Mumbai Musings: part 1

Following the Pink Singers’ recent trip to India, we’re bringing you not one, not two, but LOADS of blogs to tell you all about the amazing time we had – both from our perspective and Rainbow Voices Mumbai (RVM). First up, here’s a piece from RVM’s  Siddhy, reflecting on his experience with the Pinkies.

“The first time I saw the Pink Singers, four of us from Rainbow Voices were carrying a piano, for our first event together at the American Consulate. We waved at them and then met each other mutedly as the event was about to begin. The Pinkies took to stage and joyously sang Nat King Cole’s ‘L-O-V-E’. I was stunned into happy tears. The playful, innocent choreography coming through the most age-diverse white crowd I’ve ever seen – and immediately fell for – pushed me to serious indie-movie sobbing.

Siddhy with Tracey & Louise

One person from Rainbow Voices was in each taxi we took to reach the next place, to ensure our guests got there safely. It was an hour-long ride and by the time we reached the restaurant, Louise, Tracey, Giancarlo and I had traded coming-out stories and shared our professional lives. Giancarlo had switched vocations; Tracey recently quit her job to go travelling; Louise is freelancing fancy. All friends now, we went in, karaoke’d, bought each other drinks and danced.

During the pre-concert rehearsal the next evening, the Pinkies sang – among other lovely songs – Ryan Amador’s ‘Define Me’: a song about celebrating who you are and being free to love who you want. I’ve seen them perform it twice and each time I smile, feeling comforted.

Afterwards, over cheese garlic naans, we gabbed all through the night. I saw gay-gay and les-b-honest lesbian couples all around me like exquisite people that just stepped out from a novel. Tanya was showing me pictures of her gay daughter and nephew. Alessandro was gushing over his daughter while we cooed and aaw-ed, and for a moment I felt like my dreams were plausible and my hopes valid.

Finale of the We Shall Overcome concert

Our ‘We Shall Overcome’ concert was moving, and tinged with flashes of disbelief that we were performing at the prestigious National Centre for Performing Arts! Manasie, our ‘Ms Bisexuale’, turned 24 that night and the entire bar witnessed spontaneous performances from the Pinkies, all at their respective tables, some standing cheering, some holding Manasie’s hand. Like Aditya said, “it was so Pitch Perfect”. The bar management begged us to finally leave and everybody hugged everyone goodnight.

We walked together in the Pride March the next day, beaming at the crowds, dancing to drums and taking pictures. At the farewell party, we confessed gratitude, marvel and a million other things.

It is soothing to imagine those who’re free, liberating to meet them.

Sunday rehearsals with Rainbow Voices really help me – I can turn off autopilot and be my real self. I’ve made good friends who’re all colourful, compassionate people. We can breathe out.

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’.

Next up, the Pinkies plan to bring Rainbow Voices to London! We can’t wait to perform with them again and plan for them to join us at our next concert at Cadogan Hall on 15th July. But we need funds to help make this dream a reality! If you can help bring this wonderful choir to London (you can even come to watch them perform!) you can donate through our website www.pinksingers.co.uk/india2017  or contact chair@pinksingers.co.uk for more information.

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.

PINK WITH ‘PRIDE’

HelenAlto Helen reviews ‘Pride’ and looks at the wider, modern context surrounding the film today. 
We heard on the news today that a British man had just been released from a Moroccan prison where he had been incarcerated having been tried and found guilty of ‘homosexual acts’. The release had occurred after intervention via political and diplomatic channels, and it is obviously good news that he is now safely home. It remains to be seen what will happen to the Moroccan man who was also arrested and imprisoned for the same ‘reason’, Jamal Jam Wald Nass; I imagine there will be no political or diplomatic ‘get out of jail free card’ for him.
It was a timely reminder that although we are tremendously lucky in the UK to enjoy freedom to live and love in private and public, across the world there are millions of others who risk imprisonment, torture and punishment by death for living the same lives we live every day. Consensual same-sex relations are illegal in some 78 countries. And being gay or lesbian could see you sentenced to death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Sudan, as well as some regional states in Nigeria and Somalia.
pridePRIDE the film, reminded me of the hundreds of brave LGBTQ folk who, over previous decades, have fought to get us in the UK to this position of equality and relative safety. It evoked a time when discrimination was being written into the law, through Section 28, and LGBTQ people had to withstand intimidation and violence on a regular basis. Most would agree that life is considerably easier for us now in the UK, than 30 years ago, but people still suffer from homophobia; the fight isn’t over yet, and we need to protect the advances so hard won in the past.
Many young gay people continue to be made homeless by their families after coming out or being ‘outed’. The Albert Kennedy Trust is a wonderful, small, charity and I have seen them in action giving safe accommodation, access to a key worker, and counselling that helps these young people feel that there is someone on, and at, their side.
Homophobic bullying is still a major problem in schools; if we can enable young people to feel confident in coming out, and to avoid their self-esteem being destroyed at a young age by bullies then the next generation of LGBTQ people will be in an even better place than we are now.

Pinkies at the Flicks

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Another ‘Night at the Movies’ as the Pinkies head out in force to see Pride.

A group of Pink Singers went to see the film one Wednesday evening a few weeks ago, enjoying a curry beforehand and drinks afterwards. I have never seen a cinema so full on a Wednesday night. This was several weeks after the film was released and people were still packing in to see it. It is a big, emotional, warm film, and it tells a story that none of us had heard before, of a gay and lesbian group in London who raised money for a group of South Wales striking miners.
The emotional heart of the film for me was really about the rejection and struggle that both groups faced, with the gay group struggling to find anyone even willing to take their money due to their social pariah-like status, and the miners facing near starvation and threats from the police and the political establishment. Many people who’ve seen it have experienced the audience applauding at the end; the applause is for both groups and the way in which they equally helped each other. The way that by joining forces and supporting each other they were able to take on the establishment and change things. The strikes, the fear and lives cut short by AIDS, the bricks through windows, all seem like another world. And so does the political activism.

The Pink Singers at Pride 2014
The Pink Singers at Pride 2014

What does PRIDE mean? For many now it is shorthand for a day of the year when we get to dress up and party. This film gives us as a community much to be proud of, but the work of these wonderful activists needs to continue, to enable us to be able to dance with justification under the banner of the word ‘PRIDE’.
Being part of the Pink Singers and publicly showing myself as a gay person has helped me to feel the word; walking through London streets every year at the Pride march shows other people, sometimes in other countries, that they are not alone. Visibility is still important as we subsume into the mainstream culture and gay venues are closed. Just today I found out that the Royal Vauxhall Tavern which featured in the film is the latest venue threatened.
One of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve had was with Pink Singers at the Various Voices festival this year, an international gathering of LGBTQ choirs. Chatting to other LGBTQ singers from countries around the world really brought home the importance of the fight for LGBTQ freedom from oppression across the world as a first step, but eventually for equality for all.
PrideTo quote from the film itself:
“When you’re in a battle with an enemy that’s so much bigger, so much stronger than you, to find out you had a friend you never knew existed, well that’s the best feeling in the world. Can you see what we’ve done here, by coming together all of us? We made history!”

Sochi olympics throw Russian LGBT rights into relief

Last week, one of the Pink Singers small groups, the Barberfellas, were invited to sing at a party/protest to highlight the plight of LGBT Russians – a hot media topic given the Winter Olympics and by the shocking documentary, Hunted.
Little did our Barberfellas know that in attending the event at Ku Bar in Soho, they would be caught on camera during a live Channel 4 debate between Peter Tatchell and former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov. You can see the full debate, presented by Cathy Newman, here:

The sort of rhetoric put forward by Alexander Nekrassov sounds reminiscent of some views heard commonly in the UK before the 1990s.  But of course LGBT equality is a global issue, not a Russian one. Last week, the BBC published an insightful interactive highlighting the countries in the world where it’s still illegal to be gay. It’s a sobering map. Whilst some good progress is being made, some countries such as India and Burundi are actually making retrograde steps and making life even harder for their LGBT citizens.
We still have a long way to go. And so, we continue to sing. The Pink Singers wish to express their love and solidarity with all LGBT people and their supporters in Russia, and we’d like to share one of our anthems, Hand in Hand, the lyrics of which ring especially true for Russia and other oppressed nations.