A day with Gopi Shankar Madurai: Interview by Lydia Garthwait

A day with Gopi Shankar Madurai: Interview by Lydia Garthwait undergraduate student of Colorado College, Colorado Springs, United States during South India Term Abroad Program, Madurai (This article is part of unedited dissertation & property of SITA & SM community)

Gopi Shankar Madurai – Photo: The New Indian Express

Gopi’s hands were trembling.  Ze looked nervous and fidgeted with the water bottle ze was holding. We had already tried earlier to meet with a head of the English department at American College, but he had scheduled over our timeslot.  When we returned a second time, the professor was speaking with someone else in his office.  I accepted the defeat, we were obviously not welcome.  Gopi, however, hesitantly pushed zis way into the room, walking over to the professor.

                 “Oh, I am sorry to interrupt sir, but I wanted to talk with you about getting A. Revathi’s second book into the curriculum.” 

                “Who?”  I did not know if he was feigning or not, but the man’s face was carved with professional impatience.  Anyone else would have walked out, embarrassed.  But Gopi is not just anyone. 

                “A. Revathi.  She is a transgender writer.  Her first book was put into the curriculum in 2013.” 

                “Oh, I don’t recognize that name.  Where did you get this information?” 

                “It is in the syllabus.”

                “Oh.  Well, have her give my associate or me a call and we’ll see if we have time to talk with her.” 

                Gopi poked the man’s number into zis phone and walked over to the second man. The man, looking visibly perturbed, said, “Just have her call him.” 

                “But in case he is busy…”  Gopi trailed off and stood, phone in hand, fingers hovering over the keys.  As the silence between them grew, the man relented.

                Gopi and I met for our first interview together at American college.  Throughout our time together, Gopi expressed entire autobiographies worth of information about zimself, a quantity I could not possibly reflect in these pages.  In an attempt to retain the narrative structure of zis stories, rather than rephrase them into a third-person interpretation, I have spliced our conversations, rewording and combining his phrases, in hopes to create a piece which honors zis narrative.  As Gopi is an English speaker and we were able to spend so much time together, I felt confident venturing into dialogical writing (Madison).  My own questions are the most heavily edited, for purposes of the flow of the story and to reflect my interpretations of zis words.  Direct quotes from zim have been placed in double quotation marks.  Single quotes are used to quote another person within my summarization of zis words and to quote another person within zis direct quotes.  My editions to zis direct quotes are placed in brackets.
 Lydia Garthwait:
                How did you become an activist?

Gopi Shankar: 
“I never thought I would become an activist.  Even now, I never call myself as an activist.  But when I see some form of life in struggle, especially human life, if I can do something to bring peace and dignity to its life, I will just get into it.  Serving is a very different kind of word from help.  We cannot help everyone, I believe, but we can serve everyone.”

LG:         Would you still consider activism to be your profession?  

GS:         Well, when I was living as a monk [LG raises her eyebrows] — we will get back to that later – when I was living as a monk, I saw for the first time people getting a salary for helping people.  “That is awful!  Social work is being commercialized.  We even call it social work rather than social service… helping others is not a kind of business.”

So when I began Srishti Madurai in 2011, I started it as a non-funded volunteer movement.  Every volunteer, including myself, works other jobs part-time in order to support Srishti.  I have worked as a yoga instructor for five years, in order to help fund Srishti Madurai.   

It was important to me not only to run Srishti Madurai as a volunteer movement, but also to base it in a non-metropolitan area. Many other LGBT organizations run out of places like Chennai and Mumbai.  They throw gay parties and host pride parades. 

 “We are not against parties, but what impact will it create?  What will it do for struggling people?  There are a lot of class, cultural, [and] regional differences between these organizations and non-metropolitan areas.  We tried to bridge the gap by starting in a non-metropolitan area like Madurai.”  Metropolitan movements can give the impression that the LGBT movement is a leftist movement, or even that it is a movement to make India like America.  This is awful!  Did you know Hinduism has gay gods?

LG:         Really?

GS:         Yes!  One of Srishti Madurai’s goals is to educate members of parliament on LGBT issues.  “We went to meet an MP from Karnataka, in order to request her to include intersex people.  We were told she is a very conservative woman.  She said, ‘Of course I am against these things, I don’t want us to turn into America.’  So I asked her, ‘What god do you like?’  ‘Shiva,’ she said. ‘There is a version of Shiva who is half female and male.  That gender is called Neutrois.  Shiva loved another man, Vishnu.  They got married and surrogated a child, Aiyyappa.’ ‘She said, ’Oh, that’s wonderful.’”  She realized that the ideas we were advocating for were not new to India.  These ideas are connected with the very indigenous traditions of India.  Metropolitan organizations may receive more funding, but “we have been able to accomplish things in five years that that other organizations have not accomplished in twenty-five years.”

LG:         So, did you grow up in a non-metropolitan area yourself?

GS:         Yes.  I was born in a slum in Madurai. Kids are vulnerable; I was more easily vulnerable than other children.  My own cousins actually exploited me, abused me.  I was raped by maybe seven men from the family.  That should never happen to any other kid!  “Something is wrong.  There is something wrong with the system.  We are not completely Indianized nor anglosaxonized, we are stuck up in the middle.  In India, we follow Victorian values and Victorian systems, because the British ruled us for some 300 years and they changed everything, everything from the very education system to the very kind of education policy backing it.  Lord Mountbatten [Governor General of India] said that ‘Very soon Indians will become slaves of English.  They will become an enemy for their own culture.  They will be alienated from their culture by the educational system that we are trying to give.’  And it has happened now.”  “For me, getting education is not important, what you are getting educated about is more important.” 
LG:         There does tend to be a blanket advocacy for education, while “education” can mean so many things.  Can you explain more on education and the indigenous tradition?

GS:         “Our educational institution has failed to cultivate human value to respect all forms of human life.  That is why I always feel that the present education system has failed.  It has…. [created] educated people who are more crooked and cunning and selfish than illiterate people.  A tribe in the Amazon is not killing people in Iraq. Finely educated Harvard graduate is executing the plans.” “We are educated to be egoistic, to be selfish, and not to be human beings.”

For my early education, I went to a Christian school.  “Daily I [would] go to school in a uniform.  Teachers would yell and I am not interested in hearing it.”  I am very sure that from the day one I got my consciousness in my body that this is the way I am.  As a child, I loved to go roam with cows and goats, I loved to spend time in the water with the fish.  I loved singing and dancing.  I loved spending time lonely.  I am very truthful to the kind of spirit of life within me.  We are more than what we think about ourselves.  We are more than what we hear about ourselves.  I don’t believe in the concept of a soul.  But I do believe that there is something which is beyond our body exists, a kind of truth, which Indian theology believes in.”    The education system fails to educate children on their own selves, their bodies, their ancestors, their fellow humans.  “Let the child be the child, we don’t want to bundle up our own expectations of what we want them to become, like a doctor.  Let them be human beings.  We need human beings on the planet.”

I did learn music and storytelling from the Christian missionaries, which I loved.  However, I was more attached to Indian culture, religion, and habits.  “I am not telling you it is the best system in the world, but it is one of the best in the world, I think.  Because we know who our forefathers are, who our ancestors are and where we came from.  We know where our great-grandparents lived a thousand years ago.”  

LG:         A bit back you mentioned that you were a monk at one point?  How did that happen?

GS:         Yes, you see, I was always a very out-of-the-box kid.  I questioned everything.   I questioned the very self-realization of myself.   “I believe this nail belongs to Gopi.  But that nail removed is not a part of Gopi.  So I am not that nail then, I am not this finger, I am not this body, so then I am the universe in ecstatic motion. That is what my traditional culture taught to me.” 

                “A monk seeks to renounce all of their identities, religious, political, even the identity that they are a monk.”  I wanted to become a monk because I always question.  I also mistakenly wanted to be a monk, because at that point I knew I was not attracted to girls.  “I thought those who are not attracted to women become monks.  I was completely wrong.”

                So, I began volunteering at a Ramakrishna mission when I was fourteen and was fully accepted at age sixteen.  Ramakrishna is a priest who lived in the 1800s.  One of his chief disciples, Vivekananda, led the creation of a monastic organization in Ramakrishna’s name after Ramakrishna’s death.   Now the organization does a great amount of work to provide education and other forms of support for thousands of children.

                In this monastic order I learned a lot about other religions.  We studied all religions Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.  We studied theology, the Quran, and different languages.  I was part of the editorial board of the magazine at the time.  As the very youngest person in the order, I was handling many divisions of the administration.  The order taught me a lot, not simply on religion.

LG:         Why did you leave, then?

GS:         Many different types of people stayed in the math [the place monks stay].  One man, Tony MacMahon, a famous Irish accordionist, visited there.  He was very passionate about the preservation of native Celtic music and language, so I had respect for him. He decided to write his memoirs and hired me on to help him with this.  This was my first professional job.  

                “At the math, I had also fallen in love with this cook. I slept with him, but beyond the physical attraction there was something more.  As I was seeking to renounce all of my identities, this was not very truthful to that ideology.  I thought, okay, I am too much attracted and attached to this particular boy; I need to experiment myself.  So I sought permission from the abbey.  I came out of the order.”  I went with Tony first to Kerala and then to Thiruvannamalai.

                In 2011, I returned to Madurai and began attendance at American College, studying religion, philosophy, and sociology.  Students bullied me and even some faculty would ask: “What kind of reproduction organ you got in between your legs?”  But I became part of the students’ committee of the college, organizing cultural activities.  A lot of the students who bullied, I was able to turn into volunteers for the events.

LG:         Oh, wow!  How were you–

GS:         “How old are you?” 

LG:         “Twenty-one.” . 

GS:         “I am twenty-five.  Oh god, I am so old.  Do I seem old to you?”
LG:         [surprised] Well.  I, well, I don’t think you seem old.

GS:         “I haven’t established the system I am thinking about. Days are going.  I am wasting my life.  People are dying.  We are just kind of running, running, running, but we don’t know where we are running to.  We are not machines!  We are more than that!  I am not going to make a revolution but [we must create] some kind of system. [pause]  A space where we can redefine education.” 

LG:         Yeah?

GS:         I am quite dry.  Would you like to go get water?

We meandered off of the campus to a sweet shop next door.  Everyone seemed to know Gopi, stopping zim to ask zim how ze was.  Each time, Gopi mentioned that ze was a finalist for the Youth Commonwealth Award.  When I made a comment about it, Gopi replied: ‘I don’t have much respect for these sorts of things, Nobel Prizes and those types of awards.  But awards help give activists a presence and that presence and the connections it lends give the activist power to make change.’

GS:         In 2012, one year after Srishti Madurai was started; we conducted Asia’s first Genderqueer Pride Parade in Madurai & first Alan Turing Rainbow Festival at the Mahatma school.  We approached Lady Doak College to host it, but they denied us.  They believe we go against Christian principles. But in reality, the church endorses us!  Back at American College, Rev Prof Aruldoss introduced me to the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, where I conducted classes on LGBT education.  Rev Jay Chitra from the theological seminary introduced me to the National Council of Churches of India.  The NCCI is now working with me to put together a theological reader on gender and sexuality for all the pastors in the protestant churches in India. 

So, either way, we managed to convince the Mahatma school’s president to host the event.  Even though the school is owned by a Hindu, the principle is Christian.  More than 600 high school students attended.  A girl approached me who likes to write and to play basketball.  She is attracted to girls not boys.  She likes to be friends with boys but not sleep with them. She understands parts of herself. One of Srishti Madurai’s core missions was that before a kid knows how to point out America on a map, the kid should know what is inside their own body.  That girl was doing just that! 

After the festival, the principle barred us.  It was very painful, to have that level of discrimination against us.  They feel we are spreading homosexuality.   “When it comes to the principal, that is fine.  If they don’t want to listen, I will disappear from that place.  But what about those 3000 kids in that school?”  Now I would be able to call the minister of education and he would call the school to let them know I was coming.  That is why I go through the drama involving the commonwealth.  The awards and everything gives that kind of power. The drama needs to be done so something good can be done.  “People who once barred Shristi now salute me.” 
LG:         What is Srishti Madurai’s strategy to create change?  Is it mostly based in educating children?

GS:         No.  That is only part of the way we approach education and conversation.  We put a lot of our efforts on educating medical fraternities, law-makers, politicians, religious leaders, and academics.  “These five people’s knowledge will impact the common society a lot.”  In order to enable conversation, I located or created regional terms for gender types and sexualities.  If you try to educate people, they will tell you that you are imitating the West.  But if you say, ‘In the pre-sangam literature, we have found that these things have existed for 3000, 4000 years,’ people are often willing to listen. The thing is “when many western nations didn’t allow women to vote, we had women prime ministers.”  We don’t have to follow America in order to have acceptance for indigenous gender and sexual minorities. 

LG:         What has surprised you about the direction of your activism?

GS:         [laughs] I never imagined I would get wrapped up in the politics of the Olympics. “During physical education in school, I would sleep in the library.   I never thought I would end up in this.”

LG:         How did that happen?

GS:         There is a woman, her name is Santhi Soundarajan.  She was born in Tamil Nadu into poverty as a part of the lowest caste.  She is an incredible athlete.  She won eleven international medals for India.  In 2006 she was subjected to a gender test at the Olympics and failed.  Her medals and prize money was stripped from her.  It was devastating.  At one point, she attempted suicide.

                In 2010 Caster Semenya, a runner from South Africa, was also subjected to gender testing and failed.  Santhi supported her by saying, “Who decides what is woman?  Do not abandon your fight.”  South Africa supported Caster and said, “Caster is our girl, she is our dignity,” and she was able to continue to run for South Africa.  India has given no support to Santhi.  Unity in diversity is bullshit.  There is caste, gender, and regional discrimination occurring.  We are talking about someone born a woman, living as a woman, being told she is not a woman and having her livelihood stripped from her.

LG:         How were you able to get involved?

GS:         When she was stripped of her medal, I was young.  I only heard about her on the news.  But in 2013, I got in contact with her through a friend.  At that time, Santhi was at her original home, working as a daily wage worker earning $1 per day.  “But, you see, we need to have the art for appreciating the human value.”  That is the most important thing.  I called her and immediately said, “You are an inspiration.  I am your first fan.  I am your little brother and you are my sister… I will fight for you.”  “All she needed is someone who can understand her, who can listen to her.  Daily I counseled her.  I know the art of counseling, to be able to bring all the very negative things and turn it into a positive energy to celebrate what they are.”

                Srishti Madurai supported her.  “[It] took a lot of time to console and heal her.  Then we set up the target.  We said, ‘So, this happened to Shanti, this should not happen to any other girl in the field of sports.  We must ensure that.  History shall remember you not by the medals you won but the struggle and the torment you underwent.  Woman will get more justice because of you.’”  So, with the help of Shanti, we went to rural areas and found thirty-two girls who play for their school level.  Our goal was to create a program which uses sports for social change.  Its name is now “Ensuring Childhood for all Children”.  When we initially found these girls, almost none of the parents were receptive.  They do not understand the value of sports. 

                This one woman, she was washing clothes in a pond.  I sat with her.  “We need your girl.  We will provide her food and education.”  “No.  I cannot.  She does not have a father.  She is sixteen.  In one year I want to get her married, as I cannot look after her.”  “It took me three hours to convince her.  But that girl is now a national level athlete and will represent India in the next Asian games.”  To fund these girls, we set up a program called “Adopt an Athlete.”  A collection of common people are assigned to one student and they will help fund her clothes, food, and schooling.

LG:         What is Shanthi doing now?

GS:         It took so long to convince the government to secure her a job.  She studied to be a national instructor of sports and scored A+ grades.  The central government appointed her as a coach on contract basis, which fails to give her a reliable income.  We are going to take them up at the civil court.

LG:         It has been three years since you began serving Santhi and the situation still has not been fully fixed.  How do you deal with that kind of frustration?  And also, earlier we were talking about the Mahatma school barring you, when you are only trying to do good.  That sounds horrific.  How do you deal with that kind of let down? 

GS:         “These things sometimes upset me a lot.  It may upset me, but it makes me think a lot.  When you can think, you are in the process of evolving.  As you think in a very positive way, you evolve.  So I think a lot, I observe a lot.” “I don’t know whether the system will change, but I will continue to fight until my last breath.  That’s all I know.”

We were crossing the street at this point.  I turned to zim and yelled over the traffic blaring past us.  “But don’t you get frustrated?” I asked. 

“My activism is a type of meditation.  It gives me a lot of contentment.”  I turned my head to stare at zim.  The contrast between zis words and the hopelessness often feel, shocked me. 
                “Where does that come from—the monastery?”  I asked.

Ze laughed.  “I found contentment where there are orgies and sex where there is religion.  [Pause] You should put that in.

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