“Filmmakers have the supreme responsibility to be sensitive, empathetic and rational when trying to make films on the said theme. It is important to create the right opportunities rather than just having token representation in the films,” says Celina Jaitly
As an LGBT ally, you bring a different perspective to the conversation. Your insistence on equality has a different meaning. It’s not about you; it’s about others and doing the right thing,” says actress, UN equality champion and queer ally, Celina Jaitly. She was the first Indian actress to do a photo shoot advocating the repeal of Section 377, demanding transgender recognition. Over the past two decades, the former Miss India has become a strong voice for the rights of the queer community. In 2021, she appeared in a short film titled Season’s Greetings who made headlines for casting a transgender actor.
This month of pride, First post catches up with Jaitly talking about instilling the values of an LGBT ally in one’s children, the need to make provisions for the economic stability of the queer community, the significant change in their portrayal in Indian cinema and more.
Excerpts from the interview:
You became part of the LGBTQ movement in India two decades ago when community awareness was limited. What prompted you to become a voice for them?
I don’t know why, but the sad stories of many LGBTQI friends and colleagues have crept into my heart and caused turmoil and unbearable pain. The last straw was when a mother figure (in Kolkata) to me (from the gay community) passed away in a tragic accident. This event changed his life. His last conversation with me was just a week before he passed away. His whole life had been dedicated to the pursuit of happiness which he could never achieve due to the stigma associated with homosexuality, especially since he grew up in the 1970s and had not just an economically strong environment. While all his fears disappeared with a tragic incident, this incident changed something in me forever and therefore, I decided that I will do my best to be helpful.
What do you think about having more straight allies for the queer community?
One must be blind or mentally incompetent not to notice the prejudices prevalent around us. The irony is that it exists in the largest secular democracy in the world, in a country whose true cultural heritage has never shown prejudice or intolerance against LGBTQI people given the records. In fact, it was very rare for a straight ally like me to stand up with such a passionate stance. There has always been a greater emphasis on independent lesbian and gay activists, individuals and groups. People don’t realize the importance of a direct ally. There are a number of places a straight ally can express their support in small but incredibly meaningful ways. Your workplace, place of worship, school, or civic organizations should introduce, support, or vote for LGBTQI-inclusive policies.
Do you think recent Hindi films have started to portray them in a more sensitive and realistic way?
The queer projection of characters in Indian films has seen a dramatic shift in Fire in 1996 to Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan in 2020 and my movie Season’s Greetings – A Tribute to Rituporno Ghosh by Ramkamal Mukherjee in 2021. Our film is also the first Indian film to cast a transgender actor in a mainstream film or role. I’m glad that many new filmmakers are making progressive efforts and making mainstream LGBTQIA films and it shows that audiences have become more open in acknowledging the reality of the community’s sexual orientation.
Filmmakers have the supreme responsibility to be sensitive, empathetic and rational while trying to make films on the said theme. It’s important to create the right opportunities rather than just having token representation in the movies.
And as complex as it may sound, the underlying principles of treating people with respect and equality are self-evident and require no special education.
As a public figure, do you think it becomes a greater responsibility to become a conduit for conveying and disseminating issues that need attention?
A platform like mine is a one-in-a-billion privilege, so using it for a cause that can positively change millions of lives is a choice that must be made even if not everyone agrees. . At the end of the day, when looking at your life journey, it’s important to see your place on the right side of history.
Are there any changes you would like to see for the empowerment of the queer community in today’s world?
Despite considerable progress, LGBTQIA people remain marginalized in our society. Their personal, family and community development is hindered by social and institutional barriers to empowerment. Being able to safely affirm one’s gender identity and sexual orientation is crucial for mental and physical well-being and is the first aspect that the whole world needs to focus on. Provisions must be made to ensure the economic security and financial stability of LGBTQ people by promoting inclusive work practices and workplace policies. It is extremely important to protect and strengthen the civil rights of LGBTQ people involved in the criminal justice system and law enforcement. We must also focus on and foster inclusive, safe, welcoming and supportive schools and educational environments for LGBTQ students. Better access to safe and stable housing for LGBTQ people, as well as support services for people experiencing homelessness are also important.
How would you encourage more people to be part of the pride marches and this movement in general?
What I would like to say to everyone is that we have to understand that LGBTQIA rights are not an achievement, but a responsibility. While laws and attitudes toward the LGBT community have improved over the years, discrimination and violence against LGBTQIA people is still rampant. It is important to stand up for the marginalized to lend your voice and show your support. Everyone can contribute and should contribute even if it is passive in nature. Anyone, regardless of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, can support LGBTQIA people. Deepening your understanding of LGBT issues, including basic terms and concepts, can help you support those who identify as LGBT. You can be an ally, I tell everyone. As an ally, you can confront the challenges that LGBT people face. They can be effective and powerful voices for LGBT equality. I also encourage people to visit our United Nations Free & Equal Campaign website to see all the work we’ve done and how they can choose to stand up for the LGBTQIA community in their own way.
You are the mother of three beautiful children. How to ensure that they too become sensitive to the community and its allies from childhood?
My husband Peter (Haag) and I sincerely believe that learning about LGBT issues from an early age will allow non-LGBT children to become good allies for their peers as they get older. Learning about LGBT issues from an early age will help young LGBT people feel less isolated. We have always emphasized being good allies. Even our four-year-old understands the discrimination a transgender person can face. I encourage my sons to ask lots of questions. Children are very perceptive and will take their cues from how to interpret information from you. My children have many divine LGBTQIA uncles and we raised the boys with open and inclusive views on different types of families and relationships. Starting conversations with our children early on about current LGBTQ+ issues fosters a mindset of tolerance and inclusion throughout their development.
Titas Chowdhury is a Mumbai-based journalist with a keen interest in movies and beaches.