his month, a collective for queer women and trans persons has quietly completed 20 years of its existence. LABIA (formerly called Stree Sangam) began in 1995 at a time when the LGBTIQ had made inroads in terms of gay men finding spaces for expression. However, women who were ‘different’ continued to feel intensely isolated and emotionally vulnerable. Shals Mahajan, one of the group’s earliest members, remembers, “I read about a gay conference that had taken place at SNDT University in 1994, and later met for the first time, after protracted attempts, lesbians who were part of the feminist group, Forum Against Oppression of Women.” They felt it was imperative for queer women to organise themselves as well. “In 1995, to sit in a room with five other similar women would have been like, oh wow! We simply wanted to meet each other,” says Mahajan. The very first rendezvous was to be a ferry ride from Marve Beach to Gorai, announced to select women via copies of a discreetly worded letter, which in turn was passed on to others. Ultimately, 20 women showed up at the very public jetty, hovering around and taking their time to identify themselves to each other. Later, at Gorai, they sat, hearts outstretched, packets of food strewn about, in a rented cottage (the first ‘safe space’ for many of them), sharing their eerily familiar stories with one another. This was an emotional breakthrough for all concerned.
When they started out, the name Stree Sangam was chosen because it seemed generic and sanitised, and wouldn’t call attention to itself on mailers that were the mode of communication then. “We didn’t want to make it even more difficult for repressed women to reach out to us. Having a radical moniker at that time would’ve warded them off,” says Mahajan. Circa 2002, this dichotomy was laid to rest, when the group christened themselves LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action), and were unequivocal about welcoming trans people. The explicit reference to female genitalia was deliberate and combative, as the group increasingly saw themselves as public campaigners, than just enablers of screenings and soirées for closeted lesbians. “We were done with hiding,” says Mahajan. As gay activists the world over were able to articulate their politics better, LABIA found their footing in the past decade. “It is no more an acronym, we describe ourselves as a queer feminist LBT collective,” clarifies Mahajan.
An important tenet of LABIA’s politics has been inter-sectionality — the idea that all systems of oppression are interlinked in many overlapping ways, which struggles for parity on any turf must take into account.
Through this prism, you cannot conceivably be a ‘white only’ feminist, for instance. While it is not always possible for a group with a specific focus to widen the net and espouse a catch-all agenda, some queer groups (in India, as elsewhere), seeped in patriarchal entitlement, tend to completely compartmentalise the gay (read, gay male) movement from other struggles, like women’s rights. This is something LABIA has been fundamentally opposed to, and it has distanced from the all-pervasive propaganda of gay victimhood that is so self-defeating in the long run. At the last Queer Azaadi March in Mumbai, they distributed pamphlets against ghar wapasi. They are closely linked with the collective Hum Azaadiyon Ke Haq Mein that is working towards abolishing the death penalty or eroding the power of khap panchayats, amongst other things. The queer activism scene anyway consists of several parallel streams of thought tossed under a one-size-fits-all LGBTIQ umbrella, but an absence of dialogue between groups often results in LABIA being isolated politically because of its variegated approach.
The 20-year celebration is aptly called, ‘Sangam se Subversion Tak’. Tomorrow, at the hall in Matunga, the group will unleash four hours of programming, including the launch of the final issue of their annual publication, SCRIPTS.
This small, unassuming journal has been one of the beacons of creative expression for queer female voices since 1998. The very first issue featured a hand-drawn cover with a full hand of three striking women from a deck of playing cards. The invitation-only events on 19th and 20th December are restricted to activists, who are expected to gather from cities across India.
The journey has come full circle, from the first hesitant steps at the Aksa Beach jetty.
The end-word in the widely circulated email invitation reads, “The desire is for us to get together and share thoughts, and perhaps, through it all, a strategy may emerge, which different people may take up in different parts of the country. At the very least, we should surely be able to identify the discussions that we need to have to be able to take our visions, conversations, and actions of queer activism forward.”
The LABIA event will take place at the Mysore Association Hall in Matunga on 18 Dec. For more details, contact email@example.com
LABIA is no more an acronym, we describe ourselves as a queer feminist LBT collective
An important tenet of LABIA’s politics has been inter-sectionality — the idea that all systems of oppression are interlinked