No more silence
The first time I encountered the word, "homosexual", in print was in Time magazine in the late 1960s, when I was just out of school. There was a cover story on the same issue which showed the interlocked hands of two men, which in the West would automatically become an indicator of their predilections. My uncle had hidden the issue, but as luck would have it, I discovered it at the dentist's and devoured it, of course.
Years later, when the HIV/AIDS outbreak - or the "gay scourge", as it was termed then - became big news and a bigger scare, you could not beat about the bush any longer as one was compelled to mention certain sexual acts which caused the infection to spread, but which were, and still are, taboo in our country. Way back in 1993, I had written about the predicament of homosexuals in Calcutta in an article titled "Sad to be Gay" in a Statesman supplement with beautiful illustrations by the highly talented Aloke Bhattacharya. All this came back to me at the fourth anniversary celebrations of the online magazine, Varta, on August 5 at the Alliance Française du Bengale, where the article was mentioned.
My article on the problems of homosexuals was apparently the first on the subject to be published in Calcutta's mainstream media. I was asked if I faced any difficulty writing it and getting the article published. My answer was in the negative simply because the dreaded disease had brought everything out into the open. The love that dared not speak its name, suddenly became part of common parlance.
The writer and researcher on gender and sexuality issues, Pawan Dhall, who is the guiding spirit of Varta, and his friends had started Counsel Club in 1993. It wound up in 2002 after nine years. Counsel Club had revived the queer journal, Pravartak, in 1993 (it was first brought out in 1991-92), and it ran till 2000. It carried analytical articles, short stories, poetry, first person stories and interviews - whatever was happening in the LGBT world. Its content was in English and Bengali (occasionally in Hindi as well). Sexual health work and gender, as well as sexuality and diversity were its primary concerns. Counsel Club managed to bring together hundreds of people. One important discussion in Pravartak was on how Bengali literature reflected the LGBT world. In the pre-Internet era, Pravartak was like a connecting link for queer people spread across India and abroad.
Varta, which is an updated version of Pravartak, "looks at many issues through the lens of gender and sexuality", says Dhall. For instance, it discusses mental illness and disability and how these could affect queer folk. Varta is a registered trust and has 21 volunteers throwing their weight behind it. Not all the members are necessarily queer. Among them are psychologists, lawyers, journalists, and biological scientists. Over the years, notwithstanding the presence of Section 377, the number of magazines that deal with queer issues and are being published from West Bengal has increased manifold, as queer interest groups have become more vocal.
Some of the men and women who publish them were present at the August 5 meet, and they spoke about the problems they faced initially. Sanjoy Gayen brings out the online Dream News that deals with transgender issues. Swikriti Patrika is printed and distributed only during the Book Fair. Like Pravartak, its content is both in Bengali and English. Former members of Counsel Club from North 24 Parganas are instrumental in bringing it out. Sappho for Equality, obviously a lesbian interest group, brings out Swakanthey: In Our Own Voice. Voices can be heard from the districts too. For example, Padakshep is from Berhampore. The silence is shattered.