How Project Almirah offers a safe space for queer people to share their stories

A new website launched by interdisciplinary artist Avril Stormy Unger collates and documents stories of queerness and of coming out during the pandemic

May 01, 2023 06:08 pm | Updated 06:16 pm IST

Avril Stormy Unger

Avril Stormy Unger | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

During the initial part of the pandemic, when the world went into sudden lockdown, Angel, who identifies as a non-binary bisexual person, found themselves all alone in Bengaluru, separated from their family and partner. They found themselves watching The Bold Type, a series, released in 2017, that follows the lives, loves and careers of three close friends — Jane, Kat and Sutton — set in the glamorous world of women’s magazines.

Angel, who had grown up in a conservative Catholic family, had found it difficult to acknowledge their own queerness till then. “I knew I was attracted to men, for sure. But I would also have serious crushes on women,” they said, adding that when the thought came up, however, they simply pushed it down. But something about Kat’s character arc got Angel thinking about their own sexual orientation.

Kat, played by Australian actress Aisha Dee, comes out twice in the series — first as lesbian, and then as bisexual, a revelation that was supported by her friends both times. “The comforting part was that she had a label, and had come out as a lesbian. Then, she realises she is bisexual and comes out again,” says Angel, who came out as bisexual in December 2021 and a non-binary person by early 2022.

Angel’s story is one of eight interviews, in podcast format, currently available on Project Almirah, a recently launched website that collates and documents stories of queerness and of coming out during the pandemic. Interdisciplinary artist Avril Stormy Unger, who launched this website, says its origins lay in her own coming-out story. “The pandemic brought up a lot of stuff about my own queerness and sexuality. I think that culminated in early 2021,” says Avril, pointing out that this was the case with many queer people. It got her thinking about coming out late in life, and she began looking for stories of people who had gone through a similar experience only to realise that “there wasn’t much information available in the Indian context.”

“I felt the need to speak with others who had similar experiences and look at what caused this revelation, how it felt safe to come out to oneself when the world was unsafe, what happened next, what was grounding, what helped,” she adds.

Avril Stormy Unger

Avril Stormy Unger | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

As she sought out more community and discovered that there were many other people who had gone through a similar experience, she felt a need to document this. In a very heterosexual world where many queer people often struggle with internalised homophobia, “we need these stories for visibility, to know that we are okay, to normalise being queer.” Avril began looking for funding and received it in late 2022 from the Amra Odbhuth Collective, a queer and trans collective and community centre in West Bengal, India. “They managed to get some funding and gave me a part of it for this project.”

She spent over three months interviewing people who had come out during the pandemic. “I was intentionally looking for these stories,” says Avril, who found them in many places: strangers she met on dating apps, folks from the larger queer community that she was already friends with, people who approached her after a performance based on her own coming out story, telling her it resonated with them.

Eight out of the 10 interviews she conducted finally made it to Project Almirah, the name chosen because she liked the word a great deal. “It is contextual to India, and everyone pronounces it differently,” she says with a laugh, adding that the people she interviewed got paid for being part of the project. She hopes to continue building this archive with more stories in multiple formats: audio, video, text and imagery. “I have been getting a bunch of enquiries from people who want to contribute stories,” she says. “I am looking for more funding to do that.”

Arty (he/they/it), a Goa-based queer person who was interviewed as part of Project Almirah, says what they like best about the project is the visibility it gives queer people. “There are a lot of queers like me who struggled to open up and express their story,” says Arty, who came out on Facebook, during the pandemic, something Arty talks about in the podcast too. “It is empowering, and I am super grateful to be given an opportunity to share my story,” they add, a sentiment Angel mirrors.

“Giving queer people a voice to tell their story is unique,” says Angel, pointing out that knowing that other people went through similar experiences makes one feel less isolated. “After reading and listening to the stories, I felt so much solidarity and connection,” they say.

Project Almirah can be viewed at https://projectalmirah.com/

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