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A Conversation with Shaleen Rakesh

By Vineet Trikha

Shaleen Rakesh works in New Delhi, India, as a gay rights and an AIDS activist. He has been associated with the sexuality and gender movement in the country for almost 20 years. Shaleen was instrumental in filing the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to challenge Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, an anti-sodomy statute which was put in place by the British. The PIL was recently upheld. Shaleen has also campaigned against the psychiatric mistreatment of homosexuality with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in India. He currently works as one of the Directors at the India HIV/AIDS Alliance. In this interview, he spoke to Vineet Trikha. 

What inspired you to become a social activist?

Growing up gay in India was not easy. There was a culture of secrecy that shrouded anything to do with sexuality. At the same time, there was also this hypocrisy which bugged the hell out of me. You can be as open as you want in your private space (which very often means public spaces in India, since the concept of privacy is non-existent at home), but you need to swear to a prudish middle-class secrecy at home. I have many friends and activists from the west who romanticize the Indian culture of ‘fluid sexuality’ where nothing needs to be named or labelled. I guess they haven’t lived the life of a throttling silence which makes you wonder what people in this country really believe in. I was too fed up with the silence and the shame associated with being gay. So I left my education of being trained as an engineer and MBA behind to become an activist. I remember my family and close friends didn’t understand it at the time, but now they do. It’s one of the sanest decisions I’ve made in my life, I think.

What commitments and vision drive your work?

I am committed to the essential humanity and goodness in everyone. I don’t believe anyone is really ‘special’ or ‘different’. We are all the same. We all come down to this planet seeking love. It’s when we are denied this basic need that we turn to politics. I don’t mean party politics. But the rituals of game-playing and the kinds of verbal and non-verbal violence people indulge in. It’s all so petty and unnecessary. I want to see a world where people respect each other. Where we stop labeling differences among ourselves, and rather turn to the inherent sameness of our existential realities.

How do you balance social activism and your other ‘lives’?

My work allows me the balance. I work as both a gay as well as an AIDS activist right now. Other than that, I’m in a stable relationship with a man I love very much. He works for a small NGO. I have a family that supports me and loves me for what I am and what I do. I have a few close friends and I love the arts, specially writing poetry and photography. I travel a lot and enjoy that. This is just enough for me. I am a simple person and simplicity is very appealing for me, in my life, and in the lives of people important to me. I believe in seeing the good side of people and stay clear of anyone who comes with a negative energy.

What has been your greatest learning as a social activist? 

I have learnt that it’s important to have your own vision and confidence in that vision. Not everyone will see things your way, including your own allies at some point. I’m extremely focused and know what I want from myself and my work. I can be relentless in pursuing my vision and my dreams. Thankfully, I have colleagues, friends, and family who believe in me. But I am my own support system. When everything looks bleak, I depend on myself. In an area as ‘isolating’ as homosexuality is, I feel it’s important to work with a sense of inner clarity. For me, the work I do is not a choice I made. I was just clear that is something that I have to do. No matter what. 

What are the challenges you face in your work and how do you respond to them? 

The work I do can be thankless and even invisible to a lot of people. But I’m not deterred by that. I know what I have achieved. For example, I had a major contribution in the fight against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which punishes homosexuality in India. I was the original petitioner on behalf of the Naz Foundation (India) Trust when the PIL was filed more than a decade back (and was recently successful). I have never publicly claimed any formal recognition for my efforts. The fact that I know what I’ve achieved is enough. There is also a stigma associated with working on areas of sexuality and very few people are able to openly discuss my work when I’m in social gatherings. I am loosely defined by them as an ‘activist’ or as a ‘social worker’, whatever that means. This can be really frustrating. I would like people to refer to me as a gay rights activist and as an AIDS activist.

Do you think social activism can be ‘taught’? How do you intend to keep the fire of your vision burning? 

The methods to be a successful activist can indeed be learnt, but you cannot learn to be an activist. You just have to have the fire inside you. That’s what really makes the difference. You are not afraid when you have that fire. And it’s important to not have fear. No one except your own self can stamp out that fire. I also think it’s important to value people and their lives as an essential part of your worldview.

[Vineet Trikha is one of the founder members of Caleri, a Campaign for Lesbian Rights, formed in December 1998. He has since been associated with movements dealing with LGBT, children, and women’s rights. After having worked in the BPO industry for more than 8 years as a communication and process trainer, Vineet is currently a freelance writer and editor. He has written for newspapers and websites and edited a magazine named A Desi Flava based in Hong Kong. He has been part of Pandies theatre group since 2001. Having worked behind the scenes all these years, in 2012 he went on stage with the play Offtrack that dealt with the lives of kids aged 8-14 who run away from their homes and make Indian railway platforms their new abode. The play was invited to be staged in New York in October 2012.]

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