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Questioning 'queer'

By Oishik Sircar

'Queer' was a movement that came into existence to encompass all non-heteronormative sexualities. It reminded us that labels and categories can easily become part of oppression. But along the way has the 'queer' movement actually constructed an identity that is based on standards that must be met, excluding those who don't meet these standards?

“I’m permanently troubled by identity categories, consider them to be invariable stumbling-blocks, and understand them, even promote them, as sites of necessary trouble.” -- Judith Butler    

I am a human rights activist. I identify as an Indian (though not as a nationalist), as a man (not a patriarch), as a Bengali (not as a bourgeoisie babu), and well… umm… as… sexual (no prefixes attached). Yes, I am very sexual. I enjoy watching porn. I enjoy sex talk. I feel like being monogamous. I feel like being a swinger. Though I’m in a ‘heterosexual’ relationship now, I do drool over hot men. Nah, nah… I don’t identify myself as bisexual. 

Through my human rights work I came to know about Stonewall, the LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender) movement, about sexual ‘minorities’, about discrimination on grounds of sexuality. About ‘coming out’. Though I work on issues of sexual rights, personally, given my ‘multisexual’ (?) identity, I have never been able to categorise myself and belong to any ‘sexually marginalised community’. A reason for that could be that I’ve never felt marginalised and I’ve never had any reason to ‘come out’. Then I came to know about being ‘queer’, an identity that is all-encompassing of non-heteronormative sexualities. I was inspired by a quote in an anonymous leaflet called ‘Queer Power Now’ distributed on the streets of London in 1991, which robustly called out:

“Queer means to f*** with gender. There are straight queers, bi-queers, tranny queers, lez queers, fag queers, S/M queers, fisting queers in every single street in this apathetic country of ours.”

Queer politics questions the unity, stability and political utility of sexual and gender identities. It reminds us that labels and categories can easily become part of oppression. But the question that has been lurking in my mind since my own discovery of ‘queerness’ is: How queer am I to join the freedom dance of sexually marginalised groups? Do I have to be crazy about visiting drag parties and frequenting cruising places? How important is it to ‘feel’ like ‘others’ to join their liberation movement? What does this ‘feeling’ entail? And who are these ‘others’? Why am I calling them ‘others’ if I ‘feel’ like them? Is my feeling deep enough? How deep is deep enough?

Can I get married, have kids, build a family, and feel ‘queer’ at the same time? Do the actions I’ve talked about earlier, the ones that I love doing, ‘belong’ to the ‘queer’ category, however all-encompassing it might be? Is being ‘queer’ about ‘behaving’ in a certain fashion, living a ‘queer’ life? Or is it about believing in an identity, a position from where you challenge the oppressive nature of dominant heteronormativity? Can I be part of a ‘heterosexual’ relationship and claim to be ‘queer’? My reading of the ‘Queer Power Now’ leaflet suggested that this is possible. But my work with ‘queer’ communities doesn’t suggest the same.

I understand the reasons for that. In the process of building a movement, a campaign to claim human rights, there is a need to come together, feel togetherness, share a common ground, and, of course, a common dream. What is otherwise called solidarity. But what can also be called assimilation. Does the ‘queer’ identity subsume other identities under its all-encompassing weight? Is inclusivity a process of creating sameness? Well, not completely, though tendencies exist. The ‘queer’ identity does provide an opportunity for sexually marginalised groups, beyond the peripheries of the LGBT, to come onto the rights-claiming platform, get visibility.

But the cardinal questions still remain. I don’t feel like a ‘minority’, but I don’t form part of the ‘dominant’ majority either. So if I’m not one, can I become an integral part of a movement claiming ‘queer’ rights? I’m sure of my ‘queerness’, but do I identify with the ‘queer’ identity necessary to be part of the movement? So I ask myself: Am I ‘queer’ enough, or do I have to be the ‘genuine queer’ to be able to celebrate my ‘queerness’? Which means, am I fake? Is there nothing genuine about my ‘queer’ feelings? Or is ‘queer’ itself a misnomer? With the promise of a ‘common’ struggle, ‘queerness’ has actually constructed an identity that is based on standards that you must meet. If you don’t, then you still remain on the periphery, or even outside it.

Take the case of a very dear friend. He’s biologically a man, and also dresses and ‘behaves’ like one. But he feels there’s a woman trapped within him, and this woman inside him has same-sex preferences. He is obviously labelled heterosexual, is unable to fit into a ‘category’ and, at the same time, desires to remain uncategorised. But according to me, he’s as ‘queer’ as one can be.

Take the film Fire, which ran into infamous controversies. Did Sita and Radha, the two women protagonists, ‘develop’ same-sex attraction? Were they lesbians in a marital fix? Or were they frustrated wives satiating their suppressed desires because their husbands wouldn’t/couldn’t?  The film created controversy; it also created visibility for non-heteronormative sexualities. But the debates around it seldom questioned the ‘representation’ of the relationship, except for the communalised one. It was the same with the film Girlfriend, where sexual ‘minority’ groups did question the problematic representation of ‘lesbian’ sex as depicted in the film, but didn’t engage closely with issues regarding whether the depiction of two women almost having sex, for whatever reason, should be considered ‘lesbian’.

The problem lies in the fact that in the process of creating and challenging the politics of categories, the ‘queer’ movement has progressed on the assumption of ‘behaviour being equal to meaning’. What you see is what you make of the ‘other’. Though the very genesis of the movement was based on the celebration of difference, the multiplicity and discursive nature of human sexuality has become difficult for the movement to handle. We were talking of ‘differences of the same kind’. But over time, it has become difficult to deal with difference, to be really plural. ‘Queer’ itself has become a labelled category/identity. We kept adding letters to LGBT: K for Kothi, H for Hijra… but then what happens to me? Where do I fit in? What happens to my friend? And why do I have to think of joining a movement where I’ll have to ‘fit in’… meaning, get assimilated? Movements are definitely built on commonality of experience -- of discrimination and oppression. But aren’t movements also built with the dream, the goal, of liberation for all? What’s at the core of the ‘queer’ movement, I ask, ‘queer’ freedom or sexual autonomy as a human right?

The issue of sexual identity came into the public arena partly as a result of AIDS. In infection, what was concealed in social life was revealed. HIV revealed the truth about often-concealed sexual activities. The emergence of MSM (men who have sex with men) then can be completely attributed to medical interventions; what does it have to do with the acceptance of a different kind of sexual practice? MSMs remain a ‘target group’ for HIV/AIDS work. Is it possible to think of a WSW (women who have sex with women) category, who are not lesbians? Or is it because they do not pose health threats, or that their health is not a primary concern, that they don’t exist at all?

In April 1994, a team visiting Delhi’s Tihar jail found that there was ‘homosexual’ activity between prisoners, and recommended that condoms be made available. The then Inspector General of Prisons, Kiran Bedi, was opposed to the distribution of condoms on the grounds that it would promote homosexuality. In the same year, the AIDS Bhedbav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), a human rights group, filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The petition argued that the section violated the right to privacy guaranteed as a fundamental right under the Constitution. This petition was not followed up.

It took another six years for the Naz Foundation, a group working with MSMs and other sexually marginalised people, to file a comprehensive petition in the Delhi High Court asking that the section be repealed. By this time, the sexual identities of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) had become a lot more visible with AIDS interventions addressing them as high-risk groups. This visibility also led to incidents where NGOs working with sexual ‘minorities’ were targeted for promoting homosexuality under Section 377. Naz Foundation then followed up the petition by asking the court to read it down by decriminalising adult, private and consensual sex.

What is interesting to note is that the law reform campaign undertaken by LGBT groups in India looked at law reform as the final emancipatory tool for ending oppression and discrimination based on sexual identity. Over-reliance on the law led to the government response where it dismissed the petition and remarked: “Section 377 has been applied to cases of assault where bodily harm is intended and/or caused and deletion of the said section can well open floodgates of delinquent behaviour and be misconstrued as unbridled license for the same.” The government further contended that Section 377 is the only provision in the IPC which can be used against child sexual offenders, thereby tactically pitting child rights groups against sexual minority rights groups. The final word of the government was: “Objectively speaking, there is no such tolerance to practice of homosexuality/lesbianism in Indian society.”

It is pertinent to note that the section does not criminalise homosexuality per se. What the law regulates is any form of bodily or carnal intercourse, which is not peno-vaginal in nature. This law is an import of Victorian/Judeo-Christian morality and attempts to criminalise all forms of non-procreative sex. What is also of concern is the fact that the question of consent is inconsequential when it comes to sexual acts ‘against the order of nature’. Section 377 criminalises voluntary intercourse; this means that this law actually has no human ‘victim’ to protect. What it protects is normative standards of ‘acceptable’ sexual behaviour: culture, morality and tradition, that too the ones that are understood to be essentially ‘Indian’. Further, nowhere in the IPC has ‘nature’ been defined for an understanding of what would qualify as unnatural. Though the provision appears to be neutral on the surface, there’s been enough documentation to establish that the section is used primarily to harass and extort money from those who do not fit into conservative sexual roles, primarily gay men, hijras, kothis and MSMs.

Though the ‘queer’ movement owes a lot to the women’s movement in terms of its ideological base, the women’s movement has been a disappointing ally. Gaping fissures are beginning to appear between the two. There seems to be a non-engagement of the women’s movement with regard to Section 377, as apparently the section invisibilises lesbian sex. But does it? Section 377 is about non-peno-vaginal penetration between two people, irrespective of their gender. And lesbians can have penetrative ‘carnal’ sex.

Voices Against 377 and Sappho for Equality, groups based in Delhi and Kolkata, have attempted to bring women’s groups and child rights groups on board in the campaign against this Victorian law, but Section 377 continues to be considered a gay rights issue and not really an issue of broader human rights claims. The women’s movement in India has had a singular focus on issues of sexual violence and the woman as ‘victim’. This has not allowed a powerful articulation of female desire and pleasure, thus denying the movement an opportunity to engage with questions of sexual rights as human rights. Sexual rights have always appeared in claims for reproductive rights, but lack of constant interrogation has completely pathologised issues in terms of healthy/unhealthy, disease/diagnosis, etc.

Though the lesbian question has been a part of the women’s movement’s agenda, it existed only in terms of violence faced by lesbian women and not as a process of articulation of lesbian pleasure and desire. And the excrescent, the hijra, the kothi, the tranny, has somehow not been a part of feminist rights claims as they didn’t fit the binaries of male/female. Yet, feminism remained the privileged site for theory and thought on sex and sexuality.

The emergence of ‘queer’ identities has actually challenged that, and feminism has had to respond, though not satisfactorily. Most women’s groups engaging with issues of sexuality, for example, still conflate sexual and reproductive rights. The conflation of sexual rights with reproductive rights has caused sexual rights to be viewed as a subset of reproductive rights claims. This subset status has actually made invisible an array of people of non-conforming sexual identities, as well as non-reproductive sexual practices, thus leaving many already marginalised people outside the framework of human rights protection in the context of sexual behaviour. 

Given the fact that the ‘queer’ movement has posed a cerebral challenge to the ideological groundings of the feminist movement, it doesn’t seem to have learnt lessons from the troubled engagement of feminism with law reform. It doesn’t seem likely that the ‘queer’ movement’s engagement with the law will yield the desired results. This engagement, again, is based on the assumption that more rights equal more empowerment. But the assumption ignores a lot of those who don’t seem to fit the ‘queer’ construct, as is evident in the Naz Foundation petition, which asked for the reading down of Section 377 of the IPC to decriminalise consensual, adult, private sex, leaving out those who do not have the privilege of a private space. “Though law does remain a significant site of struggle, one needs to locate legal change as a necessary part of a wider socio-political change. The premise of change with respect to sexuality is as much a change in societal mores as it is about legal change. The legal outcome should not be looked at as an end in itself, but rather the process of questioning, interrogating and challenging the movement’s strategy and ideology,” says sexual-rights activist and lawyer Arvind Narrain.

So we’re back to the questions we began with: Do you need to be the oppressed victim to be able to claim ‘queer’ rights? Are violations a necessary prerequisite for ‘queer’ rights campaigns? Can you not be happy, never having faced discrimination, never having had to feel the need to ‘come out’ and make a political statement about your ‘queerness’, and yet feel that you are a part; that you belong? Is there a space like that within the ‘queer’ universe?

What we as ‘queer’ people need to challenge is not just dominant heteronormativity, but also our discomfort with difference. Differences not just about questions of sexual variation, but ones that include all ways in which we can obtain pleasure. We cannot privilege ‘sexual orientation’ as the most significant sexual difference among us. Or else we are in danger of creating our own sexual ‘lower orders’.

Queer is here to stay. And I’ve taken the quotation marks off to signify that it cannot afford to remain an identity constructed on the basis of in-built ‘sexual hierarchies’. Just to slightly rephrase the ‘Queer Power Now’ quote: “Queer means to f*** with oppressive normativity,” where identities don’t get subsumed under the ‘bigger’ banner, yet the existence of the ‘bigger’ banner depends completely on the multiplicities and plurality of identities. Where you can protest against oppression, as well as powerfully and fearlessly articulate pleasure and desire. Where you don’t have to ‘fit it’; where you’ll ‘belong’.

I agree with singer Gloria Gaynor’s summing up of the assertion of identity:

“I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses. I deal my own deck, sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces. And there’s no return and no deposit, so it’s time to open up your closet! Life’s not worth a damn, till you can say, ‘Hey world, I am what I am!’”

Can we reclaim Queer from the clutches of identity politics and single unified theories of rights claims? I await answers.

I remain what I am. 

(Oishik Sircar is a human rights lawyer and researcher. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Endnotes

Vanessa Baird, Sex Love & Homophobia, London, Amnesty International UK, 2004, at pp 95-96
Much of the understanding of ‘behavior not equal to meaning’ was developed through enriching interactions with Carole S Vance at the Sexuality and Rights Institute 2005, Pune
Jeffery Weeks, Necessary Fictions: Sexual Identities and the Politics of Diversity
ABVA v Union of India, Civil Writ Petition 1993
Naz Foundation v Union of India, Civil Writ Petition 2001
The police raided the offices of Naz Foundation International and Bharosa Trust and their workers were arrested under Section 377 and other laws. For a detailed description see Siddharth Narrain, The Queer Case of Section 377, Sarai Reader 2005, Bare Acts, CSDS, New Delhi, p 466
Union of India’s response to the Naz petition, September 6, 2003
Alice M Miller, Sexual but not Reproductive: Exploring the Junction and Disjunction of Sexual and Reproductive Rights, Health and Human Rights 7 (2), 2004, The President and Fellows of Harvard College, at p 70
Arvind Narrain, There are no short cuts to queer utopia: Sodomy, law and social change, Lines Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 4, February 2004
Quoted in Vanessa Baird, Sex Love & Homophobia, London, Amnesty International UK, 2004, at p 26

InfoChange News & Features February 2006