Queer people across the world have had – and many times still have – to fight against more or less subtle, yet often systematic, processes of erasure from history, acts of violence, and misconceptions, consequently having to struggle to negotiate spaces where to assert their existences freely, in all their complexities. This general picture gets further complicated in those contexts that have to deal with the legacies of colonialism: as in the case of South Asia and other former British possessions around the world, the laws that often still criminalize homosexuality up to this day are a product of surviving colonial legislations. Such legacies today intermingle with the political agendas of the postcolonial states, with results that may range from a (not so) harmless overlooking of LGBTIQ+ issues and needs to a more active yet still not violent frowning upon homosexual acts and identities, to more extreme cases of condemnation and persecution of queer bodies. Another phenomenon that adds one more layer of complexity to this framework has to do more with assimilation than with exclusion: more often than one might think, queer stances get incorporated into and exploited by nationalist political agendas, becoming the means to push forward racist campaigns against perceived enemies of a given society. Jasbir Puar coined the term “homonationalism” to describe this occurrence. Depending on the context, it could be Muslim people, racialized groups, or marginalized communities in general, who get accused of not being progressive enough to accommodate queer needs and thus get labeled as backward and homophobic.
As a consequence of this complex picture, a strong need to express and preserve queer experiences, memories, and worldviews against these layered patterns of erasure and mystification springs up and articulates itself in rich and prolific ways. This need often expresses an urgency for both recognition and remembrance, taking the shape of an archival drive for the everyday and the mundane facets of queerness that so rarely find a proper place in public discourses and whose scarcity contribute to lead queer people into spirals of isolation and loneliness.
By looking at three different projects centered around the archiving and the narrativization of queer lives – a physical archive in Bangalore, a digital anthology for queer people from Northeast India, and a comic series about the lives of LGBTQ+ migrants in Italy – this research will try to define what queer archives might look like in different contexts and through different media, and what significance such practices of archiving and narrating may hold for the queer people that run across them and give their contribution to them.
The first project fits into established ideas of what an archive is. The Queer Archive for Memory, Reflection, and Activism (QAMRA) is a physical archive located in Bangalore, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Conceived as a non-funded, small, independent archive, as of today, it contains six collections whose contents range across different media and formats: from legal paperwork (resulted from the long process of decriminalization of homosexuality in India) to clippings of papers and magazines about sexuality and video-interviews and video-recordings of parades and protests. A conversation with T. Jayashree, one of the curators of QAMRA, will allow us to delve more deeply into both the challenges that queer archiving entails and the potentialities it frees.
The second project we will take into consideration is a digital anthology of queer narratives of and for people from Northeast India. Struck by a lack of literature about queer Northeastern lives and aware of the stifling sense of isolation that LGBTIQ+ people from the Northeast often experience, friends and fellow activists Kumam Davidson and Pavel Sagolsem started to collect, archive, and display stories of everyday struggles, resistances, and queer existences into an online blog titled The Chinky Homo Project. As we will see, here, the online archive is conceived as a powerful space from where to start theorizing and politicizing queerness in its everyday, mundane – and, as such, most compelling – facets.
The third object of our analysis will be Running Rainbows, a comic series about lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ migrants in Italy, conceived and brought to life by Giulio Mariotti in Omphalos, an LGBTI association located in the Italian town of Perugia. Giulio uses comics as his chosen means to tell the stories of queer people who fled their country of origin because it allows him to overcome creatively some of the delicate issues that narrating such experiences entail. These comics – we will thus argue – can be read as alternative, strategic archives of lives that would otherwise not find a place in the Italian contemporary public discourse, expanding what the term archive itself means, and what a queer archive can look like.
The issues at hand are, of course, numerous, and we do not aspire to present definitive answers. By drawing both on our three case studies and on the broad existing scholarship on queer archiving and queer studies, what we would rather do is to make ourselves (un)comfortable in the mess and ambiguity that both make up and escape the queer archive.
1. Locating the context. Between colonial legacies of criminalization and homonationalism, what place is left for queerness?
Even today, complex, sometimes opposing, forces act to pull queerness apart, to bottle it up into suffocating closets, to reshape it and exploit it, to prevent it from flourishing freely in the world. Some of these forces are located into the public and institutionalized dimensions of politics and law, while others act more subtly, but by no means harmlessly, at the level of everyday social interactions, performances, and worldviews. Besides, oftentimes the two levels feed off each other, arguably making this distinction a convenient but rather fictitious one.
In the case of South Asia (and more specifically India – two out of the three case studies taken into account here are indeed India-based), law has been for long the center of attention when it comes to discussions of LGBTIQ+ issues. Until very recently, Section 377. Unnatural Offences of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) expressly criminalized consensual (homo)sexual relationships deemed “unnatural”, by stating that “[w]hoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with [imprisonment for life], or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.” Even though Section 377 has hardly been used to convict or fine people for consensual homosexual intercourse, its symbolic load and its multifaceted influence on both past and contemporary attitudes towards queerness have granted it a central position within the LGBT movement.
Such law, enforced also in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (where it appears as Section 365 and 365A) is a direct legacy of British colonial legislation: introduced in British India by the Indian Law Commission under the presidency of Lord Macaulay on October 6, 1860, as of today it has been repealed in India alone, after a bumpy legal battle that lasted for decades.
According to Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, the introduction by the British of anti-sodomy legislation in what then used to be British India signaled a major transition in the attitudes of the time. As their rich anthology of writings on same-sex love shows, while it is possible to trace back to precolonial India “a set of generally tolerant traditions” towards – and often actually about – homosexual love and intimacy, late nineteenth and early twentieth century started to harbor a growing homophobic sentiment, of which the 1860 law was but one expression. The potent mix of colonial orientalism and Victorian moralism that began to spread at the time gave way to strong condemnations of ‘traditional’ Indian sexual customs, that often got labeled as ‘deviant’, with the result that this new homophobia ended up being frequently internalized by educated Indians as well. One rhetorical device employed by the Indian elite against such arguments was then to re-write homosexuality as completely alien to Indian society and culture, or, at worst, as a practice later imported to the subcontinent by Muslim rule. This kind of rhetoric is alive and well in contemporary India too, as the infamous and much discussed Fire case has amply proved. Fire is the 1998 movie by director Deepa Mehta that, by portraying on screen lesbian love within a rather ‘traditional’ Indian household, sparked the flame of intense discussions about homosexuality, whose language accurately followed the ideological vocabulary already employed a century earlier in the colonial context. Without getting too much into the details of the debate, suffice it to say here that not only the screening of the film in Indian theatres triggered a violent reaction by members of the Shiv Sena, who actually committed vandalic acts in cinema halls around the country, but that some feminists, too, accused the movie of being anti-Indian.
Very similar arguments, articulated in very similar terms (homosexuality and queerness as foreign, most specifically, western imports, as accretions to the ‘indigenous’ cultural body of India) have also been made during the long campaign(s) for the decriminalization of homosexuality by its detractors.
As mentioned earlier, in India, the road towards decriminalization hasn’t been exactly a smooth one. The historical verdict of the Supreme Court of India overturning Section 377 was pronounced on September 6, 2018, though this wasn’t the first time a similar judgment had been made. On July 2, 2009, following a petition by the Naz Foundation, the Delhi High Court had already declared Section 377 unconstitutional (“We declare that Section 377 IPC, insofar it criminalizes consensual sexual acts of adults in private, is violative of Articles 21, 14 and 15 of the Constitution.”) and argued for it to “apply only to non-consensual penile non-vaginal sex and penile non-vaginal sex involving minors.” However, soon after the judgment, the most conservative forces of society started to act together against the repeal, filing petitions with the Indian Supreme Court that challenged the Naz judgment. Eventually, on December 11, 2013, the Delhi High Court decision was overturned by the Supreme Court of India, Section 377 of the IPC was reinstated, and homosexuality recriminalized on the grounds that the Indian LGBT community comprised too small a portion of society to be deserving of this deal of attention and legal intervention.
During the period that preceded these contrasting rulings and, later, in the years that led up to the 2018 re-decriminalization, queer activism – both formal, NGO-based, and informal, structured around more popular cultural practices– flourished in India. These endeavors eventually contributed to give back to the LGBT community what was previously gained and then lost, at least at the institutional level of law.
It is in this framework of queer legal activism that we can locate our first stance of queer archival drive, as embodied by QAMRA, Queer Archive for Memory, Reflection, and Activism, a physical archive located in Bangalore, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. T. Jayashree, documentarist and one of the curators of QAMRA, due to her involvement with human rights NGOs and activism since the early 2000s, spent years filming protests, lives, and experiences of members of the LGBT community. Through documentary filmmaking, she wanted to find a way to tell the stories of the LGBT people she interacted with, who at the time were mainly trans folk coming from working-class backgrounds. The contents of the video footage collected and later stored in QAMRA soon expanded, ranging from the filming of protests and parades to interviews with lawyers, and video interviews with people belonging to different sexual minorities. “My role in all this was to film,” she recalled. “They let me film because they knew me, and I would just film whenever there was a protest, or anything happened”. Soon, as these groups started engaging in debates in favor of the repeal of Section 377, she, too, began to turn her attention to the issue. During the long process of decriminalization, recriminalization, and re-decriminalization, T. Jayashree kept on filming. Throughout the more recent campaigns, camera recordings being banned inside the courtrooms, she ended up interviewing many of the lawyers who were actively trying – and eventually succeeded – to repeal Section 377 once and for all. They would often travel back and forth from Delhi to Bangalore, and she would document what was happening and what they could report from the courts. When evoking those times during the interview, a sense of urgency transpired from her words: one of the main arguments of the judges who had ruled against the Naz judgment in 2013 was that LGBT people in India didn’t ‘exist’ – “Who are these people? Do they even exist?” were the words she recalled the judges used. Thus, at one point the filming became one of the means to prove that yes, these people did exist, and it was fundamental to document their experiences, “otherwise memories would go”. In a way, the need to archive became stronger in response to this strategic erasure that had been enacted at the highest level of the Indian justice system, in the rooms of the Indian Supreme Court.
On August 17 and 18, 2013, Bangalore hosted the “Queer Archiving in India” workshop, with the aim of providing people and organizations interested in queer archival practices with a common platform for discussion. T. Jayashree joined the conversation. Far from being a simple one, the decision of putting together an archive – and a queer one, for that matter – came with a lot of challenges. At the time, everyone was rooting for digital archival practices, but she felt this wasn’t going to work for her, mostly because of the intimate nature of her video footage (video-interviews with people belonging to different sexual minorities, mainly): “People have talked to me because they knew me, but I don’t think I can put it on online”, she explained. Funding, too, was another big aspect to consider, digital archiving being more expensive than one might think. Later in 2017, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the first pride parade in Bangalore, which she had filmed, she was invited to give a talk. At the end of the talk, she stated, QAMRA was born: a physical, multimedia, archive, hosted in two spare rooms in her studio. What soon emerged, however, was that the greatest challenges surrounding such a project were those inherently tied to the queerness of the material itself. Jayashree’s words, quoted here at length, perfectly pinpoint the issues:
According to the material, you choose how do you put it and how do you present it […]. If you look at the archival standards that are set up by the International Archiving Association, you can only follow them as a guideline, but you have to follow your own thing, depending on what your material is telling. And when it comes to queer archives, there’s all kind of issues: not only just the privacy – anybody has to go through it – we also have other problems, like: there is a complete erasure of history, of existence; and then you are saying these people lived, and they did this, and they did that… How do you make sense of that? How would you define that material? What is the chronology of these events? Those become very tricky questions and they dictate how you present the material […]. So, when you describe your material, keep your material, a lot of it your material dictates, and that’s something very unique for queer archives, because it’s also about lives, about people, they’re not objects. Even though in the archival language we call them ‘objects’ – each paper becomes an item, or an object – but these objects are living people. It’s not the work of a scientist. Here we are also talking about people and their transitioning lives: people have transitioned from one place to another, and they don’t want to look at their past. But then, their past is also important, especially if they are public figures. Then how do you refer to that past? Do you destroy it, do you keep it? So, we’re still grappling with these, we don’t have the answers yet. And then people who die: what happens to their material? And then a lot of queer people don’t have their natal families, they don’t have any connections with the family they were born in, and they create their own families. How do we then a) access the material; b) keep the material? There are so many other issues. So, what we do is we have gone through this whole set up, and we take what works for us […]. And I’m not saying what we are doing is foolproof, we are still trying it out. We have to see.
Thus, the (queer) material dictates the (queer) structure of the (queer) archive. No doubts, the stakes of this endeavor are incredibly high: the attempt to make sense of people’s queer lives jostle against society’s constant work towards ensuring their erasure from history; the will of preserving queer pasts and memories collides with the irrepresentability of these same pasts and memories in a transitioned present. The extent of these challenges becomes much more real when one acknowledges the fact that, today, in 2021, QAMRA is still in the making and it is not open to the public yet: the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of funding, and the current right-wing Indian government, together with the difficulties tied to archiving queer material listed above, put a temporary halt to the endeavor. Jayashree herself at one point gave voice to her frustration: “In one way I’m also thinking: ‘Why am I doing this now?’. It’s almost like even before it started it’s going to get stopped.”
In the face of it all, then, the queer archive seems somehow ‘impossible’. Yet, it is exactly this impossibility – of clearly defining a material made out of people’s actual lives, of pinning down a chronology, of referring to a past that cannot be lost but cannot be remembered either – that makes this archive a queer archive. Gayatri Gopinath, in her book Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, theorizes impossibility as the space occupied by the non-heterosexual Indian woman within both the diasporic and the nationalist discourses, insofar as they actively produce this subject position as illegible, unthinkable, and unimaginable. At the same time, she also recognizes in the realm of impossibility a positive potential, a call to demand the impossible, to dare “to envision other possibilities of existence”. Though formulated to apply to a different context, this conceptualization of impossibility as both restraining and productive can be aptly deployed to describe the queer archive as embodied by QAMRA, and it will also turn out to be useful later in the project. Here, we can read impossibility not only as a term encompassing the struggles tied to archiving queer lives, but also as the productive force that lies behind and keeps on fueling the archival drive itself. To better understand this, it is important to outline that QAMRA is conceived not only as a dusty storeroom for memories and nostalgia of past lives and struggles, but it is meant to be “a living archive”, a place where people can gather, meet, discuss, learn, and act. As Jayashree passionately explained:
And that’s when this whole idea of archival activism comes. Where you use archive as a tool for advocacy, for change. So, it’s a very, very conscious way of looking at the material. It’s not just put up an exhibition and say: “Ok, this happened.” What else can you do with it? Especially when public memory is so feeble now […]. Then, how do we consciously use this past to talk about what’s happening today and train persons for tomorrow? So that’s where this archival activism comes in. And I’m personally more interested in that, especially using my own video footage to create a body of evidence to say: this is what has happened: how can we use this to seek justice?
Through the idea of archival activism, then, the ‘impossible’ queer archive aims to become much more than an organized collection of materials, difficult to catalog and pin down because of their own queerness. Rather, it aspires to create a space for nurturing change, for shaping a different future arising from those “other possibilities of existence” that Gayatri Gopinath sees as implicit in the idea of impossibility itself, and that, after all, are what queerness, too, is made of.
We could thus expand this conceptualization of impossibility up to the point where it encompasses the idea of queerness as a whole and, together with it, the conflicting predicaments that queerness often finds itself entangled with.
Coming back to our initial discussion, so far we saw how, in the case of the Indian subcontinent, British anti-sodomy legislation and colonial rhetoric contributed to spread new waves of homophobia. We also analyzed how Indian responses to such discourses ended up rewriting queerness as alien to ‘Indian culture’, confining it to a realm of unintelligibility and estrangement – in a way, of impossibility – where it often still resides. However, some warn against the risks of reducing homophobia purely to a colonial legacy and of reading the repeal of Section 377 as a decolonial act, without considering other thorny issues like Brahminical supremacy and Islamophobia. In this regard, it is important to consider that, rather recently, an apparently opposite tendency seems to have taken hold on discourses around the Indian LGBT community, one that doesn’t move in the direction of alienating, but rather of assimilating queerness. What is startling the most is that those same right-wing factions who used to oppose queerness by all means, discarding it as a western imposition (and sometimes still do), are at the same time trying to incorporate it into their dangerous agendas and exploiting it for their ultranationalist political needs. Drawing on Jasbir Puar’s theorization of homonationalism, Nishant Upadhyay defines this assimilationist trend as homohindunationalism, and identifies four main logics that structure it: 1) Hinduism is portrayed as a liberal, queer-friendly religion; 2) In contrast, Christianity and – most of all – Islam are depicted as homophobic and as the root itself of homophobia in India; 3) Only a certain kind of queer gets to be assimilated: the high-caste, Hindu, Islamophobic queer; 4) All the other ‘Others’ are constructed at the same time as queer to the Hindu Nation and queerphobic. As Upadhayay explains:
On the one hand, logics of queerphobic xenophobia (Bacchetta 1999, 2013) render all Others as queer, that is perpetually outside of brahminical cisheteronormativity. On the other hand, simultaneously queer Hindutva discourses see all Other communities as queerphobic and Hinduism as queerphilic. Others are always queerphobic, violent, and oppressive, while Hindus are always open, tolerant, and welcoming. Dalit and Muslim communities are always seen as heteropatriarchal through these logics.
If one compares this rhetoric with the 1998 Fire case we previously mentioned, it appears evident that the attitude towards queer issues and the modality of addressing them significantly changed, at least in some sections of the Hindu right. However, what didn’t change, even in this different – though not less disturbing – scenario, is again the impossibility of queerness: torn between remnants of the colonial past and revisionist narratives that run the risk of reducing homophobia exclusively to a colonial legacy on the one hand, and nationalist, Brahminical discourses that assimilate some worthy queers only in order to efface other queers completely on the other, one might bitterly ask what place is left for queerness, if there is any left at all. The ‘impossible’ yet existing (even if still in progress) living queer archive, repository of memories of past resistances and existences, and at the same time site for the creation on new (im)possible futurities, might be regarded as one of such places.
2. Archiving, aspiring: “I guess queerness cannot be explored without understanding your own roots”
As the previous section showed, queer archival practices can contribute to open up spaces where memories of the past and activist interventions in the present can act together towards envisioning new scenarios of justice and social change. Notwithstanding its unique features, the queer archive we have been referring to so far somehow still manages to fit into common understandings of what an archive should look like. However, the archiving of queer experiences and the preservation of queer memories can take on different shapes, especially now that smartphones and internet connections are ever more available and accessible. Digitalization of information, data, and sources, too, had a profound impact on archival practices. It is thus undeniable that the advent of such changes has brought with it different sets of challenges to deal with, but also new ranges of potentialities to be freed that are worth exploring more in depth.
In this section, we will thus move to the region of Northeast India, and we will discuss the experiences of The Chinky Homo Project, a digital queer anthology where LGBTIQ+ people from the Northeastern states can submit their self-narratives, photo-essays, comics, and testimonies of any kind about their everyday experiences and struggles as queer people in the region. We will thus take into account a different strategy for queer archiving, one that doesn’t occupy a physical space, but rather lives and grows online. In fact, the kind of Bangalore-based queer legal activism, which found in QAMRA a space for both its preservation and diffusion, is but one of the many faces of queer (archival) activism in India today.
Before delving into the discussion about The Chinky Homo Project, it is important to spend a few words on the socio-geographical context it arises from. The phrase ‘Northeast India’ stands to indicate a specific region of India made out of eight different states, constituting the easternmost extremity of the country: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim. The whole area is inhabited by a rich variety of so-called tribal people with peculiar histories, languages, and cultural practices, and the label ‘Northeast India’ itself is a postcolonial denomination that began to establish itself in the 1970s. As Sanjib Baruah explains, Northeast India designates “an officially organized and named region—an artifact of deliberate policy”, but it has failed to become a term for self-identification, with people from the region often referring to themselves with tribe/state-specific terminology – as ‘Manipuri’, or ‘Naga’, for example – rather than as ‘Northeastern’ (even if in recent years ideas of a Northeastern identity seem to have begun taking shape). Because of the complex history of the region and of its troubled relationship with ‘mainland’ India, the adjective ‘Northeastern’ came to designate not only the geographical provenance of a person, but it also ended up conveying hierarchies and relations of power, as well as carrying with itself unmistakable racial implications. A long history of armed conflicts, the labeling of the region as a ‘disturbed area’, and the consequent enforcement of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) have made the exercise of democracy in the Northeastern state extremely difficult. As of today, the region keeps on being imagined as India’s internal other par excellence, and its places, peoples, and customs are constantly subjected to processes of exoticization and internal orientalism. Among the consequences of this complex historical and social framework, the racialization of the ‘Northeastern’ subject and its relegation to the status of a “lesser” (less Indian, less capable, less smart…) stand out as particularly significant for the purposes of our project, as we will see later. Even though it is not possible here to do justice to the richness and complexity of Northeast India’s history, it is clear that the context where The Chinky Homo Project is rooted in is one of violence, struggle, and extreme otherization from the rest of the country. Queerness adds itself to all this, with all the multifaceted nuances, challenges, and potentialities it carries with itself. As we will now see, in the face of all this, the queer archival drive gets loaded with a set of specific meanings and implications that contribute to add more layers to our understanding of the queer archive and of the significance it can hold.
The founders of The Chinky Homo Project, friends and fellow queer activists Kumam Davidson and Pavel Sagolsem, chose to store and display narratives by and for queer people from Northeast India in a digital anthology hosted by an online blog and by Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages. The project came out in 2018, after years of friendship between the two, but also after years of involvement with the Indian national queer movement. Indeed, both of them had moved out of the region to mainland India for their studies, and the national queer movement as well as some of its local branches soon became their fields of action. As Pavel explained during the interview: “My exploration of queer movement, queer identity, queer perspective actually happened outside of home”. Since 2012, many young queer activists began taking up the floor alongside their seniors, and many of those new faces happened to be from the Northeast. It was then that Pavel and David met each other and later became close friends. As Pavel recalled: “I moved to Delhi in 2012 and by that time I was already one the of the youngest queer activists, quite known all over the country. David too. We were also some of the most vocal queer young people from the Northeast”.
While discussing their experiences of queerness with each other – of the importance of issues like representation of Northeastern subjects in the queer movement and in media, but also of what it actually meant to grow up queer in the different Northeastern states – they soon realized that, among other things, they shared a strong sense of isolation. This feeling was accompanied and fueled by the perception of an absence: absence of stories, books in the school curricula, novels, or any other kind of narratives from or about Northeast India depicting queerness. That’s how Pavel described this scenario:
[A]lthough I don’t want to generalize, many of us have been looking out for literatures or any sort of narrative. Because growing up in a heterosexual society, in a heteronormative society, all we see around us was heteronormative ideals and narratives. Even though we knew it consciously or unconsciously, we were looking up for narratives of people who do not necessarily conform to heteronormative expectations. Narratives, stories, or anything which would really affirm our sense of selves and take us out of that sense of isolation.
The creative power ascribed to literature and stories is impressive – affirming one’s sense of self, taking people out of their sense of isolation – and thus the lack of such narratives is just as meaningful. Another matter they reflected upon was the shift they felt happening once they got out of the region, and the empowering effect it had on them: they went from feeling alone and isolated to realizing that indeed there were other people like them; from experiencing a sly sense of self-loathing, to celebrating themselves and their queer uniqueness. Crossing the border of the region and physically entering the realm of the national queer movement thus constituted a crucial moment in Pavel and David’s queerness journeys. However, the awareness that only such a movement out of Northeast and into mainland India allowed them to grow more confident and empowered made them conscious about the urgent necessity of rooting queerness in the region, too.
Starting from these considerations, they began to think about ways to make an actual difference for other young queer people back home, of means to help them cope with feelings of isolation, loneliness, and disempowerment. This is how Pavel described the process:
So, we tried to see what the gaps were, what was not available there, and what we came across was the lack of literature, accessible literature to young people. Not necessarily something which is very theoretical and academic, but something which just talks about lived experiences of people. And we realized, when we looked back at our own experiences […], how empowering it was, how it also led us to become more confident of our own queerness. That’s how The Chinky Homo Project came into being and that’s why we decided the best is tapping to our own potential… being part of the academic discourse-oriented spaces, what we could do was sort of archive stories, lived experiences of people from the Northeast.
Thus, The Chinky Homo Project was born exactly from the awareness of such a stark absence of queer literatures and narratives and, at the same time, from the faith in the productive potential stemming from the act of sharing stories. It is for these reasons, then, that Pavel and David conceived a digital project based on the collecting, archiving, and displaying of narratives and lived experiences of queer people from the Northeast, potentially accessible to a significant number of queer young people living in the area.
The name of the project was not chosen randomly. The words ‘chinky’ and ‘homo’ are both insults: ‘chinky’ is a racial slur commonly used by people in mainland India to address the inhabitants of the Northeastern states with the intention of making fun of the way they look, while ‘homo’ is the word used against homosexual and queer people at large in Northeast India. The first reason why David and Pavel chose to give this name to the anthology is that their first and most urgent goal was to draw people’s attention to their project as quickly as possible, and these terms served this purpose well. Moreover, these two words stand to signify, respectively, where the imagination of the mainlanders towards Northeastern and the imagination of Northeastern heterosexuals towards Northeastern queers is stuck at. Pavel explained it clearly throughout the interview:
That’s what we wanted to tell mainland India: your imagination, your thoughts about us have been just stuck at the way we look. Whether you romanticize us, eroticize us, whether you think we are funny because of the way we look, your imagination is just stuck at the way we look. That’s why the word chinky: we wanted to start the conversation from there, sort of breaking people’s popular assumption and strike it where it’s stuck at. Second thing, the word homo because back in Northeast nobody would be able to see us beyond our sexual identity and orientation. And we wanted to say the same thing to the people back at home, that we are more than just our sexual orientation and identity, there are so many things that you, as people belonging to the same region, culture, and ethnicity as we do, need to know about us, but your imagination about us is stuck at one word, one tag, and that’s it: that’s what you understand of us.
Thus, the use of these terms is not just a way to reclaim them, as one may assume (some people might want to reclaim them, while some others might as well think of them as problematic, Pavel clarified). The aim is rather to “bring forth the various political motifs and ideas that various queer people form Northeast have about these”; to “bring in the diverse ways in which people want to deal with these two words”; in a sense, to let people acknowledge and understand the complexities that lie behind these two terms and the different ways Northeastern people can do politics around these definitions, outside and beyond the limited meanings ascribed to them. “[T]he whole point was to educate about the intentions, the political motifs, the political imaginations around these [words] by people from Northeast who are queer, and to bring forth as many diverse ideas and thoughts and feelings about these two words as we can.”
Indeed, the multiple narratives archived online under The Chinky Homo Project handler bear witness to a community-in-progress that is marked out both by a certain degree of commonality of experiences, as well as by differences, nuances, and variation on the theme of queerness. There is, here, a strong felt need to complicate a picture that always tends to erase parts of these subjects, be it their ethnicity, their queerness, or other nuances of their existences that simply cannot be contemplated or imagined within fixed frames imposed from the outside. As Pavel explained, even inside the national queer movement, where both Pavel and David soon became highly popular, the only label they were known for was their queer identity, while other aspects determining their positionality – namely, their ethnicity, their Northeastern identity – were somehow erased or pushed to the background. “To be able to politicize on that location, based on that ethnicity, it was really hard: we’ve been trying to do that, but we haven’t been able to” Pavel explained.
In a way, the notion of impossibility that we have previously introduced makes its way back here and can be deployed to describe this new scenario as well: here, too, the queer – in this case, Northeastern – subject is produced as unthinkable, unimaginable, impossible, insofar as queerness and ethnicity cannot coexist at once. The fullness, the layers, the differences that comprise this subject position thus need to be somehow acknowledged, pointed out at, stored, and documented somewhere, in order to counter both this constructed unintelligibility and the sense of isolation and self-degrading that follows it. And as we have already seen in the case of QAMRA, here, too, the realm of queer impossibility can be read as bringing with it a productive force as well: it is indeed at this junction that the archival drive kicks in, fueled both by the awareness of this impossibility and by the need to go beyond it. The archival drive thus serves here as the means to cross the stifling borders of simplistic identities, manufactured and superimposed from the outside. In a sense, entering the complex realm of queerness implies giving up on the idea of a defined ‘border’ itself: the richness, variety, and multiplicity of intersections that comprise queerness – and, in this specific case, queerness in the region – are exactly what more mainstream discourses lack. As Pavel explained, the archival enterprise embodied by the Chinky Homo Project was conceived as a way to put together a set of data – which at that point was still lacking – that would serve as the basis from where to start theorizing and politicizing queer Northeastern experiences. What made this body of data and evidence particularly significant and unique was that it was being built out of people’s lived experiences, out of people’s individual lives. As soon as the common, the everyday, the mundane, the apparently insignificant got archived and displayed online, it also got invested of a vibrant new value: it became the way out of effacement and erasure, and into the realm of action and politics. If one takes a look at the material stored in The Chinky Homo Project, one will find interviews, personal essays, photographic narratives, drawings, tales of struggle and resistance, all of them rooted in the everyday lives of queer people from the region. The online queer archive, therefore, becomes a cobweb of intimacies that provides comfort and a way out of impotence and insecurity, also by means of rooting queerness in its specific regional cultural context. As Pavel said when referring to the young people who got in touch with their project, “this archive also helped them contextualize themselves within their own habit, the culture they’re embedded in… And that sense of clarity about the self was very informing to them, and it helped them reclaiming their own sense of selves within the space they inhabit.”
By producing a space where queerness and the region can finally exist together and feed off each other, The Chinky Homo Project begins to fill the void that Pavel and David perceived at the beginning of their journey, providing people with a much-needed sense of closeness and togetherness. However, David and Pavel enthusiasm does not stop here, and the project is very much projected towards the future, too. The aims of such an archive include but do not stop at merely claiming a visibility still hard to achieve, or at obtaining fair representation and a better accommodation of diversity into more mainstream discourses, however important these endeavors might be. Rather, the project aspires to do much more than that. Pavel’s words perfectly explain this:
I think what our next aim, something that we together, as co-founders of The Chinky Homo Project, have been trying to do with the young people who are working with us, who look up to us, who take our consultations and are queer… we are trying to sort of look into what does leadership from northeast will look like, what would a queer leadership from northeast will look like, what do we want to say to the larger world possibly not from a position of being represented within a larger diversity, but what leadership can sort of generate and create by being together and delving into our experiences, and how we look at the world, how we see the world…
Another variation of what T. Jayashree had term “archival activism” stems from these words. From here, the digital queer archive as a set of data from where to start theorizing and politicizing intimacies and everyday existences takes a step further: it is exactly the togetherness provided by such a platform that is imagined as a potential propulsive force for the creation of an alternative future scenario. A future where queer Northeastern people can exert power over their own subjectivities and explore their own ways of looking at the world, outside of the logic of being represented by others.
In his article Archive and Aspiration, Arjun Appadurai looks at archives as “conscious sites of debate and desire”, a notion that perfectly sums up David and Pavel’s engagement with queer archival practices. In this regard, Appadurai states: “Archives viewed as active and interactive tools for the construction of sustainable identities, are important vehicles for building the capacity to aspire among those groups who need it most.” By mobilizing and freeing this capacity to aspire of subjects otherwise relegated to realms of extreme otherization and discursive impossibility, The Chinky Homo Project is here to show us once again how the queer archival drive can serve both as a starting point and as an active tool for achieving (or aspiring to achieve) new futurities, going well beyond the borders of what institutional archives are expected to do.
3. Migrating queers and their archives: comics as a strategy for archiving LGBT migrants’ lives in Italy
So far, we have taken into account two different kinds of queer archival practices, a physical archive, and an online anthology. Of course, both of these projects do and aspire to do much more than just collecting stories, documents, and fragments of past and present lives. While trying to coexist with the impossibility imposed on queerness and with the challenges tied to archiving people’s queer lives, they conceive the archival enterprise as a gateway towards different (im)possible realities. In this last section, we will turn our attention to another category of ‘impossible’ subjectivities produced by a different social and geographical context, and to a project quite unlike those discussed so far. After devoting two sections to India, we will now move to Italy and engage in conversation with Giulio Mariotti, the mind – and hands – behind Running Rainbows, a comic series about the lives and experiences of queer migrants who fled their countries of origin and eventually reached Italy. At first glance, comics might seem miles away from standard archival practices, yet we will argue that they provide a precious space for the preservation of those memories, experiences, traumas, desires, and possibilities that make up the material of queer migrant existences. In this section, we will thus try to read the queer migrant archive as strategically embedded within the comics format, going well beyond the borders of more traditional and institutional archival practices.
Running Rainbows started rather spontaneously in 2016 inside Omphalos, an LGBTI association located in the Italian town of Perugia. Giulio had just come back to Italy after spending some time in France and, during a board games night in Omphalos, he met some guys who had arrived in Italy from African francophone countries. He began chatting with them, happy to have found a chance to practice his French again, and he soon got so intrigued by their stories that he came up with the idea for the project. He evoked this moment during the interview:
And so, knowing better their stories, I thought more people should know about this and said: why don’t we make a project about this? I knew there was a migrant group in Omphalos, of course. I asked the coordinators what they thought about it, and also one of the guys, a guy from Cameroon. I told them: look, these are my skills, I can kind of draw a little bit, and I think comic could be a good medium to give more visibility to these stories, maybe we could come up with a graphic novel and make more and more people empathize on these issues, or at least know another perspective that is not the mainstream one that you find in mainstream media.
Thus, from the very beginning, comics were the medium chosen by Giulio to tell these stories of queerness and migration. The choice was dictated both by Giulio’s preferences and abilities – he studied visual arts and was able to structure a storyboard and draw –, and by more in-depth considerations of the potentials of comics in addressing the challenges that such an endeavor entails. Well aware of the complete absence within the Italian public discourse of narratives portraying effectively migration, queerness, and the intersections that often exist between the two, Giulio wanted to give at least an insight into what it actually means to be an LGBTQ+ migrant in Italy today. As he explained during the interview, in Italy LGBTQ+ migrants became the subject of discussions in media outlets only a couple of years ago, when some right-wing politicians accused migrants of pretending to be LGBT as a shortcut to get the asylum permit. Conscious of his positionality, too, Giulio’s initial idea was to “pass the microphone” to the protagonists of the stories themselves. However – he pointed out – one of the reasons why narratives of LGBTQ+ migrants are so rarely addressed and seem somehow invisible or even non-existent is that often migrants themselves are reluctant to speak out. Fearing reproach and discrimination both by Italian people and their communities, they don’t want to appear and prefer to keep a low profile. In fact, as Giulio explained, most of the time in Italy they live with people of their own country of origin, in environments that often do not accept queerness or tend to efface it. At the same time, within the broader Italian society, they are often only seen as ‘the migrants’ and become easy targets of racist attacks and behaviors, which add themselves to homophobic sentiments and attitudes, so widespread in Italy. It is clear, then, that the will to tell those unknown stories of migrating queerness has to confront itself with ethical and practical issues which cannot be ignored. In this framework, the graphic narrative became the strategic means to overcome these predicaments. As Giulio explained, “the comic project started also as a way to tell their stories, to pass the microphone to them, without them having to be exposed, because through comics I can tell their stories without them being exposed or having to put their face on their story”. Thus, comics is not simply a medium chosen among many other possible, but a conscious strategy for narrating a material that deliberately escapes narrativization.
Comics have also the undeniable potential to offer a fertile ground where even the most traumatic, deep, or violent stories, often deemed unrepresentable, can flourish rather undisturbed. According to Giulio himself, the reason why so many comics end up dealing with traumatic experiences or with relevant social topics is that, comics being considered less harmful and less important in comparison with other more established literary genres, they can be used to talk about the most unspeakable circumstances and still be considered harmless, sometimes even childish. Thus, they are a media strategically apt to disguise, mask, and yet, at the same time, tell uncomfortable and difficult content. By accompanying words with images, by bringing together the written and the visual realms, comics succeed where much more ‘prestigious’ genres fail, managing to find a balance between what can be told (and shown) and what cannot. Silences, gaps, painful and fragmented memories, all find a place in the hybrid realm of the comics, and that’s one of the reasons why the stuff of trauma so often ends up being the stuff of comics, too. Hillary Chute, in the introduction to her book Graphic Women, while presenting the works she is about to analyze, states:
And while each text is anchored differently to traumatic history, each yet insists on the importance of innovative textual practice offered by the rich visual-verbal form of comics to be able to represent trauma productively and ethically. For this reason, graphic narrative, invested in the ethics of testimony, assumes what I think of as the risk of representation. The complex visualizing it undertakes suggests that we need to rethink the dominant tropes of unspeakability, invisibility, and inaudibility that have tended to characterize trauma theory […].
Thus, graphic narratives allow an ethic and productive representation of trauma, bringing it out of its supposed compulsory irrepresentability. Something similar happens with Giulio’s stories, too. The queer migrant subjects of the Running Rainbows series, who are all living or have lived through various levels of traumatic experiences, who do not exist in the public space, and who do not want to expose themselves, find in the comics’ panels the only space where their existences can be represented fairly. Running Rainbows, thus, constitutes one of the (few) possible archives of queer migrant memories and lives in Italy, because it allows an ethic and strategic preservation of experiences and lives that would otherwise be unrepresentable. Drawing allows Giulio to tell poignant, often unknown stories, without having to disclose identities, names, and features. In a way, we can say that in the exact moment these stories are turned into a comic, they access the possibility of inhabiting the archival realm, expanding what the term archive itself means.
At the same time, far from being this simple, the process is one of constant negotiations and adjustments. When asked to describe it, Giulio said:
So, the procedure was that they told me their stories, sometimes it was just sending me the PDF of the commission in which they already told their story to the judge. From that I usually storyboard a story, meaning I make a draft of what a story could look like, all the different frames, all the different narrations, storytelling, and then I went back to them, telling them: look, this is the story. Of course, I rearranged it a little bit because from a commission report it must be adapted to a more readable structure. Sometimes I added things on my own because maybe I put together things I heard from other migrants. And I asked them: what do you think about this? Do you think it’s ok? Because I don’t know your story, your perspective, you’re telling me. They told me if it was the case to make some adjustments, and then I asked them for any visual detail because I don’t know their home countries, I’ve never been there, so I was asking them everything: what’s the texture of this sofa, what’s the typical clothes looking like, how should we make your haircut, etcetera.
Thus, Giulio consciously intervenes throughout the process, transforming legal documents used to assess the queer migrants’ refugee status into graphic narratives, meshing together bits and pieces of events into coherent stories, turning memories, which are at the same ephemeral and material, into captivating and readable painted images.
Against this background, questions about the authenticity and reliability of such an archive might arise spontaneously. It is fundamental to keep in mind the various level of mediations that occur during the process, and the problems this might generate. However, when choosing to read the queer archive as strategically embedded in the hybrid form of the comics, we are somehow already giving up on the prestige ascribed to Truth, Authenticity, and other similar concepts. This is not to say that the stories told through Running Rainbows are fictious or unreliable, but rather that the queerness of such an unconventional archive lies exactly in those adjustments and compromises that allow the preservation and displaying of stories that would otherwise be impossible to narrate. In a country like Italy where both immigration and LGBTQ+ issues are so often frowned upon – when not actively (and even violently) attacked –, the level of disguise offered by comics, together with the potential for an ethical disclosure of trauma it entails, make comics an apt archival space for queer migrants’ lives.
In the previous sections, we tried to explore three different forms of queer archival practices, emerging from very diverse social and geographical contexts. In all their differences and nuances, what these three case studies did prove is that, in the face of the multiple predicaments, erasures, and misconceptions queer people have to face – be they colonial legacies, assimilationist enterprises, racist attitudes – the (queer) archive, understood here in the broadest sense possible, assumes a unique significance for the queer people who engage with it. Of course, archiving queerness implies a set of challenges that are addressed in extremely different ways according to their specific context, as the different case studies showed. At the same time, in the case of these three archives, the queer archival effort in itself never exists for its own sake; rather, it is conceived as a powerful, necessary means to channel very strong stances – at the same time intimate and political –, often articulated and advanced through creative means (e.g., videomaking, storytelling, comic drawing). For Jayashree it is the idea of archival activism, for Pavel the theorization of a collective yet multifaceted Northeastern queer experience, for Giulio the need to raise awareness on queer migrants without violating delicate ethical boundaries through drawings. Far from being a cemetery of dead papers, thus, the queer archive as articulated by the projects analyzed here comes alive with the intimacies, the activism, the writings, and the drawings of invaluable everyday experiences of queerness across borders of geographies (South India, Northeast India, Italy), of platforms (physical rooms, online spaces) and of media (videos, writings, comics), ending up crossing the border of what ‘archive’ itself means, and of what traditional archives can and supposed to do.
Appadurai, Arjun. “Archive and Aspiration.” Information is Alive (2003): 14-25.
Baruah, Sanjib. In the Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020.
Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005.
Hillary L. Chute. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Khubchandani, Kareem. “LGBT Activism in South Asia” In The Wiley Blackwell encyclopedia of gender and sexuality studies, edited by Nancy A. Naples et al., 1-5. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
Suparna Bhaskaran, “The Politics of Penetration: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code,” In Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, edited by Ruth Vanita, 15-29. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Upadhyay, Nishant. “Hindu Nations and its Queers: Caste, Islamophobia, and De/Coloniality in India.” Interventions 22, no. 4 (2020): 464-480.
Vanita, Ruth, and Kidwai, Saleem. Same-Sex Love in India: Reading from Literature and History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
 Available here: https://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A1860-45.pdf
 Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India: Reading from Literature and History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
 As Vanita and Kidwai point out, police often exploited this law as a means to threaten and blackmail non-heterosexual people in public spaces. Moreover, even in the case of other offenses such as rape and murder, it was used in court to increase hostility against homosexuals. T. Jayashree, too, during our interview, mentioned police violence and harassment as one of the main causes of concern for sexual minorities.
 Suparna Bhaskaran, “The Politics of Penetration: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code,” in Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, ed. Ruth Vanita (New York: Routledge, 2002), 15-29.
 Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India: Reading from Literature and History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
 Shiv Sena (lit. ‘Shiva’s Army’) is an Indian right-wing, Hindu-nationalist political party, radically anti-Muslim and follower of the ideology of hindutva.
 The full judgement can be read at the following link: http://orinam.net/377/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Delhi_HC_377_Judgement.pdf
 It is possible to visit QAMRA’s official website at the following link: https://qamra.in/, but its curators consciously made the decision not to digitalize and put online the archived material. Due to a series of challenges that will be explored throughout this section, at the time of the interview quoted in this section (July 2021), QAMRA is still not open to the public yet.
 More specifically, she was involved with Sangama, an organization founded in 1999 in Bangalore to address the needs of sexual minorities, sex workers, and people with HIV. For further reference, see: http://sangama.org/
 As Jayashree herself recalled, at the time, LGBT/queer issues were still encompassed under the bigger umbrella of ‘human rights’.
 T. Jayashree, zoom interview by the authors, Rome, Italy, July 21, 2021.
 Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 15-20.
 Gopinath draws this other, complementary meaning of impossibility from José Rabasa’s analysis of the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico. According to Rabasa, the Zapatistas’ call to ‘‘Exigíd lo imposible!’’ signifies the evocation of a new world, freed from the constraints of nationalism and capitalism, and characterized by ideals of justice, liberty, and democracy.
 T. Jayashree, zoom interview by the authors, Rome, Italy, July 21, 2021.
 Nishant Upadhyay, “Hindu Nations and its Queers: Caste, Islamophobia, and De/Coloniality in India,” Interventions 22, no. 4 (2020): 464-480.
 For further reference, see: Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018.
 Nishant Upadhyay, “Hindu Nations and its Queers: Caste, Islamophobia, and De/Coloniality in India,” Interventions 22, no. 4 (2020): 464-480.
 During the interview, Jayashree explained how there’s a sense of urgency now, and how she has been accused of holding to the material without putting it out, while she should be doing something with it. “But you can do something when you know what you have. If you don’t know what you have, what are you going to do?” she pointed out, stressing the fact that, even if they are a small independent archive, it doesn’t mean they don’t get to do the rigorous work of understanding and correctly cataloguing the collections, with all the implications and the issues mentioned earlier. They are also hoping to receive some kind of institutional support by the end of the year or early next year.
 It is estimated that 11% of all of India’s tribal population lives in the Northeastern states. While in the rest of the country, ‘adivasi’ (lit. original inhabitant) is the politically correct and self-accepted term for referring to indigenous people, it is not accepted and widespread in the Northeast.
 Sanijb Baruah, In the Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020), 1-46.
 The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is an act issued by the Government of India in 1958. It grants the power to declare areas to be ‘disturbed areas’ and provides armed forces with special powers in order to maintain ‘public order’ in such areas. Aforementioned special powers include, among others, “fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapons or of fire-arms, ammunition or explosive substances; arrest, without warrant, any person who has committed a cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognizable offence and may use such force as may be necessary to effect the arrest.” The whole text of the act can be read at the following link: https://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A1958-28.pdf
 Sanijb Baruah, In the Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020), 1-46.
 Throughout our interview, Pavel frequently referred to the widespread idea of Northeastern people being “lesser” and to the negative implication this idea has, especially when it gets internalized by people from the region.
 Pavel Sagolsem, zoom interview by the authors, Rome, Italy, August 3, 2021.
 Arjun Appadurai, “Archive and Aspiration,” Information is Alive (2003): 14-25.
 At the time this article is being written (September 2021), OMPHALOS has published two full comics on its website. It is possible to read the first one here: https://www.omphalospg.it/gruppi-tematici/gruppo-migranti/running-rainbows/, and the second one here: https://www.omphalospg.it/gruppi-tematici/gruppo-migranti/running-rainbows-2/
 Giulio Mariotti, zoom interview by the authors, Rome, Italy, June 17, 2021.
 Hillary L. Chute, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 1-28.
 Giulio Mariotti, zoom interview by the authors, Rome, Italy, June 17, 2021.