By Nilakshi Goswami
Guwahati, April 8: A lover of soil and pottery, who is not just an LGBT activist working towards a better future of his community, but also a feminist, a nature lover, a social worker, a person bearing the pain in his heart for every grim and despondency around, and much more, Milin Dutta gets candid with TIME8.
One of the earliest in Assam to come out in the open as a transman, Milin Dutta, who was named as Malika or better known as Mili, has been doing a lot of volunteer work in the United States, so that he can bring the learning back home. Pain and passion of his life, struggles and efforts, motivations and reflections, Milin in the course of this interview says it all!
T8: Could you tell us about your journey of transformation?
Milin: I am the youngest of four kids born in a very patriarchal society. My parents were expecting me to be a boy, and so for a few years of my life I was treated like one. I would climb trees, check mangoes and guavas in my neighbor’s backyard, and so on. I was different. I didn’t feel like a girl. But when my puberty came, it was very disappointing. It made me sad because I realized that I was different. From my very childhood, I have realized that I always admired beauty and beautiful people, women and qualities of women like nursing, loving and their caring nature. I was close to my mom and unknowingly the qualities that I didn’t like in my father I have them.
However, unlike my other female friends, I never had any interest in boys, and I knew it was odd. I remember sitting all alone and wishing that I were a bird, and to fly off, and that, I will have a balloon and would go up to the sky for some time and come back in a different part of the world I’d be in. So, I realized that I can have that provided I study and have a good job, so I studied hard, and went outside Assam for my engineering. During that time, I got into a relationship with a Punjabi girl but we eventually had to break up considering she belonged to a very conservative family. I was very angry with God at that time. Although this was heart shattering for, it was an eye opener. Because after this episode in my life, I heard about Martina Navratilova on TV and for the first time, I heard the word gay, and got to know about her girlfriend. So, now I knew that there were other people like me as well. So, I decided I’ll go to US.
I did go to US in 1994 and eventually in 2002 when my partner in America got married, I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to come out. I started counseling, went to different support groups for a whole year because I didn’t know how to tell this to my parents, my friends and so on. First time in my life, I even got fired, because I was going through depression and didn’t even know to handle. So, I took a month’s break and started looking around, and became much more aware socially. I realized that we were so much born in a group identity, and that, we didn’t have an individual identity. So, I did a lot of volunteer work to find what really suits my soul and to learn about myself.
T8: What about the story of your own struggle and survival?
Milin: I knew it all along that from a very early age that I was attracted to women. But there was a time when everybody wanted me to get married. It was as if my marriage became everybody’s business. And one of my friends really wanted to marry me, so much so that he waited for me for five freaking years. And it was a big struggle for me since I always knew that I didn’t really want to get married to a man, but I didn’t want to be alone either. And it was very tempting to go the easy way. After much trouble, I asserted myself that I could not marry him. This was a significant struggle of my life. And there is always a struggle going on at some point or the other.
T8: What is your view on the significance of acceptance? Would you like to share your personal experiences regarding the family support that you received?
Milin: My brother-in-law is first person I talked to in my family. And he said that he was very proud of me coming out. Also, my family has always known about this all along, because they would always say that you are a tomboy. I tried to make my mom understand that I have a female friend with whom I am going to live the rest of my life; however that did not really work out.
Also, I do not generally do not burden my family with my problems, and my friends had taken care of me during my surgery, and so on. I am very lucky that way. And here in Assam, basically, during the time of transition, I told my mom that my voice is going to change. And last day before leaving, I remember very well that my brother and my father were sitting and I told them that my voice may change or that I might have some moustache. I told them not to get scared and asked if they had any questions. While my father, who was reading a newspaper, said he didn’t have any, my brother just asked me if there are any other side effects. Overall it became easier for me because I already looked like a man, and because I have a supportive family, and now even my extended family also understands me quite well.
T8: Your experiences of working as an activist on gender identity and sexual orientation issues in Minnesota, USA?
Milin: I started ‘Out in the Backyard,’ which became such a huge success. We have Zoomba classes with over 100 people every Mondays and Wednesdays. We also organize holi and dandiya where there are over 600 people participate. It’s an initiative to blend in the Indian culture. Someway I feel that America is more accepting of me. People there have recognized my work. I have got nominated for 100 most loved women in 2014 or 2015 in US, and I was in the New York Pride, that was great to be acknowledged. And I also got 2016 Community Leadership Award from Minnesota, Minneapolis. There is a magazine called ‘Lavender’ who gave that award. Also, my friends have been great, and I have had a good experience working on this. And now since I took retirement, I am working with this organization called ‘Out-Front’ who work for the LGBT rights, and there is this another organization called ‘Reclaim’ who works with the mental health issues of the LGBT community. I am also a part of a cultural wellness center there. And also got elected as a trans council member. They wanted the city of Minneapolis to be trans-friendly. And I am lucky to be part of that.
T8: You are also a founding member of a Guwahati-based queer collective group Xukia. Would you like to highlight the work that ‘Xukia’ has been doing?
Milin: ‘Xukia’ has been doing various works. One, they have been doing the Pride. Secondly, they have been bringing out a magazine, and have also hosted a few film festivals. And they have done a good job in outreach this year, and we have more than 1000 people. But we are trying to bridge out to Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi and so on, while trying to open it out for everybody. Xukia, I hope, will continue doing this wonderful work
T8: What about your experiences working with the LGBT community of Assam?
Milin: In 2014 when we had a gay pride in Guwahati, and I was again and again invited to come back. And the collective ‘Xukia’ had already started, so I had asked the other members to register it since I have already had faced such problems with ‘Out in the Backyard.’ But they didn’t want it to register, they wanted a collective. If I knew what a collective was, I would have never worked with a collective, because I don’t have a collective mindset. People have at times mistaken that I am doing this for fame, which is not the truth. I have also been alleged for not maintaining transparency. Unfortunately, my experience in Guwahati has been a bit sour right now because I feel that my adopted country, without even knowing me has adopted me with open arms.
T8: What differences do you see in the kind of work that has been going on in terms of amelioration of the sexual minorities in Assam and abroad?
Milin: In the US, they are quite ahead. There are so many different organizations. In Minneapolis, there is a pride committee; there is an organization who only organizes Pride because there are lots of works involved in it. Pride over there is very commercial, while here is India, they do not want the involvement of the corporate, which is great. I also realized there is so much of fight here. Not only in Guwahati, but in Bangalore, Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi, and everywhere else. So, I think we should learn how to work together. Rather than seeing somebody as your competitor, people should collaborate together, and have a group where you see a win-win situation instead of thinking that they need to take a bigger slice of the pie. They should rather think how to make an extended pie. People need to sit back and think what does LGBT community in reality needs and how can we provide that. And I hope Xukia is very successful in doing that. In America, people like to work together, and conflicts do happen there as well but people have time to listen and understand and to collaborate with each other.
T8: You have been living in Minnesota for more than 22 years working as an IT consultant but you are also an activist not just for LGBT but other issues as well. How have you managed your time?
Milin: I passionately think for Northeast; there is so much work that needs to be done here. There are so many issues here that need to be worked upon, like street dogs do not even have hair on them, there are plastics everywhere and people just turn a blind-eye to that. Here, they still serve hot tea in plastic cups. We study, and we have a lot of theoretical knowledge but no practicality in terms of using those theories in real life. Moreover, in terms of time, I haven’t been able to devote much time to my family and don’t get enough time to get rest either. For me, when I do yoga, when I do savasana, I always think as if I am dying, and I think am I ready to die? What do I want to do next? What is keeping me alive? Every morning I get up early, and think what do I want to accomplish during the day time.
Also, it’s not like I am doing all these works all alone, I am supporting them. I am like the Naradmuni connecting different points, and it is not as if I am doing everything by myself.
T8: Medical transitioning is an expensive affair. What advice would you like to give to the people who identify themselves as transman or transwoman?
Milin: It is an expensive affair and luckily for me it was covered by medical insurance. Most of it, not all. And this is one advice I always tell. Being a transman or a transwoman in a developing country is a privilege in a place where we do not even know where our food is coming for the next meal quite often, or we do not even have the basic needs. For me, I always tell others, study. For the first 20-22 years, don’t focus in all that but study. This can be put on hold for some time. Just be okay, and focus on your studies because it’s very expensive for your parents to pay for these. Why I am accepted like this right now is because I studied very hard, I got my scholarship, and I did all my duties for my parents. Nobody can pinpoint me and say that I didn’t take care of my responsibilities. Whatever was expected of me from my family, I have done it all. Thus, I can be whoever I am, and that’s my main advice.
T8: What do you feel is the need of the hour in terms of recognition of the alternative genders as fellow human beings?
Milin: Quite often many people have asked me ‘why do you need to come out?’ My family loves me for whosoever I am. It’s easier for them to love me because they know me. If I come out, others can understand me better. Also, we belong to a very conservative society. And it takes time for people to understand this. Until we have that kind of a space, we have to go on telling our stories so that more and more people can understand us. When I came out in there was hardly anyone like me, now I see more and more of people coming and telling their stories.
We should be able to collaborate and share knowledge and then only we can move forward. Otherwise, we are just a bunch of frogs in a basket pulling each other’s leg down rather than supporting each other and moving forward. We need to support each other, and we should try to work together.
Milin Dutta, who never accepts any one’s definition of his life, challenges the idea of gender and sexuality delineated by the society, pushes possibilities to a far-edge, questions faulty visions, and is indeed living his life by his own terms, while working endlessly towards a better future of the LGBT community both in Assam and abroad.