The unanimous opinion of all the three panellists who participated in the DEI session moderated by RI director Vicki Puliz was that Rotary clubs in India, and across the world, should step up their efforts to take out from the closet issues related to LGBTQ, and bring them upfront, “so that people can face these issues and tackle them right in their homes.”
Moderating the discussion, Puliz said that the DEI mantra was only a broader and more effective version of the earlier classification system that existed in Rotary. That too was driven by “diversity, as it was a way for us to have different vocations and professions represented in our clubs, to provide a better understanding of and service to our communities.”
Now we have diversity in much broader terms and DEI focuses on the fact that every individual is unique and there is strength in recognising our differences. DEI now includes gender, age, sexual preference, and even things like accessibility for people who need hearing support or wheelchair access.”
She said one of RI’s priorities, and RI President Jennifer Jones’ governing mantra, was to “grow diversity in our membership and hence expand our reach… so that we are seen as a welcoming and inclusive organisation. Jennifer has made DEI one of her overarching priorities.”
Kicking off the discussion, Manvendra Singh Gohil, crown prince of Rajpipla, Gujarat, said he was the “first openly gay royal,” who had come out of the closet after long years of confusion and little knowledge about what he was grappling with during his adolescent years and beyond. “I finally came to terms with my sexuality as late as when I was 30, came out to my parents after a nervous breakdown, with my parents trying to “convert” me into becoming straight through both medical and religious conversion! I then made history by becoming the world’s first openly gay royal in 2006, got thrown out from the palace, disowned and disinherited by my family, and got death threats too.”
Winding up his traumatic journey he said, “But it has happy ending. I have been accepted back by my family, am married to an American man and we are very happy.”
Singh has the distinction of being the only Indian to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey thrice.
The chairman and co-founder of the Lakshya Trust, he prefers to call himself a human right champion, than merely an LGBTQ advocate, even though his trust champions the cause of the LGBTQ community. He is also the brand ambassador of the HIV/AIDS Healthcare Foundation, India Cares, the world’s oldest and largest centre for HIV-testing and treatment.
He said he was currently working on his pet project, a community care centre being put up at his royal establishment, (his parents have reconciled and accepted him for who he is) for the “social and financial empowerment of the LGBTQIA community.”
Arfi Lamba, a filmmaker, whose film Love has now been accepted by Netflix, and has attended more than 60 international film festivals, said Bollywood has now started making films featuring gay relationships such as in Badhai do. But many years ago, when he and his business partner in Germany came across the script and made this film Love, “we were worried about whether it would ever get released, so we made it very low budget, but now Netflix has picked up our film, and has given us the most respect.”
He commended Singh for the “phenomenal work” he was doing for the LGBTQ community. When asked by Puliz what Rotary could do to make this group more acceptable, Lamba said, “Rotarians will have to move away from Delhi and Mumbai and into homes and areas where India lives.” Appealing to the delegates in the room, he said, “If you find kids with different sexuality around you, show them better understanding and support. The truth is that when parents in small towns of India discover that their children are gay, they disown them. The NGO of Manvendra (Singh) picks up these kids, 17, 18, 19, gives them shelter, for six months or a year till they can stand on their feet. He is doing amazing work, Rotary should support his NGO.”
Madhura Mundada, international service chair and LGBTQ director from the Rotaract Club of Ruia, Mumbai, said both her parents were Rotarians and “Rotary was something I was part of growing up. I have seen what Rotary does and the impact it has.”
When she joined her college, there was a Rotaract club “and I immediately knew I wanted to join it.” When she was told by her club leaders that this was its 10th year and they would like to start an LGBT chapter and “could I lead it, I agreed. They said but people can assume you are from the LGBTQ community and I said but everybody is from the LGBTQ community!”
Madhura said she comes from “a small town where people don’t understand what LGBTQ is… they just don’t have any idea about it. You asked what Rotary could do, I’d say let’s start educating people at the school level, bring this issue in the syllabus. I can tell you that if a few years ago you had asked me about diversity, I would have been blank, people need to learn about it at a younger age.”
Singh urged Rotarians to “break their silence and talk about this issue. That is what I did. One of the things we don’t talk about is sexuality. We need to break taboos, stereotypes, stigma and discrimination, and we need to mainstream these issues. I have very high hopes on Rotary.”
Lamba added that unfortunately in Indian movies LGBTQ issues were “projected in a cliched manner, but if mainstream actors do these roles, and people go and watch them, there will be better awareness and hopefully greater understanding. Cinema has amazing reach and it should take up this subject. Any change happens at grassroots level and India lives in the small towns and villages. Also, we might make one such film once in five years, but Rotary, which reaches out to the innermost corners of India, including rural India, can play a very important role. You can be flagbearers and reach this conversation and awareness to a large number of homes in India.”
Madhura got a lot of attention, including from RI President Jennifer Jones, on her unique pair of jeans, which she had designed and sewed/embroidered on it various social messages, including some connected with Rotary’s areas of focus. When quizzed by Jones, she demurred and said, “This was my 19th year birthday gift to myself!”
When Director Puliz asked the panellists for their opinion on how Rotary could be more inclusive, they all unanimously felt that inclusion of more women, at leaderships levels, was really necessary. Said Lamba: “we were discussing backstage about everything that India is lacking… that prevents it from becoming the next superpower. And that is not going to happen till we are inclusive. Not only towards the LGBTQ and other different groups, but also when it comes to enough participation of women at the higher levels in different fields.”
The panellists’ final appeal to the assembled PDGs, DGs and DGEs was to take the message of inclusion to their clubs.
Added one of them: “Tell the members that if there is a kid around you, who wants to go on a different path when it comes to sexuality, let him/her do so. Indian parents are ready to give everything to their kids… the best of education, travel, opportunities, but the moment a kid comes and tells them I am different, parents shut off from the kid. That is wrong; let’s work for the kids who are hiding from us in the backyard… that is where real change will start.”
President Jones added that this was an incredibly important topic and broached on the level of sexual orientation, as well as gender parity. “We talked about it a lot at the Women in Rotary event yesterday. But really we shouldn’t have to have separate events like that. We need to be able to talk about it collectively as individuals working towards humanity and break down barriers.
I know that probably there were some people who were uncomfortable with the conversation that we had just now but that’s okay. We need to sometimes get uncomfortable in order to feel comfortable with where we are going.”
Picture by Rasheeda Bhagat