Fashion choreographer Sunil Menon talks to Shonali Muthalaly on founding Sahodaran and working for the rights of gays and transgenders

Sunil Menon enters with a phone ringing in each hand. Popular fashion choreographer, founder of Sahodaran (an organisation working for the rights of men seeking men) and gay activist, Sunil's life is a whirlwind of projects and causes.

“Have you seen our 2011 calendar?” he says, triumphantly pulling it out of a brown paper packet. Featuring men flaunting six packs and traditional jewellery, it's Sahodaran's latest fund-raiser. He pauses at a picture of a bare-chested man wearing the distinctive Kerala white and gold fabric like a loin cloth. “This is my mom's kasava mundu. She will have a fit if she knows what I did to it,” Sunil laughs.

“Earlier men wore lots of ornamentation. It's only now that it's seen as a very feminine thing… We've used these hunky, brawny, muscular men as models, and they carry off the heavy ornate pieces beautifully.” He adds with a chuckle, “As a friend said to me, if we'd worn them we would have looked like total queens!”

“Our previous calendar was even more risqué. More skin. Men in thongs, which were made by kids from Sahodaran.” Kids? “Oh. They're in their 20s. It's just that to me they're all my kids. So I don't need to have kids anymore.”

Sunil says he knew he was different by the time he was 12 years old. This was in the late 1970s, when homosexuality was still the love that dare not speak its name. “Middle-class morality,” he sniffs, rolling his eyes. “Fortunately, I was at Shishya, which was co-ed. We all grew up together, so it was easy. I wasn't bullied or picked on.”

What was difficult though was the absence of a support system. “I remember growing up — trying to find myself and feeling completely depressed. After studying Anthropology at Madras University, he went on to do a Ph.D. “On primate behaviour! These were the days of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey… Gorillas in the Mist.”

However, instead of taking off for an exotic job in the jungles, he ended up helping the WHO (World Health Organisation) do an HIV project on Chennai. The aim was to collect information on men having sex with men. For three months in 1992, he travelled incessantly talking to transgenders and gays. “They were all underground. I found a lot of high-risk behaviour. All the information available was targeted at female sex workers and the community didn't realise we were at risk too.”

In 1994, Sunil began working in fashion. “I learnt on the job. Putting it all together, styling, choreography. Those days, shows were very dance-y. I was clear: I'm here to sell clothes.”

Creating safe spaces

Although he didn't hide his sexuality, he didn't talk about it either. “Those who knew me knew — that was it. There was vulnerability. Fear of blackmail…” Then, Berlin-based donor Sivananda Khan offered to fund him and Sunil started a support group for a community that desperately needed an anchor. This was the beginning of Sahodaran.

“That was in 1998. The support group was for poor kids. We created a safe space in our centre where they could giggle, dance, just do silly things. We worked half-days on Saturdays. After that we let the boys who wanted to cross-dress come in. They'd enter as men, then get into dresses and wigs. It was quite funny, seeing men prancing about in lipstick and moustaches. Many were married and nobody was ‘out'.”

He reckons about three thousand people were reached out to in the process, which brought together gays and transgenders. “Everyday people would walk in for help. Everyone we hired was from the community — right from me to the office boy and the accountant. So they felt safe.”

This was a startling new world. “I had lived a very sheltered life till then. I didn't know what it was like to be exposed to harassment on a day-to-day basis. I hadn't seen what poverty could do to a human being. To be forced to sell your body to put food on the table and what that does to your psyche.” He adds, “There's so much to battle… there are days I just sit and cry for no reason. I get too involved, very emotional. That's why I love depressing movies. They're a great excuse to cry.”

Yet, he adds, “I am who I am because of Sahodaran… It helped me come to terms with my sexuality.” His family is a silent source of support. “My sister explained everything to my parents. They never really talk about it — but a few months ago, my father turned to me and said, ‘I haven't told you this, but I appreciate the work you do.'”

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