In Conversation with: Sonal Giani
Sonal Giani is an Indian LGBTQ+ activist, film maker and was previously the Advocacy Manager at the Humsafar Trust in Mumbai. She is passionate about raising awareness around the LGBTQ+ community and the issues they face, as well as providing support to young people in India from this community.
We had the chance to speak with her about the realities of being part of the LGBTQ+ community, how non-LGBTQ+ folk can provide better allyship, and the direction she thinks society is headed towards. We were also able to discuss the various initiatives she is a part of and has co-founded in order to provide support and raise awareness around LGBTQ+ folk in India.
How would you describe yourself in a sentence?
I am an LGBTQ+ Activist and filmmaker who is actively pursuing the politics of love to find pride and healing for herself and her community.
Do you have any advice on how someone can support their LGBTQ+ friends? What does active allyship look like to you?
There are many things that friends can do to offer support to their friends. Active allyship looks like a strong friendship to me. The relationship looks for trust and support both ways.
Allies should call out any discrimination and also make their support towards the queer community vocal and unambiguous. Empathy instead of sympathy for the struggles of community members is very important. Holding space and providing platforms also go a long way in ensuring equal representation.
What are some of the struggles LGBTQ+ folk face when coming out in the South Asian Community?
There are a lot of myths around people with diverse sex, gender and sexuality. Some of the prominent misconceptions are that this is a western influence or/and a mental health illness that can be cured. There is also stigma around people who are in non heterosexual relationships. Society hyper-sexualizes the community and accuses it of promiscuity and infidelity.
In South Asian societies, Marriage is a very strong institution. Since most countries do not recognize same-sex/gender unions in law; this institution which is centered in cis-hetero-patriarchal supremacy ends up perpetuating violence. The community is left with no option but to continuously fight marriage pressure. Pressure tactics include but are not limited to physical violence, house arrest, emotional and psychological violence. In countries where patriarchy is the norm, very few women are able to escape this pressure.
Allies should call out any discrimination and also make their support towards the queer community vocal and unambiguous.
What resources do you recommend which we can use to educate ourselves about the struggle of LGBTQ+ folk in the South Asian Community?
Online platforms such as Gaysi Family, Orinam, Agents Of Ishq are great platforms to get to know the struggles of the community. They provide personal narratives, art and multi-media from the community.
Project Bolo is another intiative that is available for viewing online. It is an oral history project that documents the journey of the community this past thirty years.
There are also IEC materials available on the Humsafar Trust website.
Can you tell us a bit about “Yaariyan” and “Umang”?
Yaariyan is the youth intiative of The Humsafar Trust. At the heart of it, there are voluntary core members who identify from within the spectrum and are between the ages of 18 to 28 years. They are responsible to manage its online platform and offline events/meet ups. The online group has almost ten thousand members who are from around the country. Some of the popular events that the group hosts are The Acceptance Meet and Flashmobs. I am one of the co-founders of this group.
Umang is a support group for lesbians, bisexual women and transmasculine persons based in Mumbai. The group has members from Pune and Nagpur as well. It offers a community space, peer support, counselling and legal advice. The group hosts monthly meetings besides weekly meet-ups/events/workshops for the community to socialize or to build awareness in the group on relevant issues. I am one of the co-founder of this group which is about 10 years old.
What is the “Humsafar Trust” and how can it help others in the LGBTQ+ community?
The Humsafar Trust is India’s oldest registered NGO that is working for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. It is about 25 years old and is a community based organisation which works for the health and human rights of the community. The main four themes of its work are advocacy, capacity building, health and research. It is a globally recognized organisation which has championed the rights of the community especially in the formative years of the movement.
You have been very active in the creative industry, starring in a number of documentaries worldwide and directing your own projects. What has been the response to these projects? Do you think that they are also helping to raise awareness and change regressive attitudes?
The response to all my projects has been overwhelmingly positive. The immediate response that I have received has been from queer people around the world who have written to appreciate me. They also write to me for support from any issues they are facing in their life. Surprisingly, I have had a fair share of parents writing to me to encourage my work.
I have been using my films “Unheard Stories Part 1 and Part 2” as tools to sensitize corporate bodies. The personal narratives in these films have touched the chords of many and have successfully led to conversations on change.
Do you think the attitudes in the South Asian community are changing?
I definitely believe that the attitudes of South Asian people are changing. It is very obvious when you study younger generations who are very active and vocal with their opinions on the community. The past five years has seen a sudden surge in coming out by community members. Mainstream media has also opened up to the discourse on queer rights. However, we are still a long way away from an equitable society. Many South Asian countries still criminalize LGBTQ+ communities and those who don’t rarely have laws to protect them.
How did you celebrate pride at home this year, with COVID forcing the public celebrations to be cancelled?
The international pride month has gained prominence in the last five years in India. The month is filled with events, talks and workshops aimed at gaining visibility to the cause. This pride month, I was part of 22 events. This included interviews, live talks and moderating panels. Through these events I engaged with corporate, teachers, influencers, NGOs, youth and general society.
In my personal space, everyday is pride. I actively sensitize my family and friends over a wide range of issues and live an out and proud life.
What are your top three movies/documentaries to watch this pride month?
The following films heavily inspired me in my journey of LGBTQI+ and HIV/AIDS activism. I keep going back to them from time to time.
a) Milk – It is a 2008 American biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
b) United in Anger: A History of ACT UP –It is a 2012 documentary film directed by Jim Hubbard about the beginning and progress of the AIDS activist movement from the perspective of the people fighting the epidemic.
c) Fire In The Blood - It is a 2013 documentary film by Dylan Mohan Gray depicting the intentional obstruction of access to low-cost antiretroviral drugs used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS to people in Africa and other parts the global south, driven by multinational pharmaceutical companies holding patent monopolies and various Western governments (above all those of the United States, European Union and Switzerland) consistently doing these companies' bidding. The film details how the battle against this genocidal blockade, estimated to have resulted in no less than ten- to twelve million completely unnecessary deaths, was fought and (at least temporarily) won.
You can find Sonal Giani on Instagram here