the necessary resources, leaders on the fringes have been the true icons of the LGBTQ movement. She is incredibly excited to see the movement become more elastic towards intersectional needs.
Queer people who are born this year are born in a free India.
Comparing the current state of affairs to about a decade ago when she came out, Sonal looks at all the good that has transpired. Whether it be workplaces, government laws, or the entertainment sector, the vast majority of spaces have slowly but surely expanded. They do however need to accept more and more identities and become more holistically inclusive. Diving into the film industry, she shares how the LGBTQ community is finally taking back its voice after years of being used as comic relief. From queer movie directors to mainstream Bollywood movies that portray LGBTQ couples realistically, Sonal has hope. Sonal expresses not necessarily an agreement but an understanding of the current pace of inclusion by calling India and its government better than its neighboring nations. Similarly, she does mention how corporate India has dramatically changed over the past decade and how recruitment policies, prevention of sexual harassment, and other legal policies have helped create the potential of a genuinely inclusive future.
The power of telling the story is being reclaimed by queer people, instead of them being used just to sensationalize a character.
However, Sonal does point out that inclusion is still quite limited. The lack of basic rights like marriage or adoption that are the next "logical" milestones after Section 377 was abolished indicates to her the continued presence of rigid socio-economic barriers faced by people of lower castes, minority ethnicities, lower economic classes, and rural areas. She welcomes the major influence that social media currently has in normalizing conversations surrounding queer rights. However, social media is also a product of social hierarchies which inevitably means it rarely represents ground realities. That is something Sonal wants to underscore for anyone aiming to utilize these platforms for sensitization and awareness-building programs.
Experiencing homophobia drove me to take therapy which helped me become more self-aware.
Past incidents in Sonal's life have nudged her to develop a thick skin, but it has also ignited in her a need to not let anyone else suffer the way she did. A victim of being outed without consent, Sonal had faced rampant homophobia and discrimination when she was in college. The incident "left emotional scars" and strengthened her resolve to raise awareness around creating safe spaces to come out. Sonal is clear that nobody, not even someone's partner, is entitled to force another person to come out. They may provide support and love and help create safety nets, but they cannot, under any circumstance, take away someone's free will and agency.
You cannot push somebody to come out. The journey is very personal, and the most you can do is just help them along the way.
In her early twenties, support from a few people and organizations like The Humsafar Trust helped build her resolve and strength. Since then, Sonal has worked with Humsafar Trust and has also co-founded organizations like Yaariyan, one of India's largest youth collectives, and Umang, a support group for lesbians and bisexual women and transmasculine persons. These offer community support, friends, agenda-free meetings, and space to just enjoy what life offers.
Sonal has been very active in her efforts to level the playing field. Leaving no social sphere untouched, her efforts have also targeted corporate law enforcement agencies, educational institutes, and social media influencers. Her passion has been duly recognized, with her being awarded multiple prestigious accolades. Sona has also been featured in numerous documentaries, and series focused on LGBTQ representation. But she remains as humble as ever and attributes a lot of her sense of self and stability to the therapy she received.
I was also able to unwrap the shame that I had for my gender and sexuality.
Acknowledging the internalized homophobia that most queer children grow up with, the external rejection faced by Sonal led her to question and doubt her identity. It took her a long time to shed these self-deprecating thoughts. Continued counseling and mental health support have made her more aware of her surroundings and her cognitive processes, enabling her to articulate her emotions better. So, therapy is something she recommends to everyone regardless of their gender identity.