This trans leader is teaching her village to reclaim social and cultural spaces
Twenty-nine-year-old Rituparna Neog, a trans leader and educator, has created a vibrant queer movement in rural Assam and made sure every child in her village has access to books.
Rituparna Neog’s relationship with the library is that of a best friend. Back in school, it was her refuge from queer phobic, bullying peers.
Today, it is where she’s fulfilling what she believes is the mission of her life.
Neog is a gender-rights activist, storyteller, and educator based out of Jorhat, Assam, where she runs Akam Foundation, an NGO that aims to build free community libraries for children and trains members from the rural LGBTQIA+ community to become crusaders of gender justice.
As a child, Neog says she never had to “come out”, but always wore her queer identity guilelessly—starting from the years of gender dysphoria to finally embracing her trans identity.
“My family, especially my mother, walked by my side through these years of struggle and self-discovery,” says Neog. “My family’s acceptance of who I am helped me immensely to stay true to myself outside of home too, including at school.”
But a socially conscious family doesn’t necessarily translate to a just society, as a young Neog saw how dominant caste Hindus in her village in Jorhat district discriminated against Adivasi children, and how her school teachers and students make a mockery of her queerness.
“My village has been so far behind the rest of the country that I am the only one from here to have gone to college,” says Neog, who returned to her village after studying at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, in 2015.
“I had no friends in school. The library became the sole place of possibilities for me. It is where I found books that inculcated empathy and dedication in me to build my own values. In many ways, these values reflect through my work with children today.”
A book for every child
In 2020, Neog started a hybrid storytelling project for children called Kitape Katha Koi (translating to ‘books speak’). The free community library helps close to 100 children from nearby villages and a tea estate access and read Assamese, Hindi, and English books.
“Our vision under Kitape Katha Koi is to create community-owned free libraries, which can act as an agent of change in the local community, and make reading accessible to every child. The Right to Education starts with the Right to Books,” says Neog, who has also been organising pop-up libraries in public parks, colleges, university campuses, and housing societies.
The Kitape Katha Koi community is a part of The Free Libraries Network (FLN) India and South Asia—a platform to connect free libraries and library movements. They regularly organise discussions for children with queer leaders, writers, and scholars such as Shamim Nasrin, Sahitya Academy Award Winner for Children's Literature, writer journalist Ratna Bharali Talukdar, and LGBTQIA+ leader Milin Dutta.
Their continued efforts in this area led to the launch of Chandraprabha Saikiani Feminist Library and Resource Centre in Dibrugarh, Assam, last year, opening up sections of books dedicated for children, young adults, and adults. Its collection is curated around diverse themes of gender, sexuality, ability, mental health, climate justice, feminism, and minority rights.
Mobilising queer youth from villages
In April 2021, Neog started Drishti Queer Collective, a meetup space for LGBTQIA+ people from villages and small towns in Jorhat, with the idea of enabling discussions around equality and social justice.
“While the LGBTQIA+ movement in Assam started gaining popularity around a decade ago, it remained centred on Guwahati. I, for instance, did not know about the global LGBTQIA+ movement until I was in college. There was a need for the movement to reach small towns and rural communities of Assam,” says Neog.
Drishti was born at the first Pride meetup organised by community members in Jorhat on April 16, 2021. More than 70 people from villages and small towns joined this gathering, which also proved to Neog that there was a need for community effort like this one.
Today, Drishti—with a core group of 15 people—has become a meetup space for queer members to learn, debate, and understand gender-sexuality, patriarchy, rights, and sexual and mental health. Workshops on gender and sexuality are held with teachers, NGO workers, and university students in the Assamese language.
So far, 150 people from across these spaces have attended Drishti’s workshops. Members of the collective have taken the responsibility of hosting Pride Walks in Jorhat, Dibrugarh, and Sibasagar in Assam. More than 500 people participated in the Dibrugarh Pride Walk that took place in June last year.
Rishav Thakur, a PhD scholar in anthropology and queer studies at Columbia University, left Assam in 2010 to pursue their higher studies. Thakur, who identifies as a non-binary and gender-fluid person returned home after a whole decade during the pandemic, and found solid community support through Drishti during what they describe as “a tough period.”
“My entry into the Assam queer space happened through Drishti. Their online meetings, writing groups, and constant support helped me navigate a very difficult personal space,” says Thakur.
They are now curating an exhibition featuring an archive of queer objects in Guwahati, funded by the Zubaan Foundation. “As part of my legwork for this exhibition, one of the first workshops I had was with the members of Drishti. It is a powerful space with a lot of potential that is waiting to be tapped,” says Thakur.
Neog and her team at Drishti organised this year’s Pride walk in Dibrugarh on October 14.
As a member of Assam's Transgender Welfare Board, she is now advocating for gender-neutral toilets and choice-based uniforms in educational institutions in Assam through the campaign #NoMoreHoldingMyPee on Change.org.
“Back in school, I would have to wait until after lunchtime to go to the washroom because that was the only time other kids wouldn’t be there. I always went back to class late after lunch because of this and was pulled up for it,” says Neog. “Even today, nothing has changed. Queer children have very few resources, and this needs to change.”
“Whether it is through books or queer-friendly spaces, my mission is to see to it that young people raise important questions and cultivate critical thinking and political consciousness so that they can ask for what they deserve,” she adds.
Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti