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Sweekar: The Rainbow Parents is a support group for parents of LGBTQ+ community members

Being there: A pride march in Mumbai in 2018   | Photo Credit: Sweekar: The Rainbow Parents

It took Mangala Aher, from a middle-class Maharashtrian family, eight years to reconcile herself with her son who had become a daughter. A transgender woman, Abhina Aher — Associate Director, India HIV/AIDS Alliance — had struggled with her gender identity since childhood. As had her mother, a single parent who blamed everything — from the lack of a father figure to an interest in dance — for her son’s ‘feminine nature’.

“She couldn’t understand my frustration, I couldn’t understand hers. For many years, she stopped talking to me,” says Aher, 42, who started going through gender-reassignment surgeries at 30.

Today, both mother and daughter are part of Dancing Queen, a transgender-led dance troupe. Her mother’s support has been a game-changer for Aher: it gave her the positive touch she needed. Mangala, who is 72, is one of the 50 parents (mostly mothers) who make up Sweekar: The Rainbow Parents, a support group for parents of LGBTQ+ community members.

Parental support goes a long way in helping LGBTQ+ children come to terms with their sexuality and in creating awareness about a cause that’s mired in prejudice despite the landmark Supreme Court ruling that decriminalised homosexuality. Sweekar is meant to help parents so that they, in turn, can help their children. It was started in October 2016 by film-maker Sridhar Rangayan, director of the 2018 film Evening Shadows and founder of Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival.

“Families are the fulcrum of our lives in India,” says Rangayan, who believes that Sweekar has more work coming up ahead in the post-Section-377 environment. “Our immediate goal is not gay marriage or adoption rights but working towards changing mindsets.”

Needless to say, that starts at home, with families.

Rangayan’s own mother took a long time to understand him when he came out in 1995. “Most parents start blaming themselves and feel guilty. Getting past that guilt and coming to a point of acceptance takes a long time,” he says. For some parents, acceptance isn’t as much of a problem as having to explain the situation in their peer group, given the stigma and misunderstanding attached to LGBTQ+ issues.

Shared journey

Although other organisations have been conducting parent support meetings, Rangayan felt that a dedicated parents-only group was much-needed. Sweekar is Mumbai-based but has Indian parents from across cities and even abroad as members. They don’t have a registered office but meet at a space donated by a member. “With a group you can share your story and draw courage from other people’s journeys,” Rangayan says.

“Our first meeting was in February 2017: we meet every three-four months,” says Aruna Desai, the group administrator (they have a closed Whatsapp group too) who, despite being unaware of homosexuality, supported her son Abhishek when he came out 11 years ago. She has since educated herself through books, attended talks and meetings with other parents, and participated in Gay Pride parades, including one in Vietnam.

Desai and other parents like film-maker Chitra Palekar, whose daughter Shalmali is a lesbian, have always been vocal in their support of their children even before the group was formed. Palekar’s daughter came out at the age of 21 but she had been aware of her orientation since she was 14 or 15.

“When I asked her why she didn’t tell me earlier, she said, ‘You talked of all things progressive except this.’ Most movies and plays involve a girl and a boy. She was scared.” Palekar, who supported her daughter immediately, says the revelation was like “a slap on the face”. She says, “I considered myself progressive but realised I wasn’t there for her when she needed me the most.”

The lack of support could have a terrible impact on children, warns Nilakshi Roy, a professor of English in a suburban Mumbai college and a Sweekar member. Her daughter is bisexual. “There have been cases of suicide and children leaving home; what parents need to do if they come to know about a sexuality crisis is read up on the matter and offer their support. Acceptance is more important here than what everybody else is thinking.”

While some parents cannot be convinced enough, some can be talked into opening up their minds. For instance, once 60-year-old Padma Iyer, mother of LGBTQ+ activist Harish Iyer, started going for parents’ meetings with her son, she gradually realised that homosexuality isn’t unnatural. “Given my conservative background, if I can come out as a parent, others can too,” says Iyer, who has even placed a matrimonial ad looking for a groom for her son.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Pune.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 10:09:51 AM |

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