In a diverse and socially stratified country such as India, queerness cannot be seen in isolation from other achieved and ascribed identities, such as caste, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, (dis)ability and even nationality (to name just a few).
In 1991, the Indian economy ‘opened’ by relaxing international trade barriers, opening its markets to global trade, allowing for greater foreign direct investment, encouraging greater mobility of global capital and abolishing the long-standing permit system (commonly called the ‘licence raj’ system) that imposed state-controlled economic fetters on the establishment and functioning of private businesses in India. In short, India embraced economic neo-liberalism and with it, the sociological language of a new world culture. This occurrence, as Josephine Ho (2008) points out had major ramifications for the queer movement in East Asia in general and India in particular:
“In the developing liberal democracies of East Asia, optimistic LGBT advocates and marginal groups look to changing, and seemingly liberalizing, political regimes and expanding civil society as sites for possible leverage or gains, while pride marches, lesbian and gay cultural events, and booming queer Internet communities corroborate the impression that queer Asia may be much more than a concept.”
On the flipside, Ajay Gudavarthy (2019) from the Quartz reported that neo-liberalism was killing the very idea of citizenship because of the ascendency of majoritarian politics. Increasing communal violence, primarily against Muslims and the immiseration of the poor, particularly Dalits and Bahujans had raised questions about the so-called efficiency of the free market’s ‘invisible hand’. Are we truly free subjects? And can we see queerness distinct from other identities? Although the 2018 Supreme Court of India ruling vis-à-vis the Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 377 decriminalized homosexuality nationwide, one wonders why the 2019 Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, for instance, discriminated against same-sex couples by unequivocally denying homosexual couples in India the legal right to access altruistic surrogacy? Equal Rights activist, Harish Iyer succinctly stated this in an interview for News18 (Ghosal, 2018):
"If surrogacy is out of bounds for queer persons, has the government strengthened its policy for adoption by queer persons? The answer is a loud "no". There are enough studies in the west that prove that queer persons make good parents, not as good as but better than heterosexual persons"
There exists no definitive study of the exact number of queer people in India. The definition of queerness too is extremely fluid. What is evident, though, is that since the late 90s, there has been both a greater claim for civil rights by LGBTQ+ activists as well a slow and steady increase in LGBTQ+ representation in the media. This media representation can be seen in the slew of TV commercials and online campaigns, particularly during Valentine’s Day. It is said that Bollywood too is ‘coming out of the closet’, with reaffirming LGBTQ+ movies like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (translation: How I felt when I saw that girl, which is a coming of age lesbian romance film) and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (translation: Extra careful of marriage, which tells the story of a middle class Indian gay couple, trying to tell their parents about their homosexual relationship) both of which cast prominent Bollywood celebrities in lead roles and were watched by millions.
The nexus between sexuality and religion in India is also worth exploring. Rafiul Alom Rahman’s The Queer Muslim Project (TQMP), Ankit Bhuptani’s Queer Hindu Alliance and Sukhdeep Singh’s documentary, Sab Rab De Bande, a documentary on LGBTQ Sikhs are all instances of how faith and sexuality are intrinsically connected in India. It would be interesting to explore how questions of further civil rights for queer people in India, such as same-sex marriage, anti-discrimination laws, adoption laws and the like are raised within the ambit of faith and sexuality in India, if they are raised at all.
This discussion of queer life in India cannot be complete without addressing a major elephant in the room, which is the glaring inaccessibility of queer spaces to Indians living in small towns and villages.
I’ll share some firsthand anecdotal evidence to support my claim of inaccessibility. A few days ago, I was added to a Mumbai and Delhi based LGBTQ+ WhatsApp support group, in which one of the members said:
“377 struck down ho jaane ke baad bhi nahi changes aaya small cities me, aur mujhe lagta hai ki shayad small cities me kabhi changes and awareness hoga bhi nahi towards LGBTQIA Community. Daily bahar nikalne par log bully karte hai, taunt karte hai, taana maarte hai daily”
Translation: “Even after Section 377 was struck down, nothing has changed in small cities. Furthermore, I don’t think any changes or awareness towards the LGBTQIA Community will ever reach small cities. We are bullied out in the open daily, we are taunted daily and abusive invectives are hurled at us daily.”
This individual is a queer person from Varanasi.
I would sum this post by saying that queer life in India is strongly determined by other social markers such as caste, class, geographic location, ethnicity, nationality, religion and (dis)ability to name a few. Pride parades, for example, have historically been inaccessible to people with disabilities, and as the individual from Varanasi very poignantly pointed out, such spaces remain inaccessible to people in small towns and rural India, many of whom also live in absolute denial of their sexual identities.
If George Orwell’s seminal piece, 1984 taught us anything, it is that language has the power to shape ideas. The fact that vernacular languages in India (such as Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Bengali and Gujarati, to name just a few) still haven’t updated their vocabulary to include inclusive words like ‘gender non-conforming’, ‘queer’ and ‘bisexual’ are testimony of the fact that India still has a long way to go before the idea of queerness captures the hearts and minds of Indians everywhere.
What cannot be denied, however, is the progress that has been made in the past few decades. As stated before, the battle to decriminalise homosexuality in the courts took over twenty years. In 2017, the Supreme Court of India held that the constitutional right to privacy included the right to privacy of one’s sexual orientation. This judgement was not only described as progressive, but also a precursor to the eventual demise of IPC Section 377. In 2015, the same court also passed a landmark judgement (known as the NALSA judgement) which affirmed the state’s recognition of transgender people as embodying a third gender, thereby promising to extend to transgender people, the rights and liberties promised under the Indian Constitution. However, with the passage of the contentious Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 amid wide protests from queer and transgender activists, the efficacy of the 2015 NALSA judgement is now being called to question.
It appears to be the case that the site of queer activism in India has largely played out either in the courts or on the streets, with the relationship between the state and its subjects as largely one of confrontation and incongruity rather than of harmony and consonance.
According to me, the real battle is psychological and requires a radical reorganizing of how the typical Indian family thinks about queerness. This battle, a battle of ideas, thus needs to most radically be played out within Indian families. A place, as many of us know far too well, where queer people are the most vulnerable. Even today, queer people live in fear of social ostracization and humiliation. Also, all queer people are not the same. Most discourses of queerness in India often fail to account for, for example, the lived experiences of queer people in North East India. A lot of research in the domain of queerness and India is yet to be done, but one thing is certain for sure. India still has a long way to go before full equality is achieved. Although the journey ahead may be difficult, history has taught us that is not at all impossible.
About the Author
Kanav Narayan Sahgal is a post-graduate student at Azim Premji University, Bangalore (India) where he's pursuing his Master’s in Development. He identifies as queer for personal and political reasons and is extremely interested in addressing various forms of contemporary human rights issues and social inequalities through his writing. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ghosal, A. (2018, December 20). The New Surrogacy Bill Won’t Let Live-in and LGBTQ Couples Become Parents. Retrieved March 19, 2020, from https://www.news18.com/news/india/the-new-surrogacy-bill-wont-let-live-in-and-lgbtq-couples-become-parents-1979055.html
Gudavarthy, A. (2019, September 3). Neoliberalism is Killing the Very Idea of Citizenship in India. Retrieved March 19, 2020, from https://qz.com/india/1700542/neoliberalism-is-killing-the-very-idea-of-citizenship-in-india/
Ho, J. (2008). Is Global Governance Bad for East Asian Queers?. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 14(4), 457-479.