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In-between places

By Sneha Gole

There is a large universe of people who do not conform to social norms of sexuality; if we are to look at both sides of the normative line there are perhaps more of us on the 'wrong' side of it than on the 'right'. This article reviews three recent books about sexuality

“We’re trained to see only male or female and to plot people into those categories when they actually don’t fit neatly at all. But if we pause, watch and listen closely we’ll see the multiplicity of ways in which people are sexed and gendered. There exists a range of personal identifications around woman, man, in-between -- we don’t even have names or pronouns that reflect that in-between place but people certainly live in it.” -- Minnie Bruce Pratt

Organising, writing, discussing, talking, maybe even thinking about sexuality has seen a fairly recent resurgence in the Indian context.

Issues like sexual violence and then the ‘dreaded’ HIV/AIDS phenomenon brought issues around sexuality and sexual behaviour into the public domain, albeit with strong underpinnings of fear and shame attached. Recently in India, however, demands for non-discrimination on the basis of sexual preference and orientation are being firmly articulated within a rights framework.

Against this background, it is interesting to note three books widely differing in content and presentation that look at issues and experiences relating to sexuality.

The first of these books, Erotic Justice by Ratna Kapur, looks specifically at the construction of the sexual subaltern, and more generally at the framing of all ‘Others’ as purely ‘victims’ in the liberal agenda, and how the law mediates and buttresses this construction. She firmly posits the sexual subaltern as an erotic subject, and by doing so highlights fissures in the commonsense understanding of the law, specially in a post-colonial setting, as universal, neutral and ‘objective’. She questions the foundational claims and assumptions of human rights as a progressive, universal project and establishes how this project is mediated through an understanding of the Other as either “incapable of exercising rights or as backward and uncivilised, to be redeemed,” as she puts it. Another approach is to construct the cultural Other as a threat… to the unity and integrity of the nation state, an approach that is also co-opted within the larger ‘liberal’ framework through highly dubious claims of ‘war on terror’ and ‘war for freedom and democracy’.

Kapur places the book within the theoretical framework of post-colonial feminist legal theory, a framework that makes it possible for her to constantly interrogate who speaks for whom, how, from where, and to what end. This enables her to then question the validity of ‘global feminism’, to articulate on the behalf of the ‘third world woman’, a constant victim, made so by her cultural context and to be redeemed by the move towards ‘modernity’ as posited by ‘western feminism’. 

Throughout the four essays in the book, Kapur abstracts law as a site of struggle and strife, in which the construction, role and position of the cultural and sexual Other -- Muslims, homosexuals, sex workers and transnational migrants -- is played out. Each chapter challenges the dominant narratives and ‘grand theories’ of modernity and liberalism and hopes to contribute to the “development of a theory of erotic justice that would bring erotically stigmatised communities from our respective worlds into an inclusive conversation”.

Because I Have a Voice, an anthology on queer politics in India, edited by Arvind Narain and Gautam Bhan, attempts to be a comprehensive, all-encompassing ready-reckoner that covers theoretical, legal, religious, cultural, psychological as well as personal aspects. The book contains conceptual works on thinking around sexuality, as well as personal narratives from different queer and transgender activists and individuals.

The book is definitely a celebration, of the hesitant freedom that queer people in India are experiencing today; a celebration of the possibilities of a new language, a new existence. It is a “search for our own moment of assertion,” as the editors put it. The book definitely raises the banner of a defiant queer political resistance; the book is itself a political act in those ways. What is, however, interesting is that the anthology offers spaces for introspective reflection for those within the movement for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights. It dares to include the experiences of those who might not fall within the categories of LGBTKH… or those who are not sure where they lie in the identity matrix. At the same time, it does not shy away from confronting disruptions and fissures within the movement and is quite candid about limitations and issues within, which is a brave thing for any book coming from such a marginalised segment to do. At different levels, contributors have attempted to engage with the multi-sited queer experience and oppression.

Though the volume is inconsistent in its style, content and presentation, this also becomes its greatest strength as it offers space for so much diversity without prioritising one experience over the other. In fact, these voices, non-mediated and non-appropriated, ensure that the ‘victims’ narrate their own experiences, displaying their agency and belying the construction of them as either ‘helpless victims’ or  ‘deviant, dangerous Others’. Especially those who have contributed stories of personal struggle come across as ‘people’, not mere faceless ‘identities’.

The third book, Sexuality, Gender and Rights, edited by Geetanjali Misra (of CREA) and Radhika Chandiramani (of TARSHI) gives an introduction to the issues surrounding gender, sexuality and rights in the context of South and Southeast Asia, and seeks to document, collate and explore the experience of working around these issues, establishing linkages between theory and practice. The editors, through this compilation, seek to “correct the information deficit by showcasing groundbreaking work in these fields,” and by linking gender, sexuality and human rights not just conceptually but also practically in the field seek to articulate a holistic framework of ‘sexual rights’.

The book looks at aspects of research, of activism and experiences of service-provision through original essays written mostly by field practitioners, but also by academicians and activists. It attempts to firmly establish that controls on sexuality and a resurgence of the normative order not only affects non-conformists but all of us, and articulates that organising around sexuality and gender issues happens, and should happen alongside organising for other basic needs and rights.

What is important is that activists and practitioners must not get into prioritising and creating hierarchies of rights. The complex inter-linkages between different rights need to be understood and articulated in agendas and programmes. While it may sound ludicrous to some to say that sexuality is as important as poverty, it is essential to recognise the inherent logic behind the statement. After all, hunger and discrimination on the basis of sexual choice are both equally detrimental to the individual’s wellbeing and enjoyment of rights.

In that sense this book, that covers a wide area of work with a diversity of stakeholders, gives us our most important lesson: that there is a large universe of people who do not conform to social norms of sexuality; if we are to look at both sides of the normative line there are perhaps more of us on the ‘wrong’ side of it than on the ‘right’. Some might actively align themselves with political action, a vast multitude silently continues not to conform. The larger movement for sexual rights needs to articulate and include all these voices.

Another important question that is raised is the disempowering possibility of identity politics. Does creating categories and claiming rights on these bases create exclusions and disempowerment for those who might not fit into those categories and yet have no place within dominant discourse either? Even within ‘queer’ politics, is there space for those who might not be LGBTKH… but who do not fall within the framework of normative heterosexuality?

Lastly, a common theme that runs through these books and through the happenings in the field is the need to redefine, to be able to establish linkages between different rights and their non-enjoyment, of discriminations and subordination, and to synergise them in such a way that we don’t see the queer movement standing at the crossroads with the feminist movement, which is itself at odds with the caste movement and so on… This is not a plea for assimilation and uniformity, because such positions only lead to more exclusions and appropriations. It is a plea for a creative transformational politics that is not afraid to think and speak from different locations; which does not have ‘othering’ as its foundation.

InfoChange News & Features, February 2006