Bisexual Women in the Fight for Visibility, Acceptance and Equality in India

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em>This is the fourth article in our coverage of LGBT issues in India with a particular focus on bisexuality. BiMagazine launched this series in January 2014 with the article India’s Stonewall. 

Apphia Kumar is a torrent of energy. She came out as bisexual at age nineteen. She founded the first queer support group, Birds of a Feather, in Pune, the bustling high-tech hub 100 miles outside Mumbai. She has been featured in major media outlets (Pune Mirror and Tehelka, to name a couple) and, in February, became the youngest and only bisexual panelist at the Harvard India Conference that featured, for the first time in its history, a panel discussion on ‘LGBT Rights in India: The Way Forward’. Along with U.K. based bisexual activist Laurence Brewer, she recently launched the website Bi Inspired that aims to “create a visible support system of bisexual individuals across the globe”.

Kumar grew up in what one might characterize as a typical conservative Indian family. “I was conditioned, quite early on, not to open up to my parents about my feelings,” says Kumar. “In my family we also didn’t talk about sex. I never spoke about my dates, any unrequited love, or any boys or girls that I liked. This also meant not talking about insecurities and heartbreak throughout my adolescence and young adulthood.”

In the group of ten out bisexuals that she personally knew in her city, Kumar was the only one willing to speak out publicly. She risked a lot by doing so. “In a male dominated society, women have to scream the loudest,” she says. “Lesbian activists have had this experience and it is no different for bi women. Any woman who is brave enough to use her voice and be strong is considered a bitch.” After she was featured in newspaper articles she was accused of being media hungry, an accusation no one would think to level at some of the prominent gay male activists at the time. “It’s not that I like my name to be in newspapers,” says Kumar. “Or that everyone who knew me and my family know of my orientation and politics through a public medium like the local paper. It is difficult for my family. It’s not all fun and games for me but that’s how you get your message out to millions of people.”

Kumar would like to get two important messages out to those millions of people and anyone else listening. “A lot of people have absolutely no knowledge of the issues facing bisexuals,” she says. “People don’t know about higher rates of suicide, health-related problems among bisexuals or the type of emotional (or even moral) support that bisexuals need. If someone can’t understand and appreciate what it means to be bisexual then how can they be a bi ally or bi inclusive? When you look at all the organizations doing excellent work for the LGBT community, almost all of them say “bisexual” in their mission statements and seem to be, on paper, very bi inclusive. But my experience has made me question the reality of bisexual representations, and actual support for bisexuals, in the Indian LGBT community.”

The second message that Kumar wants everyone to hear is that young bisexuals are eager to help. At the time she launched Birds of a Feather, a couple of older and experienced activists reached out a helping hand while others criticized that she might be getting ahead of herself. “This is typical Indian mentality,” Kumar says. “You are too young to make a difference. You are too young to know what you’re doing. Well, then, teach me!”

She did learn a lot when she went to BiCon (U.K., 2010). “I didn’t know there was bi specific research and, honestly, I didn’t know what and how research could be helpful to us,” she says. “I have never been part of any research. BiCon exposed me to different perspectives, different identities within the bi community, different political stories; it opened my mind. But current research doesn’t really translate to me as an Indian bisexual woman who has a very different experience. It’s different because the culture that I’m growing up in is different. My responses to the questions on a survey would be completely different from those of someone living abroad.”

Kumar’s dream is to start an organization for the bisexual community and for young activists in India. Given what she has already done in such a short time since coming out, one can expect that organization to provide vital outreach and advocacy services. “One thing I know for sure,” says Kumar, “is that I will not tiptoe around the gay, lesbian and trans activists and their biphobia and bi erasure anymore. Right now I feel like I need permission to be in a LGBT space and like I need to be thankful even though not enough is being done for bisexuals in India. It’s not the ‘Gay’ movement or ‘Gay’ Pride. It’s LGBT and we should all be included.”

Suryatapa “Suri” Mukherjee is also not one to tiptoe around anyone. She did her time in the closet – she spent her final six years of schooling in a girl’s boarding school – but now is out to just about everyone. She believes that India was perhaps a much more diverse and accepting society before the colonialists came and uses that to disprove anyone who accuses her of subscribing to a Western concept. “Section 377 is the Western concept!” she challenges. “Homosexuality or bisexuality is not.”

Mukherjee is studying Journalism, Media, and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University in the U.K. She wasted no time in joining the local LGBT collective where she finds it refreshing that gay, bisexual, pansexual, and transgender people all mix together and one cannot assume anyone’s orientation. “In India we still have separate communities,” she says. “Gay men are the most visible group among LGBT people. The transgender community is very separate and the bisexual community also seems to be separate. The only time I see everyone together is during protests.”

Mukherjee grew up in Kolkata, the cultural capital of India, and one of her early influences was The Wife’s Letter, a short story by Nobel Prize winning author Rabindranath Tagore. “This work was considered really progressive at the time,” Mukherjee says. “If Tagore was alive today, I think he would support LGBT rights.” Mukherjee has a compassionate view of gay men. “All the misconceptions that homosexuals have about bisexuals – that bisexuals are promiscuous, that they spread diseases – these are all myths for which homosexuals were discriminated. So they are basically shifting the prejudice onto bisexuals. It makes no sense, but the best thing to do is to stand your ground and be unapologetic.”

Mukherjee feels hopeful that, in the aftermath of the Section 377 drama, the LGBT community will unify and the mainstream community will rally behind them. She applauds the Indian media for their aggressive coverage of events unfolding after the Supreme Court ruling.

She aspires to be a global investigative journalist, while remaining vocal about feminist, LGBT, and race-related issues. At Cardiff University, she is the LGBT Editor for the award-winning student magazine Quench. She is also a News Editor on The Global Panorama. She writes a blog and has recently started a You Tube channel – Political Personal – where she talks about sexuality among other issues. “I am not really an activist,” Mukherjee says. “I’m out and I make it a point to talk about it, write about it, and just doing that makes you an activist. You cannot stop being who you are even if someone tries to make it illegal.”

Kumar, Mukherjee and other unstoppable women like them seem to be the torchbearers for change in India’s attitude toward bisexuality. A change that, they know, can only be positive and freeing.

In the next article, Bi Magazine looks at whether and how research can impact India’s changing attitude toward sexuality.

  1. India’s Stonewall – January 2014
  2. Bisexuality in India: How Section 377 Impacts the Discourse on Bisexuality – March 2014
  3. Desire, Bisexuality, and Sexual Orientation in India: 1970s to Now – May 2014
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About Author

Anil Vora

Anil Vora is based in Seattle, Washington and is a regular contributor to Bi Magazine. As a result of his series of articles about bisexuality in India, written exclusively for Bi Magazine, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs included bisexual content in their development of a global charter on LGBT rights. He has been a queer activist for more than three decades starting with HIV prevention, treatment, and advocacy issues and is now focusing on the health and wellness of LGBTQ elders.

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