People from the LGBTQ+ community across the globe tend to face issues like bullying, social stigma, discrimination, etc. With such a lack of social support or safe spaces for interactions, individuals from the community are reluctant to disclose their identity or ask for assistance. The situation is no different in the north-eastern state of Manipur.
The conflicted border state has constantly been battling issues like the citizenship crisis, militarisation, insurgency, unemployment, substance abuse, migration, high HIV prevalence, and high school dropout rate, leaving its youth, especially the LGBTQ+ people, struggling to meet their daily requirements.
One of them is a youth namely Sadam Hanjabam. "As a resident of Imphal, we witnessed violence and death right at our doorstep on a daily basis. But I told myself there were always more essential things going on, bigger things to worry about," Hanjabam said, according to News18.
Battling With His Own Sexual Identity
Hanjabam grew up scared of not just the violence outside but, having been inside the closet since childhood, afraid of the turmoil within him. For the queer young generation in Manipur, migration is considered the way out. It is regarded as a means to seek freedom, explore their sexual identity and earn a livelihood. For people who cannot afford to migrate, the obscurity of identity and sexual orientation continue to impact their mental well-being and basic survival.
But Hanjabam was lucky enough to migrate for his higher education. He travelled from Assam to Kerala and later shifted to Mumbai to pursue his MPhil. For him, Mumbai has always been a city he had seen on television and dreamt of visiting.
Living in a big city with open-minded people, Hanjabam could express himself and celebrate being queer for the first time in his life. He started using dating apps and meeting his counterparts, dating men and becoming part of a larger LGBTQ+ community.
But his struggles did not end there.
In Mumbai, he faced discrimination like he had never seen before. "I did not look like a typical Manipuri because I do not have a fair complexion and my eyes are a little wider, unlike other northeast people," Hanjabam said. For many people, he was the 'Nepali'. For others, he was a Muslim whom they didn't rent their house to.
After spending months at the hostel rooms of friends, he changed his surname. He used his father's 'Sharma', and was finally able to get a space. But, back in his mind, he always had a sense of rejection.
Being constantly battling with a feeling of loneliness, he forced himself to take up the scholarship and pursue a PhD just to escape going back to his hometown, but when a person he met on a dating app suggested they try having 'high fun', he agreed.
Fighting Drug Addiction
Soon, his one night turned into two, and smoking took the shape of snorting and later injecting. Hanjabam became a substance addict who would find himself in cycles of overdosing, recovering, and relapsing for years.
But things changed when he got to know of a friend who died from an overdose while he himself lay in the psychiatric ward of a hospital after an overdose. It was at that time that Hanjabam realised he had a close shave with death twice himself. He began letting go of his fears and coming clean to the doctors.
'I told them about not being sure of pursuing my PhD, about my struggles to fit in, and about my sexual identity.' Soon after, he searched for a queer-affirmative counsellor and started his journey of accepting himself with all the vulnerabilities and strength.
The experience in the hospital struck a chord with Hanjabam who recognised the critical need for a safe space where one can involve in honest expression without fear of being judged or rejected especially for the neglected queer community.
That is how Ya-All ('revolution' in Manipuri) started on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia as a secret WhatsApp group four years back in 2017. It tried to initiate a conversation about the issues faced by queer youth in Manipur—substance abuse rampant in the state due to its proximity to the 'Golden Triangle', known for illegal drug trading globally; access to sexual and mental healthcare; and employment. The group came out openly as a collective soon after and had since been working to help promote safe spaces for the queer community in the state of Manipur.
India's First Transgender Team
Ya-All has set up Meitram, a space aimed to destigmatise conversations around queer issues and empower and equip the youth generation with a co-working space, and partnered with Mariwala Health Initiative, which has helped them create a mental health space for them with free peer counselling. They have also collaborated with Blued, a gay dating app, to report crimes including cyberbullying and extortion, often seen in substance abuse cases within the LGBTQ community, and brought together the country's first transgender football team.
"My father raised me like a boy. When he got to know that I was part of India's first transgender football team, he was proud of me," said vice-captain Chaoba Wahengbam, who played for the women's category earlier.
"My mother used to scold me as she was mocked by society, but after our team's acknowledgement, she accepted me as for who I am," Wahengbam added.
Hanjabam has turned to kindness as a driving force in all his endeavours since his recovery, whether it is working to include a football team of transgender players, distributing condoms and sanitary pads, crowdfunding to support people with ration during the pandemic, supporting Manipur students who were racially abused due to the COVID-19 pandemic or helping individuals through telephonic counselling.
"Once we accept our vulnerabilities, we can figure out ways to turn them into our biggest strengths,' he said.