Orfalea Center Thematic Research Cluster
Global Genders and Sexualities
Indigenous Queer and Trans Activism on Indo-Myanmar Borderlands - Part 1
By Maisnam Arnapal
Appi Athokpam (founder of the Youth Collective, Manipur LGBTQ+) and the Yes We Exist Campaign representing eight states of Northeast India.
Photo credit: Appi Athokpam and Yes We Exist Campaign.
This activist oral history interview with Appi Athokpam dated Aug 4, 2022, was taken by Maisnam Arnapal, in Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, on the Indo-Myanmar borderlands.
Api Athokpam (she/they) belongs to the Indigenous Meitei community from the Indo-Myanmar borderlands, and is the founder-convenor of Manipur LGBTQ+, an Indigenous queer and trans youth collective. As a fellow at Nazariya Foundation in 2021, she worked on the project “Exploring the Self Through the Lens of Gender and Sexuality: An Intersectional Fellowship”. She is also a trained peer advocate associated with Ya_All, Manipur.
Maisnam Arnapal: Let us begin with a brief self-introduction.
Appi Athokpam: Thank you so much. My name is Athokpam Sandhyarani Chanu, and my preferred name is Appi Athokpam. My pronouns are she/they. I prefer the gender-neutral pronoun more than she. I’m from Manipur and I belong to the Meitei community. I identify as a bisexual person. I’m currently working as a social media and event coordinator of Manipur LGBTQ+ which is a queer collective based in Manipur, India.
MA: Can you please tell us about your organization, and its focus areas?
AA: First of all Manipur LGBTQ+ is a non-registered collective. We work to bring visibility to the LGBTQ+ community in Manipur. We do awareness campaigns on our social media page and also physical activities from time to time. We also have a WhatsApp group as part of our collective and we have more than 100 members. It’s a support system for us. We share our thoughts, concerns, and stories that we cannot share with our families. We share with this family of queers. We have a Facebook page too. We have more than a thousand followers on Instagram and around 800 on Facebook. The Facebook page was created after Instagram and on WhatsApp, we have around 150 members.
MA: When did you start this organization, online and in-person?
AA: Back in December 2019, it all started when I was struggling with my sexuality and trying to find my identity. I was doing some self-exploration on social media and on Instagram. I had this fear that I cannot expose my identity. I wanted to find people like me. I wanted to search for a group I could join. I started as an anonymous Instagram page called Manipur LGBTQ+. Since I was not able to find any space and wasn’t aware of that, I thought why not start the support system on my own? We first started by posting relevant posts and views on our community. Then we started getting followers. It was LGBTQ+ Manipur at first, then switched to Manipur LGBTQ+.
MA: And the demographics of Manipur LGBTQ+? What about the age group?
AA: I can’t say the exact number and also some people are still in the questioning phase. Transgender people and transmasculine percent are more visible. We also have queer women and queer men, then intersex people and asexual. It’s a deeply diverse group. Most of the people in the WhatsApp group are in their twenties.
MA: Do elders and parents of the members come to attend your events?
AA: It was such a surprise when one of the parents attended our LGBTQ+ meet. It was held on March 26, 2022. It was the first time, it gave us hope, she even spoke on stage on behalf of her daughter. The founders of the ChinkyHomo Project and Matai Project, Davidson reached out to me. They are one of our mentors and always give us guidance whenever we have doubts.
MA: Tell us something about some of your events.
AA: We’ve organized four major events, including a social media campaign called “Yes We Exist”. We organized our first meeting on Christmas 2019. It was very hard for us. We all were in the closet at the time. It was very difficult to meet in anonymity; there were only fifteen members. After that Covid hit us, so we were not able to organize any physical events. In December 2021, we organized a meeting on the theme of empowering the invisible. We wanted to spread a message that our community does exist and also tell those in the closet that there are a lot of people who stand with us to celebrate ourselves and find a spotlight and also to challenge society’s perception of normal. We did a panel discussion where we shared our struggles and journeys. After that, we had a drag show. It was very raw. The first-ever show was great. It gave us a lot of experience as well as the performers there were able to their own identity. After that, we did a workshop on sex, gender, and sexuality in March 2022. It was when the mother came to support her daughter. During pride month, we had a ball. We don’t have a timeline or proper planning. We work whenever we have free time.
MA: Drag shows and balls are very popular in the West. Did you discuss whether to do indigenous or hybrid?
AA: We had a group discussion before we organized the event. We got very good attendance and we also got a lot of texts from people who were interested. Thinking about what kind of event you want to organize we literally had no idea what to do at that point of time. As far as I know, there was only one Pride walk organized by Che Santa. We had no idea how to do this and where to get permission, so we wanted to do a closed-door event for our own safety. We did not discuss being ethnic or cultural or western. We were concerned more about, you know, let’s have a safe space and let people express whatever way they wanted to because they did not get an opportunity in society. Let’s just give them space.
Our drag show was supported by HY News. Also other allied organizations such as Chinky Homo project, Ya_All, Matai, etc. Yes We Exist campaign with other organizations, all outside Manipur such as Humsafar trust, Sage Barak valley, Tezpur and Xobdo.
MA: What kind of relationships and differences did you have to negotiate with your partner organizations?
AA: During the Yes We Exist Campaign, our main focus was queer women. There were not many differences. All the organizations were by queer women. We smoothly came to a consensus on which one will work for us the best. With Humsafar, it was a bit difficult. Our focus was on visibility. A member from Humsafar trust was part of this campaign. Davidson also helped me.
MA: Can you tell us more about the Yes We Exist campaign?
AA: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we couldn’t do anything in person. Pavel and Davidson introduced to us in our WhatsApp group what we would do since lesbian visibility week was coming. Together with Xobdo and Barak and partners of transmasculine persons, we formed an alliance with Indigenous women from Northeast India to create this campaign to grant this space to women. Their journeys, stories, and challenges to counter misogyny and heterosexism. Each organization collected stories from its state. Since the majority in the Northeast are Christians, we were not able to find stories from [Christian majority states of] Nagaland and Mizoram. We got twenty-one stories in total, and all of them were published. From people across the spectrum, bisexual, lesbian, asexual, and queer women who came out of forced marriage.
MA: What are the advantages and challenges of your social media campaign?
AA: There is nothing you cannot find on the Internet. I think this is the best place for our generation. Even the elderly, most are on social media. In Manipur, most of us are closeted. Social media turns out to be safe. Organizing in-person events in public has a lot of limitations. Not everyone uses social media at the same time. Many are not aware. Also, we are still limited to the Imphal area. That is probably our cons.
MA: There is still a digital divide in India, and your work is confined to Imphal and hasn’t reached the outskirts. What do you say about the use of the Northeast as a category? Especially in your Yes We Exist Campaign.
AA: Northeast is one of the most diverse parts of India. The dominant society is Christianity. Orthodox and heteronormative compared to bigger cities. The region seems to be lacking in terms of LGBTQ visibility – we as diverse ethnic groups, and also indigenous women’s visibility. We want to tackle and challenge misogyny and socio-cultural expectations. The elders have a strong sense of ethnic identity. They set rules for women and men in the name of chatnabi [tradition].
MA: Can you tell us about the activities you organize during Covid times? The challenges, and the responses.
AA: We were not able to organize any event during the pandemic. So most were in digital work, and social media platforms. One major event was Yes We Exist. We shared short information from time to time. To share important topics of different spectrums, to spread info and awareness, and also to people questioning their identities. We also conducted live sessions. Covid came as a big blow. We were struggling for life. The mental health problems were exacerbated by our identity conflict.
MA: Your organization is named after LGBTQ, an anglophone term. Has anyone questioned the use of Anglophone and not indigenous terms?
AA: I learned it from the Internet, in English first. I couldn’t find any term in Manipur. We already have transwomen (Nupi Maanbi) and transmen and (Nupa Maanba). We do not have Manipuri words for gay. Many use the pejorative word, homo, and tomboy. We don’t have any proper terms, my generation started learning from the Internet. Because of this acronym, we are able to find people from across the spectrum like asexual people. We don’t know the Manipuri word for asexual.
MA: What kind of future do you – as a person, as a queer woman, a community member, a leader of an organization – imagine?
AA: As a queer woman, I heard many stories of women who live in fear of forced marriage. We are expected to keep up the family honor. People play politics around my body and gender. We need a society where we are considered normal, and we make our own decisions. The way we wanted to live. Without the fear of getting married to a heterosexual man. We mainly focus on bringing visibility. My parents and even my generation lack knowledge which leads to discrimination and taboos. We are not promoting homosexuality. We ask for acceptance. Without the fear of getting judged and discriminated against.
The project was funded by Orfalea Center, UC Santa Barbara. The interview was conducted bilingual, in English and Meiteilon, the language of the Indigenous Meitei people. It has been transcribed, with minor editing, from a longer version