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Not Western, Not Urban: For Queer People in India, Love Is More Than Just Love

Celebrating Pride Month is more than a neo-liberal gimmick but a means for acknowledging gender fluidity.

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Love, as poetic and abstract as we would like it to be, is profoundly sociopolitical. Celebrating Pride Month is, thus, more than a neo-liberal gimmick but a means for acknowledging gender fluidity.

Stonewall, 28 June 1969, were riots to some, an uprising to others – yet, for many, it marked the beginning of recognition, paving the way for liberation in the history of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement.

The struggle remains as we stand in 2023, though the discourses may have changed with time. While it is the same year that Uganda enacted punitive anti-LGBTQIA+ measures, including the death penalty, the Supreme Court of India is due to deliver its verdict on same-sex marriage, tottering its way out of the colonial relic.

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Decolonising Thought Processes

The Ancient Egyptian tombs of the male lovers Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum from 2400 BCE or even the 4th-century Vatsayana-written descriptions of homosexual relationships in Kama Sutra – there are thriving traces of recorded history proving that homosexuality existed before the Western-colonial morality colonised minds irrespective of geographies.

Perhaps, decolonising thought processes are more monumental than changing monuments!

Nonetheless, the colonial burden aside, across the globe, homosexual relationships have been a public secret, hushed in the dark alleys. The unsettling of the reproductive norms by legitimising same-sex relationships unnerves the gatekeepers of the heteronormative society.

For instance, one of the major arguments against same-sex marriage indicated that LGBTQIA+ couples are unfit for rearing children – an argument premised upon the heteronormative notions of family structure reeking in stereotypes.

While the law sets its path in due course, the life-governing norms are deeply socially embedded. And here lies the politics of interpersonal relationships in heteronormative marriages – blatantly and surreptitiously controlling lives.

Unlike common perception, this issue runs across classes and as CJI Chandrachud reminds us during the Supreme Court hearing – it is far from being an 'urban' question.

Not an Urban Concept

During my field research on sex workers, a transgender sex worker hailing from a small village in Karnataka recalls how they were taunted and exploited from a tender age for apparently being effeminate. Poverty forces them into sex work. Likewise, a male sex worker who also hails from a socio-economically disadvantaged background confirms how he is doubly marginalised for both being gay and poor.

Being ousted from the family, he came to the city to make ends meet – becoming a delivery partner during the day and a sex worker at night. As a sex worker, he caters to the needs of upper-class men who are forced into the heteronormative family set-up to continue with an apparent 'normalcy'.

While there are those in the community who are able to voice their opinions and stand up for their rights, there are also those grappling with extreme poverty, further marginalising the community.

We can think of Rituparno Ghosh's Memories in March – a much-needed queer lens in popular culture and an ode to a mother's journey of acceptance. Acceptance – as the highest stage of grief and of an 'unconventional' truth – both consume liberatory trajectories. And, perhaps, only Ghosh could create the magic of their convergence.

Metaphorically, the path to one's acceptance of their gender identity is akin to those uncountable and silent losses – losing family, support, or even empathy – a sense of grief grapples in metamorphosis.

The same sense of grief grips in Onir's My Brother…Nikhil. The taboo of identity, here, magnifies being diagnosed with AIDS, which cost many lives in the community across the world. Discrimination in the lives of the community is, thus, multi-layered. The fight of Dominic d'Souza, on whose life the film is based, thus, reckons with the matter of public health concern for the community.

Grief is painful yet liberatory – an oxymoron, to say the least. It is not to speak on behalf, but for all of us to become LGBTQIA+ allies.

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Marriage & Sense of Security

A friend of mine, who identifies as gay, confides in me the other day – how he wishes to 'care' for the person he loves. Visibly perturbed, he asked me if this reifies the gender roles that we feminists detest. There are also those from the LGBTQIA+ community who decide to migrate to a Western country just to experience a family life that this country is unable to provide. For a country boasting of its economic prowess, would not that be a sheer loss of human resources?

Marriage, an apparent heteronormative institution is far from perfect. Yet, it is still in the world we live in that inheres an understanding of social as well as legal security attached squarely to marriage.

Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju – an inspiring love story of the two lawyers, who are also at the forefront of fighting for the constitutional rights of same-sex marriage – argue vehemently along these lines.

They speak of the same sense of security that one is deprived of for being 'unmarried' irrespective of gender. The same sense of security eases the path to avail safe housing for a single person. Or the same that ensures one with economic security in the inadvertent scenario of the other's absence or even, the (mis)fortune of identifying the lifeless body of one's partner at a mortuary.

Seeing like a state, it is a piece of paper that carries the evidence of 'being related' to a partner and the blindness of law does not see the person behind. Put otherwise, obliviousness is a luxury of those who did not stand in those shoes of grief. Hard-hitting as it is, it is not to sensationalise but to rationalise marriage as a necessary recognition that protects individuals from social scorns and state-centric deprivations.

While we are all slaves of our circumstances, we possess the capacity to rise from our ashes like a phoenix and gloat in the glory of being who we are and feeling the way we would like to feel. It is the breakage from the assigned gender norms at birth to spread the wings out of the closet. The defiance of the phoenix lies in the spark of its never-ending spirit.

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The concoction of our experiences and feelings is what lies at the heart of our identities – identities are shaped and cannot be dictated. The heteronormative ignorance lies in the non-recognition of feelings. Especially, feelings that are unintelligible to us. We as a society tend to forget that our identities and desires are not set in stone – opaque, at best.

What we try to superimpose is a rather dogmatic understanding of gender, caging everyone who does not fit in our boxes. Perhaps, it is time to dismantle these boxes. Behind these, we smoothen the way for an inclusive socio-legal language. After all, how much does it take to replace words like 'husband' and 'wife' with a more gender-neutral terminology 'spouse'?

Love is personal; hence it is political! And, the fight to choose (or not) our partners irrespective of caste, class, religion, age, or sex is no one else's, but ours. Love is a question of one's fundamental rights of freedom of expression and personal liberty.

In a country where honour killings are still commonplace, the constitutional right to choose is another means to fight patriarchy. The age-old social rebuke often asks angrily – "How can you?"

In our quest to love, it is the time to retort – "Why can't we?"

(Debangana Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bengaluru. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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