Fifty Shades of Gay: A straight woman's campaign against dehumanisation of LGBTQ
"I was still living in China then and all the news about hate crimes back in India stuck with me".
Shruti Sharma of Democracy News Live interviews Shubham Mehrotra, on how Fifty Shades of Gay, a campaign for the equal rights of the LGBTQ community, started by one person, is becoming the voice of many.
Q1. Fifty shades of gay? Why did you think it was important to start a platform like this?
There are lots of things I'm passionate about and the one thing that tops the list is making a difference. Yes, it sounds a wee bit cliched but the level of satisfaction I feel after working towards a cause or doing something for the people, especially the ones who've been neglected by the society at large, is immense.
I remember back in 2013, when I was living in Foshan, China, the Supreme Court of India dealt a heavy blow to our democracy and reinitiated Section 377. In my opinion, it was rather regressive and sad that our Supreme Court couldn't uphold the fundamentals of our Constitution and the essence of democracy. We all take pride in the fact that India is the largest democracy in the world, but are we really democratic in the truest sense?
Every Indian citizen, no matter their gender, sexuality, religion, class, or colour, should have the right to live a life of respect and dignity. And criminalising homosexual love not only validates the homophobes in this country but also leads to a significant rise in hate crimes, which was the case following the judgement.
Indians from LGBTQIA community were blackmailed, illegally detained and physically abused by the police, discriminated in schools, hospitals and mistreated by public in general. I still remember reading this article about a 31- year old marketing professional who was forced to perform oral sex on two men. And then taken to an ATM and forced to withdraw INR 15,000/- cash. This happened around April in 2015 in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in India, Mumbai.
I was still living in China then and all the news about hate crimes back in India stuck with me. I started reading and researching more about the Indian LGBT+ community, I realised that they suffer human rights abuse both at the hands of the state and the society on a daily basis. In fact, a very high percentage of the heterosexual population in our society considers homosexuality as a mental illness and there seemed to be a lack of organisations that provided a space to explore your understanding regarding alternative sexualities.
I returned to India in Sep 2015 and started Fifty Shades of Gay (FSOG) campaign (in Feb 2016) in the hope to humanise the LGBT+ population, raise awareness and bridge the gap between the LGBT+ minority and the heterosexual majority.
2. Tell us why was it important to you? Is this a start of a campaign and if yes, what is the campaign about? How do you think it is going to help the LGBTQ community?
I started FSOG with one goal in mind, which was to educate and make people aware about topics that are not openly discussed in our country such as LGBT+ and sexual rights, gender inequality and the dark reality of child abuse in India.
When we started in February 2016, we were India's first of it's kind campaign that was educating people and also bringing awareness about LGBT+ communities in India.
As weeks went by and the campaign started getting traction, I was getting more and more calls and emails from people who wanted to share their stories through our platform. It was then that I came to know that more than 70% of LGBTQIA Indians and over 90% Indian women are subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuse at some point in their lives.
Fortunately, I got in touch with Rajat Malhotra, a counsel in the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court, who is a strong advocate for LGBT+ rights and equality himself. He offered to be a part of FSOG and help provide legal support to victims of abuse. That was when we branched out and started providing legal and health advice to victims of domestic, physical and sexual abuse.
I think one of the things I'm most proud of is that at the core, FSOG has started a dialogue in the country. People are not shying away from conversations about sexuality and sexual rights. They now realise that LGBT+ rights are essentially human rights and denying any human of those is just unfair and selfish. FSOG has created a space for people to educate themselves and explore subjects that are considered taboo in the country.
I receive emails from not only the LGBT+ community but also from straight people who want to learn more about alternative sexualities and want to support our cause. It is really overwhelming at times.
I think I've been very fortunate to also have a team of dedicated volunteers and writers, who help us cover Indian LGBTQIA stories from around the world. Indians, especially the youth today are so passionate about making India a better place for everyone and truly that is what gives me the drive to keep moving forward and doing my bit. Last year, we also launched a social movement called "I AM AN ALLY", which is a national drive to engage with the heterosexual majority in order to foster collaboration and mutual support for equal rights. We've so far got straight allies from various cities in India such as Delhi, Dehradun, Gwalior and Mumbai. Our latest ally is Pammi aunty, modelled on a boisterous Punjabi pop culture stereotype, by actor Ssumier S Pasricha- more at:
I am also the founder and Chief Marketing Officer of India's first ISO certified Digital Marketing agency, Laudco Media, an agency that is completely inclusive and does not discriminate.
Q3. Why should straight people support LGBTQ rights?
I'm not gay but I've always been a supporter of LGBT+ rights and not a closet supporter either. I genuinely believe that ALL people deserve equal rights regardless of their race, gender, religion or sexuality. Do you really think hate crimes or terror will change people's mind and soul? Terror doesn't change people from gay to straight, it just hurts innocent people. Why is it so difficult for people to understand that?
So when we have a portion of our population, and a significant portion (approx 2.5 million Indians) who are homosexual, ask to be legally recognised and be able to marry the person they love, just like everyone else, then of course I support them and I feel they deserve all the rights that the law has selfishly bestowed on its heterosexual citizens. And to be honest, I have yet to hear a single rational argument for why our law does not support equal rights for all.
Q4. Who is your role model as a LGBTQ activist?
It would definitely be Harvey Milk. I mean how can one support LGBT+ rights and not admire the notable efforts of THE most prominent LGBT activist in history. Before Milk, the idea of an openly gay elected official was unlikely, if not unthinkable. He refused to stay in the closet and encouraged others to come out and be themselves, at a time when homophobia was rampant. That in itself is so amazing!
I'm also a big admirer of Audre Lorde who had a strong, independent voice that spoke against any kind of injustice she saw and encouraged others to do the same. She spoke out against sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, any kind of injustice- you name it, she's fought for it. "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own."- this particular quote by Audre Lorde is one of my favourites and always fills me up with so many emotions.
Today, there are not only LGBT+ people who are fighting for their rights across the globe but also straight allies have come out in support of equal rights for all. Like Anna Wintour who has so fiercely stood for LGBT+ rights, from doing tv appearances showing her support towards same-sex marriages to writing about the issue in her monthly editor's letters, she has not hesitated to champion a cause so evidently dear to her. Our very own Congress politician and former diplomat, Shashi Tharoor has not shied away from showing his support for our LGBT+ community and is one of the most prominent voices against Sec 377 of the Indian penal code.
Millennial activists like Ellen Page, Dan Savage, Laverne Cox, Lady Gaga, Ellen Degeneres, Janet Mock and many more are not only empowering young people every day but have also made important contributions to the society through their work and art.
Q5. If you had to explain in the simplest of terms as to why India/world needs equal rights & opportunities for LGBTQ, how would you do it?
People don't seem to realise that LGBTQIA rights are at essentially human rights. And denying human rights to certain humans due to their preferences is just unfair. That's as simple as it can get.
Q6. What word of advice would you like to give to LGBTQ youth who are reading this interview?
I know the world is a tough place for you. You're, perhaps, in the most confusing phase of your life but never lose hope.
Being LGBTQIA is a normal and healthy way to be. It's one more part of who you are - like being tall or short, or black or white. Always remember, you're not alone. There are tens of thousands of people who feel the way you feel and there are hundreds of thousands more who are ready to fight for your rights and liberty. So be fearless and own your personality, because you're truly beautiful, just the way you are.
Q7. One relationship lesson you learned from the LGBTQ.
Never take your right to love and marriage for granted.
Q8. What's your vision with this platform?
Fifty Shades of Gay Campaign represents a force of more than 3 million readers and supporters worldwide. As one of the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights campaign, FSOG envisions a world where LGBTQ people are ensured of their basic equal rights, and can be open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community.