Dalit Queer people in Non Profit: Decoding Posturing and Praxis

This is an opportunity for nonprofit organizations, specially organsations that are urban, led by dominant caste and/or cis-het leaders, to trust what we say, listen to us with compassion, and strengthen the commitments that they have.

Illustration by Shrujana N Shridhar

I have vivid memories of when I came out as a queer person, but not very concrete memories of how and when I came out as Dalit. Perhaps, I was always out as Dalit, all I tried vehemently is trying to hide in the closet. The urge of seeking your truth and at the same time hiding your truth takes you to many places transcending from denial to delusions. Coming out is a continuing, sometimes a lifelong process. Coming out itself is inherently political in nature that tactfully presupposes that your existence needs the consideration or perhaps ‘acceptance’ of the other people. It widens the crux of power inequalities but yet manages to stay ‘invisible’. In my family, to my relatives, the place I come from, I didn’t necessarily need to come out as Dalit as that is what we all are, but many of them were my first bullies because unlike them I am queer. I believed my liberation is rooted in distancing myself from my people and my caste reality. The shame was internalized and intergenerational. 

Soon I realized even if I want to forget where I come from, people and systems around me wouldn’t let me do that. My desire, mobility as well as aspirations—everything is shaped by my queerness and caste. I grew up with many people telling me life is easy because we have reservation and that’s the only way of imagining a career because otherwise we aren’t good enough. I had many people reminding me to stick to what ‘my people’ do— manual-labor work. I had people warn me my queerness wouldn’t be tolerated in workplace, I must act ‘normal’. 

As first-generation learners, as people who were walking into the organized working spaces for the first time, many of us eventually realized how our wish to distance ourselves from our identities comes with the risk of decontextualizing who we are and where we come from. With masking and some mobility through education as we enter UC cis-het dominated spaces, often people tend to look at us in a vacuum without our lived history and reality. They assume if we are sharing space with them, we are equally privileged. There’s comfort in imagining homogeneity that excuses them from reflections of power and privilege. All of us can’t mask or might not want to.

Being out with our identities in your workplace also puts us in a position where we are either subjected to rejection or tokenization and only in some rare cases truly included as an equal stakeholder.

Many corporate, profit-making organizations have historically been non-inclusive, and non-accessible for people with marginalized identities. Not that much has changed, but some attempts of including queer-trans* people can be seen, but not many efforts have been shown to include Dalit people. This also makes many of us critical of these performative inclusion processes and we can’t help but look at these initiatives as status quo only.  

A recent study by Jodhka of 50,000 companies across the country show that 94% of the top jobs went to the upper castes—Brahmins or Baniyas. “The deep belief that the private sector only employs people based on merit should be taken with a huge pinch of salt,” says Jodhka. But HR managers still insist there’s no bias in the hiring process.

Professors Jodhka and Newman found that some hiring managers believed upper caste people are more suited for jobs in elite companies in a 2007 study. In the study, a manager is quoted to have said, “Jats are arrogant. They do not listen to anyone. Ahirs are tamed. Brahmans are more learned and can speak well. Scheduled castes (Dalits) are not vocal”. Another had said, “Among scheduled castes, there is a lack of technical skills and their attitude is unmatchable for the company.”

In non-profit spaces, most organizations are committed to social justice movements, and the essence of any movement must assure inclusion as its core value. Yet, the past and the present have many examples where there’s been a disdain in practicing inclusion as a core value. Many of the vocal feminists of the 1970s were Upper caste, middle class, and university-educated, it was their experience that came to be universalized as ‘women’s experience’. Thus, sweeping statements such as ‘all women are Dalits were made— that directly dismissed the lived realities and added vulnerabilities of many Dalit women. Similarly, many queer rights activists within the queer rights movement have expressed their discomfort with bringing caste into the movement and diluting ‘actual’ queer issues. 

Inclusion is a universal human right. Human rights movements can’t be led without inclusion as a default practice. The aim of inclusion is to embrace historically and systematically marginalized people. It is about sharing equal access and opportunities and getting rid of discrimination and intolerance. It is about sharing space and power. Nonprofit organizations working in the sphere of rights and beyond must assure inclusion with all its nuances and complexities.

Inclusion should be about the representation of marginalized people, their participation, having them lead discourses, as well as take ownership in decision making.

Unlike many corporates, non-profit organizations have also upheld inclusion and diversity as the principle of their functioning and work. As many organizations claim expertise on DEI(Diversity, Equity, Inclusion)—and many a time rightly so—it’s important to also inspect and advocate for the inclusion of Dalit-queer people in these spaces because many a time movements-activism-organizations are so intertwined that not only one informs the other but also influences social justice commitments across sections. This is an opportunity for nonprofit organizations, specially organsations that are urban, led by dominant caste and/or cis-het leaders, to trust what we say, listen to us with compassion, and strengthen the commitments that they have.

Re-Imagining Skills, Merit and Abilities

The best way to reflect on how an unequal system perpetuates or how we often challenge the perpetuation of such systems is through asking questions that are tangible, oftentimes discomforting, but authentic reflections of many realities. Let’s think- 

How many gender non-conforming-queer people do you have in your organization? How many of them are in managerial/leadership roles? 

How many Dalit people do you have in your organization? How many of them are in managerial/leadership roles? 

How many queer-Dalit people do you have in your organization? How many of them are in managerial/leadership roles?

The absence of marginalized people in leadership roles in organizations that are committed to social change tends to perpetuate the same histories of inequality that they purport to protest.

In the quest of making organizations more diverse and inclusive, there are honest attempts to invite applicants from marginalized communities that are also affirmatively advertised on JDs. But they often fall prey to only upholding the cream layer. The applicants are tested and qualified through the same archetype; that is ableist, neurotypical, cis-centered, heteronormative, and casteist.  

People from marginalized gender, sexuality, caste, and abilities have been systematically oppressed, which influences their academic/professional experience, productivity, sense of self, and their aspirations in life. When I read, ‘We encourage marginalized people to apply’, what I actually hear is, ‘We aren’t going to disqualify you for being marginalized, which is otherwise the norm, but now you have the ‘equal opportunity to compete with the privileged.’ 

What I am getting at is, Is it really possible advocating for inclusion without acknowledging the history and lived experiences of marginalized people?

We spend most of our childhood being bullied and cornered. Study shows due to systemic discrimination, 58% of transgender students drop out of school before Class 10 in Kerala. We experience institutional casteism in educational institutes. We grow up doubting our potential. Recent behavioral experiments have also shown that individuals who have long suffered from discrimination and as a result faced with social disadvantage, suffer from lower levels of self-esteem, lower self-efficacy, and more negative self-concept

Looking at Dalit-queer people away from all these lived realities takes away the context we come from. There is a constant emphasis on merit and professionalism.

Independent journalist, activist, and social policy researcher, Cynthia Stephen writes, ‘As NGO work shed its focus on volunteerism and began to acquire “professionalism” in the wake of globalization in the 1990s, there was an influx of foreign funding agencies which increased the need for professional social workers whose curricula needed project and financial management skills more than people’s issues, development, and policy analysis, which used to be the forte of social workers during the 70s and 80s.’  Though in many organizations the people working at the grassroots are from Dalit communities, there’s very little investment in their leadership growth as they are often not looked at as potential ‘professionals’ or their skills are non-comprehensible for people in positions of power.

This creates an environment of a certain kind of productivity and merit. Although, it is quite well established that merit is a myth. How ‘meritorious’ an individual is, largely depends on their caste, class, gender, sexuality location which further determines their level of access to resources and opportunities.

The argument isn’t who deserves what. The argument is how do we decide who is deserving.

The solution to systematic marginalization isn’t allowing them to compete in the same race with all the other non-marginalized competitors. The race never starts from the same margin. Chances are either the people with privilege would win or the marginalized people would have to put extra labor to win it. As much as the labor and achievements of marginalized people should be celebrated, the emphasis on the need to prove themselves as ‘equal’ is a façade. 

While writing about her personal experience, Cynthia Stephen shares, “Somehow, people in the sector – correctly – gauged that I was of Dalit stock. Therefore, my excellent writing, speaking, and management skills were less important than the fact that maybe two or three generations ago, my forebears were probably “untouchables”, engaged in (maybe) unclean occupations and the hint of that taint was enough to keep me from being selected for any position of leadership or decision-making.”

Our merit doesn’t only lie in fluent English speaking or writing abilities, urbanized jargon-heavy articulations, or what universities we studied in, it is our lived experience that needs to be accounted as valid expertise. In the context of social sectors that are anyway working on systemic inequalities and marginalization of some kind, what can be better than having people’s lived experiences informing development discourses and implementations!

Systematic Inclusion against systematic oppression

While talking about the inclusion of marginalized identities it shouldn’t be limited to individual inclusion but more systematic in nature. NGOization of social movements has always been criticized for becoming funder-centered projects that eventually de-radicalize and depoliticize the issues they are working on. But many organizations have also taught us to find creative ways to navigate the existing systems to mobilize social movements and achieve desired outcomes. The inclusion of marginalized people is deeply connected to the understanding of the decision-makers within the sector, who get to decide which communities they will be working with, whom to and how to disseminate power, and what isn’t that important or too risky(/political) to talk about. 

David Mosse and Sundara Babu Naggapan have written, “Donor-funded development NGOs are sometimes portrayed as co-opting, privatizing or depoliticizing citizen action or social movements. This much is implied by the term ‘NGOization’. Alternatively, NGOs can be seen as bearers of rights-based work increasingly threatened by tighter regulation or substitution by corporate social responsibility models of development.”

A collaboration of civil society organizations—Praxis, Oxfam India, Corporate Responsibility Watch, Change Alliance, and Partners in Change — released the India Responsible Business Index (IRBI) in 2018. Titled “Making Growth Inclusive-2018”. It tries to look deeper into if companies consult stakeholders and particular vulnerable groups—community, women, elderly, people with disabilities, SC/ST while formulating their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy? While 86 companies identify some vulnerable groups as their target stakeholders, 69 companies count women in this vulnerable group; none of the companies specify if they consult these people while formulating policies (barring ITC Limited) and/or assessing impact of the projects.

Conversations around inclusion often disproportionately concentrate on people than systems, whereas systems ensure the sustainability of many kinds of oppressions.

In recent times, in many of my participation in webinars as speaker or participant, I have noticed a growing attention to using correct pronouns —which is remarkable— but there’s no mandate of consequence if being misgendered. For many cis-het people its unimaginable how misgendering is violence to start with. So often such practices are non uniformly being practiced and fades away as people actively practicing them move out of the organization. When Inclusion is shaped by the gaze of people holding positions of power and who also reside outside of a said marginalization, they often approach inclusion with a non-sustainable protectionionist strategy. 

Prachi Patankar, the South and Southeast Asia Program Officer at Foundation for a Just Society, talks about this gaze/protectionist view towards Dalit, queer, and women’s liberation rather than a collective power-building lens by the mainstream NGOs led by dominant caste people. She argues how it’s time for funders to debrahminise philanthropy and shares, “Growing up in rural India among rural feminist and peasant movements led by caste-oppressed people, I have been acutely aware of the inherent power dynamics. Western funders center on urban NGOs led by dominant castes with proximity to power and access to resources. These groups continue to be well-resourced rather than small Dalit Bahujan-led and Adivasi (indigenous) groups leading movements against casteism and caste-based violence and exploitation and resisting the socio-economic policies that harm land and livelihoods.”

Prachi further advocates for challenging and investing in the organization’s current grantee partners to prioritize the leadership development of Dalit-Bahujan staff. She writes “There are South Asian groups leading important human rights work that may not have Dalit-Bahujans represented in their leadership. Debrahmanising philanthropy is not a call to oust the Brahmin-identified staff and nor is it a call for token representation of Dalit-Bahujan staff in philanthropy and NGO sector. Work with your grantee partners to ensure that they are debrahminising their practices, bringing anti-caste analysis in their work, and investing in the growth and leadership of their Dalit-Bahujan staff.”

Another challenge in terms of systematic inclusion is lesser global acknowledgement and visibility of Dalit issues in gender-queer related discources. Caste isn’t only a South-Asian issue. From 1996, caste discrimination gained recognition as a violation of human rights at the United Nations (UN). In the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, hundreds of Dalit activists (NGO and political) campaigned using slogans such as ‘caste is race’ or ‘India’s hidden apartheid’ to have caste recognized as a global form of discrimination.

Still, organizations working on queer-trans* rights are often clueless or dismissive about acknowledging the presence of Dalit queer people and hence there’s a lack of foregrounding any of their struggles in national as well as international platforms.

The exclusion of Dalit folks from the Indian queer movement is anyway an open secret. Similarly, not much work or resources on queer-trans* issues has ever been produced by organizations working primarily on Dalit rights. There seems to be a void of understanding the intersection of both identities and realities. 

The word ‘intersectionality’ within the neoliberal spaces has also become quite a buzzword. In the context of identity politics, it aims to democratize the representation of all identities. But often it is consumed as theory and not as day-to-day praxis. There’s already a lot of labor put into ideating and foregrounding possible avenues of inclusion by dalit people, queer people, trans* people. It is common knowledge that hiring more and more marginalized people, investing in their leadership journey, taking responsibilities of their upskilling, and mentorship are basics of their inclusion— yet very few organisations that are not lead by queer-trans or/and dalit people adopts this as an organisational practise.

It’s phenomenal that many well intended organizations are trying to practice inclusivity, but enough attention should also be given to make sure that the processes of inclusion aren’t only interpersonal but more systematically weaved in organizational processes. For example, the organisational policies should include provisions that reflects needs and realities of Dalit-queer people – such as application forms, safety from sexual assault policies, workplace harassment policies, inclusive working space, washrooms, inclusive language policies, comprehensive holiday lists(what days and personalities we celebrate), etc. It’s also important to reflect and systematically include caste-sexuality issues in programmatic processes such as budgeting, project designs, scoping of communities, social media messaging, campaigns etc.

What we say, when we are silent

Recently I was going through a Twitter thread where people were sharing about how they navigated casteism while working with dominant caste communities. The easiest way of assuming your caste is by asking your name. Some of us lie about our surname, some don’t, and some can’t as our caste is ‘how we look’. I am Dalit-Queer-Nonbinary-Fem-presenting. In my early days of working in schools in Mumbai, I remember gasping in anxiety thinking what if I get bullied for my queerness, or while work related stayovers where rooms are assigned based on gender, if I have to share a room with a man because I am AMAB(Assigned male at birth), or if dominant caste communities would be apprehensive of me because of my caste. Misgendering of gender non-conforming people is rampant, and instances of casteism aren’t very rare within and outside of oragnisations. Queer-Dalit people have had experiences where they had to leave programs for such reasons. But rarely there are dedicated structural organizational spaces to voice these concerns-anxieties and think of redressal mechanisms. 

In one of her speeches, Dalit-Trans engineer and activist Grace Banu says- “Every day there is caste and gender violence. We, from Adivasi, Dalit, trans, and queer communities, face so much oppression. Our struggle is going on every day. When we face atrocities, people from civil society and feminist movements are staying silent.

You people always stay silent. That silence is an apartheid for us."

The silence is often normalized, as queer issues and Dalit issues are seen as focus areas rather than a cross-cutting issues. We are often viewed as a focus area completely separate from the population that the NGO serves.

Statements such as ‘it is not particularly our focus’, or ‘our work is mostly about child rights/health/education/livelihoods, though everything is important, but there are so many issues that we are dealing with’ or ‘honestly, because that (Queer issues or Dalit issues) is not really our area of expertise and wheelhouse (area of interest and experience), that’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time researching’ perpetuates the belief that dalit-queer people are not included among people who need protection as children, income and employment opportunities, better education, or quality healthcare. 

In nonprofit spaces often some people having ‘woke’ vocabulary and excellent command over articulation would argue on how certain things might not be queer-negetive or castiest and if we believe otherwise, we must challenge them. All this is a learning process. When our feelings are hurt, gathering it together, articulating them tangibly for the perusal of the people residing outside of the marginalization and using that as a  rationale is a long and laboursome process.  

In many of my personal experiences working in nonprofit spaces, I found great comfort and solidarity from colleagues and the space where I could express myself without any censorship. But there also have been spaces where I had to debate the need for reservation, bring conversations on queer-transness that were often dismissed, put unrecognized labor to speak and write in English and appear in a certain way, endure indirect queer-negative, casteist ‘jokes’ to not appear as a feminist killjoy. Once in a debate on if ‘sex work is work’ in my workspace, I was asked if at all I would ever have anyone from my community work as a sex worker, hence I shouldn’t have ‘elitist’ opinions about the issue. ‘My community’ has many meanings. I wanted to tell them many things but I kept silent. 

Silence and silencing is an age-old tool to ensure power hierarchies. 

Acquisitions of the NGO sector systematically silencing Dalit, tribal, and Bahujan voices isn’t new. Dalit-queer people are more prone to sexual abuse not only because of their sexuality or gender but because they are Dalit. Starting from the Mathura rape case to the recent Hathras rape case, there’s a perpetual attempt to deny caste as an added vulnerability in cases of sexual abuse of Dalit people. There has to be stronger redressal mechanisms to address these added vulnerabilities and how this contributes in cases of sexual abuse. Yet, often there is no representation of Dalit and/or queer people in the organizational Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH), even though they are employed in the organization.

When there are mechanisms ensuring silence, the silence speaks in volumes. The silence perpetuates, normalises, minimises years of systematic inequalities, it legitimises discrimination, it reflects deeper biases.

Biases are real. Until and unless affirmative policies are made by queer-Dalit people themselves, it will never be reflected authentically in the services designed for them. Authentic inclusion can’t happen without radical approaches to trust, uphold, and foreground Dalit-queer people to annihilate historical and systematical injustices. Inclusion has to happen in the context of radical imaginations of holding us with all our identities and complexities and also seeing value in that. Nonprofit spaces have the potential to touch lives, influence policies, build advocacy discourses, build perspectives and capacity and shape radical futures. Inclusion is radical. Inclusion is a human right. Inclusion is all about educating, agitating, organizing.

Queer-Trans*- It is an umbrella term for people who have diverse sexual and gender identities. This term refers to all persons whose sense of their gender does not match the gender assigned to them at birth. The star/asterisk in ‘trans*’refers to all non-cisgender gender identities. These will include transwomen, transmen, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, gender non-binary, etc.

REFERENCES

Ashish Gupta, ‘Caste: Why it’s still an issue for India Inc.’, 2016, Fortune India. 

Surinder S. Jodhka and Katherine Newman, ‘In the Name of Globalisation: Meritocracy, Productivity and the Hidden Language of Caste’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, No. 41 (Oct. 13 – 19, 2007). 

SHARMILA REGE, ‘A dalit feminist standpoint’, 2018. 

Dhiren Borisa, ‘HOPEFUL RANTINGS OF A DALIT- QUEER PERSON’, 2020.

Abhishek Hari, ‘”Casteism Is Rampant in Higher Education Institutions, but Is ‘Wilfully Neglected’: Study”, The Wire.

Jennifer Crocker, Hart Blanton, ‘Social inequality and self-esteem: The moderating effects of social comparison, legitimacy, and contingencies of self-esteem’, 1998, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. 

Carlos Freire, María Del Mar Ferradás, Antonio Valle, José C. Núñez and Guillermo Vallejo, ‘Profiles of Psychological Well-being and Coping Strategies among University Students’, 2016

Catherine Bros, ‘The Burden of Caste on Social Identity in India’, 2014. 

David Lewis , Nazneen Kanji, ‘Non-Governmental Organizations and Development’, Routledge, 2009. 

Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve?’,Guardian, 2018.

Theerapat Ungsuchaval, ‘NGOization of Civil Society as Unintended Consequence?’, 2016. 

David Mosse, Sundara Babu Nagappan, ‘NGOs as Social Movements: Policy Narratives, Networks and the Performance of Dalit Rights in South India’, 2020.

‘Making Growth Inclusive’, 2018. 

MARI MARCEL THEKAEKARA, ‘#MeToo movement should not spare Indian NGO heroes and I am speaking out’, The Print, 2018. 

 Preeti Nangal, ‘Psychiatrists, psychologists working with survivors of caste and gender-based trauma need to be trained for it, say human rights activists’, Firstpost, 2020.

Prachi Patankar, ‘It’s time for funders to debrahminise philanthropy’, Alliance, 2021. 

Cynthia Stephen, ‘#MeToo: The NGO Sector Systematically Silences Dalit, Tribal and Bahujan Voices’, The Wire, 2018

Sudipta Das

Sudipta Das

Sudipta's escapist fantasy includes loitering, dressing-up, resting, and unapologetically existing in an affirmative non-binary feminist world. They are currently working on the SRH rights of adolescents. An India Fellow'17 and a Likho Citizen Journalism Fellow'19, Sudipta believes in intersectional feminism and wishes to write elaborately on caste, sexuality, and gender.

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