BHUBANESWAR: Rabi Raj’s Grindr now shows a few more users than before in the radius around his village in western Odisha. Before homosex was decriminalised, the 26 year old teacher says he was the only Grindr user in his district Balangir, where female literacy is around 51%.

More users online on gay dating apps are the sole change Rabi Raj has seen in the two years since the colonial Section 377 was read away.

He is not alone. Many queers in low-income states like Odisha think they have a long hard walk ahead towards acceptance.

Upfront about his inborn desires since he was 19, Rabi Raj says his family only seriously paid heed after he spoke to a local news channel after many decades’ struggle culminated in the Supreme Court judgment against 377.

“However, they still believe that it is just a phase, and I will eventually marry a woman.”

“The biggest hurdle is being listened to, or getting people to have a discussion. People in rural areas are not ready to listen about these issues. They are also novel concepts for them to wrap their head round. They have never heard about same-sex relations, let alone them being normal. They have very negative connotations about it. They are most likely to group all of us as transgender,” says Rabi Raj.

Some 400 km away in the state capital Bhubaneswar, Pratyush isn’t planning on it yet, but knows he will have to tell his family eventually.

“I’m open to everyone but my parents. I will take care of it when it is time, but I’m also scared. I hope they accept me. I don’t feel it will be that easy though, even five or ten years from now,” says the 21 year old zoology graduate.

Many queers in Odisha concur. There hasn’t really been a shift in people’s perception of sexes, genders, sexualities.

A persistent problem they cite is not knowing any other people like them, so they can feel normal and good about themselves.

In the absence of offline venues even in the big cities, such as support groups, gay nights, dances and events and cafes, younger gays say there aren’t enough places where they can be themselves with other queers, safe from cisgender or heterosexual violence.

“There has to be a massive experimentation, plenty of poring over google, trial and error just to find the right people to talk to or get some support,” says Bhagyashree from Jajpur.

“My friends shunned me when I tried talking to them. When I was trying to come to terms with my orientation I had reached out to groups like Nazariya [in Delhi] among others. In some groups you have to get hold of an influential member who might refer you, and then you might get some help. It’s a lot of work.”

The 24 year old knows more lesbians outside Odisha thanks to the internet. “I have just 3 lesbian friends here. You need a certain privilege to come out because of the lack of societal awareness,” she explains.

Bijaya Biswal, a doctor and LGBTQIA+ rights activist from the state says she knows some gay colleagues who are not out yet.

“I don’t think women will come out even in private. They are usually not able to talk about it unless you have a very long conversation and give them an insight regarding this. I don’t think many are even in touch with these kind of questions with themselves, because it is so stigmatised,” she shares.

As part of the state’s prominent Parichay Collective for LGBTQs, she helped organise the Bhubaneswar Pride Parade in 2018. She says Parichay has less than 10 women members out of 300.

Meanwhile in Balangir, Rabi Raj is trying to increase awareness in western Odisha. With a friend he runs The Outcaste LGBTQ, an Instagram page meant to form a community in the region. They post information about sexuality and gender and sex. With some support they hope to hold seminars and create safe spaces in the region.

He says a lot of closeted men reach out to him anonymously online to have a chat. “They tell me they get an outlet and some mental peace after talking to an openly gay man. Its all good as long as they feel at ease and have the conversations they want to.

“I’ve known people who got married before fully figuring out what they want. If more people like me get accessible and visible, then others will also know who to reach out to.”

He says he didn’t have anyone to talk to when he was trying to navigate society as a gay man, and was severely depressed.

Access to mental healthcare remains difficult for queers and non-queers alike in Odisha, due to stigma and underprovision of facilities and resources. Help is negligible in rural and semiurban areas, and often seems to avoid queers.

“There are very few dedicated NGOs working for LGBTQs here. Regarding mental health there are fewer of course. A lot of the pan-India NGOs do not have a branch in Odisha,” says Bijaya Biswal.

She says the Parichay Collective has lately been focusing on mental health, by tying up with NGOs and doctors to ensure that queers do not feel estranged or depressed.

The nonexistent regional queer

Navigating life as a gay or lesbian Odia without knowing anyone to relate to is difficult enough. The regional cinema, literary landscape and local culture seem not to have produced inclusive material to look up to either.

Biswal and others observe that the denial of media representation and open conversations has prevented the normalising of queerhood in society.

“The media we consume defines love or normal for us. All the love stories we ever know of have a man and a woman as the protagonist. In local literature also we don’t find any protagonist who identifies as a homosexual. I don’t see films based on LGBTQ narrative coming out of the Odia film industry. I’ve spoken to many poets, writers and I don’t think they themselves are very gender sensitised either,” she says.

The regional media’s sole encounter with the subject is a web series released earlier this year called Chumbak, which portrays a lesbian relationship on screen for the first time.

There were a few bright spots recently with Odia sprinter Dutee Chand coming out as India’s first gay athlete, and the Orissa High Court ruling in favour of a same-sex couple’s right to live together.

But much work remains to be done, to dislodge the negativity so Odia queers can consider living freely.

Bhagyashree wants ideally to have a life in the metros, as she craves the liberal mindset and freedom that city life offers. Rabi Raj’s dream is to have a pride walk in Balangir, as he believes that would be the starting point for the masses to understand LGBTQ rights.

He says “I feel like there’s no guarantee about my future. But hope the next generation at least has one parent who would understand and support them.”