Delve into the captivating history of Sakhi, India’s first explicit lesbian activist collective, founded in 1991 by Gita Thadani. Explore the journey and innovative tactics used by this trailblazing group as they fearlessly fought for lesbian rights and visibility in a society that often silenced their voices.
The advent of the internet and the anonymity offered by it has made it possible for queer people worldwide to safely explore their identities and form communities that transverse geo-political borders. However, it would be wrong to assume that before the age of the internet, queer identities were not being claimed, and more importantly, queer people were not forming socio-political networks of their own. Long before the fast paced communication offered by modern day technology, queer people in India were indeed communicating with one another, finding a sense of community, seeking relationships, establishing bonds and fighting side by side to claim their spaces.
Interestingly, this was especially true in the case of queer Indian women. The nation-wide movements for women’s liberation that took place in India in the 1980s paved the way for the creation of autonomous women’s groups that gave queer women a physical space to interact with one another. Eventually, these organisations gave birth to groups and communities dedicated solely to collectivising queer Indian women. Foremost among these organisations was Sakhi, the first explicitly lesbian organisation in India, commemorated in the country’s LGBTQI history for creating the very first system of communication for queer women across India.
In a country as deeply entrenched in patriarchal ideals as India, being a woman immediately subjects one to social norms and inequities that their male counterparts never have to face. Being a queer woman, however, comes with an added set of ostracizations and prohibitions.
Arati Rege in her 2002 article, “A Decade of Lesbian Hulla Gulla,” observes how in the early 1980s, there was a near absence of lesbian women and their lives in socio-political narratives, movies, writings and discussions. “The dearth of sexual awareness and information in conjunction with pressures of compulsory heterosexuality created a situation where “we (queer women) did not even know ourselves,” she writes.
The numerous organisations that sprang up in the wake of the Indian women’s movement provided an immense prospect for queer women to network with one another. In the mid-1980s, many lesbian women came into contact through local activist groups. Interestingly, many of these groups formed alliances with international consortiums. For instance, in 1985, Indians participated in a workshop for lesbians organised by the Nairobi Women’s Conference. Five years later, seven women activists from Bombay and Delhi partook in a conference of the Asian Lesbian Network in Bangkok.
However, these organisations were marred by several constraints. The first was that to be allowed to enter and stay in these spaces, queer women had to stifle their sexuality. They were not permitted to express their love for individuals of the same sex in an unabashed and undisguised manner. The main motive behind this hesitation was to conciliate the mainstream national thought process that looked at ‘lesbianism’ as being an essentially western notion, trying to permeate into Indian culture and society.
Secondly, these groups were primarily confined to activists. This in turn resulted in the negation from these spaces of ‘ordinary’ queer women who did not take an interest in engaging with identity politics. These were women who did not want to be out in public or take part in political marches. They were common women living under pressures of family, community and society, who simply wanted to meet and know others like them.
The establishment of Sakhi was preceded by numerous efforts to collectivise queer women in the early nineties, The term ‘single women’ was adopted instead of ‘lesbianism’ in an attempt to negotiate with the notion of Western obtrusions. Between 1987-1993, several women came together in informal gatherings at each other’s homes to advocate for the rights of single women. One of the earliest initiatives to organise queer women in a structural manner was taken by Sappho. Established on 20th June, 1999, the initial objective of this organisation was to provide emotional support to queer women and female-to-male trans persons. In 1995, another collective known as LABIA (formerly Stree Sangam) was founded with the sole intention of allowing a space for women to simply meet each other.
Crucial as these early endeavours were for the furtherance of lesbian rights in India, they still did not solve the fundamental issue of common queer women not having an autonomous space within which they could explore their identities and communicate with one another freely. However, things changed in 1991, when Gita Thadani founded Sakhi, India’s very first unequivocal lesbian organisation.
The establishment of Sakhi was a pioneering moment in the history of lesbian rights in India because for the very first time, a lesbian network was formed that transcended local activist groups and created a pan and trans-national network of women who could converse with one another. By 1994, Sakhi had formed a well-organised system of communication to connect lesbian women all over India. The organisation put out advertisements in newspapers asking for ‘lesbian’ women to write to them if they wished to contact others like them. All letters addressed to the organization received a response, and upon verification of the writer’s gender, a list of postal addresses from women who had previously corresponded with Sakhi was included and sent to them. Here are some excerpts from the letters received by Sakhi:
“I am a 33-year-old lesbian. I have never enjoyed sex with my husband and neither have I ever mustered enough courage to speak to him of my sexual inclinations. I feel emotionally and physically frustrated. I need to talk to someone.“
—Seema G, Lucknow
“Today, I read an article on lesbianism in the local paper. It has revived my adoloscent passions. I am a married woman from an orthodox Hindu family and my in-laws would take my children away from me if they found out. I crave to know more on the subject and intend to enjoy a lesbian relationship. I want to meet the right women.“
— Radha G, Nagercoil
The infrastructure of communication created by Sakhi had a profound impact. As women from all across the country wrote to one another, they established a community despite the absence of physical correspondence among the members. This was a community based on mutual empathy. Members found solace in simply knowing that others like them existed and had the same struggles and aspirations as them.
The system formulated by Sakhi was a marked change from the local activist groups preceding it. The organisation played an important role in democratising the lesbian community primarily due to the anonymity it promised women. Indian women from a diverse range of social, educational, religious and economic backgrounds were given a platform to not only communicate with other queer women but also enter into a space of belonging and understanding. Women who were stifled by the patriarchal conventions of their families and communities and repudiated by women’s groups found their voices in this system of anonymous writing.
More notably, a significant number of letter writers approached Sakhi after seeing the word ‘lesbian’ in the collective’s newspaper advertisements, leading many of these women to embrace identities as ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’. The creation and acceptance of such identities paved the way for formulating an imagined Indian lesbian community where nothing of the sort had existed before. By 1995, increased correspondence between these women led to a shared desire to meet in real life and create a physical community, the result of which was the creation of an organisation known as Women to Women in Bombay.
The issue of LGBTQI rights has embroiled the whole world in a highly politicised range of movements, debates and discourses. However, in viewing this issue solely from a political and activist prism, one tends to negate the humanity of it. Organisations such as Sakhi offer a glimpse into what happens behind the loud noise of sweeping marches. The letters written to Sakhi give an unique insight into the emotional turmoil that many queer people have undergone for years as they come to terms with their identity and form a sense of self.
More importantly, in a world that repeatedly enforced on lesbian women that their feelings were wrong, Sakhi created a space of comfort and solace where they could express themselves without inhibitions. India has a long way to go before she can claim indisputable equality for all her citizens, irrespective of gender, sex or sexual orientation, but while we march on the long road to complete emancipation, it is imperative that we remember organisations such as Sakhi which gave a voice to the voiceless.
Gunjan is a graduate of B.A. (Hons.) in History from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She is a firm believer of nature conservation, more specifically marine conservation. She is a certified Divemaster from P.A.D.I. She enjoys travelling and photography and hopes to be able to explore the history, culture and languages of people from all over the world.