What Am I Doing Here?

Thinking About Research and Impact on a Trip to Bombay Pride

In January 2017 I travelled to Bombay/Mumbai (I use these interchangeably, as I heard both regularly), India. I participated in Mumbai Pride and explored the possibility of doing some research in the LGBTQ community there, extending US-based research I’ve done over the past few years on dating/hookup apps in the gay community. As a gay person who cares about these issues and wants my work to have more than just academic impact on the world, this felt like a potentially useful opportunity. This essay is a reflection on that trip.

What am I doing here?

I asked myself this question pretty regularly during my time in Bombay. I asked it in what I thought would be mundane experiences, like crossing the street, which in Bombay means navigating a sea of honking horns, sporadically functional traffic signals and cars/motorbikes/bikes flying by quickly and chaotically in unexpected directions. And I asked it in more surreal moments, like standing with a beer in a tightly packed seaside cafe just after walking in the Mumbai Pride march, with a massive crowd of gay men dancing and singing Bollywood songs at the top of their lungs.

What am I doing here? In some ways, this question wasn’t a surprise. I traveled halfway across the planet to a country and culture markedly different from my own, where I look different, don’t speak the local languages*, and where freedoms and social norms I take for granted, particularly around sexual identity, are banned or under assault. If I felt like I fit in perfectly, there’d probably be something wrong.

But what am I doing here? can mean different things. There’s the sense of displacement and not fitting in (Why am I here?). But also the real, pragmatic and literal question of “What am I doing here?” That is, what am I trying to accomplish?

Here’s a stab at answering these questions. My point here is not to report on research, but to delve into questions about my perspective, identity and impact through these experiences.

Challenging Perspectives

Vignette #1: Two days after arriving, I was on my way to the Gulabi Mela (literally: ‘pink fair’), an evening Pride-sponsored carnival-type event with art/game booths and a DJ. It was in the suburbs, a 45ish minute cab ride from my hotel. On the way there, the driver asked me why I was going out to the suburbs. Easy question, right? Maybe. Should I tell him I was in town for Pride? Would he even know what that meant or that it was going on? I really wasn’t sure and had some sense there could be risk involved in outing myself, so I settled on telling him I was going to a party with some friends. True enough, right?

The Gulabi Mela (photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/1715594145132754)

Vignette #2: A week later was the pride march itself. Everybody had assembled at a public square for some speeches and rallying, and we were then starting to leave the square to march into the streets. There were police all around us and — suddenly — we heard sirens and a police car was starting to drive (literally) right through the crowd of marchers. What was going on? Was this deliberate harassment or even an attempt to cause harm?

These are just a couple examples of situations that challenged me to reconsider my own perspective. As a gay person who came out relatively recently (if slowly, roughly from 2000–2003) in the US and has lived primarily in big cities and college towns, I simply didn’t have a lot of experience engaging with a community that is struggling to be recognized at all, and to overcome significant stigma and discrimination**.

To me, this is embodied in one of the common chants I heard repeatedly during the Pride march (it’s at 1:30 in this video) in which (in Hindi or English) a leader would shout “I am [gay/lesbian/bisexual/etc.]” and the crowd would affirm with “That’s ok!”. For me, at least, it’s a bit hard to imagine this ever happening at a Pride parade in the US, though affirmative chants certainly happen at other events more geared toward achieving legitimacy such as, for example, marches in the trans community or the January women’s marches across the US. At a big-city US Pride parade, though, the mere presence of a massive, cheering crowd would seem to be affirmation enough on its own. The sense of struggling for legitimacy in the Bombay march is also evident in the fact that there were many (though a much smaller fraction than in the past, I’m told) people wearing masks so their faces wouldn’t be seen.

The second vignette also highlights how everyday signals such as a police car siren and honking horn can take on new and ambiguous meaning in an unfamiliar environment. I learned later in conversations with event organizers that the police had good reason to be very supportive of the march so this action was unlikely to be deliberate harassment. They probably did just legitimately need to move a car through a busy street, but — as I traded glances with a friend in the moment — we couldn’t take anything for granted and really weren’t sure what to think as we stepped out of the car’s way (and recorded the scene on video).

Despite this uncertainty and the struggle for acceptance, though, there was tremendous energy and joy. At one point in the march, a group of us got somehow separated from the bulk of the crowd (I’m still not sure exactly how this happened). Most of the group were 20-somethings (I’m guessing), and they walked to the side of the street and burst into a solid 15–20 minutes of enthusiastic singing. The same energy was present at virtually all of the events I went to, and this was mostly not fueled by alcohol.

Ok, so what am I doing here? I think the first answer to that question is that I was challenging the perspective I bring to my work through pushing at the bounds of my own identity through issues that I care about. As one ultimately seeking to understand a varied range of human behavior and also help a diverse student body learn to engage with the world, a broader perspective has direct benefits. I felt a mix of fitting in with those around me due to my gay identity, but also a sense of clearly not fitting in at all with the larger India context. These experiences forced me to try to reconcile those feelings by challenging my assumptions and perspectives, and by learning through experiences and conversations.

Learning new things and having impact

Vignette #3: It’s my second day in India. I’m sitting in a dark auditorium with a crowd watching highlights from the Kashish LGBTQ film festival. I’m here because I’ll be speaking on a panel later in the day. The film on screen is a documentary about Delhi’s pride celebration and an older woman being interviewed says she is marching to support her gay son. As she says that, the live crowd in the auditorium erupts in cheers and applause. And as the people around me are cheering, I realize I have a lot to learn before I go up on stage later.

This is me speaking at the Gaysi panel at the Godrej India Culture Lab. (I’m the guy in the middle.)

Vignette #4: Later in the trip, I’m sitting at a bar with some new friends and talking about the research I’d like to do in India. I mention Grindr, Tinder and the usual apps. One of people I’m with starts talking about Facebook groups full of anonymous profiles that people create to cruise for sex in various cities in India. He was shocked that my friend Mark (from the US) and I hadn’t heard of these.

These experiences were eye-opening and made me realize both how much opportunity there is for my work to have impact, and how many interesting things I’ve missed by restricting my work to the US. I wrote last year about wanting to find new ways to get my research results out into the world. I was academically trained (at UMSI) to believe in Pasteur’s Quadrant and do work that has both theoretical and practical impact, but haven’t always done a great job of that in my career so far.

By engaging with and learning from the community here, my work can have a positive impact by telling people’s stories and learning about the technologies and strategies they use for meeting each other under challenging conditions. Sometimes this means using familiar technologies (e.g., Grindr) in a context where there’s more risk of being outed or harassed. Other times it means novel technologies or novel uses of familiar technologies (e.g., the anonymous Facebook groups I mentioned above). In all of these cases, though, we do not know enough about how people behave in these environments, where risks and dangers may lie and what strategies for managing privacy and information work well.

Back to what am I doing here? Answer #2 is that I’m setting up work that has the potential to inform our theoretical understanding of how people manage their identity and identifying information in an environment where there are risks to revealing too much or too little, but also has the potential to affect LGBTQ people’s safety and health in India by engaging with local communities and nonprofits via workshops and other outreach activities about managing privacy and identity carefully.

Academic Freedom

Vignette #5: I’m sitting in a warehouse art space in Mumbai watching a series of short performances, which have mostly been in English so far. The current one isn’t, and involves a dramatic monologue by what I presume is a man dressed in feminine clothes. Everybody is watching intently, so I assume it’s in Hindi and they all understand. Talking to people during intermission, I learn that it was actually Bengali, and virtually nobody understood what was being said. However, the character being portrayed in the play was a well-known male actor from the Bengali jatra genre, who performed female roles at a time when women were generally not allowed on stage. In the play, the premise is that this actor (who is a character in this play) commits an error in one of his performances and is abused by his fellow male actors who challenge his masculinity. I didn’t just not understand the language; I missed the whole point.

Vignette #6: Seen on Grindr from my hotel:

These are anonymized screen shots of actual text from Grindr profiles.

Along with my colleagues, I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have a job where I have the freedom and resources to take risks, try new things and pursue my interests wherever they may lead me. Often this means we use our existing perspectives and paradigms to make assumptions about what we don’t know and what we need to know to make progress. (And much of the time that works really well; science has obviously accomplished great things in my own field and others.)

But sometimes it doesn’t work, like when I assumed it was language that was preventing me from understanding the performance I described above. Getting outside your perspective to learn more can be as important as digging in deep and pursuing a line of work for years. Academic freedom allows us to do this, but often we don’t, because it usually doesn’t lead to immediate results.

In my case, exploring issues of deep interest to me in a context very different from my own raised important factors that I hadn’t thought about. Look at the text in the two profiles above, for example, which highlight tensions related to class, caste and education in India. The profile on the top is in English, but with elements of (what I presume to be) Hindi and the word ‘and’ consistently spelled ‘nd.’ This is common and likely reflects what I’m told is a general expectation that interaction on Grindr will be in English, though this necessarily excludes those who don’t speak English. That sense of exclusion comes across in the profile on the bottom, where — according to friends I spoke with informally — references to hygiene often refer obliquely to caste or SES.

This isn’t, of course, to say that Grindr isn’t exclusive in Western contexts or that there’s no bigotry on Grindr in other places. Obviously these things happen all over. My point is that these things play out differently in different places, so it’s important to update the ways we look for and consider them, and this necessarily impacts how well we understand people’s experiences with these systems in their local contexts. Without stepping back from our perspective, we miss the details that our lenses are not focused on.

Acknowledgements:

Many thanks to those who provided helpful and constructive feedback on earlier drafts of this document: Danny Cohen (esp. for pointing out that affirmative chanting happens here too), Mario da Penha (esp. for explaining that Bengali play), Mike DeVito, Nitesh Goyal, Matthew Heston and Ada Jing. For the experience itself, thanks to Mary Gray for introducing me to the amazing Parmesh Shahani. Parmesh first suggested that I come to Bombay for Pride, invited me to speak at his event, and, along with his staff, served as a wonderful host for my first visit. Thanks also to Mark Handel for traveling with me for part of the trip, plus Brian Horton, Anuja Parikh (and her Gaysi colleagues), The Humsafar Trust and everybody else who helped welcome me and make my trip so fascinating and enjoyable.

Notes:

* While lots of people in Bombay speak or understand at least basic English, many locals speak predominantly Hindi and sometimes also Marathi or Urdu.

** Two points here: 1) One might argue that the struggle for legal marriage over the past few years in the US had some of these properties, but I’d respond that the overall social acceptance I and others have experienced over the past few years has been the dominant force; and 2) one could also argue that I was gay before I came out (and that’s true, of course) so did experience less LGBTQ-friendly times, but it wasn’t really something I talked about with anybody else so I was hardly engaged with any sort of social movement or community.