In May, 13 girls from ‘Kranti’, a non-profit organisation in Mumbai, will travel to the U.S. to perform a play called “Lal Batti Express”, an hour-long depiction of the trials and tribulations faced by sex workers, their children, and other inhabitants of Kamathipura, one of Asia’s red-light districts. When former Lieutenant Robin Chaurasiya, 29, was expelled from the U.S. Air Force after she declared that she is lesbian, she returned to India and started ‘Kranti’ four years ago. Born to Indian immigrant parents, Ms. Chaurasiya tells Omar Rashid about being coloured, female and queer in the U.S., her abruptly terminated military career, and how she now fights for equal opportunities for girls born of sex workers.
Your upbringing in the U.S. was not short of domestic problems.
For both me and my sister, our dominant memories of ‘home’ and ‘childhood’ are of domestic violence and my mother’s battle with schizophrenia, made so much more difficult due to the violence. It was because of my mother’s illness that I decided to pursue psychology, and it’s probably also what has led me to recognise the importance of mental health for Kranti’s girls as opposed to education or life skills, on which most NGOs focus. Of course, there were my personal battles on top of my home situation — being a woman of colour in the U.S., as well as being queer and recognising it at a young age.
What inspired you to take up a military career?
One was purely financial — my parents told me that I was on my own to fund my college education, and you must know what that costs in America. So I applied for a scholarship from the United States Air Force (USAF), which meant they would cover my education for four years and I would owe them four years on active duty. I had been around planes my whole life because my dad was an engineer at Boeing, and I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I was 16 when I received the scholarship and didn’t know anything about global politics, American hegemony, and so on. When I entered college and started travelling the world, I learned more about who I was (Democrat, lesbian, etc.), and the less the military appealed to me.
I also worked in President Barack Obama’s office when he was senator of Illinois, and I was working on veteran affairs. This also taught me much more than one could ever know about the military as an institution — how it treats veterans, what its policies are on mental health, how much discrimination minorities face, etc. But once you sign the contract, you’re stuck.
How common is it for Indian-origin people to work in the U.S. army?
The only Indians I ever met in the military during my entire time were two doctors. Other than that, I didn’t encounter any South Asians , and as far as I know I’m the only Indian-American to ever be kicked out under the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT) principle. As with all discrimination in the U.S., things aren’t apparent on the surface, but when you dig just a little deeper, it’s crazy what comes out. When my story was being covered in the local papers, people would post online comments all the time saying “go back to your country”, “good riddance”, etc.
So, how discriminatory was the DADT?
The strange thing about the policy was that it really was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. You’re allowed to be in the military if you are queer, but you are not supposed to ‘engage in homosexual conduct’. If you are lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/, nobody is supposed to ask and nobody should tell. And I have to say, I think this ‘hiding’ is much more psychologically damaging to people than it would be to have a ‘no queers allowed’ policy. It is difficult for young people, of course, but the older you get and the higher you move up in the ranks, the more you have to lose... most people spend their careers hiding, sometimes being hunted down (at gay bars and other places) and then get kicked out. Then, there was me, screaming at my commander, “Hello, I am lesbian!” and they wouldn’t kick me out. Eventually, when I married, I became the first person in the history of the military to have been married to a person of the same sex and still be kept in the military. And when I was finally kicked out, I was the only Indian person kicked out under the DADT.
What kind of relationship do ‘Kranti’ girls share with their mothers, who still continue in the sex trade?
Some of our girls’ mothers have passed away in the last couple of years, but all the others are in touch with their mothers. The first change we make sure to work on when the girls come to ‘Kranti’ is to go from ‘Shhh, don’t tell anyone about your background, people won’t respect you’ to ‘you should respect your mother — she’s doing this for you. And we will slowly work to ensure the world respects you and your mother as well’. When the girls live away from their mothers, usually the relationships do get better. Most of the mothers are really amazing women who have fought their whole lives and are still fighting. The ones who are problematic have mental health or drug/alcohol addiction problems. We also work to get the mothers into therapy and mental health programmes... Taking full care of the children often means looking out for their mothers as well.
Has your sexual orientation hindered your work?
Hindered is an interesting word... it’s a mix. Let’s just put it this way — it hasn’t been a problem, but it has also definitely not been an asset. There are a lot of queer relationships in the red-light area and I think sex workers and their communities are some of the most open-minded people in the country. You have to be because everything is so fluid and flexible in this community — relationships, marriage, children, and other identities that people tend to see as fixed and binding. However, the moment someone wants to complain about ‘Kranti’, it will come up. One of our former girls is 20 and in a relationship with a 23-year-old woman. That is immediately interpreted as “Robin is lesbian and she is making everyone lesbian too.” Let me put it this way: as in many places in India, queerness is tolerated but definitely not welcomed.
You faced a lot of opposition from landlords. How difficult is it to start an NGO for girls whose mothers are sex workers?
We lived in one building for two and a half years, but when many our girls’ stories started being covered by the media, the building got together and voted to kick us out. We started searching for another home; we were honest with potential landlords about who we were. We had, literally, 300-plus rejections before someone agreed to rent us a place. Our landlord has now said he will not extend our lease. We are starting a house hunt again. But housing is just one difficulty — schools, police, the Indian bureaucracy — everything makes life hard for us. Basically, things get difficult the moment you say “I don’t have a father”.