37 Years Since the Rainbow First Fluttered, Where are we Headed?

Almost 40 years after the first Rainbow flag was waived, Rituparna Borah look at the LGBT movement in India.

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37 Years Since the Rainbow First Fluttered, Where are we Headed?

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For the LGBT movement, June holds a lot of significance. On June 28, 1969, queer-identified individuals mostly led by working class transwomen protested a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City, referred to as the now famous Stonewall Riots. Two years later, in 1970, the first gay pride parades were organised around the same date to commemorate the riots. The San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade of June 25, 1970 witnessed the first waving of the Rainbow Flag, which has become a symbol of the Pride movement.

In many places around the globe, Queer Pride marches are organised around the same time. In Delhi, because of the heat, we (the Delhi Queer Pride committee*) decided to shift the pride to November.  A lot of things have happened with regard to LGBT rights in our country. In terms of legal battles, the country witnessed the scrapping of Section 377 in 2009, and then its reinstatement. Perhaps for the first time, the country’s religious leaders were united on the same issue, speaking the same language — how homosexuality is aberrant to Indian society and the Delhi High Court did the most dangerous thing by decriminalising it.

The legal battle is one thing, but we also saw several issues coming up in the country’s LGBT movement which are not necessarily linked to legality alone. In fact, what disturbs me at times is that perhaps our movement is becoming too focused on legal rights. Are we genuinely introspecting on what the movement means to all of us? Are we talking in silos?  When the rainbow flag unfurls, who are the people standing below it? Are some people, some identities getting further marginalised in our clamour for rights? This Pride month, these are the questions that bother me and others like me.


What Does the LGBT Movement Challenge?

I am a part of the feminist movement too. As a feminist, I have always known I am standing in opposition to this strong and regressive structure called patriarchy – a structure which has always given preference to norms ascribed to the ‘masculine’ of the gender binary. But patriarchy can no longer be defined or understood only in terms of gender, especially in our country where people are discriminated against on the basis of caste, class and religion. Patriarchy is the monolith that punishes people for challenging the norms. Being queer in India involves a complex interplay of identities and social positions, and to discount them is anything but progressive.

Does the LGBT movement challenge anything? Or is it heteronormativity that it challenges? Heteronormativity can be interpreted in different ways. Mostly, it means a system of sexual and gender norms, rooted in material realities, which together with other norms related to race, caste, class, disability, religion, age etc. maintains existing power relations in society. It is important that we understand heteronormativity because it enables us to comprehend sexuality and gender in the framework of intersectionality — that they cannot be understood in isolation and need to be co-related with other social dimensions of class, race, caste, religion etc. Challenging heteronormativity would mean that we don’t reduce LGBT in the neo-liberal approach to sexuality, which assumes that sexuality operates only at the level of individual choice and thereby making various factors that influence that ‘choice’ invisible.

Coming back to whether the Queer movement, or rather the LGBT movement, has been able to challenge heteronormativity, I would say, not holistically. Same-sex desiring people and trans people have challenged patriarchy to a large extent. Patriarchy forces people to be within the binary of gender. However, trans lives have shown us how people have transgressed gender norms. Patriarchy also privileges heterosexuality, and therefore, when same-sex desiring couples stay together, they challenge patriarchy with the very act. But are queer lives necessarily non-heteronormative? Or by being L, G, B or T, does one necessarily become non-heteronormative? I would say, no.

A marcher helps carry a multicolor flag during the annual gay pride parade in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, June 13, 2015. (Photo: AP)

The Perpetuation of Patriarchy

Recently, the mother of a gay activist posted a matrimonial ad seeking a groom for her son. “Caste no bar,” she wrote, but in brackets she mentioned “Iyer preferred”. Early one morning, I woke up to people on my Facebook feed vocalising their critical stance on how several publications, including the Times of India and DNA refused to post this ad, and congratulating Mid Day, which published the ad, as a saviour. It was only a few queers who had issues with the caste ‘preference’. What disturbed me the most were the responses to the ad, which supported the caste ‘preference’ as a personal choice, equating this preference to shampoos and soaps. The clarification issued by the mother-son duo was equally disturbing, where they air-brushed it as a joke, forgetting that caste is still a haunting reality, and only savarnas can joke about caste preferences.

This Facebook furore was soon followed by another – the Anouk Ad. On one hand, I was happy that we would see more lesbians on TV. However, reactions to the Anouk Ad on Facebook also raised several queries. The ‘Bold and Beautiful’ campaign included 3 ads. One was about a woman drinking alone in a pub, combating sexual advances. The second was about a single woman living with her daughter, who draws inquisitive comments and gazes about her life. And the third was the lesbian women’s coming-out event. Why are the other two not talked about by the LGBT community? Is it not ‘bold’ enough to be talked about or is it that we only should talk about issues which are overtly talking about L,G, B or the T.  Are the two women (single mother, and the woman drinking in the pub) not challenging patriarchy and heteronormativity? Of course, here I am leaving the class question aside. The three women came from a certain class, and Anouk was catering to a certain section of the society — upper class, urban women who lead a relatively privileged existence, and can afford such merchandise. The same people who called the Vogue Video featuring Deepika as classist, upper-caste, were now silent on Facebook.

Facebook was also silent about the suicide of the girls in Assam, or the Telengana Pride which was led by the working class trans community. Do we talk about the assault of working class transwomen in various parts of the country? Did we LGBT people talk about the assault and abuse of Dalit people in this country, including the murder of Dalit girls in Bhagana and Badaun?

Where are we heading to? Do we want to fight this fight only as L, G, B or T? Our lives are more nuanced, and our identities intersect with caste, class, and religion. Instead of queering the ‘mainstream’, are we, in fact, mainstreaming the queer lives?

*The Delhi Queer Pride Committee is collective which is non-funded and non-registered, managed solely by members of the LGBT community. The first Delhi Queer Pride happened in 2008.

Rituparna Borah is a queer feminist activist, based out of Delhi. She is also the co-founder of Nazariya – A Queer Feminist Resource Group.

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Topics:  LGBTQ   Feminism   Rainbow Flag 

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