A year after coming out, Jo (26) sat in their Pune house wondering about the concept of ‘coming out of the closet’ and what it meant for people in the LGBTQ+ community. “That picture of what a closet looks like stuck in my head and I called up five of my friends to ask them what their closets looked like,” they said. The UK-based researcher shares that each of the descriptions that they received seemed very different from one another. They realized the potential that these stories and unique experiences held and took the question to more members of the LGBTQ+ community. Along with illustrators who came on board, Jo and their partner Teenasai worked to bring these concepts to life, leading to the birth of Almaarii, which is a word used to describe closet in numerous South Asian languages.
Today, Almaarii houses over a hundred stories and visuals of people’s closets shared by members of the community from across South Asia where ‘coming out’ is still a privilege not many enjoy. People usually approach the collective with an idea of what their closet looks like and they are matched with an illustrator to collaborate with to co-create an artistic rendition. “People wanted to think beyond the metaphor of coming out because as queer people we’ve been given a lot of words by the English language, and I wanted to explore what we would’ve called it if we didn’t have those words,” Jo explains.
Today, the initiative is popular within queer circles especially in India, but Jo maintains that they never imagined it expanding this way. “After drawing five almaariis I just asked more and more friends, then people wanted to be a part of Almaarii,” they remarked. Jo says that when it comes to explaining it to someone who might be cis-gendered and heterosexual, who may have no frame of reference of the queer experience, it was easier to show than to tell.
“I’m surprised every day when somebody wants to write or draw for Almaarii,” says Jo, adding that it’s heartening to be privy to people’s personal and innermost thoughts. More than impacting narratives, Jo says they just wanted to question them. "Being an anthropologist and sociologist, it’s very important for me to look at one concept and dig into it, which is why I’ve been exploring it for four years now,” they added. Very often the LGBTQ+ community is seen as a monolith and Jo hopes to challenge that myth. “All of us are so different, we all have different cultural markers and other aspects impacting us,” they say, “I don’t want to impact it, I want to understand it.”
Despite having seen different manifestations of the same concept since the time that they’ve been doing this, Jo says that they have not grown tired of it. “It has a new understanding of allyship within Almaarii because there is a difference between a person understanding I’m queer compared to them listening to one of my deepest stories and trying to illustrate what I’m saying,” they say. Many of the illustrators that are part of the project are not members of the community and for them, Jo believes that the process of depicting the pain sparks a conversation with the person sharing their story. “Almaarii created a lot of best friends because they found allies,” they said. They maintain that their biggest takeaway from this project has been the opportunity it has created to constantly learn from it.
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee)