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No help groups for lesbians May 19, 2008

Posted by qmediawatch in Lesbian, Suicides, Times of India.
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Publication: The Times Of India – Chennai; Date: May 19, 2008
Section: Times City; Page: 5

No help groups for lesbians – Women Are Scared To Speak About Their Sexual Orientation
Priya M Menon | TNN

Chennai: “After years of anonymity, I want to speak out,” says Deepa, who lives with her long-term partner. “I have not hidden my sexual orientation but have never spoken publicly about it either.”

It is the fate of the lesbian couple, Malar and Rukmani, who were driven to suicide on Saturday by their disapproving families, that has made Deepa go on record. Malar and Rukmani, who were married but
continued to see each other, set themselves ablaze and their bodies were discovered on Saturday. Their families, which condemned their relationship, had threatened them the previous day.

“The suicide devastated me personally,” says the 40-yearold, “Though I am also a lesbian, I never had to fight for basic rights. I know many women are not as fortunate as I am.” Deepa, who owns her
home, has not had to face the problems of renting a home. “My employers who are also very understanding of her sexual preferences,” she says.

Deepa is one of the few women who dare to speak publicly about her sexual orientation. “We tend to avoid talking about certain issues, which other people find uncomfortable to face,” she says. “It just
makes it tougher for other women.” She believes that talking about the issue openly is the way to get people to understand the issue.

The death of Malar and Rukmani has outraged activists across the coun try.

The Shakti Center, a collective that focuses on advocacy, counselling and community-building for homosexuals in Chennai, called  a meeting of its members on Sunday. “We received calls from activists from other cities who heard about the incident,” says Aniruddhan Vasudevan, a member of the centre. “This is a warning bell for all of us. Something needs to be done immediately if people are driven to suicide instead of being able to talk about their sexual orientation.”

The centre plans to organise peer counselling groups. In the next few days, they will meet prominent women activists and advocates in the city and discuss the issue. “We have eminent women like Vasanthi
Devi of the TN State Commission for Women, lawyer Sudha Ramalingam and Vasuki of the All India Democratic Women’s Association speaking out. Now is the time to consolidate all this support and plan new
initiatives,” say Aniruddhan.

Unlike other metros, Chennai lacks a support group for lesbians and bisexual women. Kolkata has Sappho, a group that provides emotional support to lesbians, and Bangalore has Sangama, a resource
centre on sexuality.

“In the 1990s, there was a group that functioned out of Tambaram but it had to be disbanded after members faced harassment,” says L Ramakrishnan, Country Director of Saathii. He is a moderator of Movenpick, an internet group with a mailing list that discusses questions and issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. “But it is mainly men who are part of the group,” he says.

That is probably because women are scared to speak out, is counsellor Magdalene Jeyarathnam’s opinion. The Center for Counselling at which she works provides counselling for people on all issues. She has recently seen a few people coming forward to seek counselling regarding sexuality and their sexual orientation. “But all the people who come to us are men. No women approach us,” she says.

“In a male-dominated society like ours, women are not allowed to explore their sexuality or even express it,” says Sunil Menon, founder of Sahodaran, an organisation that works for the prevention of HIV/
AIDS among men having sex with men. “Unless you have access to the internet, it is very hard to make contact even with a support group in this city. There is very little guidance and help that a homosexual
person can get.””

Families tend to ignore their children’s sexual orientation, hoping it is just a passing phase. “Society does not consider you complete unless you are married and have children. You have to stand
your ground if you want something different, which is more difficult for women,” he says.

Deepa agrees, “It is difficult to deal with your family. It is not easy, knowing you have a hard life ahead of you. But if you keep walking the same mile every day, after a point you don’t realise how far you have walked.”

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