Born in Chandigarh, India, Tushar is the co-founder of Queer Campus—the first help group in India specializing in LGBTQ youth issues. In 2010, the then 20-year-old Indian boy launched Queer Campus in Delhi, and this weekly meeting group for gay students soon became a wildly successful model for LGBTQ advocacy across the country.
When I first met Tushar at a human rights gathering near Columbia University, the 25-year-old Columbia graduate student was looking for a pen in a bar. On his name card, the event organizer accidentally printed out his full name, "Tushar Malik". He found a marker and blackened his surname.
"Just T-u-s-h-a-r." He emphasized.
Q: Why just "Tushar"?
A: In India, many people rush into judgments. When you say your last name, people automatically assume "you must come from this part of the country", and then they start to make assumptions.
Surnames are also patriarchal. Why should I be known by the good deeds or the bad deeds of my family? In my activism work, I prefer to not to use my last name. I should be known for what I have done instead of something irrelevant.
Q: For you, what is it like to be gay in India?
A: The first time I started thinking about it was at the end of high school, but I didn't even know there was such thing as "gay". There wasn't representation in the media or in the newspaper whatsoever. Back then, it was a crime.
The Internet was there, and I saw some pornographies and articles. But when you are confused, you try to ignore the obvious signs. You try to hide yourself and think about that being wrong. There was a period when I thought I was straight. I went back to the closet.
Q: How did you re-come out?
A: It was only until I went to collage at University of Delhi. I was 17. I started thinking about my sexual identity. Through online dating, for the first time I met another gay person—a person who actually said that he was gay. Then things gradually changed.
When I finally came to terms with my sexuality, India had just decriminalized homosexuality. It was a good time to come out, and I was ready to talk about it. Right before I came out to my parents, I attended my first Pride in Istanbul. It was a great moment. I saw how people are supporting me and how are fighting for equality. After that, I got involved in activism, and everything changed. There is a certain sense of comfort and confidence in advocating LGBTQ issues.
Q: What made you decide to start LGBTQ activism?
A: It wasn't like, "yes I am going to be an activist!" It was, in fact, very organic. When I came out, I had many troubles with my parents about them accepting who I am. Around that time, I started writing for an online LGBTQ youth magazine, and those experiences got me engaged in being more vocal about LGBTQ rights.
About a year later, I met a girl who was also writing for that magazine. She and I started complaining about collage life, especially on the aspect that we had no one around us to talk about our problems—young queers usually face different issues from older people. Since we both had the idea to start a group, we launched something called Queer Campus in 2010. We came up the rules and the purpose of the organization. At that time, all other organizations focused on older people. Queer Campus became India's first support space for queer youngsters.
Q: What kind of issues did they have?
A: Anything, such as "My roommate knows I am gay. What do I do?" "What if he is uncomfortable with it?" The problems went all the way to questions like "I am not sure what my sexuality is." and "Am I a bad person if I am gay?" We try to provide a safe space for them to come out—not that we actively make people come out. Whatever you think you are, it stays in the room.
Q: Where did you get the funding?
A: We didn't use any money. You don't need money for a group to meet up. We don't want it to be an institution. When you formalize something, half of your time will be doing paperwork and raising money. We just want a community.
All we need is space. It would have been great if we had a regular spot—which we did for a year and a half. An organization gave us a space at every Saturday. We have other organizations help us after that.
Q: How big did Queer Campus eventually get?
A: Not only we have young people talk about their own problems, we invite people who are willing to talk about youth issues. We have parents, professors, and researchers dropping by. The whole thing becomes a community idea—people are now familiar with what queer campus is really about. We are a part of the local Pride; the media interview us; and we appear in research papers.
In 2011, I was volunteering at another LGBTQ organization. I got asked to go to Bangalore and helped some activists start their own Queer Campus. It was same name, but they invented a completely different kind of program. They raise funds, host job fairs and many other things.
Q: Don't you feel bad when they "steal" your Queer Campus brand?
A: I just want to get the idea out. It's not about who started it. The idea should go on.
Q: What is the most rewarding moment or moments in your activism work?
A: I did a media campaign called "I, Ally". It was a one-man job, literally. For two months I travelled across India to record supportive videos from straight allies. I didn't know what people would react. I would stand in the middle of cinema halls, or in Comic Con, asking people about their opinions on LGBTQ issues.
I received over 350 videos, ranging from 8 seconds to three whole minutes. They came from different parts of India, showing understandings about LGBTQ rights. That was really rewarding. It was wonderful to see people are not only supportive, but also willing to express it on camera, and to be published online.
Another moment was when I graduated from collage. I ran a non-profit workshop for LGBTQ workplace. I did theatre sessions with young people and talked about issues LGBTQ group would face everyday. I could see how their minds were changing when we actually played out the particular situations. People were like, "Oh I understand the gravity now".
Q: How did you make that happen?
A: It was through role-play and a method called "folk theatre". Everyone had the right to interject, but they had to step in and take the role from the actors.
For example, Delhi metro has two lines: one for men and one for women. However, you won't see many transgender people. Apart from the discrimination they face in the society, it's also about if they are able to enter the metro. I told one of my actors to show the audience what a transgender person would encounter in metro everyday: if she enters the women's line, other actors would tell her, "No sir, this is women's line. Please go to the other line". If she goes to the men's line, actors would refuse to accept this person. It was difficult.
So, when she was blocked on stage, some people from the audience thought the she was not vocal enough. A person decided to step in and replaced her. The new actor went on stage, making requests to "see the manager". It was successful until someone else got up, pointing out the security guard on stage wasn't nearly as bad as the ones in real life.
When the new "security guard" pointed his gun and humiliated the transgender person like in the reality, the audience was shocked to realize the situation was much more harsh than they thought. It was not only about public transportation; it was about social abuses.
Q: I thought the transgender issue would be more tolerated in India since "third gender" was a part of local culture. Is it the case?
A: No. The social stigma against transgender has existed very long, even though it has been a recognizable part of our society since forever. When people are talking about "I am okay with LGBTQ people", they basically express abstract support for lesbians or gays. If there's a transgender person, or a gender non-conform person who doesn't fit the traditional male/female role, people get iffy.
Even for me, I used to be very trans-phobic when I started my activism work—not that I made jokes or laughed with them—I simply wasn't comfortable. I hadn't come out at that time, and if someone who saw me hanging out with transgender people, they would know for sure that I am a part of "their community".
But you have to grow out of that. It takes time. You won't meet an amazing trans person, and you get over your issue overnight. You need to reach a point where you are a hundred percent cognizant about the problems they are facing. You will realize that all of those problems won't affect you anymore, because they are your friends.