“In India, same-sex marriage is not illegal, nor legal,” Harish Iyer--“perhaps India’s most outspoken gay rights activist”, as LA times claims--concluded when asked about India’s LGBTQ situation.
Iyer said that one can be gay in India but can’t be a “practicing gay.” From the introduction of Section 377 in 1860, during British colonial rule, which criminalized sexual activities against “the order of nature” to the Supreme Court’s defence of the rights of privacy, India has made considerable progress in the LGBTQ movement. However, Section 377, still in effect, casts a shadow on the LGBTQ community: whoever practices homosexual sex can currently face up to 10 years in prison. While the Supreme Court is set to review the law in the coming months, it currently still stands.
A firm believer in the power of storytelling to incrementally reshape the ingrained culture of homophobia in the country, Iyer became the host of Gaydio, the first mainstream LGBTQ radio show in India. In this interview with Holly Wang, Iyer talks about how the show has evolved, how LGBT stories are told, the support and objections he has encountered, his view on the over-normalization of LGBTQ community, and his vision for the show.
Holly: Tell me about the radio show. How did the idea of creating a show about LGBT people come up?
Iyer: The radio show is from a channel called Ishq FM. Ishq means love. It’s a love station, which only plays romance songs. Since the whole concept of the station was about romantic songs, they thought that they needed to expand this, because, let’s face it, there is nothing like heterosexual and homosexual romance. But all the songs that had been played were about heterosexual romance, so they thought that they could not play more new songs. What they could do was to create a new show dedicated to the LGBT community. The show doesn’t only speak about homosexual love, but also transgender identity, lesbian women, gay men, bisexuality, and about people who cross-dress. We cover a wide range of issues.
When this hit the mainstream, it was like what if CNN decided to have a homosexual band or an LGBT show? It was as big as that. We had community radio channels and Internet radio channels that focus on LGBT issues, but never a mainstream radio channel.
What’s even more surprising was that the idea of creating the channel didn’t come from activists. It came from the radio channel. Sometimes, we as LGBT people take our freedom and language for granted. For example, one time I had the radio producers sitting with me, and they asked, “Hey, how can you use a word like coming out?” I told them that it’s a widely understood word. Why is it so difficult to understand this word? They said that it’s widely understood for the LGBT community but not for heterosexual people. So you have to explain what it means when you say “coming out.”
However, I am learning from LGBT people by interacting with the community, too. Once, I casually used a funny word and told someone that “Oh, you’re quite a queen.” Later, I had another channel coming up to me and told me that this is very offensive to the LGBT community. So I looked back at the person and said that I am also from the LGBT community, and I should be telling you (that I can use this word). But they said no because you’re being too casual and this is not what we do over here. So many times, there are things that I, as an activist, overlook because of my familiarity with the subject.
So we don’t make it look like a lesson in psychology. It’s more conversational.
Holly: Then how do you manage to educate the public by having conversations with LGBT people? How do you draw their attention?
Iyer: I think sharing the story itself is a form of education. We use life stories, so even when we’re teaching the public, we are not preaching. Again, no one wants to listen to a lesson in psychology or sociology.
Like, a Hijra person (a transgender individual) named Madhuri came to our show. She shared her journey on the radio about joining the transgender community of Hijras and how she was accepted. She was really into dancing, and she likes a dancer whose name is Madhuri. Since she danced so well, she was also given the name Madhuri. Now she’s married to a cisgender man. She came to the studio with her husband, and they shared their love life as well.
Their story is very normal. And then also we discover that in every story, something new comes up. Though the stories are very similar—they have something about coming out, acceptance, or non-acceptance, there are so many variations.
Holly: You mention how normal their story is. Then have you ever worried about the normalization of LGBT community when designing the show?
Iyer: We have a lot of discussions and debate before the show about, “Hey! We’re different! We’re not heterosexual, and we don’t want to be.” So there’s this distinction that we want to draw. We normalize it (the LGBT community) to an extent so that society doesn’t hate the LGBT community.
There are even times when people would say, “Why don’t straight people have pride parades?” So I have to fight back and say that every marriage in India is heterosexual, and we have extravagant marriages with thousands of people attending. I would say that those are heterosexual pride parades. There are times you just have to beat them with humour.
Holly: That’s very funny. But have you and your show ever felt the pressure from politicians?
Iyer: Not political at all actually. In fact, I’ve had a couple of people in politics. I reached out to them. I sent them messages. They have come in (to the studio) and said nice things to me.
Holly: Can you name some politicians?
I have a friend called Priya Dutt, who’s a politician from the Indian National Congress. When I reached out to her and told her about the show, she was very positive. She told me, “If I could ever speak about it (LGBT issues), do let me know.” There’s been no negative response from political people.
Iyer: Generally, you also have politicians speaking against Section 377.
Holly: And you also mentioned in an interview that you’ve been opposed by religious fundamentalists, yet you’ve never met any political opposition. Can you tell me more about that?
Iyer: There has been no political opposition as of now, but there have been religious fundamentalists who have written nasty things to me, like “You’ll go to hell,” Or, “You’re trying to propagate all these things. Everyone will ‘turn gay’ because you’re saying these things on the radio in three metro cities in India that has the maximum population.” There have been some hate mails, but that has something to do with the fact that I’m fairly known in what I do (LGBTQ activism). It’s been a normal thing (for me). If I don’t get hate mails, I will think that no one is listening to me.
(Laugh) For me, it’s more important that people are listening to me than sending me hate mails. I would reply to some of those messages (that I receive on social media and emails) because I’m bored. But usually, the messages are not so threatening that I would be scared to step out on the street. Like if people throw eggs at me, I would be more offended because I’m a vegan than being a homosexual.
Holly: Haha. You’re very open to any opinions and voices.
Iyer: Yes! Ask anything. They can say anything. I don’t get offended.
Holly: Is this “openness” attitude also a part of your vision for your radio show? What do you think that your radio show can contribute to the LGBT rights movement in India right now? Especially since you mentioned storytelling a lot, then what kind of role does “storytelling” play in this movement?
Iyer: I think it’s bringing the discussions (about LGBT issues) to the dinner table because you switch on the radio on the Uber, you have no option but to listen to it. I have not heard countless stories about this but I have three or four people coming to me and telling me that they didn’t plan to come out. Then, the other day, they switched on the radio show, and my show helped them approach the issue to their parents. Radio is an inclusive medium. You can choose not to see something if you don’t want to. But once you switch the radio on, you can’t really not hear it.
I don’t know if my show can bring about big changes in society, but I think big changes in society are brought by small changes, small movements, and small conversations. If we can change the dialogues with ourselves, it has the potential to change the whole world and, including, the laws.
This radio show starts those dialogues. Without making (the conversation) preachy and activist-y, and without making it about the person on the radio you’re listening to, but actually trying to tell you that “this is about the person amongst you.”
Published on January 26, 2018 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization