India’s LGBTQIA+ community welcomes it’s first batch of certified ally parents

For six months, the adults became students as 30 parents learned about gender roles and queer rights to become more informed allies for their children.

In 2016, when Rakesh and Renu Sharma’s daughter Ria, came out as lesbian, they were accepting and considerate. They had always had a doubt about the 16-year-old’s sexual orientation given the subtle signs.  

“Her taste in clothes were always androgynous and she would often head to the male section at clothing stores,” says mother Renu, 45. 

Rakesh and Renu Sharma, with their daughter Ria. ©SureshKarkera

So, when Ria came out to her parents, the confession, therefore, wasn’t out of the blue. But what did come as a surprise, to her parents was that a few months later, Ria identified herself as gender-fluid.  

“We didn’t know what it meant, although she did try to educate us,” says Rakesh, who along with Renu, runs Lilac Insights Pvt Ltd, a genetic-testing start-up in Mahape, Mumbai.  

This was in the same year that Oxford English Dictionary added the term to its fold, defining it as “a person who does not identify with a single fixed gender; of or relating to a person having or expressing a fluid or unfixed gender identity.” 

This meant also using the pronouns a gender-fluid individual would prefer to use and how they might choose to present their gender on any given day. Ria wanted to be addressed as “they”.  

“Having been raised in a binary, man-woman, s/he world, referring to my daughter as ‘they’ did feel awkward,” her father admits. But they respected her decision. 

Rakesh and Renu Sharma are two of the 30 parents who attended the six-month course by Humsafar Trust. ©SureshKarkera

Two years down, the couple is not just familiar with the basics of LGBTQIA+, but are also host of other sexual orientation terminologies—over 50 and counting—that now make up the glossary.  

“In fact, I can wax eloquent on, say, how demisexual is different from pansexual, or what separates intersex from intergender,” says Rakesh.  

On their part, the Sharma’s aren’t just parents of a queer individual, but proud ‘allies’. This term refers to a straight and/or cisgender person who supports and advocates for queer people. 

The awareness and the sense of empowerment is a result of a sustained six-month long program titled ‘Prabal’, launched by Humsafar Trust in collaboration with Sweekar, The Rainbow Parents, a support group for parents of LGBTQI+ persons. 

“We are the country’s first batch of certified LGBTQIA+ parents,” beams Rakesh.  

The pilot project was launched on November 30, 2018 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Humsafar Trust. The idea came from Sweekar, a three-year-old organisation.  

“We were a scattered group of parents. Although we would hold the occasional meet-up, there was a need to scale up efforts and have a more structured and intensive programme by experts to address parents of queer individuals,” says Chitra Palekar, filmmaker, theatre personality and member of Sweekar.  

“The parents had questions. Tonnes of it.” 

The queries were compiled and formally sent to Vivek Anand, CEO, Humsafar Trust. He, along with Alpana Dange, consultant research director at Humsafar Trust, and Koninika Roy, catalyst, Godrej India Culture Lab then designed a curriculum based on what they gathered from it. The first session was held at the Humsafar Trust office in Santacruz East, Mumbai. 

“The first class had seven parents,” says Palekar.  

Konika Roy, Catalyst at Godrej India Culture lab with her parents Nilakshi and Subroto, who also attended the course. ©SureshKarkera

The attendance swelled to 30 in the next session, which was held in February. The inordinate delay in holding the second class worked to their advantage, thanks to the first Pride March after the Decriminalisation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which saw more parents enroll for the course. The enrolment was voluntary and free of cost. The parents came from all walks of life with children who identified with gender identities across the spectrum.  

“Many didn’t know what it meant to have a child who is transman or a transwoman or gender queer. So, we decided to have the first class on the terminology alone, because if you don’t know what it means, how will you able to tell others?” says Dange. 

The classes were held from 10 am to 5 pm and were peppered with interactions with experts, talks by members from the queer community, presentations, dance, and even homework. Each session was built around a theme: Legal issues, sexual health, mental health and self-care were among the topics covered.  

Amritananda Chakravorty, Delhi-based lawyer, who was one of the petitioners against Section 377 of IPC, was invited to explain the laws, rights related to surrogacy, tenancy and cohabitation. As per law, The Bombay Tenancy Act of 1954 gives a tenant every right on par with ownership and tenancy can be “inherited by close relatives and the spouse”. But, due to the prohibition of same-sex marriage in India, the matter remains in the grey zone. 

“It was important to address issues as they are. We didn’t want to soften the blow. Along with rights, we discussed sexual health; what symptoms of STDs to watch out for, actions to take once you see the symptoms and how to address when your child complains about bullying. Many parents who had never broached the subject of sexual health as conversation, were now openly discussing it,” says Palekar. 

The sessions also included freewheeling interactions with society’s gender benders—a gay couple, a transman with his wife (who underwent a gender affirmation surgery) and a lesbian couple, who discussed their life’s choices in detail.  

Nilakshi Roy, English professor at Mulund’s Kelkar college, Mumbai who was a participant, says when a child comes out of the closet, it’s also a coming out experience for the parent. 

 “Many expressed battling guilt and regret for not having been there for their child. There were also fears of whether their child would be lonely or who would look after them once they are gone,” she says.  

She goes on to say that the shared experiences brought all parents together giving them a sense of community and belonging. Dange, who was the facilitator at the sessions, says even the most clammed up participants gradually came out of their shell to share their experiences and feelings over the course of time. 

Alpana Dange, the facilitator at the sessions. ©SureshKarkera

“There was the mother of a transman, who said she had signed up only because her son wanted her to. She didn’t speak much initially, but later opened up about her experiences. In fact, one of the sessions coincided with her son’s birthday, and she brought a cake to celebrate. She said, ‘This is for my son, who I am proud of’ It was cathartic,” says Dange.  

Since classes were held on one Sunday every month, parents were given homework in order to keep them engaged with the subject. Assignments included critical appreciation of queer films, taking time out for self-care, making drawing or posters on issues they feel strongly about.  

“Every drawing made by the parent featured the child. While we understand the attachment, we felt it was also important that they take time out for themselves,” says Dange, who would often send reminders of homework to participants.  

The session conducted by Humsafar Trust with Swekar, the rainbow parents on gender and sexuality. ©SureshKarkera

The approach achieved amazing results. While one parent got a cool haircut, another couple took off for a mini vacation, which they hadn’t done in decades. The Sharma’s say they would go home and binge watch LGBTQIA+ themed movies. 

“We saw I Am by Onir, Marathi short film Daaravtha (The Threshold) directed by Nishant Roy Bombarde and Evening Shadows by Shridhar Rangayan, which we enjoyed the most. It’s about a conservative woman who faces many challenges when her beloved son tells her and her dogmatic husband that he is gay.”  

Their daughter, Ria, who was aware of her parents working on assignments at home, says it was heartwarming to watch them be more receptive to queer issues.  

“When I first talked about my gender fluid identity, they thought I am saying this because of my feminist leanings. They considered it to be a social worldview. But now they know what I meant. It feels great to know that the people who matter understand who you are,” says Ria.   

These days, if her parents happen to meet one of her queer friends, they make it a point to ask a person how they would like to be identified. 

“We never investigate about their past, nor worry about pronouns or how grammatically incorrect a ‘they’ will sound. The point is to show support,” says Renu.  

The Sharma’s have now hired a transwoman at their start-up who will join the organization later this month. And, prior to that, they plan to have a gender-sensitization workshop for the staff. 

Looking back at the six months, Palekar says it exceeded her expectations.  

“Frankly, I never thought it would turn out to be so cathartic. I call myself a ‘stale old parent’ because my daughter came out in 1993, but I felt so energised by the interactions in the class. By the end of it, we all felt like one big family,” she says.  

Humsafar Trust now plans to chalk out the next module by the end of the year and take the course to other cities and towns. But for their newly graduated class, there will be a refresher course soon. 

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