It’s not easy to be a gay rights activist in India. It’s especially difficult to be one in Kashmir.
"We can be shot any time, but we got to continue working," says 29-year-old Dr. Aijaz Ahmad Bund , founder of Sonzal Welfare Trust in Srinagar. With 12 core members and 300 volunteers, the organisation is the only one working for LGBTQ rights in Kashmir.
Their group’s initial focus was on transgender issues. They organised a highly scattered community and educated them in order to prevent normalisation of violence. More than 200 transgenders are currently registered with the organisation.
There exists aspects of the Kashmiri customs that, at first glance, seem more inclusive than others. Transgenders work as matchmakers for marriages. Cross dressers perform at weddings. But Aijaz said that they do so as there is no other livelihood option available to them. They are excluded from institutionalized acceptance, and are thus forced into only one or two professions.
Talking about how cross-dressers are often ridiculed and laughed at, Aijaz said that dressing is a personal choice and it's the toxic masculinity of our society that makes people conform to hetero-normative dressing norms.
The 29-year-old LGBT rights activist first decided to start a movement when his mother washed a cup thrice after a transwoman drank from it. Slowly, he and his team expanded the rainbow umbrella and included LGB people under it.
25-year-old Shafi Khan, co-founder of Sonzal Welfare Trust, said, "There was an invisible population belonging to this group who lived in the same society as ours but we never acknowledged or addressed their problems."
The idea was to create a safe space for them.
Several people in the community, suffering from suicidal thoughts and deep-rooted psychological issues come to the organisation on a regular basis now. "We continue to live in a society that doesn't accept most of these issues, so it gets quite challenging," he added.
They also deal with cases of male child sexual abuse.
In a society where the dominant narrative is that of heteronormalcy, majority of the people are homophobic. That, coupled with religion dictating societal norms, makes it very difficult for Aijaz’s team to work.
"Maybe some other issues are a lot more accepted, but the moment you say "gender", people become very uncomfortable," said Shafi.
Sonzal Welfare Trust offers their counseling services 24x7. They conduct one-to-one sessions, most of which are spent counselling people who are confused, ashamed, suicidal and neglected.
"We don't accept that everyone has a story, everyone has a background. That's what people need to understand. What's normal for you, might be different for another," said Shafi.
Aijaz added that family discussions on these matters is what can help increase awareness and acceptance. They reiterated "If we don't talk about these issues, who will? "