Q on cue

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Anil Srivatsa’s brainchild QRadio, which hit the airwaves this September, has given the LBGT community a new way to stay connected.

It was in 2009, when he was hosting a radio show in India about homosexual experiences that Anil Srivasta first became aware of the millions-upon-millions of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) people across the country crying out for a space where their voices could be heard.

“The call-in talk show I started apparently made me the gay icon among the young Delhi gay population, which of course I did not imagine until I was told,” Srivasta said.

But Srivatsa knew one small late-night segment was not enough.

And so the idea was born for a station dedicated to India’s LGBT community – estimated to be at least 20 million strong, with friends, family and allies bringing it to 100 million.

“I said to myself, ‘one day I will start this…,’ how and where I had no clue,” he said.

Fast-forward to September 2013, and Srivatsa’s brainchild QRadio began broadcasting from Bangalore for the very first time.

The 24/7 internet radio channel plays music and runs talk shows discussing issues faced by the LGBT community, which remains deeply marginalised in India despite homosexuality being decriminalized in 2009.

Srivatsa’s belief that India was long overdue a gay radio station was seemingly validated by the very first person that called in.

“Our first caller was from Amritsar [in Punjab] and he talked about how he knew about the channel through a post on his friend’s [Facebook] wall. He spoke about the small LGBT community in Amritsar and how closeted it is, as being open comes with a fair share of risk,” Srivatsa said. “However, he called to express his joy that such an outlet, QRadio, came into existence, where he and his friends could feel more connected to the larger LGTB community within the country.”

Filmmaker and activist Sridhar Rangayan said Q Radio was much-needed for spreading awareness about the LGBTQ (Q for Queer) community and “an initiative whose time has come”.

“It could be an interesting window to combine entertainment and advocacy. It is also a platform where LGBT persons feel comfortable sharing their experiences in a more open and sensitive framework. The RJs seem to be fun and inclusive, which make the speakers open up without reservation,” Rangayan said.

Srivatsa launched Q Radio through his online radio portal Radiowalla.in, which he started in 2010 with 30 channels catering to niche audiences.

He says Q Radio is one of the fastest growing channels he has seen.

“The calls are increasing, listenership is also increasing. The word of mouth spread about this channel is the fastest I have seen so far,” he said.

Srivatsa, who was born in Bangalore, and studied and worked in the US before returning to India, says his work with Q Radio has opened his eyes to some of the hardships LGBT people face in India.

“There is a lot to do for them here to even win them the basic acceptance as human beings,” he said.

“Acceptance from their families and society at large is a big concern; people get discriminated against, bullied and are marginalised in the process. Add to this the culture of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” that ensures a silence around a tabooed topic like homosexuality.

“There is no space to have an open discourse on problems faced by the community – whether it is high school drop-out rates among transgenders, difficulty in getting housing for same-sex couples, to access to legal rights. Add to all this the socio-cultural, economic and religious barriers in India, and a majority of this community here is nothing short of helpless.”

There are hopes that Q Radio will not just open up a dialogue for India’s LGBT community but also reach out to those who are curious or even oppose it.

For example, staff are considering tackling homophobia head on with a segment featuring people who disagree with the practice of homosexuality.

“The thought behind that is we are looking at people who do have a different opinion. If you do not agree with us, then you can come on the channel and discuss why you do not agree with us,” Vaishalli Chandra, Q Radio’s channel manager, told the Wall Street Journal.

An open platform to address homophobia would be a welcome change in India, where a survey of 7000 young people in 2012 by the Hindustan Times found 76% of educated urban youth between 18 and 25 disagreed with homosexuality being an acceptable sexual preference.

Q Radio is not the first venture targeted to the LGBT community in India.

The country saw its first gay magazine, Bombay Dost, launched in 1991, after which came gay-friendly travel companies, hotels, an online bookstore and a film festival.

Rangayan, who is based in Mumbai and edited Bombay Dost until 2003, said there have been noticeable, positive changes in India since homosexuality was decriminalized but there is still a long way to go.

“The community has come out of the shadows and is now fluttering the rainbow flag quite proudly. There has been a spurt in LGBT initiatives and events and that is hugely encouraging,” he said.

“Having said that, there still needs to be a lot of work done in non-metro cities and smaller towns. The community there is still underground and stigma and violence still continue.”

Rangayan, whose movie The Pink Mirror was banned by the Indian censor board due to its homosexual content, said the biggest issues LGTB people face remains around marriage.

“In India marrying, having children and raising a family is seen as one’s karma, and the very reason to be born on earth. That is a very difficult concept to fight and most gay men seem to internalize this concept, because of which there is internalized homophobia, guilt and shame. Lesbians have the most difficult journeys — because of Indian society’s disempowering attitudes towards women,” said Rangayan.

He said the past five to six years had seen a spurt in queer blogs and online magazines, and short films and documentaries related to LGBT experiences.

“However, in mainstream Bollywood and mainstream television, queer representation is limited and quite regressive,” he said.

But ultimately the filmmaker is optimistic for the future of the LGBT community in India.

“From the frightened underground whisper-laden days in 1980s to the joyous vibrant openness I see now today there has been a great surge of hope for LGBT community. I have seen change in my own lifetime and strongly believe that more changes are coming,” said Rangayan.

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