Queer India Today: Identity, Intersectionality and Illegality

Zoe J2017 sees the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in England. To mark this important anniversary, the Pink Singers will be running a year-long series of events, focusing on India, where this law remains in the penal code and continues to oppress tens of millions of people.

Our first event, last Sunday, was a seminar -“Queer India Today: Identity, Intersectionality and Illegality” – which examined aspects of gay, lesbian and transgender identity in India. It featured some fantastic presentations from three academics from the London-based School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) and a special guest via Skype, from Paris!

For those of you who missed it, here ‘s a summary from one of our sopranos, Zoe.

social-networking-dlThe first presenter, Daniel J Luther, discussed the legal framework behind the criminalisation of homosexuality in India, with particular emphasis on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 377 is the Indian law prohibiting same-sex activity, which was drafted by colonialists in the early 1800s to mirror British anti-sodomy laws, repealed in 2009 by the High Court of India, and re-instituted in 2013 by the Indian Supreme Court.

Daniel spoke of the sense of celebration and relief felt in Indian gay communities after the decision to repeal Section 377 in 2009, which prompted many people to come out to their friends and family; the sense of dismay felt after the law was re-instituted; and the hope that despite re-criminalisation, the groundwork for acceptance had already been laid. They also noted that while law reform is important in promoting acceptance of LGBT people, there are still strict social codes in India which condemn non-normative sexuality and gender expression – and that social activism is an equally, if not more important step towards breaking or broadening these codes.

India Seminar Oct 2016

social-networking-jsThe second presenter, Jacquelyn Strey, spoke about her research on queer female experiences in Mumbai and Bangalore. Jacquelyn spoke of the double social pressures queer women face due to the historic marginalisation of both women and LGBT people in India. In particular, she noted that while gay men are able to freely occupy public space, make connections with each other and move away from home or out of the country to find a safer space to express themselves, queer women are often under strong family pressure to get married, are unable to rent or buy a property without the consent of their father or husband, and isolated from others in their position due to their location outside of the public sphere.

A severe consequence of this widespread social isolation and desperation is that it has become fairly common for young female couples to commit joint suicides, when faced with the prospect of a lifelong sexual commitment to a man. Even female couples who are brave enough to try to run away together run the risk of being detained by the police and the older partner charged with kidnapping or falsely imprisoning the younger one. Despite these ever-present narratives, however, Jacquelyn informed us that there was a burgeoning lesbian social scene in Mumbai, including an activist group called LABIA which campaigns for the acceptance of queer women, no matter their caste, religion, or other social identifiers.

India Seminar Oct 2016

social-networking-juThe third presenter, Jennifer Ung Loh, spoke about the “hijra” community in India and the particular challenges they face. Hijras are trans-feminine people who were assigned male at birth, and have historically held a special role in Hindu mythology, serving as spiritual guides for couples hoping to conceive a child. Today, hijras are often rejected from their birth families and form new, tight-knit communities together, organising themselves into strict hierarchies that determine who earns money, carries out household chores and cares for the children. Hijras are dispersed throughout cities and rural areas, and often adopt gender non-confirming children whose parents no longer want them, or street children who need a home. Hijras are universally marginalised and find it extremely difficult to find employment (unless as as sex workers, and more recently, at sexual health clinics).

Jenny spoke about the difficulties around including hijras in modern LGBT activism, as they are at once more marginalised and more recognised in society than gay men and lesbians. Because they are so visible, for example, they are acknowledged by the government as a group needing support (where gay men and lesbians are not), but they are also completely isolated from mainstream society, unable to work in many professions, and estranged from their birth families.

India Seminar Oct 2016

social-networking-vpThe seminar concluded with a presentation (from Paris, via skype!) with Vinodh Philip, founding member of Rainbow Voices Mumbai, which is the choir we will be meeting during our January trip. Vinodh provided some invaluable information about being gay in Mumbai, including his own story of making his way as a young gay man in the city.

He also talked abut his decision to start the Rainbow Voices choir as a safe space to sing and express himself after homosexuality was re-criminalised in 2013, and the current functions of the choir today. Vinodh really gave us a taste of the choir, and was very entertaining as well!

It was clear from the speakers’ presentations that the LGBT community in India is extraordinarily diverse, complex and nuanced. Though I was already excited about our trip to Mumbai, the seminar gave me a new desire to learn more about the communities we’ll be visiting, and a richer understanding of their contexts. So… next stop: Mumbai!

India Seminar Oct 2016
From left to right: Simon Pearson (Pink Singers Chair), Jacquelyn Strey, Daniel Luther, Hsien Chew (Pink Singer) and Jenny Yong.

National Coming Out Day – A Pinkie Perspective

Zoe COur stories and experiences about coming out can change perceptions, create new advocates for equality and perhaps most importantly, allow someone who’s thinking about coming out to take that step. Today, 11 October, is the 28th anniversary of National Coming Out Day. We’re marking it with a story from one of our altos, Zoe, as well as a short video which highlights some Pinkie perspectives on coming out.

[youtube width=”800″ height=”500″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_EMVCEg-oU[/youtube]

Zoe’s story:

“I don’t remember how old I was when I first knew I was attracted to people of my own gender. Truth be told, I don’t think I ever did have that epiphany – what happened was a slow-dawning realisation that not everyone around me felt the way I did.

Of course, I never said anything to anyone. I lived in a small, conservative-with-a-small-c town in Yorkshire in the 1980s and 90s; Queer as Folk and Graham Norton hosting prime-time television were a long way off yet, and it wasn’t smart to talk about ‘being different’. Instead, I listened to rumours about teachers and other community figures that were ‘like that’, read books by E.M.Forster, and avidly watched for queer subplots on Soldier Soldier and Casualty.
By the time I was a teenager, I’d pretty much accepted myself. When my gran told people “Zoe’s too busy to have a boyfriend”, I pretended I didn’t see the knowing looks and just smiled and laughed along. Then I did find a boyfriend – a sweet gay boy, every bit as closeted as I was – and we pretended together that we didn’t notice the surprise and relief from our respective families.
…the relationship, unsurprisingly, didn’t last. Nor did the tumultuous lesbian affair three years later, although both taught me some important life lessons. The first was that I wasn’t prepared to lie about who I was – to myself, or to anyone else – and the second was that I needed to get away from my small town. Being known but not known by everyone there was destroying me, and at that time, getting out was the only way I could think of to fix it.
I went away to university the September of the year I turned 18. I’d cautiously come out to a select few friends and family members over the preceding months, and the reactions had been mixed to say the least, so I couldn’t wait to start afresh. First thing I did was join the then-LGB society (it feels strange to type that now), and found myself surrounded by people like me for the first time in my life. It was a heady feeling, liberating and startling and overwhelming and reassuring all at once. I met the woman who would go on to become my partner to this day, met friends whose struggles and victories became interwoven with mine, and finally reached a place where I felt strong enough to be honest with my parents.
That Christmas break, I went home. It was the 90s, and no-one really had mobile phones, so I spent two weeks sneaking furtive phone calls to my girlfriend, and wishing I was back at uni. The whole holiday was filled with tension on my part – I wanted to tell them, needed to tell them, but something kept stopping me. Fear of rejection? Maybe. Whatever it was, I eventually took a deep breath, sat down and told them.
I wish I could say they reacted well. I wish I could say they wrapped me up in a hug and reassured me they still loved me – but they didn’t. They cried and yelled, I cried and yelled, then we all retreated to our metaphorical corners to lick our wounds. I called a couple from the LGB society who were visiting family a couple of towns away, and shakily asked when they were driving back to uni – could I cadge a lift, please, and by the way, did they want to go out and get drunk tonight?
12802919_993115184071145_1232791109091909532_nWe drove home the next day. By this point my concept of home had already shifted to university, to my girlfriend and friends who accepted me, rather than the place I’d been born and lived the first 18 years of my life. I sincerely thought that I was leaving and never coming back, but some part of my brain wasn’t willing to give up that easily. I loved my parents, even if they couldn’t give me the unconditional acceptance I’d hoped for, and when I got back to uni I called to let them know I was okay. The conversation was stilted and careful, over quickly – as all our conversations would be for the next six months or so – and made no mention of what I’d said or what had happened afterwards.
Time moved on, as it does, and the raw hurt of rejection settled into a dull ache of disappointment. My parents weren’t bigots, I knew that – so why couldn’t they accept me as I knew they had neighbours and colleagues and friends over the years? Gradually, I started to think about it from their point of view, and how my coming out must have seemed from their side. I’d known I was a lesbian (or at least known I wasn’t straight) for at least six or seven years before telling them. Was it reasonable of me to expect them to readjust their perception of me, every dream they’d ever had for me, without any prior warning other than Nanna’s digs about boyfriends?
Telephone calls were going nowhere, so I sat down and wrote a letter (wow, so quaint and old-fashioned sounding!). I asked them to imagine how it felt to be rejected, not for something you’d done, but for who you are. Who you love. I told them I didn’t want to hurt them, but they’d raised me to be honest, and I didn’t want to keep lying to them over something so important.
A couple of days later, my mum called me. I remember her voice breaking as she told me she hadn’t meant to make me feel rejected, that I was still her baby and nothing would change that, and that she’d been to the doctor to talk to him about what it all meant. He’d reassured her that there was nothing she’d done wrong, that I wasn’t broken (thank you, Doc), and that I’d be okay. I swallowed all my defensiveness and incredulity that she’d gone to the doctor about me, took a deep breath and – we all moved on.
So that’s it, I guess. My coming out story for National Coming Out Day – except it isn’t. It’s one coming out story of the hundreds of times I’ve had to come out during my life so far. Some people have surprised me along the way; some reactions have been better than I’d hoped; some worse than I’d feared. The thing those reactions have in common is that every single one of them has been about the individual, about their prejudices, beliefs and experiences, and not about me. Through them, I’ve learned that there isn’t ever a perfect time to tell people your truth, but that the simple act of getting out there what you’ve known about yourself for years is a release, even when people don’t immediately embrace it.
13932739_10153593660221574_7961524586207633052_nAnd the thing is, it really does get easier. That first time – telling your parents, your friends, whoever the big, important ‘first’ is to you – is huge no matter how they react, but you never stop having to come out after that. There will always be a new neighbour, some relatives you haven’t seen for ages, new colleagues or classmates, some random customer service person or healthcare professional… These people will make assumptions about you, and sometimes, you’ll have to correct those assumptions. Don’t try and take responsibility for other people’s feelings: if they’re disgusted or upset or otherwise negative, that’s all on them, not on you. I’m not saying you should be hard-hearted, but you do need to learn what is and isn’t worth worrying about, and trust me, someone else’s opinions on how you should live your life falls firmly into the ‘not worth it’ category.
The main thing to remember is, you’re not alone. Maybe it feels like it in your small town, or your ultra-conservative high school, or your mega-religious family – but you’re not. There’s so, so many of us out here, and we’re (mostly) doing okay. You’ll be okay. It will be okay. I can’t promise you’ll never get a bad reaction for being truthful, but I can promise that in the long run, you’ll feel better about yourself. And that, for me, is the biggest reason to do it”.
For more information, please visit HRC’s ‘Coming Out’ page.

Navigating Europe, choral style.

HsienLEGATO is a organisation which exists to strengthen the communication and cooperation between the gay and lesbian choruses in Europe. Fresh from their annual meeting, which was held in Munich, tenor Hsien reflects on the bonds which have brought so many European LGBT choirs – old and new – together.
On the expedition of life it pays to stop now and then, and take stock of the forks and bends which have come before, so you know how you got to where you are, and perhaps what route to take in the future. As I sat for an enforced two hours of nothingness on the plane from Munich to London, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t joined the Pink Singers: would I even be aware of the wider community of LGBT choirs across Europe and the world? After this Legato meeting in Munich (7-9 Oct), I am incredibly thankful for the path my choral life has taken.
Legato, a slightly clunky acronym for “LEsbians and GAys singing TOgether”, is the umbrella organisation of Europe’s LGBT choirs, and a group the Pink Singers has been involved with since its inception. Legato helps to oversee “Various Voices” – affectionately abbreviated to “VV” – the four-yearly gathering of European LGBT choirs which the Pinkies have participated in virtually every iteration of, even back when it was originally called the European Lesbian & Gay Festival of Song.
poster-for-the-5th-european-lesbian-gay-festival-of-songIn fact, we have hosted this choral jamboree ourselves on a couple of occasions, our first being the fifth festival in the late 80s. Titled “Singing the Blues Away”, a deliberate dig at the Conservative party of the day, it took place at the height of Section 28, Thatcher’s pernicious anti-gay law. When the choirs of Legato saw that we needed their support to draw attention to that horrible piece of legislation, they awarded us the festival in 1989, helping us to put it on and standing with us in defiance against it. Section 28 was eventually consigned to the dustbin of history, but the Pink Singers will never forget the solidarity our European family showed us then. United we stand.
The intervening decades have seen the winning of several victories for equality, so while there remains a lot to be done, the struggles we face locally do not seem as insurmountable as they used to. It is only natural that as a choral body, our emphasis has moved from responding to challenges, to enjoying our shared tradition of music making. Anyone who has ever been to a VV will be aware of the simple delights of participating in a weekend of singing with fellow choristers from across Europe.

The Philharmonie Theatre in the Gasteig
The Philharmonie Theatre in the Gasteig

Although VVs only happen every four years, in between festivals delegates from our choirs meet at the annual Legato general meetings. This year’s was an opportunity to view our backdrop for VV Munich 2018: the magnificent Gasteig. I can think of no better venue to celebrate LGBT choral singing that in this complex of four outstanding theatres, seating an audience nearly 4,000, surrounded by multiple shared spaces. The latter is actually much more important that it sounds because VVs are as much about socialising as they are about performance, and the communal spaces are essential to facilitate that.

Brunch, with friends old and new.
Brunch, with friends old and new.

If VVs are principally opportunities to renew old friendships and make new ones, however, then the general meetings are concentrated versions thereof, and there were many new friends to be made this time round. In the last few years there has been an explosion of newly-formed LGBT choirs in Southern and Eastern Europe, and at this meeting they were present in force. Joining us in the north and west were representatives from Komos from Bologna, Roma Rainbow Choir from Rome, Checcoro from Milan, Coro Canone Inverso from Padua, the Mallorca Gay Men’s Chorus, Chór Voces Gaudiae from Warsaw, and the majority of the choir from Odessa, Qwerty Queer.
In fact, among the many highlights of the BaVarious Voices concert, presented by the immensely talented Munich choirs on the Saturday night, was watching Qwerty Queer’s guest performance on stage. For me, hearing their song “Vertigo” sung in Russian, wrists bound in red ribbons which were symbolically thrown off, was not only a novel musical experience (I’m not sure we have ever heard Slavic songs at our festivals) it was a timely reminder that the support the Pink Singers once received is now needed in new places.

The combined choirs and orchestra at BAVarious Voices.
The combined choirs and orchestra at BAVarious Voices.

In a Europe, and a UK – which seems fixated on difference and is increasingly ready to put up barriers between us – it is perhaps time to stop and ask ourselves as both a choir and as a community who we are and how we got here, and perhaps then we can decide where and to whom the road runs from here on out. I hope it heads east and south towards our extended family there. This weekend in Munich reassured me of that. United we stand.

Joining the Pinkies!

RadhaOur new season has started with a bang, and rehearsals are already in full swing. Radha has just joined our alto section and tells us a bit about what it’s like to be a ‘newbie’!
Being surrounded by individuals who are as passionate about music as you are is a refreshing experience. Interacting with like-minded people and really having them understand music as well as you do is an incredibly uplifting feeling.
Joining the Pink Singers gave me just that. The cohesive bond between all group members, regardless of age, gender, race, and religion really shone through.
Pinkies in rehearsalMy journey began via word of mouth – I had heard of the Pink Singers from a friend and was intrigued to discover more. I need somewhere to reignite my fire for music and singing that I had lost about five years ago.
My research led me to an array of performances posted on YouTube – and the choir’s blog. I wanted to be one of the voices that soared the way The Pink Singers voices did and still do!
Newbie party_Sep 2016And so my journey led me on to my audition. I fell so far flat on my first note that it would have been preferable for the ground to swallow me whole at that point! However Murray, our Musical Director, and the gang encouraged me to keep going and gave me the opportunity to shine. They didn’t try to catch me out or criticise me when they could see I was a bit out of practice – instead, they saw the potential I had and invited me to join The Pink Singers and continue onwards to rediscovering my passion for music.
The choir hosted a party for myself and other new members which included hair-raising renditions of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody and SIA’s Chandelier.
Newbie party_Sep 2016This week has been a whirlwind and we’re soon to be starting choreography to match these angelic voices. Watch out, world! You’re in for a ride!
Keep an eye on our website over the next few weeks for some very exciting updates, including details on our next concert – which will be on Saturday 14 January 2017! Save the date!

Meet our new Management Committee!

Which Pinkie has webbed feet? Who was awarded not one, but two Blue Peter badges? Meet the team who make up this year’s new Management Committee to find out!

Simon – Chair

Interesting fact: A lesser-known fact about me is that I’m a lapsed runner – in 2010 I ran the London marathon and it was painfully epic!
Favourite Pinkie song: With A Lily In Your Hand – it’s a setting of a beautiful and unusual love poem by Federico García Lorca; it’s full of lush chords, ostinato rhythms and contrasts.

Zoe – Events Manager

Zoe CInteresting fact: My cousin is one of only two people to have won the Cycling Triple Crown. I can just about cycle around the park (as long the path is flat).

Favourite Pinkie song: Chandelier: the choir sang it to us nearly-newbies, and I loved it so much. I was so happy when I sang it when we went to Dublin and Amsterdam.

Penny – Soprano Section Leader

Penny LangridgeInteresting fact: I neither love nor hate marmite.

Favourite Pinkie song: Send in the Clowns – when I first auditioned for the choir, the current members sang it to us; it was amazing and really made me want to be a Pinkie.

Ben – Tenor Section Leader

ben-rInteresting fact: I’m a complete ‘cynophile’, a person who loves dogs!
Favourite Pinkie song: With a Lily in Your Handmy first season! It was extremely tough to learn, but sounded amazing in the end!

Nicola – Multimedia Director

Nicola SInteresting fact: I was once charged by a hippo in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Park.

Favourite Pinkie song: Jai Ho – I saw the Pinkies perform it and hoped I always would too. I did, in my first Pinkies’ concert in fact, complete with choreography!

Simon – Artistic Director

Simon HarrisonInteresting fact: I am a very keen horticulturalist enjoying growing vegetables on my allotment.

Favourite Pinkie song: Both Sides NowI’m a big Joni Mitchell fan and a huge admirer of our very talented arranger, Chris Chambers who did a stunning job.

Alice – Alto Section Leader

Ali DoyleInteresting fact: One of my passions is travel, and especially to climb mountains. I always find the highest mountain wherever I go!
Favourite Pinkie song: I loved singing a song in Mandarin and Hokkien when we went to Taiwan to sing in the first Asian LGBT choral festival last year. It was hard but we got such a big round of applause at the end (or was it sympathy?!).

Jerome – Concerts Producer

Jerome De HenauInteresting fact: I love skiing and travelling. My father makes the best waffles in the world with a recipe from my gran.

Favourite Pinkie song: hard to pick a favourite song but one that took the choir through challenging times was Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns. I love it for its meaning and amazing chords.

Kirsten – Publicity Director

KirstenInteresting fact: I have visited 33 countries in the past two years.

Favourite Pinkie song: Love Song for a Vampire. We sang it at a Secret Enchanted Ball and ended up nearly choking on feathers that were being sprinkled onto our heads as we sang; it’s those bizarre situations that I would never otherwise find myself in that love about being in the choir.

Paul – Bass Section Leader

Paul TInteresting fact: My favourite colour is red, my favourite food is lasagne, my favourite drink is dark spiced rum and I have webbed toes on my right foot!

Favourite Pinkie song: My Pinkie highlight to date is singing Relax at the ‘By Special Arrangement’ concert. It is so dark and dramatic, a really powerful piece.

Zoe – Membership Secretary

zoeInteresting fact: I absolutely love playing board games and cards and once played bridge with one of the top ten Bridge Masters in the USA.

Favourite Pinkie song: This Woman’s Work has to be close. A beautiful arrangement of a powerful song.

Rosie – Secretary

Rosie ThomasInteresting fact: My proudest achievement is winning two Blue Peter badges. I don’t need much encouragement to wear them…
Favourite Pinkie song: Make You Feel My Love – I thought this was a beautiful arrangement (thanks to the inimitable Chris Chambers!).

Jezza – Communities Director

JeremyInteresting fact: Not many people know that my first word was a Cantonese swearword, i couldn’t possibly reveal it 😉
Favourite Pinkie song: ah, so many… but our recent arrangement of September tugged at my heartstrings in many special ways and made me glad to be a Pinkie.