Supporting LGBT rights in India

The Pink Singers ran a year-long project to highlight LGBT rights in India, in partnership with India’s first ever LGBT choir, Rainbow Voices Mumbai.

What were our goals?

In 2015, we made contact with a brand new choir in India, Rainbow Voices Mumbai (RVM). We heard about their passion for making music, how they work together and support each other, and their struggles in a hostile environment for LGBT people. We were inspired to reach out the hand of friendship.

As a charity the Pink Singers has worked with many LGBT choirs in the UK and around the world to support their work, to march together in Pride and to sing a shared message when words alone are not enough. 

In India, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises homosexuality, with a version of the same law which existed in the UK until 1967. It was introduced under British rule in 1862 and to this day carries the threat of a decade in prison, and daily fear and discrimination. Individuals are blackmailed by the police so that, in exchange for money, their secret will be kept.

“This space, as a bisexual woman is a safe space for me. When we’re singing, it’s the only moment we feel ourselves.” – Manasie Manoj, member of RVM

So together with RVM, we planned a project to raise awareness about the reality of being queer in India; sharing music and culture by performing together in both our home cities. We aimed to:

  • Raise awareness about the status of LGBT rights both in India and the UK, encouraging communities from both countries to support equal rights and status for LGBT people.
  • Share music and culture of the Pink Singers with RVM, and vice versa, encouraging the choirs to develop and grow, to give LGBT people a space and a strong community to support vulnerable people at risk of isolation and harm.
  • Present joint concerts to generate positive press coverage in India and the UK, raising RVM’s profile, helping to establish their music as a vital part of the city’s cultural offer.

What we did

Part 1: Queer India Today Seminar

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We organised a seminar featuring three academics from the School of African and Oriental Studies in London and members of the Pink Singers and RVM (by Skype!).

This helped us understand the similarities and differences between us, the language used, the history of section 377 being repealed and then re-introduced 4 years later. In the early stages of this work, this was important, to know just what the situation was in India, and how, if, we could help.

Part 2: Visit to perform and march in Mumbai

In January 2017, 39 Pink Singers visited Mumbai and finally met RVM in person. They welcomed us to their city, we shared stories and experienced Pride in a city without acceptance, where the participants were celebrating, but bystanders looked on, seemingly not understanding why we were there.

Our joint concert “We Shall Overcome” at the prestigious National Centre for Performing Arts was sold out, including emotional joint renditions of the title song, and “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga. The songs took on new significance in the context of our project. This was the first time RVM had organised a concert of their very own. Ashish told us:

“it brought out leadership qualities, creative and administrative abilities of choir members. We were struck that almost no families came to support the concert. One RVM member told how his parents planned to come, until they knew their son was singing with an LGBT group.

Below is a short video of our joint concert at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai.

We also joined hand in hand with Rainbow Voices Mumbai at Mumbai Pride, Queer Azaadi Mumbai.

“The Pinkies crossed the ocean to high-five and greet us like visiting family. They reminded us of the sublime words of John Mayer and Katy Perry, ‘You love who you love who you love’.” Read more on what RVM’s  Siddhy had to say after reflecting on his experience following the Pinkies’ visit to Mumbai… 

“Singing with and listening to the members of Rainbow Voices Mumbai was truly uplifting. Being able to spend time singing, listening, talking, and sharing stories and experiences made me realise that although we live many miles apart, we can still find common ground”. Click here to read Pinkie Claire’s blog. 

“We felt accepted as we declared to the world, “I was born this way and I am not ashamed”. RVM member Aniruddha tells us about meeting the Pinkies for the first time, and feeling uplifted in the battle against Section 377, the law which criminalises homosexuality in India. Read more…

“The joint ”We Shall Overcome” concert was an emotional rollercoaster for many of us: every song sung by both choirs took on an added significance. When we sang an a capella version of “We Shall Overcome” together in English and Hindi, it was a moving show of defiance and solidarity from which I could not hold back my tears”. Pinkie Hsien shares his experience.

Part 3: Performing on stage at Pride in London, 2017

The final part of the project was the most complex, but in many ways the most important. After all the fundraising efforts, Skype meetings and long conversations with the UK visa office in Mumbai, we succeeded in bringing 11 members of RVM to London.  Most of the group had never left India before so every aspect of the visit was new and exciting.

We hosted the choir in our homes, showed them the sights of London and shared Pride week together, in our city full of rainbows.

“The first time ever I flew across oceans and lands so far beyond my reach to explore freedom and equality”

It was a pleasure to bring Rainbow Voices Mumbai to the Pride in London stage in Trafalgar Square: where all of London fell in love with them too. 

As a finale to the project, Rainbow Voices Mumbai also joined us for our summer concert at Cadogan Hall and performed to a packed audience of 800, receiving multiple standing ovations.

What was achieved through this work?

The UK partially decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, and since then we’ve come a long way in gaining acceptance, most recently with legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013.

In London, RVM members could see how life could be, with freedom; it gave them hope to see same-sex partners living openly together.
They gained renewed determination to improve the situation for their community in India. Two singers, Anand and Mak, sat in a restaurant in Covent Garden holding hands and talked about how in India they could only do this at home when nobody is around, for fear of being seen.

They saw the support shown across the city for our Pride celebration, with businesses and tube stations emblazoned with rainbows in support of our freedom.  

“It is soothing to imagine those who’re free, liberating to meet them” – Siddhy

Working alongside the Pink Singers was a learning experience for RVM, in rehearsals and preparation for our summer concert.

“It made the singing more effective and  everyone leaned towards getting better to share the stage with you all”. – RVM member

They have returned to India with new ambition: planning to grow the numbers in the choir, to perform at queer events and to be known for their music, to inspire others to use music as a tool to spread awareness and join in the fight against section 377. They want to do more to highlight LGBT rights and visibility in India, to make their country more diverse and inclusive of all.

Media coverage

  • Interviews with members of both choirs during London Pride, on New Delhi TV

We achieved our goal of raising awareness of this issue, with TV, radio and print pieces as well as online articles and blogs in both countries. Talking about the issues and their experiences boosted the confidence of choir members to advocate for their rights and hopes for the future.

“It has made me stronger; a firm believer and an optimist with regards to the support we can achieve. Despite all the hurdles we’re determined to be what we are and make a difference to the world in every possible way we can.” – Ashish, member of RVM

Reflecting on the project

The challenges we faced
We aimed to bring every member of RVM to London although we encountered issues with visas, which meant that unfortunately not all members could join us. We countered this by including members left in Mumbai through a social group on Facebook and asking them to contribute to blog posts and media articles for the project.

What is the future of the project?
After this experience, RVM are more well known in India and have been featured in a number of news pieces about section 377. They continue their fight to effect change for LGBT communities in India, with the Pink Singers’ support from the UK. On a local level, they plan to grow the number of people in the choir significantly over the next three years, to build their community and profile. They aim to inspire others through their music to fight alongside them for equality.

The Pink Singers will stay in touch with RVM, supporting when we can with the development of their community, and in their plans to achieve equality.  

On behalf of the Pink Singers and Rainbow Voices Mumbai, THANK YOU for your support in making this project happen. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Want to support us financially on an ongoing basis? Please take a look at joining our Friends scheme.

Thanks to

Silicon Valley Community Foundation
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With thanks to the Friends of the Pink Singers, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and to Rigour Research for their financial support to make this project a reality.

Timeline datestamp: 16 January 2017

Rainbow Voices Mumbai – Making Music in 377 India

Philip VinodhThis year the Pink Singers are working to support LGBT rights in India with a series of joint concerts with Rainbow Voices Mumbai, in both our home cities, sharing music and raising awareness of LGBT issues.

Forty-two intrepid Pinkies will visit Mumbai this January, to join Rainbow Voices for a joint concert at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai and to march in the Pride parade, Queer Azaadi, alongside our Indian friends. We plan to follow this with RVM members making a return trip to London this summer to join us for our next concert and to march alongside us at London Pride.

Many in our choir have experienced discrimination because of our sexuality, gender or gender identification; some have faced homophobic abuse and violence. We understand the need for community spaces where LGBT people can feel safe, understood and accepted. Our choir is that space for many of us and we feel stronger for being part of a supportive group who meet regularly and share music. We want to share that with others who don’t have a safe space, to encourage them to set up groups of their own.

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was introduced in 1862 under British rule, banning same sex relationships, punishable by a 10-year prison sentence. This law was used in the UK to prosecute gay men with penalties including hard labour and chemical castration, given to Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing. This law remains long after Indian independence, and violence and discrimination against gay people in India prevails.

MumbaiVinodh Philip, Founder of India’s first LGBT choir tells us about their experience:

“I’ve lived through the times when the Delhi High Court decriminalised Section 377 in 2009 and then I’ve lived through the harrowing time when the Supreme Court reinstated Section 377. In 2009 after the High Court verdict, so many gay friends came out and started living together boldly. There was a sense of freedom. It also put an end to police harassment, throwing people in jail and extortion, which was so widespread. The police would stand around in cruising places and go to the extent of luring a gay man to him, then stop him and say, “I’m a cop and I’m booking you under 377”. The police who were supposed to be guardians of the people, were causing huge mental trauma for gay men just for being honest to their own instincts. Anyway, in 2009, all of this harassment stopped. And the years between 2009 and 2013 were the best – golden years! 

Then the worst happened. In 2013 the Supreme Court reinstated Section 377. So it all went back to square one – police extortion, couples being harassed, forced marriages. I was in the office when the ruling showed on TV, re-criminalising homosexuality. I felt sick in my stomach, because, to think that the country I was living in did not accept me for being honest and truthful about myself, made me feel sick! I lost all faith in the justice system.

Anyway, while this was happening, I had moved to Bombay. And around that time too, my mum who used to encourage me to sing as a child and made me join the church choir, kept on pestering me with this question – Have you joined a choir yet, have you joined a choir yet! I love to sing, of course, but I didn’t want to join a church choir and hide my sexuality. I wanted to find a gay-friendly choir in Bombay, but there wasn’t one. And that’s how Rainbow Voices Mumbai was born.

At the first audition we had about 28 people landing up on a rainy day. This was so encouraging to see all these people come and audition and just showed that there was a need for the choir in the community 🙂

MumbaiIn India, generally people think that a person who is gay is always camp and is on his way to becoming a hijra (or a trans-gender person). The hijra community in India is ostracised and don’t have access to education. They live in communities on the fringes of society and don’t really have any rights. And this is the stereotype we’d like to break.

So, that why as a choir we choose songs that are slutty and sometimes sung by women and we have all our beards and hair showing but, also wear makeup and sing as men do. We’d also like to make a statement that we’re men and we wear women’s clothes and makeup, but we’re still men. So deal with it…!

We’ve sung Bollywood songs and ‘Like a Virgin’ from Madonna; we don’t want to stick to the hetero-normative norms. Our choir members are free to wear whatever they like and there are no restrictions as to how they have to accessorise. We don’t have to conform to what the heterosexual world would want a man or a woman to dress or look like.

This is our fight for freedom to be ourselves and express ourselves freely. It’s also part of building awareness of the LGBT community and we hope it would reduce the sort of judgmental attitude Indian society has about us and others.

MumbaiWe provide a safe space for the choristers who join us and provide a support system. People share their coming out stories, discuss problems that they may face at work or college. We are lucky to have a safe space to rehearse every Sunday, We’ve got huge support from the Pink Singers and Proud Voices Asia through the social media platform and this has been a great source of encouragement for us all and has made us feel part of something global.”

The Pinkies are aiming to bring our friends in Rainbow Voices Mumbai to London to sing with us, so we can show them how we operate and how to grow and strengthen their flourishing community of singers. We know from our experience of over 30 years singing together and from many meetings with other choirs, what a positive impact singing has on the LGBT community. We’ve already raised £5,000 and we need to double that to bring every member of RVM here to London this summer.

Find out more on our website www.pinksingers.co.uk/india2017 where you can also contribute to our fundraising total to bring Rainbow Voices Mumbai here to London this summer.

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.

Queer India Today: Identity, Intersectionality, Illegality: The Q&A

India seminarA big thank you from the Pink Singers to all our speakers at yesterday’s Queer India Today seminar.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time for a proper question and answer session, however all our speakers have kindly agreed to address your questions over on the discussion on the event page.

If you would prefer to post anonymously, please feel free to email hsien.chew@pinksingers.co.uk and he will gladly post the question on your behalf. Head on over and let’s talk! Click here to join the discussion. 

A reminder of the speakers and subjects:

j-daniel-luther

J Daniel Luther
Being Gay in the times of Section 377: India and the de/re-criminalisation of Same-sex desire’ – This talk will trace the recent developments in the legal struggle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, highlighting the key issues facing men who identify as Gay in contemporary India in the context of the recent re-criminalisation.
J Daniel Luther is a Doctoral Researcher at the Department of South Asia in SOAS, University of London. Their Ph.D research focuses on tracing the History of Normativity in India through Indian literature and popular film. They are one of the co-organisers of the recently concluded Queer Asia 2016 Conference held at SOAS.
jacquelyn-streyJacquelyn Strey
‘Women’s Pride? Women’s voices and experiences’ – This talk will cover the particular issues faced by lesbian and other queer women in contemporary India followed by a brief discussion of the Queer Azaadi Mumbai Pride parade in Mumbai.

Jacquelyn is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS in London. Her work focuses on the everyday lives of queer women in India and uses queer theory as her main lens of analysis. Jacquelyn lives in London with her partner, Darren, and their dog Hugo.
jennifer-ung-lohJennifer Ung Loh
 ‘Negotiating the “T” in LGBT: positioning “transgender” identity in contemporary India’ This talk will consider hijra, kinnar, and transgender identity,particularly investigating male-to-female ‘transgender’ identity in modern India by looking at identities and roles among the hijra community and current legal judgments concerning ‘transgender’ identity.
Jennifer Ung Loh is currently a Research Associate at the South Asia Institute, SOAS, University of London. Awarded her PhD in May 2014, Jennifer’s research is on constructions of gender and sexuality in contemporary South Asia, specifically investigating hijra and kinnar (‘transgender’) identity.
vinodh-philipVinodh Philip
‘Rainbow Voices Mumbai: making music in 377 India’ – Rainbow Voices Mumbai is India’s first LGBT choir. This talk will explain how the choir was formed (as part of his personal coming out story), and why, in the context of the fight against 377,prejudices and stereotypes in India, it tries to exist and make a statement. It will also focus on how Rainbow Voices Mumbai provides a safe space for its choristers.
Vinodh Philip is a founder member of Rainbow Voices Mumbai, India’s first LGBT choir. Vinodh has recently moved to Paris from Mumbai and is making it his home. He now works in Corporate Communications for a French multi-national company. He loves to sing, feels passionate about the environment, equal rights and breaking stereotypes about the LGBTI community.