Updated: Feb 5
This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
PREMA MENON (HOST): Australia is considered one of the world's most LGBTQI+ friendly countries. With the 2010s being the decade of creeping conservatism, I'm not sure how progressive this actually is. Nevertheless, according to the Pew Research Center, Australia is doing much better than its Asia-Pacific neighbours. With same-sex marriage legalized in December 2017, it's tempting to think that the barriers have been removed for LGBTQI+ people in Australia. This is not true. History shows that legislating protections against discrimination doesn't do much to eradicate prejudice. LGBTQI+ people still face discrimination when it comes to career opportunities and access to support. Furthermore, LGBTQI+ people from cultural backgrounds originating in regions such as the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia may face multiple barriers lacking inclusion from cultural and sexuality perspectives. Today you will hear my interview with Kamalika Dasgupta, the founder of SheQu Group Inc.
KAMALIKA DASGUPTA (GUEST): Which is a non-profit organisation that helps, supports and promotes LBT+ women from ethnic backgrounds, culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. And we organise events and workshops to empower, encourage and enable opportunities for queer women of colour.
INTRODUCTION: What Can We Do? In this podcast, I speak with those who are putting their ideas into action, focusing on the good they can do for their neighbours, communities, citizens and the world.
PREMA: In this interview, you'll hear about Kamalika's personal journey as a queer woman of colour, how that has led her to tackle complex barriers facing LBT+ women from culturally and linguistically diverse, CALD communities and how SheQu Group Inc. is addressing the need. CALD is generally used as an inclusive term in Australia to reflect its cultural plurality. Someone who is CALD originates from a country where English is not the main language, or their family does. In Australia's case, this spans numerous countries with significant populations originating from places like Italy, China, Vietnam and India. An estimated 31 percent of Australians are born overseas, two thirds of them from CALD countries. This only includes Australian citizens and not recently arrived migrants and students.
PREMA: Kamalika is from Kolkata, India. She moved to Australia to do her Masters in 2014 to escape a broken heart, and unrelenting pressure to conform to society's expectations. In short, Kamalika sought her own personal freedom. What does freedom mean to a queer woman of colour?
KAMALIKA: To be who you are and not be judged every day, just the way you act. To do things the way you want to do. I was bullied a lot because of the way I used to act, the way I used to be around my friends. I used to play, I used to be like a sporty girl. And it was very uncomfortable for me to get all the comments all the time. Even my extended families commenting about "Why you walk like a man?", or "Why you're so tomboyish?" And I hate that. I was feeling suffocated. People always pressuring, "When you're getting married, when you're getting married, when you're getting married" I mean, it was like, it's just like I needed some break.
PREMA: After arriving in Australia as a student, Kamalika started looking for an organisation to volunteer with. She soon came across the Macquarie Queer Collective. A friend invited her to check it out by just attending a session. Entering the meeting room, Kamalika looked at the group of volunteers around her.
KAMALIKA: I went there, saw some really, every Australian sitting there. I couldn't see anyone who's of my colour. I was very uncomfortable and they were really like nice people. I felt I didn't belong. I said, "Jonathan, I don't know. This is not my cup of tea" and well, he really tried.
PREMA: Jonathan became a good friend and even introduced Kamalika to Esther, who is now Kamalika's fiancee. Kamalika felt herself inching closer towards a more authentic life and further away from harsher judgments of her hometown. She decided she wanted to stay in Sydney and call it home.
KAMALIKA: I applied for my permanent residency through a protection visa, which was on the basis of sexuality. I got rejected by immigration because they thought that I'm not a correct asylum seeker on the basis of sexuality because I'm educated, I'm an educated woman and I can settle anywhere but Australia.
PREMA: Kamalika shifted her focus to finding a job so that she could then apply for permanent residency. This process was difficult, but she managed to find work after some time. To mark this new chapter in their lives together, her partner and her booked a trip to Fiji. Everything seemed to be falling into place, but trying times were just around the corner.
KAMALIKA: From, from the vacation, I was coming back and then I heard a call, a really frantic call from my parents and they were crying and like they're being ballistic and they are like, "We know what you are doing there. Why did you do this to our family?" Things like, you know, being very rude to me because they are not understanding the part of my sexuality and repeatedly asking "Is it Esther, is the like friend you stay with?" And then I was like, shocked. And one of my other friends, he said, like, "You know what? Just accept it. Just own it." And then I was like, yeah, I think I'm going to come out to my parents. And then I called them. I called them. I said, like, yes, it is what it is. I'm a queer woman. I love Esther. I'm going to get married to her someday. And if you don't want to accept, I, I understand. I respectfully understand. And if you need any help, let me know, to understand my sexuality and everything. I was respectful to them. They were crying. And they're like, you know, "Why did you do this to us? Why did you hurt us?" And I'm not going to lie to you to make yourself feel comfortable with my sexuality.
PREMA: Following this deeply hurtful experience with her parents, Kamalika realized that there were probably many others like her, shunned or worse, kicked out by families who couldn't accept or understand. Kamalika had already formed a support base in Sydney, but she could not stop thinking about those who lacked the same support system.
KAMALIKA: I imagine, like, how many more women go through the same thing? You know, it goes on a loop and loop and loop. Sometimes they have far more devastating stories. And we don't know how they are gaining support. We don't know how, actually, they're coming through life. We have three strikes - gender, sexuality, ethnicity. Everywhere you go, it's like a hurdle for us. People say, oh, diversity and inclusion, diversity and inclusion, but it's just like a policy. But no one is actually acting upon it. And then I started getting involved in different organizations. And I found like most of the organizations are very, very male-oriented. And they didn't understand the perspective from queer women, from color background. I was like, enough of talking, let's do something about it. So that's why I called all my friends and said, like, I'm going to host a Meetup. How do I tell people, whole of Sydney about it? My friends of friends told people. And I told my friends. And this is how the chain became. Then I was like, okay, even if my friends come together, it will be good for me, good enough. So in December, I think December 10th in 2017, I hosted a picnic actually 16 to 20 people turned up and then I was like, Whoa, this is huge. And then I started thinking about because I'm from business and from a business background and I'm from an accounting background. So I was like, okay, this could actually go. I can see us providing services will actually, helping people in a more concrete way rather than just meetups. And then in December, I did an open house for CALD LGBT people because I know it can be a little bit sad. Some people don't have anyone to go to. Some people are poor. They don't have the money to actually spend and they don't have family and friends here, especially international students and stuff.
PREMA: There was much to celebrate that December in 2017. This was also when the Marriage Equality Act was passed in Australia. Kamalika's obstacles and struggles became much more meaningful.
KAMALIKA: So I was in office when it was going on and I was constantly texting my friend like, what's going on? Tell me the verdict. I heard from my colleagues and staff and they were like, oh we voted no. Some voted yes, some of my bosses vote no. And it was yeah, it was very challenging. I just kept my calmness. And then they said, like, it's a yes, it's a yes vote. And so I offered, I actually got so excited and I didn't show it. I just left my cubicle and asked everyone, would you like some coffee? I'm going to get some coffee for everyone. And then I went to the parking lot and I just shouted at the top of my voice. YES. It was like a very liberating process. And then I had an interview with SBS. So and I was so emotional when I was giving that interview. And it happened and it happened so quickly that I couldn't process. And then I called Esther. And I know. And we were like we both were so emotional. Now, actually, we can get married!
PREMA: The success of the picnic and the subsequent Christmas Open House made Kamalika realize she'd started something special. Despite never having done this before, Kamalika was very clear about what she had in mind. She did not want others to go through the type of isolation or anguish she'd experienced. Being the mouthpiece for SheQu was completely outside of this introvert's comfort zone. Still, Kamalika challenged herself because she knew there was a huge need to address.
KAMALIKA: There are organizations that are actually helping men and gay men and trans. Which is good. They lack input from culturally, linguistically diverse background woman, non-binary person. And that's where SheQu comes in and actually fights for our rights. It is very important to actually get those opportunities, create those opportunities, talk about our problems and the daily challenges that we go through. Maybe even simple things like getting a job coming out to your parents educating your parents about sexuality and gender. And there's other stuff that I thought that this is important. So we started with like a only a Facebook group with three members and now we have like a hundred ninety-six or ninety-seven members. We have done around 20 events and workshops now and our team is growing. I started with like me, myself, and now we have a growing team, five board members and volunteers. Few volunteers, sir. And they are like generous supporters, some allies who are really helped us to build a SheQu Group Inc.
PREMA: Kamalika reflected on her own experience, focusing on three pillars.
Pillar number one, health and wellbeing.
Pillar number two, jobs, career and professional development.
Pillar number three, social integration.
SheQu's community events and workshops are defined by these three pillars. The big picture is providing the tools for LBT+ women to take control of their lives, independent of the institutions which have traditionally failed them. Under the first pillar jobs, career and professional development was a financial literacy workshop SheQu conducted in partnership with MoneyGirl, another community organization. In a survey conducted by Experian, 62 percent of LGBTQI+ respondents said they experienced financial difficulties because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. From Kamalika's experience, this barrier is even bigger for women of colour.
KAMALIKA: If you come from a South Asian background or if you come from an ethnic background, it's always a very patriarchal society, which is like, oh, you don't have to talk about money. Let the men handle everything. You don't have to work. Things like superannuation, which is very important, right. Tax, which is very important. You don't know how to actually save. You don't know how to actually utilise your money.
PREMA: SheQu's events book out very quickly. The average attendance is 20 to 30 people. Numbers kept at this level to keep the events at a certain quality. The way SheQu plan their annual calendar also contributes to the success of the events.
KAMALIKA: Through SheQu I wanted to work not only from top to bottom but from also bottom to top. So we do a poll every six months on what you want to see posted by SheQu. But we also have a set calendar, which we plan for every quarter.
PREMA: Apart from building their own network and events, Kamalika and her committee realize the importance of supporting other organizations with LGBTQI+ causes at the core of their mission.
KAMALIKA: We partner up with an organization in Nepal Mitini Nepal. We hosted a leadership workshop and because after hearing their stories, I've thought that they need something like this to actually give them the power that they already have. But they are not utilizing it.
PREMA: Speaking about Nepal, Kamalika and I return to the subject of the rule of law helping with societal acceptance. In Nepal's case, LGBTQI+ citizens were granted full rights in 2008, but many of the community is still battling homophobia. Outdated attitudes still prevail in CALD communities from newly arrived migrants to multi-generational Australians, even if Australia has legalized same-sex marriage.
KAMALIKA: See, the legal part is done, you and me like normal people, right? We need acceptance from society. We need acceptance from our family. We need acceptance from our friends that they respect who we are. We need to be treated equally as a first class citizen, rather being a charity case.
PREMA: In Australia where CALD communities are a minority, CALD LGBTQI+ people are a minority within a minority. Finding role models who reflect the same values and face the same struggles is tough.
KAMALIKA: How would you expect a role model when the role model too has so many baggages to deal with? You just get tired, exhausted, fighting with every person and every authorities. Your family life, your career, and you just like you just don't have the energy to actually start a movement. Just like exhausting. I feel like the challenge is that we literally face every day is people accepting us. There is a term called glass ceiling in corporate world, which is so true because we are not only being discriminated just because of gender, but also for our sexuality and ethnicity. One of my team members, they were in HR and they saw literally colleagues throwing out all the job resumés which had ethnic names. Then they said, oh, they wouldn't know English. These are the daily challenges that you face. And SheQu is working to create opportunities. No one is giving it to us. We are fighting for it. We are all for diversity and inclusion until it affects our job. It's all in policies. But how you're implementing it, working towards giving that that shoulder to women of, women from ethnic backgrounds and who are queer will help you out. Men have that group when they go out together, drink together this one boys club. We don't want to be part of the old boys club. We just want opportunities.
PREMA: Kamalika has assembled a committee that reflects the community she's helping because she believes the lived experience will guarantee the services SheQu provides resonate. She wants to create role models within the community, something she wishes she'd had in her younger years. Two years on. Kamalika has much to be proud of, but she doesn't have time to dwell on praise.
KAMALIKA: I don't think that it's a proud moment or something like that. You know, why did it not happen before? As I mentioned to you, I'm a very shy person. I just had to share my experience, and story to tell people that we exist, to tell people that we are not getting enough opportunities. We don't want your charities. We just want equal opportunities that a white dude could have, a white woman could have. Why we are lacking those opportunities, why we are always held back in society? It was not a proud moment. It was actually a really frustrating moment that I had to, an introvert like we had to go and talk about it.
PREMA: There are a few times Kamalika allows herself to feel pride in what she has achieved.
KAMALIKA: Every time I hear people actually coming to me and telling that you don't know what you did for us, SheQu has changed our lives. I didn't get a platform when I first came to Australia, thanks, It really makes me feel like a proud like we're actually doing to impact something, actually changing people's lives. I know so many people coming to me actually saying that there are closeted and everything. Now, they're not only coming out to their friends, but they're coming out to their parents and they're coming out to their office. And it's a huge impact because they got that confidence of belonging.
PREMA: Kamalika wants to ensure that she supports more people.
KAMALIKA: My vision is to impact, to inspire and give voice to ten thousand of women or people from ethnic backgrounds in Australia and also in Australia. So I'm working towards that.
PREMA: Kamalika believes if she, an introvert, could create a growing community, present talks and raise awareness., anyone can.
KAMALIKA: Just go for it. Don't think about what people would say, what society says and what your friends say. If you really and passionate about something. If you really believe in your cause, then whoever tells you or shuns you down, don't bother. Those are noises because you know what you want to do, how it's gonna happen. What is gonna happen? You don't know. But actually you try to take the first step, which happened to me as well. I had no clue whatsoever, establishing a non-profit organization and actually having to do people management actually providing services to people. I had no clue. I just knew that what I want to do and I just knew what I have to do to achieve that goal. Set up a goal. Write it down. It helps me a lot. Write it down and then plan. Plan. So much of planning needed. Actually act upon it rather than putting in the shelves. Never, ever shy asking help, seeking help from anyone you think that you can trust.
PREMA: The most important thing anyone can do for themselves is to be true to who they are.
KAMALIKA: If you're authentic to yourself, people will actually respect you. Now, when I go out and I'm out and proud, right? And actually people respect me more than when I was not out. I don't hesitate to introduce my partner, Esther, as my fiancee. Accept yourselves first. It's your journey. So you have to realize that. Accept yourself. Be authentic because it liberates you.
PREMA: Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please read or follow this series on whichever podcast service you're on. Another great way to support this series is to follow me on Facebook or Instagram. Just search for What Can We Do Podcast. What Can We Do? Is an independent podcast series produced and edited by me, Prema Menon and the script editor for this series is Liza Nadolski. And the audio you're hearing has been sweetened by Nicholas Allaire.