A peep into the queer movement in India today
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted issues around the body in new ways – the viral bodies, bodies that have been or deserve to be vaccinated, bodies that can cross borders, new ways of dealing with dead bodies and the undercounting of these dead bodies during the pandemic. This short essay turns to sets of people in India whose bodies, and desires are viewed as “deviant” – sexual or gender minorities (LGBTIAQ). Current power relations play a key role in denying these groups of people access to spaces, opportunities resources, rights and also respect. The political project of progressive sexual and gender minority movement is to address issues of a lack of recognition of these varied identities, of pressing for redistribution of opportunities and resources to tilt this imbalance and facilitate the representation of these communities in all decision-making spaces.
The goddess takes control over our bodies. It is at her bidding that the male body becomes a woman. It is as she desires.
(Dawal Sahab, a Jogappa from Bijapur)
The Jogappas are a traditional transgender community that live in parts of North Karnataka and neighbouring states. They seek validation for their gender expression by invoking the divine. On one hand it suggests the lack of agency (in that it is as the goddess desires) but on the other it also implies drawing from a special relation with a supreme being and thereby becoming powerful. These bodies that have “changed” are revered and accorded peripheral space within the societies that they are part of. These bodies that become charged with all that is auspicious have in a sense transcended all boundaries – of caste, religion and even the division between the somatic and the spiritual.
The Jogappas are just one group of individuals who come under this larger umbrella of well-defined and not so well-defined identities that constitute what is termed as gender and sexual minorities (LGBTIAQ+). (I understand that these are political and contested identities, I am using them as a placeholder)[i].These are people whose desires and attraction for other people, acts of intimacy and even their very bodies have been stigmatised and criminalised. It also includes those whose bodies fail to fit into seeming self-evident binary categories of the sex (male and female) or gender (man and woman).
Fixing particular labels for these identities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender can be useful for people to gain a sense of community, draw strength, mobilise politically to press for rights and also to allow conversations across cultures. However, they can be limiting, in that they fail to capture the way a person would actually like to be identified. Moreover, these labels can carry undertones of being views as markers of “modernity” with indigenous identities, either forcefully fitted into these categories or being erased. Rather than viewing these as airtight categories, the idea of a spectrum or continuum is gaining greater currency.
The idea of the ideal, or at least acceptable bodies, translates to rejection, abuse and exclusion of those who don’t meet these standards. The bodies of intersex children are considered “defective” – bodies that are discarded, experimented upon, or “fixed” to confirm to people’s expectations of sex and gender. In other instances, many of bodies of intersex people, trans people (among others) provoke curiosity amongst not just the general public but also the medical fraternity. The general response to queer people includes fear, disgust and ridicule. They are also misunderstood, pathologised and viewed as sinners who need to be redeemed or reformed.
I have to live this double life. I pretend to be straight at work, at the office, in public and can be myself only with a few friends. This is very stressful.
(Shyla, a lesbian woman from Chennai)
Sites of pain, sites of intervention
The stigma attached to these identities that are seen as falling outside the expected heterosexual, stereotypical gender norms relegate many sexual and gender minorities to the margins of society and they more likely to experience intolerance, discrimination, harassment, violence (and the threat of violence) due to their (real or perceived) identity. The limited data that is available have indicated wide-spread homelessness, significantly lower levels of education, acute difficulty in finding employment or accessing services like health and education.
When I went for a job interview the security guard at the door chased me away thinking I am a fraudster.
(Asha, a hijra woman from Bengaluru)
(Hijras are an indigenous transgender community in the Indian subcontinent. Asha was chased away by the security guard because her identity card continued to carry a male name and a photo of her in male attire, and did not match how she appeared at the gate of the company.)
Violence against sexual and gender minorities is all pervasive and includes the so called “private sphere” of families and intimate relations and in public spaces. Deep seated institutional biases in the law, religion and media translate to their erasure, exclusion or punishment.
I want to adopt a child, but am told that as hijra I cannot, that there are no procedures that allow it. That people still believe that we kidnap children and force them to become hijras. How many battles do I have to fight?
(Anjana, a hijra from Andhra Pradesh)
These sites have also been sites of resistance and interventions. The growing and multiple-pronged movement is based on a shared sense of identity – however tenuous this may be – and a shared sense of oppression. This growth has enhanced a new sense of empowerment and opened spaces for assertion of one’s individuality and social self. It can also be seen as liberation of the sexuality and gender expression and/ or identity of a person.
These bodies that have been reviled have visibly led the resistance against patriarchy, heteronormativity, state power and public apathy. At the national level, these include the Global Day of Rage, which was a coordinated protest that took place simultaneously in at least 17 cities in India against the Supreme Court judgement in 2013 that upheld the provision that made same sex relations a crime. Other organised national level efforts were the protests in various states and in New Delhi, the capital, against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2019 that was seen as inadequate or even regressive. This sustained pressure through marches, memorandums and campaigns, along with greater media coverage, changing global scenario, and a host of other social and political factors did result in actual changes in policies.
The well-entrenched view of the default heterosexual behaviour and apparent gender identity is being challenged by the sexual and gender minorities and their movements to make space for multiple sexuality orientations and gender identities.
The burgeoning movement has many strands, a plethora of programmes and approaches. It has pressed for changes in many spheres of life. In the legal and policy spaces, the notion of being “straight" in relation to the state has meant that heterosexual and cisgender was seen as not only as “normal", but also as “legal". This is changing. We have seen, over the past decade, the decriminalisation of same-sex relations between consenting adults, the growing recognition of the rights of transgender and intersex persons and strong discouragement of unnecessary surgeries on intersex children and “conversion therapy”.
These recent advances have altered the landscape considerably but the space remains a contested one.
The educational and health establishment are starting to take cognisance of the realities of sexual and gender minorities. For example, some colleges and universities have support groups for people from the community and scholarship around these issues is also beginning to make a mark. Many progressive companies have begun identifying the case for diversity and inclusion (including LGBT inclusion) since the early 2000s; the progress in the legal and policy spaces has quickened this pace. Many of them have revamped their policies or added segments to it that address the concerns of the community.
There has been a sea change in the way media engages with queer issues – from routinely violating people’s privacy in a bid to titillate and showing them as stock comic characters to more nuanced characterisation and presentation. Social media and digital world have opened up new possibilities for connecting, sharing information, linking to resources and forming communities. They also pose new dangers in terms of breach of privacy, trolling, etc. It is important to recognise that social networking sites (SNSs), and related technologies “do not exist in isolation; rather they are critically embedded within other social spaces”.
Religious bodies and cultural organisations that are generally conservative are also becoming less restrictive. Some religious scholars and leaders are reinterpreting the texts and rituals to make it more open accepting people of all genders and sexualities.
“We reclaimed a narrative of Islam and queerness that’s always taken away from us,” says Rafiul Alom Rahman, of the Queer Muslim Project.
However, the progress has been uneven and there have been set backs. Most institutions and establishments are status-quo oriented or merely accommodate sexual and gender minorities within established norms. They are asked to “fit in” and not dare disturb these structures. The arduous task of dislodging the hard rock of heteronormativity and cisgenderism remains.
When I explain to the local official that the NALSA judgement says that I need not go through a body screening process to get my pension (through a scheme for transgender people in some states), he laughs. When cismen and ciswomen can claim their entitlements based on self-identification, why are transgender bodies still being scrutinised?
(Priyanka, a trans woman from Ongole, Andhra Pradesh)
Fault lines within the movement
The movement(s) is being “cobbled together” by a coming together of many people who have been excluded, shamed, vilified and hurt due to the persons they sexually/ romantically attracted to (or not), and for failing to conform to established ideas of gender identities. A result of this coming together has ushered in radical changes. There are, however chasms within this movement. Issues around identity, ideology, location, approaches and personalities have led to divisions within the movement. Fault lines around the idea of “authenticity” have deepened with standards being set on the ways in which transgenderism should manifest in terms of bodies, behaviour, expressions and even desires. There are also dangers of queer and transgender movements getting folded into majoritarian ideas of nationalism. However, the movement also offers challenges against this co-option. For example, after a prominent transgender activist issued her support for a project that is being championed by the Hindu right wing, a range of transgender, intersex and gender non-confirming individuals, as well as allied individuals and organisations openly contested her stand. The assertion of other marginalised identities (along with being queer) is also being centred now – being Dalit, Muslim and a person with disability among others.
To conclude, the movement(s) while young is complex, rich and even confusing. It is difficult to capture its various nuances. Stronger community based organisations and individual leaders are emerging, strategic engagement, with a range of institutions, is being consistently nurtured; alliances with other movements and groups are being forged. Violations and violence are being visibilised and the needs of the community such as health, employment and access to services articulated at various forums. New issues such as the mental health concerns and the nature of digital spaces are also getting attention.
While the dangers of “pink washing” remain, it is evident that much ground has been covered and the movement is here – surviving the pandemic (and the necessity of minimising bodily contact) and continuing to raise questions, at the crossroads between challenges posed by various institutions and from within, and opportunities to deepen and expand by building bridges within the community, with other social justice movements and allies.
The ways forward would be to tap into these synergies to build alternative frameworks that include practices of solidarity and coalition building but also scripting economic and other paradigms that challenge the current neoliberal frameworks. This includes offering alternatives to institutions such as marriage and family, but also to labour (by including seeking alms, sex work etc within the definition of labour), citizenship (to expand it to becoming more inclusive) and religion (moving away from the binary of the sacred and profane). These have to be shaped relevant for our contexts while disrupting the seemingly deeply embedded and inextricable power structure.
In light of the contemporary COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted the intertwined nature of inequalities and vulnerability, where heteronormative concepts of family and privacy are addressed as stabilisers in times of crisis and where, once again, intersectional regimes of exclusion become so obvious, an analysis of larger development paradigm from a queer perspective becomes essential. As we move forward and recalibrate to a “new normal”, a significant learning from the pandemic was the vital role that communities play in caring, sustaining and holding all of us; for marginalised communities like sexual and gender minorities, this support becomes critical. Therefore, for long-term resilience building, investing in building communities is as crucial as it is to change the contours of existing policies to affect a real change in the power equation.
[i]The term “sexual and gender minorities”, is used in this article only as a convenient, if arguably limited, umbrella term or placeholder, reflecting the diverse range of sexualities, gender identities and expressions these individuals and their communities represent across the country. Many among them identify by way of indigenous community labels that have much greater cultural relevance for the people concerned (and the contemporary societies in which they live) than modern Western terms — and a much longer history too. I have used the term with the understanding that the economy, society, culture, religion, and law construct sex, gender and sexuality. Constructivist theories of sexuality have argued that sex, gender and sexuality are always embedded in the power dynamics at play between societies and institutions and constantly intersecting with gender, class, caste, ability, and other disparities.