Last week, Jamaican LGBT activists took to the streets in large numbers to protest against a church that plans to hold a prayer for the gay community that is challenging the constitutionality of Jamaica's infamous buggery law.
In Moscow, LGBT groups rallied holding rainbow flags protesting a Russian law that has banned gay-pride parades in the country. And as you read this, Chennai is preparing for its fifth pride march that's scheduled to take place next Sunday.
As these street protests go on, Vasu Primlani prepares for a protest of her own minus the rainbow flag. Dressed in a crisp cotton sari, bold red bindi placed on her forehead, she sips on water preparing for her audience. Her weapon: humour. She is performing at Cafe Zo in Delhi. Primlani is one of several stand up comics in India and abroad who use humour as a means to push for social inclusion of the queer community.
Protests and humour both work to their own strengths, says Sadia Raval, clinical psychologist at Inner Space in Mumbai. “The advantage with humour is that an identity is created without an imposition.” But she also has a word of caution. “In terms of social acceptance, this could work, but we must realise that what is said in humour also passes in humour.”
The last laugh
A trained environmentalist, Primlani turned to comedy in 2010 while working in San Francisco. Her material includes jokes about laws in India that declare sex between two consenting adults of the same sex illegal. “It's really sad when you love your partner but you can't express it. I guess the only place that you can make love without fear of arrest is prison,” smiles Primlani.
New York-based Vidur Kapur had a troubled adolescence during which time he came to terms with his sexuality. He dealt with opposition from family and alienation from friends.
He now uses some of these memories in his stand-up act. “Indians aren't comfortable with homosexuality — they are barely okay with sexuality,” he jokes, dressed in a pink tie and casual trousers. He grew up in Delhi, moved to the UK for higher studies and finally settled in the US. After abandoning a career in management, he began to perform stand-up comedy at US college campuses.
“Pain is fodder for comedians. If you don't have angst, you can't be funny,” says Kapur. “Of course, you need to be able to laugh at it yourself before you let a room full of strangers know about your life experiences.” His jokes include digs at his grandmother and other family members. “Sometimes they laugh and sometimes they get uncomfortable.”
While Primlani's immediate family was supportive, she pegs her jokes on friends and her extended big-fat Sindhi family. “There are all these aunties who laugh at the jokes and then there will be a few men at the back who try to heckle me, but I make fun of them. At the end, they applaud too,” says Primlani.
MJ, founder of Gaysi, an online platform for news and events about the LGBT community says, “Not everyone lives a tragic life in the queer community so it's important to laugh about it all.”
She refers to the Kashish film festival, India's biggest LGBT film festival. “Look at the entries, each story ends with the gay protagonist killing himself or turning straight to live a hollow life... We wanted to change that perspective,” says MJ.
Gaysi organises Dirty Talk, an open-mic event that encourages gay and straight performers to participate and talk freely about all things taboo. The first session began in January last year. “We choose popular pubs as venues to keep the tone casual,” she says. Past venues in Mumbai include Big Nasty, The Little Door, Apicius and Three Wise Men in Mumbai.
The fifth edition of Dirty Talk is due in September. Acts include 5-10 minute performances by gay and straight comedians who don't need to keep their material to a queer-centric subject. Organisers only check to make sure the jokes are not homophobic.
The event is open to encourage inclusion. “We don't discriminate against straight people” says MJ.
Primlani says her audience knows she is gay but she doesn't usually mention it and takes a call depending on the audience. “Sometimes you tell them you are a lesbian and they sit up and pay a lot of attention but dont laugh. I don't want to risk my set becoming an episode of Oprah,” says Primlani, who calls her set The Art of Lesbian Maintenance.
Though there may be an activism element injected into his sets, Kapur clarifies his focus is always humour. “I guess while I'm talking about a deeply personal experience, I also end up making a political statement. But the activism is just indirect and the purpose remains to get laughs.” That said, Kapur admits that his is a niche audience. “I can't expect to enjoy a universal audience that a straight Russel Peters does, and that has less to do with your talent and more with your identity.”
But the humour can work in subtle ways and isn't that the objective eventually? As MJ puts it, “You walk in to be entertained and you don't realise that while laughing you probably learned a little something about the life experiences of our LGBT performers.”