Remembering Betu Singh- Leading activist for LBT groups in India
Betu Singh was a lesbian rights activist who created Sangini Trust, the first registered non-governmental organization for LBT (Lesbian, Bisexual women and Transgender men. A fierce woman, she created safe spaces through affirmative groups to shelter homes for queer women and transmasculine individuals around the city of Delhi and she leaves behind an indelible mark on the LGBTQ+ movement in India.
Betu Singh attended the Meerut University for her Bachelors, where she was also the president of the Student Federation of India (SFI). At the time of her presidency, there were only 21 female students enrolled in the whole university. She later studied at the Polytechnic College in South Delhi. At the age of 21, she got engaged to a man from Lucknow. The engagement ended when Betu decided to move away from Meerut to work in New Delhi.
Betu set up a dining table business in Nehru place called VIBGYOR. During the mid-1990s, conversations around same-sex marriage were emerging in progressive circles, but in media and households, if at all, they were restricted to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Even then gay cisgender men enjoyed more mobility and freedom when it came to seeking their desires or leaving families behind. Queer women, on the other hand, were often constrained in a household, their natal or their husband’s. Therefore, the creation of Sangini and similar groups for LBT people, bring forth new conversations in LGBTQ+ circles, one that critiqued the patriarchy and in the women’s movement, questioned it’s silence on the rights of queer and trans individuals.
Work at Sangini and Activism
Betu Singh set up the Sangini Trust in 1997 – The first lesbian crisis helpline and organisation in New Delhi under the umbrella of Naz Foundation. She started it with Cath, her partner at the time. They worked towards giving a safe space to lesbian and bisexual women and transmasculine individuals. The group provided emergency response services to LBT people facing violence operated a helpline for distress calls and carried out awareness campaigns through weekly group discussions and workshops. For the first two years, they operated without any funding, through a small office in South Delhi. They also started a shelter home in Vasant Kunj for LBT individuals facing violence and abuse. Sangini largely played a role in building a community of queer women in Delhi, and later Calcutta, Bombay and Bangalore.
Through common group meetings and workshops, a larger fight for recognition by the state was strengthened. Sangini also helped heterosexual women facing domestic violence. It aided people to leave abusive households by providing legal aid and helping them find employment. Briefly, Sangini held workshops for safe sex in Tihar Jail as well. It also took up various workshops and seminars in colleges and universities, surrounding the themes of gender, sexuality and the LGBTQ+ movement.
Of course, Sangini’s work was met with a lot of hostility and violence. As Betu recounted in an incident to Project Bolo, her office was destroyed by the family of a lesbian woman who was sheltered by Sangini at the time. There were often allegations of kidnapping, abduction, perjury and wrongful confinement which were hurled by family members of individuals seeking shelter there. Even though these women were above 18 years of age, often court order directed them to go back to their families. The lack of legal language, the criminalisation of homosexuality and a sheer lack of societal awareness about this often created many barriers for these individuals to be accepted by their family and friends.
Death and Legacy
Betu Singh died at the age of 49 in October 2013. She had been detected with cirrhosis of the liver and died due to related illnesses. Humsafar Trust, an NGO for LGBT rights, held a memorial service in her memory. Posthumously, she was awarded the KASHISH Rainbow award in 2015, being the first person to receive it after death.
Betu leaves behind Sangini, that still remains one of the few registered NGOs working for LBT groups. Her exuberant personality, her sense of humour and her fight for the dignity and safety of LBT people makes her an unforgettable pioneer of queer rights in India. She always spoke in a language of liberation and broke multiple gender roles throughout her life. Be it through her passion for sports, her will to begin and thrive with her own business and of course creating a community for queer women and transmen. Betu and her co-worker Maya worked towards ensuring that each LB woman who came to Sangini seeking support received legal protection.