Why we felt he needed to be included in this list: Harish Iyer is a globally renowned Indian activist for LGBTQI rights. The Guardian listed him as one of the top 100 LGBTQ activists making him the only Indian national to make that list. In addition to being a radio presenter he also has spoken at international conferences including TEDx.
Born in a joint Tamil Brahmin family in Mumbai, Harish Iyer had a carefree childhood until he turned seven, and became the victim of rape by his uncle. This atrocity continued until he was 18 years old.
One of the first male rape victims to break the silence of sexual abuse in India, he was met with a lot of backlash. Meanwhile, his struggles helped him understand that gender and sexuality are a spectrum and he gained the confidence to look beyond traditional sexuality and embrace his own. Coming out to his mother was difficult, and she was angry at first, but the duo made a splash in the media when his mother posted a matrimonial ad in the papers looking for a male suitor for him. The ad received widespread attention and they were applauded for normalizing something so taboo.
To live your life truly and unabashedly is the truest form of activism.
After everything he had been through, activism came naturally to Iyer. So even as he worked in a call centre and later in advertising and marketing, lending his voice to LGBTQI rights and issues, children, women, animals and survivors of child sexual abuse became a way of life for him. He started working with United Way Mumbai, Humane Society International and iVolunteer, and he also started delivering motivational talks and voicing is opinions on matters like the recriminalization of homosexuality.
Iyer uses social media to campaign for his causes. He is known for turning his personal blog into a helpline during the 26/11 terror attacks and he later organized an animal therapy workshop with Animal Angels in Mumbai to help citizens recuperate. In 2009, he helped initiate the S.I.T.A (Sensitivity In True Action) Sena campaign to condemn the attack on women in a Bangalore pub by right wing socio-political group Sri Ram Sene. In 2013, when the news of the gang rape of a young photojournalist was published, Iyer marched on Mumbai streets wearing red lipstick with a placard that read “Don’t look at my lipstick. Listen to me.” A year later, he appeared in a PETA ad campaign encouraging people to go vegetarian.
Iyer was featured on Aamir Khan’s talk show Satyamev Jayate in an episode on child sexual abuse, where he gave a frank and detailed account of his horrific experiences. Prior to that, he was seen in the panel of NDTV’s talk show We The People and the talk show Zindagi Live. British actor Stephen Fry interviewed Iyer for his BBC2 documentary Out There. In 2016, Iyer and his family starred with Ellen Page in her web series Gaycation.
He was part of the group of activists who pushed to move the Indian Supreme Court to decriminalize homosexuality. In June 2018, he filed an Impleadment Application in the 377 case and was partly responsible to move the Indian Supreme Court to decriminalize homosexuality, overturning section 377, under which gay sex is categorized as an unnatural and criminal offence. In 2018, The National Human Rights Commission appointed Iyer to the Core Group on LGBTQI issues — the first group set up to explore concerns and challenges of the community and adapt existing laws with their needs.
We don’t need to be at pride parades and intellectual discourses and political debates to be a part of the movement. Sometimes, a kind word, and a hug could make you as good an activist as someone who files a PIL in the court.
Iyer has a column, called Sexolve, on The Quint, and has had bylines in various media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Times of India, Mumbai Mirror, DNA and Firstpost. He is a visiting faculty at Khalsa College and guest faculty at several institutes across the country. He is also a radio presenter for Ishq FM’s new show titled The Gaydio Show (India’s first dedicated LGBTQI radio show) which highlights stories from the LGBTQI communities and their families. He has spoken many times at TEDx, including TEDxMasala on the topic “What if we had the culture of speaking about sex,” then at TEDx Gitam University on the topic “Rising from the ashes: from abuse to hope.”
His life has inspired two films: director Onir’s I am and Judhajit Bagchi and Ranadeep Bhattacharyya’s Amen. In I am, actor Sanjay Suri plays Abhimanyu, a child sexual abuse survivor inspired by Iyer’s life and that of Hyderabad-based fashion designer Ganesh Nallari. In Amen, actor Karan Mehra plays Harry (Harish Iyer), a young man who is confident about his sexuality but is haunted by his childhood memories of sexual abuse. The book The Bad Touch by Payal Shah Karwa features Iyer’s biographic account and Amazon’s Westland has signed up Iyer for his autobiography titled Son Rise.
In April 2019, Iyer joined the Congress Party, urging more queer people to get into politics and have a say in the decisions being made.
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