Me, Myself and my Gender, a documentary which explores the life of male sex workers in Karnataka is headed for the international gay film festival in Slovenia. Directed by team of G K Vasuki and Maya Jaideep, both journalists hailing from the state, the film is the first look at communities of male sex workers and other MSM (Men having sex with men) communities in the state, which are slowly starting to emerge from the confines of social stigma and trying to carve out a place for themselves in the social mainstream.
The film is based on a research project by an NGO called Ashodaya Samithi, a street-based sex workers collective based in Mysore, which documented the lives of the MSM community in the districts of Mysore, Belgaum and Bellary. The twenty three-minute-documentary, narrated in a matter of fact style, revolves around a set of interviews with men in these districts who talk about their difficult journey, which commenced when they came to terms with their desire for men while living within a traditional and conservative milieu. With no social legitimation available for same sex desire, most of them chose the only options available: sex work, sex-change operations and religion. The documentary explores the role of religion, especially the Jogappa cult, a variant of the devadasi system prevalent in north Karnataka, in giving social sanction to sexual taboos like same sex desire and transgender identity.
“Jogappa is a ritual through which the male is allowed by the society to don the form of a female. In this case, this ritual is performed for them to take on the female form and only after this ritual is over, do they lead the life of women, most of them undergoing the process of sex change. This is prevalent in north Karnataka and is also known as the Yelamma ritual in the Belgaum region where females are dedicated to the god and they get social sanction to be sex workers. It is a ritual where they are wedded to the god and are thereby deemed to be in “the service” of the god,” says Maya Jaideep.
For all the protagonists in the film, the most difficult part of the journey of transformation from the sexual and gender identity they were born with and the one they have fashioned for themselves was the friction with their families. Unlike bigger cities, there was no counselling available and there was no gay community they could turn to for support. But once they joined traditionally accepted communities like Jogappas, Kothis or transgender communities like hijras their families have come around to accepting them. And with the intervention of NGOs like the Ashodaya Samithi, these men are struggling for a larger social acceptance, for the right to a life with dignity and an understanding of their own identities and desires. Many of them are involved in raising awareness about HIV and other communicable sexual diseases and the risks involved for sex workers. The activism not only helps them bolster a sense of community, but allows them to contribute to society in a way that can be recognised by others.
“I find myself giving lectures on HIV and how to combat it, and policemen who formerly used to harass me come to my classes and learn from me now. It is quite a change,” says Prakash, a male sex worker in the film who has been actively involved in the anti-HIV campaign.
The film which sets out to deconstruct the western myths and concepts of homosexuals by bringing vivid aspects of their lives is also primarily a film about love and celebration of their identity. As Nagendra, one of the MSM interviewed in the film, says, being a sex worker and a lover was initially a conflict but he was able to negotiate with the support of his lover. “When I fell in love, for a year, I did not do sex work. My lover convinced me to do sex work; as sex is common but you can have intimate love with only one person’’. Nagendra and his partner now dream of together adopting a child.