Sonal Giani is an LGBTQ activist and filmmaker. She has been featured on The Better India list of ‘8 Inspiring Indian LGBT Individuals’, ‘Rainbow list of 20 LGBT Role Models’ by Cosmopolitan. She is known for her pioneering work in lesbian and bisexual women’s issues as well as LGBTQ youth work. She co-founded one of India’s largest LGBTQ youth initiatives “Yaariyan”, and ‘Umang, an LGBT initiative in Mumbai. She has worked on human rights issues and crisis handling of the queer community for about 8 years previously when she was an Advocacy Manager at The Humsafar Trust. This includes Section 377 related violations.
She is best known for featuring on ZEE TV’s prime-time television show Connected Hum Tum’, Bol lywood film W and documentary ‘Purple Skies’.
Questions and answers
Can you introduce yourself to our audience?
I am an LGBTQ activist with a passion for the different aspects of filmmaking. During my involvement with the queer movement, I have worked with the NGO- The Humsafar Trust. I have co-founded two of its initiatives, ‘Yaariyan’ and ‘Umang.’ The former is an initiative to build queer youth capacities, and Umang is a support space for lesbians, bisexual women, and transpersons. I have also very openly spoken about my sexuality on media channels and appeared as myself in the prime-time television show ‘Connected Hum Tum’ that aired for a few months on Zee Tv. I am currently working towards sensitizing corporate houses and religious bodies alongside exploring my love for cinema and filmmaking.
We wondered if you could start by talking about the roles and norms of gender, especially in our country?
Gender norms in India are very rigid and also restrictive. The culture of outcasting or discriminating against anyone different is widespread, and hence it is common for queer people to experience varied forms of harassment from early childhood. This includes prejudice, name-calling, and in extreme cases, physical and sexual violence.
Sexism isn't limited to women. It includes mostly every gender on the spectrum. But, the LGBTQI community usually lives subjugated and oppressed lives. What, according to you, can bring about a different, positive opinion about Gays in this straight society?
I think it’s important to recognize that this is not a straight society. Countless people don’t identify as that but are in the closet because of non-representation. This could change if more queer people come out and occupy spaces and are given more platforms.
Can you tell us what a regular Monday in your life seems like?
It is like any other day. I am usually trying to juggle between work and my partners. However, I mostly schedule important work calls on Monday, so most of the day goes into this.
What assumptions or rumors about polyamory would you like to address or break?
It is a common myth that people who identify as polyamorous are looking for an excuse to cheat or be promiscuous. This is untrue. Consent and awareness of all partners are given in polyamorous relationships.
You recently put up a stall for the Q-Family pride store. Can you talk about that a little more for us?
Q-Family is an online pride store. This is a joint initiative of self and my sister Rupa. We believe that families and allies need to join queer persons; the site aims to support that. We offer pride merchandise for those who want to wear their support proudly. It is a small business, and we hope that more people support it.
Talk to us about Purple Skies. How did it happen, and what did it mean to you?
I had known the director of Purple Skies, Sridhar Rangayan, for a few years before it was filmed. Since he was aware of my work with the movement, he chose to approach me. I immediately agreed because I look up to him. Talking about the film, I think the film has provided the LBT community a lot of mainstream visibility, which is the need of the hour. The film will always be very special because it has covered my relationship with Upasana, who is an integral part of my everyday life even now.
You once said, "Mere aasuon ko math pocho, bahut tarse hain girne ko." What did you want to convey with that statement?
I think that there is a lot of undue stress on Activists, especially not being vulnerable publicly. This can cause a lot of unaddressed emotions to well up in stressful situations. The statement is to encourage people to hold space instead of shutting down people who need to cry or are emotional. The vulnerability allows people to relate with them, and leaders must learn to show wholesome selves.
You're a fearless warrior, especially to us young millennials you are. How do you manage to debunk sexism or disregard in the society, both- as a woman and a bisexual woman?
Over many years, I have learned that listening helps. Most phobia comes from deep-seated conditioning or plain ignorance. Usually, both have never been questioned. I look to find the root of the problem in the people who exhibit sexism or uncalled comments and ask them respectfully. However, I do not shy away from calling out bad behavior or addressing the situation head-on if people are not respectful. I have found that most Indians seem to be coming from a place of ignorance and not hate; it helps to know this and remain calm.
A couple of portions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code were denounced by the Supreme Court, which meant that the LGBTQI community no longer served as criminals for being themselves. We know that is not even half the battle, but did that affect you, or mean to you?
The Supreme Court judgment on Section 377 was a significant landmark for me. I had been dealing with crisis cases owing to 377 for a couple of years by then. It was very positive and affirmative for me. It gave me hope.
Everyone has their lows in life. What is your mantra for getting out of the blues?
My mantra is to allow yourself time for sadness.
Indulge in it and let it run its course. Do take your mental health seriously by being in touch with counselors, peers, and family.
Can you talk about Change? What Does that word mean in today's stature of our country?
Change needs to come in the minds and hearts of people. I see some change in the legal and political situation, but because of under-representation, we are still a long way from a cultural change.
Can you enlighten us about the youth collectives Yaariyan and Umang?
Yaariyan is a youth initiative that is managed and run by queer youth between the ages of 18 to 28 years. It is an online space that continuously conducts events for the larger community. Some of Yaariyan’s most well-known events are The Acceptance Meet, Gulabi Mela, and Yaariyans Flashmob.
Umang is a support space for lesbians, bisexual womyx, and trans-masculine persons. It offers helpline services, community counseling, crisis support, and also organizes community mobilizing events.
Is there other Non-LGBTQI activists that have influenced your work?
Yes, I am strongly influenced by the work of feminist activists, poets, musicians, and documentary filmmakers of this generation and before.
Talk to us about your YouTube channel and your acclaimed video "How to come out to Indian Parents?"?
This video arose from the repeated requests for advice on coming out that I would receive. I felt that there were very few to almost no videos on the internet in a local language with an understanding of our culture, which was detailed in the same way as the anxious emails I was receiving.
Who inspires you in general life?
I am very inspired by vulnerable people. I try very hard to include them in my close circles. Besides this, I have found myself attracted to feminist people and people who are not cynical about the power of love and kindness. This informs my life a lot.
1. Favorite Television Show: Queer Eye
2. Favorite Superhero: Captain Planet
3. Superhero of your life: My sister
4. An idea that changed your life: The possibility of compersion. The definition of compersion (being the antithesis of jealousy) need not apply to just romantic or sexual relationships. Compersion is feeling happiness or joy because of the happiness and joy of another person.
5. Freedom: City Life