Orfalea Center Thematic Research Cluster
Global Genders and Sexualities
Indigenous Queer and Trans Activism on Indo-Myanmar Borderlands - Part 2
By Maisnam Arnapal
This activist oral history interview with Sadam dated September 8, 2022 was taken by Maisnam Arnapal, in Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, on the Indo-Myanmar borderlands.
Sadam Hanjabam (he/him) is the founder and CEO of Ya_All, LGBTQI+ Youth organization based in Northeast India. Sadam Hanjabam holds an MPhil in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He has been featured in TEDx, UNESCO, UNDP, Vogue among many others. Ya_All was named one of the ten LGBTQ youth organizations by the UN Office of the Secretary General ‘s Envoy on Youth. Sadam Hanjabam was also featured in the 2021 documentary The Me You Can’t See (fifth episode) co-presented by Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey.
Ya_All (pronounced as Yawol) is a United Nations-acknowledged inclusive and intersectional youth-led network based in Imphal working with young marginalized populations on health and well-being, sports, and livelihoods in Northeast India. Through community mobilization and participation, Ya_All has been actively working as one of the focal points for young people’s well-being. Ya_All equips young people with knowledge and skills to lead through capacity-building training and advocacy on issues of young people. It also gives access to young people with free mental health services and information that is readily not available. As a part of mainstreaming LGBTI awareness and inclusion, Ya_All has curated one of India’s first transgender football teams, and it organizes Queer Games Northeast every year. Ya_All’s Queer Games has been well received for using sports and games for sensitizing the masses.
Maisnam Arnapal: Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Sadam Hanjabam: My name is Sadam Hanjabam, I am from Manipur [India]. I identify myself as gay. I worked with an organization called Ya_All which is based in Manipur.
MA: What does Ya_All stand for?
SH: Ya_All can be translated into two meanings. In Manipuri, it means ‘revolution’, and in English, it means, ‘you all’ or everyone, an inclusive revolution.
MA: Can you tell me a bit about the history of the organization? When was it founded?
SH: Ya_All started back in 2017 as a WhatsApp support group, an informal space. At that time we didn’t know how to create an organization or form a support group. What we had as young people were cellphones. And definitely, WhatsApp was a popular platform for everyone to connect. Few of our friends connected over WhatsApp, for many of the queer people from Manipur and even my friends, all used to stay outside [of Manipur] and in those spaces we all had support systems that we could reach out to when we were in crisis. But when we came back to Manipur there was always this thing missing: whom to reach out to, whom to go out with, finding dates, or whatever issues that you know come up with day-to-day life today. So we created this support system on WhatsApp informally and somehow we realized that we were not alone and there were many young people who needed support, and a space to talk about all these issues. So slowly we continued it as a WhatsApp group and somehow we started doing activities through 2019 June we made it a formal organization. We are basically three years old formally but we have been working for the last five years.
MA: Initially how many members were there and were they only from Manipur or from the diaspora as well?
SH: When we initially started, we were all from Manipur and we were all friends. There were around 5 to 10 people that I know personally. Trust was a huge issue because we were talking of something that we didn’t want people to know about. We were all closeted back in 2017. We soon realized that we needed to come out and raise this issue, there were more people who joined in later, there were 50 to 60 people who joined the WhatsApp group that time. Initially because of the differences and all the issues around understanding gender identities, and the limited resources for the work, it didn’t take place the way we expected. So most of the work started picking up after 2019 when we registered. Before that we were just doing small gatherings and workshops among ourselves with support from some organizations.
MA: Is there anyone from that initial group still part of the Ya_All revolution?
SH: No one. We began mostly out of passion, the belief in what you really want to create. We live in such a resource poor state and we don’t have people backing us. We need to earn and we need to move ahead. Works around gender and sexuality issues are not considered important. We struggled a lot during initial days and still we do struggle. That’s a time everyone was looking for a better job, better livelihood and to settle down. For me this work started as a support system for myself. I underwent a lot of crisis. For the other people it was just a support system and for me it was very necessary. Slowly and gradually since this work was not paying them and not supporting their growth, somehow people phased out. But for someone like me who was going through recovery, this has helped me to recover and that’s why I stuck with it and that’s how we are here. Many more new people have joined and there are young people who joined as employees afterward. When we created it, there were only three or four of us and all of them have left.
MA: You used the word ‘recovery’. What do you mean by it?
SH: For me recovery comes from a different perspective than well-being. When Ya_All started in 2017 I was going through a lot of difficulties. I was staying in Mumbai at that time during my research doing my PhD. It was difficult to fit in a city life that was so fast compared to a place like Manipur which is slow paced and grounded. I also identify myself as an introvert person, it was difficult for me to connect with people and also connect with the queer scene in Mumbai which was loud and out and very much rainbowy and colorful. Also the research work that I was doing made me very lonely at that time. I went into depression and somehow it led me into substance abuse. I got overdosed twice in Bombay. and definitely I had to come back to Manipur for treatment and therapy. Even though there were many mental health professionals and doctors, very few understood the connection between sexuality, mental health and substance abuse. For a person like me who had access to a network, language and resources I could get support. I had made that thing in my mind, we needed a support system that would be affirming about my sexuality, the conflict I was going through, the upbringing and the violence around it. Ya_All was one such space that provided me with that kind of support. That’s why I always say that the journey of Ya_All has been my own recovery. Many people came and left. But those who went through trauma could resonate with me and the issues we were working with. Many people joined in that recovery journey. We started creating smaller support groups for young people living with HIV, for LGBTQI youth, people with psychosocial disability.
MA: Did you ever reach out to any organizations in Manipur or in Mumbai at that point of time apart from your support group?
SH: For me, I always say that I had the privilege of language, connection and everything. So my first treatment started in Mumbai only and there too, they would look at you from the point of view of an addict rather than as a human seeking help, they’d judge you at the first mention of substance and the second mention of sexuality. So there are different layers of challenges which you have to pass through to get help even though you’re willing to pay. So when being struck down at the first trial you don’t reach out again. I tried a lot in Mumbai and I couldn’t get it and I came back to Manipur. I tried a lot in Manipur. The kind of recovery model available here was either rehabilitation or abstinence. My treatment based on abstinence definitely was not helpful for me. All this treatment was purely biomedical, very little psychosocial support. I couldn’t find those professionals or support who could understand all these intersections of sexual, mental health and conflict.
MA: In these five years, what kind of infrastructure has Ya_All been able to build?
SH: Ya_All lost his office during the pandemic and we’ve been running mostly on crowdfunding and small campaigns through different organizations who believed in us and our work. We registered in 2019 and from 2019 to 2021 there was a huge covid wave. We started working from my home. Till now we don’t have a proper office but we have converted this space into our office and we provide support. As a young organization we definitely like that infrastructure, nevertheless we have built in the last three to four years a network of young people who are ready to provide support to others. We are training a lot of peers in the grassroots who don’t sit in our office but who connect with other people in need of our help. And we provide those services for free such as mental health services, legal services , livelihood and many other things. Through the work of our peer support we have been able to build kindness, we have been able to build empathy and we have definitely been able to build trust with the people. I think that’s a much bigger impact than the resources.
MA: You mentioned mental well-being and livelihood. What would you say then what are the focus areas of your organization when?
SH: When we started around 2017 as you know, we really wanted to work around gender and sexuality because that was something that nobody was doing and it was not anywhere. But when we started working we realized that the topic people did not want to talk about sex or gender. The topics are still very stigmatized and you know somehow difficult for them and for us to find supporters or funders. Our main agenda was to mainstream the issues that we were facing. Somehow we started looking up for initiatives and other projects through which we can connect back with the society and also to the funders. That’s how sports became a big way for us to connect with the people. That’s how we started this initiative called Queer Games in 2018. And we have been doing it yearly for 5 years. And when we reached out to school it was difficult to tell them that you’re doing something for sexual and genders. Somehow we realize that mental health was one thing that got a lot of attention during the covid-19 it’s how we use mental health as an entry point to talk about everything: mental health, sexual health, well-being, reproductive health, substance abuse, more like comparative sexuality education.
MA: What about livelihood? You mentioned in your previous answers.
SH: Yeah in the last few years that we have worked we have worked around a lot on mental health because somehow what we realize when we were training the peers was that to live a dignified life. You just don’t need to be only healthy, you also need to earn. That’s one of the ways where many of the organizations have stopped working. Most of them work on health. Many of the queer people from marginalized backgrounds were not provided employment opportunities; we’re not trained well. It’s a fact that many of them drop out of schools and colleges due to harassment and so they don’t have much of the qualifications and skills. We try to connect them to skills building programs. We mentor many of them such as handicraft skills and crisis management. It helped them to boost their confidence thinking that they could definitely earn a lot. If you look at the livelihood options for trans women, they are mostly in salons and beauty parlors. We did a pilot project on entrepreneurial training with the High Commission of Canada and it turned out well.
MA: Tell us a bit more about the other events.
SH: We do a lot of campaigns based on certain months and time of the year and resources definitely. Queer Games happen in March. We started our own fundraising event called Ya_All fest. We held it last year in running a shelter space that we created for LGBTQ individuals facing a crisis to stay. We are providing food and lodging for free, we are not charging anything again because people who are facing conflict and crisis again do not have resources. September 10th is Suicide Prevention Day. We do a lot of events on that day on mental health in September. We want to let people know that it’s okay not to be okay, it’s okay to seek help. June is always a pride month and we do a lot of campaigns. The biggest challenge is that you have to start fundraising and crowdfunding. We sustain our football team through crowdfunding, so we use a social media platform to tell our stories and raise funds.
MA: Is it the first time in Manipur that we have a shelter home for LGBTQI people?
SH: I’ve never heard of such a shelter home in Manipur before for LGBTQI individuals. Recently there have been some talks of shelter homes for transgender persons by the Government. Also because transgender people have been recognized as the third gender category by the Government, there are provisions coming up. Again in the sexuality specturm, we are still fighting for safe spaces for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, intersex, nonbinary. So that they can find refuge when they need it, it’s like a halfway home, we can link them to other service providers for help – legal, police support etc.
MA: How many people are there? Does it have a name?
SH: We just call it shelter space. Now what’s happening is, all the football players want to stay there, we have a capacity of fifteen. But we have not opened it fully. One big challenge was to complete the infrastructure, fooding and lodging etc. We have made our own mind that we are not going to charge anything from the community. We are going through some struggle, we are approaching some authorities, hopefully it will be functional by the end of this year.
MA: You were also featured in a documentary film on mental health recently.
SH: It was called The Me You Cant See. It was released on Apple TV, co-presented by Oprah and Prince Harry. I can’t digest the fact that I am still there. Definitely it was a story which needed to be told, the process took long, it took more than one year. They somehow found out my story, my intersection with my personal story, a gay man who went through internal and external conflict, mental health issues and substance and getting back home and doing their own thing, in an area where people don’t talk about these things. I was the only layman there in the group of very famous personalities. It was about the journey of Ya_All, my mental health challenges, we built this organization, this football team, and bridge the intergenerational gap. My age became this bridge between the issues faced by the elders and the young people.
MA: Your work is intersectional in so many ways. Can you tell me more about intergenerational? Given the way how the political scenario has changed somewhat. We have been living under militarization and political conflict for decades.
SH: Ya_All began from grappling with trauma, how we became the bridge was also because of how our elders went through intergenerational trauma, through stories and narratives which were passed on from generation to another. Just like the fear of god/ghost from stories. Many have not faced it but felt it. To reduce the trauma, we migrate or run away. Many other stayed back. How trauma is transmitted? Instead we transform it into something positive. The younger generation has a lot of infrastructure, we definitely will tell them the history, but the pain/trauma part of it, we have been really focussing on not transmitting them as pain but sharing as power. I feel we have a lot of responsibility. We have been lagging behind the mainstream/mainland for a long time. Now we have the opportunity , why do we let it go away in pain and shame.
MA: Can you tell us how does LGBTQ activism here is different from mainland India?
SH: LGBTQ movement started with HIV/AIDS eradication program. Focusing on trans women and MSM (men having sex with men), left out a large part, lesbian, bi, transmen. There were many organizations working on HIV programs, through that the transgender movement was born as trans and MSM were target groups. There was no clear difference between trans and MSM. The services did not reach gay community. That’s why the movement is dominated by trans women in stories and presence in Manipur and other parts. People were not ready to fund gay or lesbian, except the health part. Good part about the mainland is that there is CSR funding, which companies were giving out to make companies look more inclusive. They started funding organizations selectively, that’s how advocacy and movement started building up.
In Manipur/Northeast India, there is no corporate presence to fund us. It just started recently as a separate component and not under health. If the corporate will choose a mainland organization which has bigger reach and impact. We still lack a lot of campaign and advocacy. In our crowdfunding campaign, we believe that there will still be people who believe in our work and that has kept our work running. Many organizations come up every year and shut down. What if we don’t get funding each time, we have hope to to keep on moving
MA: There has been a critique of NGOization. Reliance on funding from the global north, rich countries and corporations. How they ignore local needs and reify their hegemonies, fulfilling their needs of the organization themselves and not the ones on the ground.
SH: We have been fortunate enough that we are young, we are not dictated by certain organizations to work a certain way. We are young and innovative. We instead provide proposals, definitely more rejections than acceptance. They have their own way of working. Northeast or Manipur does not fall on their map. We have limited choices. Very few organizations will work with you. We work only with five funders long term, they have been very empathetic, they don’t dictate us. Honestly we also have faced organizations who come with a certain agenda and they are stern with their objectives and want us to simply execute them. That happen with us, we didn’t continue working with them
Also NGOs’ image became muddled because certain funders like them who have money, power and come with instructions to follow. You end up become their soldiers and not peoples. How in social work, grassroots is about connecting with people, developing empathy. We get sidetracked using people as data and numbers. Many organizations see impact as numbers. How many we have reached out to rather than how many lives have been impacted. You are the one who has to make the choice. If you don’t follow them, you will be cut off. Finding your voice, connecting to the media, so many media have told our story and so no one cannot just ditch us.
MA: Shifting the conversation from the global and international to the local, what about the response from the people of the state, let’s say the Manipuri society?
SH: Our work started during the pandemic became a positive turn of the organization where we did a lot of crowdfunding. We started reaching out to people and also we were running hotline numbers. We got connected with the mental health helpline for covid run by the government and also money from the Child Commission and Social Welfare Department for supporting some campaigns with it. That was all possible because of Covid-19, we could get work permission from the government. With a lot of grassroot organizations and activists who believed in us we built that trust during the crisis. We supported a lot of people, more than 8,000 families that time. They forgot that we were a group of queer people. The line got blurred. The image of the community got boosted.
MA: Anything about the Covid relief work you did apart from the families you supported.
SH: Our storytelling initiative called the Scriptr came up during the pandemic. Most of the people were locked inside and many were jobless so we started writing for all these people, somehow we started writing stories everyday for people who are in need of medication, education and employment. A lot of people came out and supported after reading the stories. Some people donated mobile phones when they heard stories of kids who could not afford gadgets for online education, some people would give money to families whose husbands passed away because of Covid because nobody else wanted to go to the family. Some street vendors who lost their business started contributing. We started writing stories about doctors, people who are in charge of cremation, ambulance drivers. It became a way where we built compassion and hope and gave strength to one another to tell you/we are not alone. Everyone is with each other. We started raising money through the stories. We got acknowledged by the United Nations as one among ten global initiatives led by LGBTQ youth in the world.
MA: Thank you so much, Sadam.
The project was funded by Orfalea Center, UC Santa Barbara. The interview was bilingual, in English and Meiteilon, the language of the Indigenous Meitei people. The interview has been transcribed, with minor editing, from a longer version.