Quorum Video: India’s Meena Seshu on listening to LGBTs, Sex Workers, and the Poor

Meena Seshu, a longtime women’s rights activist in India, thought she had all the answers. Then the people she was trying to help taught her something more.

Quorum is a live journalism forum focused on LGBT experiences around the world. Its mission is to lift up the voices of non-Western LGBT activists defining the struggle for justice. Visit Quorum.TheDailyBeast.com for more stories of persecution, triumph, adversity, and strength.

Imagine the scene: Meena Seshu, an experienced social worker turned activist for women’s rights in India, meeting a group of sex workers to help them organize. Seshu thought she knew what to do: “guide them,” as she had been trained to do. And yet, they rejected her.

You don’t know anything about us, they said.

What would you do? Some well-meaning activists might nod patronizingly. Others might run. Meena Seshu, however, said, “I’m sorry. I know nothing. Can you teach me?”

Seshu discusses this humility in this amazing talk, recorded at the Daily Beast’s Quorum: Global LGBT Voices event in December 2014. Yet is essential to effective activism.

“The middle class or upper caste woman in India has no clue how poor sex workers live. Yet we… believe that we can teach them something about their own lives and their own experiences. We learned that you can’t do that. You have to let the community lead.”

Seshu’s organization, Sangram, works with women who have been marginalized—some because they are victims of domestic violence, some because they are poor, and some because they are sex workers.

And now they’ve added transgender women, lesbians, and other sexual and gender minorities to their work—not without opposition within Sangram’s often traditional core communities. The result has been a long process of teaching and learning that seems far ahead of the often-contentious relationship between Western feminist and LGBT organizations. (For example, some feminists still deny transgender reality, calling transgender women “fake women.” And misogyny is widespread in the gay male community.)

In her talk, recorded at the Quorum event in December, 2014, Seshu makes a powerful case for humility, for letting local communities lead, and for banding together to fight oppression. She tells firsthand accounts of successful protests that brought traditional women onto the streets to defend sex workers. She describes American Christian conservatives who flew all the way to India to oppose Sangram’s work.

As a proud ally of the LGBT community, Seshu is an example of how effective it can be to live at the intersections—if one is willing to listen.