Fading Queerness: A Response
It has been a few days since the first gay-matrimonial ad of the country is out, and as expected, it gathered a great deal of attention both from gay and straight people. I don’t have enough information to comment on the reactions from the straight crowd, but as a part of the gay community, I could see two predominant arguments:
1.Of supporting the ad as a great progressive step of a loving mother for her gay son and is also a potentially visible political activist statement of the gay community in mainstream society.
2. While appreciating the ad, a critical section of people in the community got extremely agitated about the mention of caste in the ad and have sought to debate on the regressive part of the ad which is where I locate myself.
In what follows I want to respond to the most popular arguments that came up in the social media platforms to defend it as a progressive step for the entire community and to ‘ignore’ the mention of caste as ‘jest’.
Dismissing the need for debate: Moral Supremacy
Pro-ad position didn’t take much time in dismissing all the widely differing opinions of this debate to be brouhaha – noisy, overexcited reaction; and just not that, they got vitriolic: filled with bitter criticism and malice towards those critical of the ad. (of course ‘nasty’ and ‘personal’ in some quarters too) . It is baffling to see how the entire debate between a whole bunch of people in the community turned into personal attacks.What is more regressive than the ad itself is how the whole debate defending the ad simply dismissing other opinions and critiques without even engaging with them.
What also surprised me is the self-righteous attitude of who is morally eligible to speak and who is not. Ashley Tellis, a well-known critic, for instance, was castigated to be ineligible because of his critical opinion on another issue. Agreed that he may have expressed a not-so-popular opinion on paeedophilia in the past, but how does that disqualify Ashley to talk about anything else? How is a person confined to and judged by just one of his opinions or acts? Is he nothing beyond it? The ideal response should have been– trying to offer reasoned opinion countering his points but not definitely to point out his past work and judge the article in question. This debate is not about the people, it is a debate of ideas, isn’t it?. Even Dhamini Ratnam’s critical dialogue was dismissed, even though the moral stand of doing this is clearly beyond my understanding!!
Even more disgustingly, this did not stop with merely picking up few people and nullifying their ‘eligibility’. A great deal of time was spent arguing on the lines of ‘How dare someone questions the man behind the ad who has done so much for LGBT community’. This not only triesto idealise a person and place him above the community and the movement but also patronises all the other people in the community.Another bizarre tactic used was to simply describe the whole critique as an ‘attack’. This has been the a favourite tactic of right wing people in this country who describe any difference of opinion as ‘attack’ , depriving the public of any rational, reasonable and logical engagement with the ideas and criticism expressed.
‘Individual preference’ as divine:
The core of the pro-ad argument centers around caste being ‘a preference and not prejudice’– , indicating the hold of romantic and libertarian ideal of choice/preference.
• So many people prefer male child (of course one who grows up to be straight), Let it be so!
• Firms around the world may prefer to hire straight people, let it be so! (They might indeed display a similar board saying – All are welcome, though heterosexuals are preferred)
• Justice Singhvi and Mukopadhyaya preferred to uphold Sec 377, let it be so!!
• A father preferred to disown his son because he is gay, let it be so.
• Heterosexuals prefer heterosexuals to teach their children, let it be so!
• The bakery owner prefers not to bake cakes for gay weddings, let it be so.
• Heterosexual people prefer to befriend only heterosexuals, let it be so!
• Cisgenders prefer to be Transphobic, let it be so.
• Heterosexuals prefer to be Homophobic, let them be so!
Here is part a 2006 study on untouchability (much ‘preferred’ by upper caste people’) in rural India covering 565 villages in 11 States has revealed the extent to which Untouch- ability – officially banned under the 1950 Constitution – continues to be the daily reality for millions of Indians.
Upper caste people from centuries consider all this as their preference on the lines of caste. Let this preference also prevail and excel!! (After all it’s a preference – of individuals and also the collective of individuals)
After all, these are all personal choices and preferences, how can we question their prerogative to live and only live amongst themselves?Are they not? Or is it that only gay men’s preference for caste are sane and divine while all other’s preferences are not?
The pro-ad debaters have displayed an absolute resistance to engage with questions such as:
Where does one’s choice start and where does it end? How absolute and independent can such choice and preference be? Is this choice/preference free from conditioning? Is it just an individual’s sole conscious choice/preference or product of the society that s/he is part of? Do personal choices and preferences have no social and political connotations? Do they not have any historical and cultural context?
And, if personal preference and choice are so immune to political and social context and scope, how did a personal desire of who fucks whom become a social and political movement?
There can be nothing more bizarre than simply looking at this whole issue as a mere one individual’s personal choice (as everyone wants to portray it). Our choices and preferences are products of society’s ages of collective action, thinking and conditioning, of which we are part of and which can be reflected in any individual who is a product of the same society. Hence it is important for people to come together as a collective/community to think and have a dialogue and act upon, looking at the historical, cultural, social & political contexts of this ‘preference’
The belief in ‘Happily ever after marriage’:
The whole pro-ad-debate is nowhere ready to acknowledge marriage as a patriarchal institution which is the basis of producing caste/race in the same blood line and letting that happen only in the same caste/race to protect the so called caste/race purity.
A recent example in U.P where a Dalit boy eloped with a girl from an upper caste, the girl’s family went to strip 5 women of the boy’s community naked and paraded them on streets till marketplace, all the while whipping them.
In conditions where endogamy preserves caste purity to what extent is the preference of people wanting to marry in same caste and race be considered as their own independent freely chosen conscious one?
And the other excuse that the idea of comfort with same caste people comes from an unexamined and lame belief that people from same caste share similar culture, eating habits, language, opinions and so on, I wonder to what extent this can be true, which assumes people of a caste to be all similar. Is diversity such a shallow idea?
Another strand argued that gay people should obtain marriage equality and then debate whether to reject marriage or not. This is like the 2013 Supreme court judgment of IPC Sec 377, a part of which says: “As there are not many filed and executed cases of Sec 377 as of now, let us talk about the discrimination of this when there are many discriminated at hand” (which was greatly critiques by this same liberal gay crowd).
Would it be such a bad idea to debate about what we are asking for and then have it, so that we know it, understand it and are familiar with it and embrace what we agree with joy and pride? , Another say is that the ‘preference’ is all about comfort of ‘belongingness’: What belongingness is it, if it doesn’t come just from the desire of companionship, but also from the belief of having that companionship from the same race and caste?
What baffled me most is how easily and quickly Mr. & Mr. Iyer has become part of the accepted conversations. Isn’t this out of the assumption that the marriage will be or should be certainly only between the same caste?And even if it is not, the spouse who comes into the family (feminine?) will inevitably adopt the in-laws surname getting rid of his own (as per patriarchal marriage institution)??
The (Good) Intentions:
Apparently one should totally agree with the intention of the ad and the people related with the ad because of which it cannot be questioned! It’s absurd to do so. But isn’t the whole debate is about the larger implications of the caste preference mentioned in the ad rather than the good intentions? How can one overlook the fact that the world and many things in it operate irrespective and independent of the people’s intention?
People with all the good-hearted intention can consider themselves to be non-discriminatory, non-misogynistic, non-racist, non-sexist and non-casteist, but irrespective of that, one might very unconsciously and unintentionally contribute to any of this.
Gay not ‘Queer’?
The most interesting argument is that all the gay people are not Queer and hence they cannot be forced to fight the heteronormativity and patriarchy. It is a historical fact that Queer is a term owned by LGBT movement for a good time now, for various reasons- one being the creation of an inclusive identity for various sexualities and non-conforming gender identities (of course as many say,Queer can’t be solely owned by LGBT community). The fact is that Gay people are part of the broader and larger Queer movement (again true that it is not necessary they are queer). If Gay people want to have a separate sole Gay movement not associated with the Queer movement, they are entitled to have it and by default of which they can also disassociate themselves from the greater Queer agenda and can work towards joining the existing heterosexual space (of course as their equals).
I only wonder if this kind of thought comes from the belief that LGBT – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender,are so naturally one!! If it is so then it ignores the fact that, even under one “Queer Rainbow Umbrella of Political advocacy”, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender are unique and different communities at their own level with a very limited knowledge and understanding about each other and also with a very limited access to each other. They all belong to different spaces of different dynamics. Not to mention the varied class, caste, social and cultural variations one can see among these communities. It is the queerness and intersectionality which helped to connect the common margilisation and oppression of these communities and brought them together (how much ever superficially it could be). I think it is time for Queer movement, especially cis-gender gay men to recognise and value this intersectionality and develop connections among each other consciously.
For a movement which is already settling down as an elite, middle class and urban movement without any history of working to cross these class barriers and reach out to the grassroots, talking about disowning the queer identity and queer politics would be very harmful adversely affecting whatever has been achieved so far.
Movements/identities in Isolation:
A belief that seems to be pervasive is that LGBT movement cannot take the burden of connecting with other movements, as it is still a nascent movement at the present. Wouldn’t it be a better option to grow as an inclusive movement from the very nascent stage by building connections and building alliances with other marginalized movements?Also, there is a strong feeling that the ‘we’ are the most victimized movement than the rest. In LGBT movement one’s sexuality and gender is a problem, where both of them become issues in a later stage of life as the individual grows, but in case of caste one’s birth in certain community itself is a cause of discrimination. I hate to make such comparisons, but it is to say how such kinds of comparisons are bizarre and unnecessary.
On another note, I feel that many in this debate have conflated difference between combating, and extending solidarity and trying to understand another movement. Every political community needs to have its own fight which cannot be fought by any other community. But the idea is to extend the solidarity and try to understand various other marginalization’s as a fellow marginalized community. This is required not just for supporting at the political level but also at social space and personal level, as marginalization’s do not come in isolated packages.
Lets not assume that LGBT people will come with just their identities of sexuality and gender. They will also have various other identities such as caste, class, race, gender, region, nationality and so on. Aren’t there many Dalits who are part of the LGBT community? How are they supposed to place themselves in the LGBT community and in the movement if this space remains to be a space with no understanding and connection with Dalit identity, politics and movement?
The world beyond the self:
There was a charge that Dalit activists do not like to share stage with LGBT activists from many blog Indians. I believe that these people are talking from their particular geographical locations and did not look at the larger world. Hence I would like to throw light on how things look different at another geographical location such as Hyderabad where I live.
This year a Dalit feminist writer, Gogu Shyamla inaugurated the Queer Carnival organised in the city and expressed solidarity to the community. Soon after,the internationally renowned Dalit intellectual, activist and writer KanchaIlaiah inaugurated the 2015 Hyderabad Queer Swabhimana Kavathu (Pride walk) and extended solidarity to the LGBT community. Meanwhile, in the history of ninety seven years old Osmania university, for the first time ever,the Transgender Hijra community was cordially invited for the book release of Telugu translation of A. Revathi’s book “Truth about me: A Hijra’s life story” which was organised by the SharathNaliganti of Dalit Bahujan Cultural Forum in collaboration with various other Dalit groups in the university where they all publicly declared solidarity for the Queer movement. Sharath’s song ‘HijralanteEvaru’ (http://orinam.net/hijralante-yevaru/) became an instant hit among the transgender communities across Telangana.
I am not trying to say all Dalit activists would respond in a similar manner but I am also sure that all heterosexuals are not our allies, which does not mean that we reject the others who are our allies and not engage with them. The reality is that a person or community marginalised in one way will not understand the marginalisation of all other means by default; it requires some effort, dialogue, engagement and above all an initiation, so let us not get stuck at the petty thing of who approaches first!!
Beyond binary of ‘Black & White’:
It indeed cannot be ignored or overlooked that the person who placed this ad is a mother, who is an amazingly loving soul not only for her son but also for many lives that she touches. That brave step by her is amazingly wonderful and should be welcomed and applauded.
It didn’t took much time for the debate to loose its effectiveness because the critique is looked upon as an absolute attack, which made pro-ad-debate people doubt the solidarity of critiques for a supporting mother. Little later the debate had also become pro and anti the person related to matrimonial ad, rather discussing the issue as such.
In a situation like this I feel it is important to ask ourselves, can there be a space where empathy and critique, solidarity and questioning, respect and difference of opinion exist, live and happen together? This helps to see how appreciation to one section of the ad will not leave other section of it immune to critique (or) critically looking at one section of the Ad will not demean the whole Ad.
Can there be inclusiveness of this critical engagement, which would help us introspect, grow, evolve and emerge as a better community and movement as we move on.
Though very unintentionally, this ad has triggered such a debate (though some called it a fight) across the Queer community in the country which made at least a few realize the ground reality of Queer movement in India. This has helped us see how apolitical still the Queer movement in the country is, with no understanding of larger political and social issues and contexts and with no clue of politics of building alliances with other marginalized communities and political movements. I hope debates and discussions (without the necessity of ads such this) such as this will keep happening in the Queer Indian space helping us as a community and as a movement to understand contemporary situation and take the right way ahead.