Astitvam aims to give queer, marginalised men in Hyderabad a safe space of their own

A brainchild of seven LGBTQIA+ persons, the Astitvam foundation has been set up with the primary aim of helping people find and come to terms with their own identity.
Astitvam Foundation board members with the Chief Guests - Senior Journalist Prema Malini and Film Director Venkatesh Maha
Astitvam Foundation board members with the Chief Guests - Senior Journalist Prema Malini and Film Director Venkatesh Maha
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On the second floor of a seemingly old building amid the narrow bylanes of Secunderabad’s Rasoolpura, the Astitvam Foundation has set up a small safe space for queer and marginalised men. Officially launching their foundation in the presence of several queer rights activists, academics, and well-wishers on International Men’s Day, November 19, the members of Astitvam took an oath — to work dedicatedly in support of men from marginalised and vulnerable communities.

A brainchild of seven LGBTQIA+ persons, each of whom have dealt with many a struggle owing to their social positioning and taboos associated with their sexuality, the foundation has been set up with the primary aim of helping people find and come to terms with their own identity ( or astitvam). Rainbow flags abound, the office’s decor alone is assertive in the proclamation of its support for the LGBTQIA+ community. But a lot of work lies ahead, and who would know this better than the seven people who themselves have lived through terrible experiences of violence, sexual abuse, or double marginalisation in terms of caste and religion, before coming together for the cause.

“All of us have lived in our individual zones for a long time. We were being oppressed in different ways, in different situations, because of our sexuality. We all have our stories, and now we have come together to help others who are facing the same problems we had to face,” Vishnu, one of the founders of Astitvam, told TNM. 

The organisation will help people make peace with their identities through counselling, said Vishnu. “We are keen on helping people identify and accept their sexuality. This can be done through initial counselling sessions with a person from the same community, and later on with the intervention of an expert psychologist if needed. Following this, we will provide legal help to those who have suffered or are suffering from domestic and societal violence. We will also address issues such as blackmailing, harassment, and sexual abuse, which are commonly faced by people in the community,” he explained.

“When queer men are from a marginalised community, they are doubly discriminated against,” said Ahmed, president of Astitvam, while speaking at the inaugural event. Opening up on the issues he has gone through because of his religion and sexuality, Ahmed said, “As Islam does not accept homosexuality and treats it as haraam (forbidden or proscribed by Shariah law), I have had to face several challenges in society. But I wanted to come out openly, so that it can help other queer men in my community dare to speak up about their identity if they want to. Through Astitvam, I intend to stick by other queer men who are facing issues similar to mine.” Prajwal Gaikwad, a research scholar from the University of Hyderabad, added that Dalit queer men too have to go through additional layers of discrimination due to their caste and sexuality. 

Besides, Vishnu pointed out to TNM, there are many men who deal with reproductive and sexual health issues and would benefit from proper guidance. “To address this, Astitvam plans to open up a 24-hour call centre starting from January, which people can contact to share and seek support for their problems pertaining to sexuality, reproductive health, and other concerns. In addition, Astitvam also aims to collaborate with educational institutions and government organisations to contribute towards the research in men’s studies,” he added. 

At the inaugural event, trans rights activist Rachana Mudraboyina also stressed on the need to address the sexual and reproductive health of men. “There is simply not enough emphasis on the topic,” she said.

Chandan Bose, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad (IIT-H), listed down the various issues faced by queer persons that often go unaddressed. A 41-year-old queer man himself, Chandan said, “Many men who are in same-sex relationships experience violence, sometimes to an extent that they need medical attention. But they do not come out and speak about it. This is more common among people who meet each other through dating apps.” Moreover, there are also issues such as extortion, blackmailing, and financial fraud that queer men frequently encounter, added the assistant professor, who is currently researching the subject.

Monalisa, a transgender rights activist, pointed out that society haven’t even moved past the misconception that gay men and transgender persons are the same people. “Culturally, transgender persons often treat queer men as their sons or brothers. Seeing this, the mainstream society perceives that queer men are also a part of the transgender community, which is of course not the case,” Monalisa said.

Similarly, commenting on the misrepresentation of LGBTQIA+ persons in movies, C/o Kancharapalem (2018) director Venkatesh Maha said that this often happened due to a lack of three things: awareness, right education, and empathy. “I don't want to give anyone wrong hope. There is a long way to go for the industry’s mindset to change. But whenever queer persons are misrepresented, people should raise their voice in protest. More queer persons should also become a part of the industry,” said Venkatesh, who was the chief guest at the event.

It is also necessary for Astitvam to identify the root causes of all these prevailing issues, said Archana Rao, a social scientist who works closely with Hyderabad’s transgender community. “Collaboration between government and non-government agencies are required to sensitise people and bring about changes at the policy level,” she added.

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