Researching at the intersection of data cultures, law, gender, and sexuality, Vaivab Das will be the first gender non-binary grantee of the Fulbright Nehru Doctoral Research Fellowship from India. In this very informational conversation with us, Vaivab talks about their unwavering commitment to making an equal, inclusive, and dignified space for transpersons and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community. They share insights from their personal experiences and advise activists and people committed to LGBTQIA+ rights to inculcate patience and partnerships to bring about long-term sustainable changes.
I want to democratize knowledge so everyone has equal power to make informed decisions.
Because of limited access to information while growing up in Cuttack, Orisha, Vaivab realized the importance of equal access to information and is now dedicated to making knowledge accessible for all. “Not having access to information needed to understand certain intimate aspects of your reality impairs how we understand and navigate life, and how we navigate our decisions throughout our lifetime”, they say.
This injustice of not having information at your disposal powers Vaivab’s motivation to understand how the idea of gender and sexuality is shaped within society.
There is a big gap between trying to read LGBT issues specifically in terms of policy.
A notable aspect of Vaivab's work is their research on the electoral exclusion of transgender individuals in India. Highlighting insights from the last two general elections, Vaivab shares that only 2% of the transgender population voted.
Vaivab sheds light on how systemic issues like the absence of data on trans persons' locations, coupled with historical marginalization, led to the exclusion of transpersons from household surveys and, consequently, the electoral process.
To change this, Vaivab proactively collaborates with state governments and the Election Commission of India, offering insights to bridge these gaps and ensure meaningful representation.
It's very important to intuitively learn a vocabulary that gets things moving.
Vaivab's advocacy extends to the inclusion of queer identities in educational institutions. Drawing from experiences at various academic institutions, Vaivab talks about their tenure at the School of Gender Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, where legal reluctance was countered by proposing measures rooted in existing legal frameworks. “I realized that using legal language to counter their legal reluctance is the only way to make campuses more inclusive and accessible,” they say.
Recognizing the vulnerability of bureaucratic institutions to procedural language, Vaivab underscores the significance of possessing access to and awareness of this specific vocabulary. This strategic approach serves as a focal point when engaging with institutions heavily laden with bureaucratic processes. Vaivab emphasizes the necessity, as an activist committed to societal transformation, of instinctively acquiring a vocabulary that facilitates progress without alienating key stakeholders.
The future needs to be inclusive even if our past wasn't.
Reflecting on a friend's experience, Vaivab shares how when this friend was attending a prominent gender conference in Delhi, discussions about trans persons and queer individuals were absent. However, a contrasting scenario unfolded during fieldwork: the friend engaged with Dalit rights activists in a village. In this seemingly less-educated setting, a Dalit woman leader passionately advocated for inclusivity, proposing the integration of trans women into the collective, thereby challenging stereotypes and highlighting unexpected solidarities.
This anecdote serves as a poignant reminder that genuine discussions about empathy-driven equality often elude mainstream discourse, especially in the furthest corners of India. Despite the prevailing biases in reporting, the observation that change is occurring in scattered patterns across India reinforces the notion that transformation is not confined to urban or privileged spaces.
Engaging in sustained partnerships and keeping yourself grounded is crucial for the long run.
Vaivab offers two crucial insights for queers, queer activists, and those striving for policy changes. Firstly, the importance of building collaborative networks that outlast individual tenures. Secondly, recognizing the interplay between marginalization and privilege within the broader context of social change.
When discussing the need for sustained partnerships to address structural issues, Vaivab emphasizes building a network that passes on both achievements and challenges, promoting a sustainable commitment to the cause through vertical and horizontal participation across generations within institutions and other spaces.
Another critical aspect of Vaivab's guidance relates to the necessity of practical grounding in the pursuit of diversity, inclusion, and knowledge democratization. They underscore the significance of investing time and effort in meaningful conversations and partnerships, surpassing the transient impact of workshops or events. Additionally, they stress the relevance of acknowledging one's privilege and marginalization in navigating conversations, fostering an empathetic understanding of diverse perspectives within the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
Vaivab Das is navigating the complex landscapes of academia, policy, and societal change. Their work is characterized by a nuanced understanding of the multifaceted challenges surrounding gender, sexuality, and civil rights, coupled with a strategic and empathetic approach to effecting meaningful and enduring transformation.