Push your limits. Make a difference. Be the change.
As Indicorps Fellows, we hear this a lot. And it's true, we have the potential to achieve so much this year. Placed at rural sites across the width and depth of India – from the Thar Desert to the banks of the Ganges, the Himalayas to beaches on the Indian Ocean – and armed with a license to practice change, we're exploring our identity and learning what we can become when we embrace opportunity. It's a once in a lifetime experience, right?
When you're groped by a stranger you really hope it's a once in a lifetime experience. When the perpetrator is a middle-aged labourer in a rural, empty school building 4,000 miles from home, out of sight from his wife and children, doubly so. Life-changing? Yes. What I signed up for? No.
The spiraling crash from the dizzy heights of pre-arrival to the reality of rural India comes without a parachute. But sometimes you land feet first. There's no point dwelling on negative experiences, and it's important to move on, but what lessons can be learned? Why did this happen to me? How can I turn this experience around?
In India I often find myself trying to turn experiences and situations around. In Chachiyawas, a small village in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan where my project is based, I meet someone new. “Your wife name?”. I try to explain that I don't have a wife. “But you are old”. Flattered, I try to change the subject, perhaps I can talk about how nice this chai is. “But really, why don't you have a wife”. In the face of persistence I explain that I travel too often. Whatever the excuse, this conversation will happen again, so I try to keep my stories straight. The web begins.
I'm not alone, the majority of Fellows have to adjust to their new environment. Women especially have to conceal large parts of their character, and bodies, to work effectively at the grassroots level. As fellows we censor our behaviour in India. The problem is easy to spot, how do we embrace our communities while concealing facets of our identity?
As an openly gay man coming from a career in gay equality, it's an oft-asked question. Before arriving in India, colleagues would frequently remind me, “You can't kiss boys there you know, how will you survive?”. Again flattered – my survival does not depend on kisses – the question would come up time and time again. It became a mission to me. It won't be so hard, I told myself. After all, being gay does not define me. I'm here to push my limits, to make a difference, and to be the change. I'm not here to be gay.
Perhaps I was naïve to think homosexuality would not be an issue. But the sordid reality of being gay in India was nothing to embrace. The middle-aged labourer I encountered was living a double life that manifested itself in an abusive manner. As an equality campaigner, I struggled to place blame on someone who had been repressed by society. To me, this was an opportunity to learn. To learn that despite being ignored, repressed and deemed the worst of immorality, there are gay people in India.
But I'm not here to kiss boys and I'm not here to be gay. I'm here to be the change in Chachiyawas. How do you move forward? Equality is my strongest passion, but gay liberation in the remote reaches of conservative Rajasthan cannot be my agenda this year. I turned it around.
The adults and children I work with in Chachiyawas suffer from severe learning disabilities which make them vulnerable to abuse. Working as a labourer on our remote campus is a sexual predator who is not able to demarcate the line between acceptable behaviour and repressed sexuality. Like the loudest penny dropping, I realised that it is vital to raise awareness of sexual abuse on campus. I engaged the issue with teachers and staff.
Is this a step towards changing mindsets and being the change? I hope so, although probably not in a direction that would liberate gay men and women. It's a challenging contradiction of priorities. I want to protect the adults and children I live with, but I don't want to demonise homosexuality. The latter is not my raison d'etre, and to yield my responsibility to the community serves a selfish agenda.
So how do we embrace our communities while hiding facets of our identity? Am I denouncing my sexuality for all time? Should my female co-fellows shun their body in shame? No, of course not. But my co-fellows and I are not here to be who we were, we're here to find out who we can become. This is our time to experiment with what is possible, to learn how we can do better and to be the change in our communities. I'm not here to serve an agenda, I'm here to discover my agenda.