Posted by Anubhuti Rabha
Too many articles have already discussed the nitty gritties of the ‘historic judgement’ and the aspects of Section 377 it decriminalises, Section 377’s colonial roots and how it was abused, loopholes it has left (marriage, property, adoption, surrogacy), but as someone who dropped out of the country’s most prestigious legal institution, because of disillusionment with the power of law to actually deliver ‘justice’, I understand that there is an ocean’s gap between ‘law in text’ and ‘law in context’. Dowry has been legally criminalised since 1961, but it does not mean that the practice doesn’t still exist in 2019.
In the quest of pursuing legal rights, while an integral step, what often gets ignored are the institutional systems (and our role in reinforcing them) which teach us heteronormativity to the extent that queer people spend their entire lives questioning themselves and non-queer people find it so difficult to unlearn what is so ingrained in them in how they perceive anything to be ‘normal’ and not just gender and sexuality.
When the queer community describes phrases like ‘Right to Sexual Identity’ and ‘Historic injustice against the LGBTQ community’ found in the verdict of decriminalising Section 377 to be “surreal” and that the state had infringed upon their rights and diminished their personhood for 157 years, “but no more“, it is clear that a lot of hopes and aspirations are riding on this one move against Section 377.
“This verdict shall be the beginning to put an end to the systemic oppression and legal violence against those that are different, against those that don’t conform, against those that wish to live their truth without being belittled and threatened, and against those that refuse to have their personhood diminished and their right to life taken away.“
Although the Indian Queer movement against Section 377 has been fought by countless Dalit Trans folx, Hijras, and sex workers on the streets, the ones recognised today as flagbearers of queer liberation in India, are mostly the upper caste educated elite. Private sex activity has been decriminalised, but as much attention has not been devoted to those who cannot afford the comforts of privacy in the first place. While the legal community has hailed the judgement of Section 377 as monumental, it may merely be about certain caste and class aspirations of the middle class heterosexual normativity.
The judgement of Section 377 saw a barrage of tokenistic representation by capitalist companies, all jumping in the bandwagon of rainbow-themed products while having LGBTQ discriminatory policies and workplaces. Bollywood was not left behind, and introduced Queer characters in movies and shows but again very one-dimensional characters and mostly upper class savarna struggles at their best and stereotyping at their worst. The prevalent mindset manifests in microaggressions such as, at the workplace when asked by colleagues about their ‘partner’ to a man, it’s still assumed it will be a woman.
The heteronormative ‘brainwashing’ as I call it starts from the childhood stories we tell our children, from school education, from songs, movies, books, billboards, in the language we use. So instead of focusing on the judgement’s legal aspects, I want to focus on a litmus test of sorts of where the Indian society stands in their queer-friendliness today, a year after the landmark event. In particular, the sites of production and reproduction of ideas, our university spaces.
The LGBTQIA+ community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) has long been treated as outside the dominant notions of identity in modern discourse, including spaces that we would consider ‘safe’ or more inclusive, such as colleges. Although oft understood to be explicitly physical, verbal or mental harassment, the discrimination faced on college campuses is often subtler, and, under the guise of hosting supposedly the most progressive minds in the country, university campuses, instead, freeze out members of the community and those who fight for the cause of their equality in simpler, invisible and, often, more dehumanising ways.
‘Normal’ and ‘heterosexual’ experiences are still understood as synonymous. This means that all social relations and all forms of thinking that exist with these relations are heteronormative. To put it crudely, heteronormativity creates a language that is ‘straight’. Living within heteronormative culture means learning to ‘see straight’, to ‘read straight’, to ‘think straight’. Heterosexuality is not a simple form of sexual expression; ‘but also one that reveals the interconnections between sexual and non-sexual aspects of social life’. Heterosexuality, therefore, is “a gender relationship, ordering not only sexual life but also domestic and extra-domestic divisions of labour and resources” and is not wholly coterminous with heterosexual sexuality.
Hence, true queer liberation does not lie in just ‘Love is Love’ slogans, but it is in the complete re-imagining of the economics of our social relations outside of a heteronormative framework, mainly marriage. Adrienne Rich’s concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ says that normative heterosexuality regulates those kept within its boundaries as well as marginalising and sanctioning those outside them. Heterosexuality “is built on the exclusion, repression, and repudiation” of homosexuality, and therefore, these “terms form an interdependent, hierarchical relation of significance which creates the subordinated other – the homosexual.”
I had conducted a survey with members of the Queer community, in order to understand the discrimination faced by those who came-out on campuses, how institutionalised such discrimination is even to those who are closeted, and the role of ally groups in both acting as a safe space for those who are open or confused about their sexual identity, and in shifting perceptions of largely conservative student bodies on supposedly progressive campuses. The survey intended to elicit responses regarding how open respondents were about their orientation, whether the presence of an ally group on their campus enabled this in some manner, and whether they felt the educational spaces they were a part of reinforced the heteronormative framework in a significant manner that made it more difficult for them to be open about their orientation.
Of the 50 responses, 16 respondents identified as belonging to marginalised communities such as SC, ST, or OBC; the majority of them fell into the 3.4-17 lakh family income bracket. The sexual orientation and gender identity of the respondents varied a great deal, including those who identified as bisexual, cisgender homosexuals, gender-fluid, and non-binary. 88% respondents noted that they were open about their identity to friends, whilst only 21 – 42% – were open about it to their family.
Whilst some of the respondents noted that they were comfortable with being open about their identity and orientation on campus, noting that their campus was queer friendly in some cases, the majority of those who responded to that question were more circumspect regarding the conservative attitudes of their peers: one, for example, noted that she often feels the pressure to conform to notions of femininity, such as by waxing, wearing skirts, and sitting in a “ladylike” fashion, with a performative aspect that she ascribed to those around subscribing, even subconsciously, to the heteronormative framework. When asked about incidents of discrimination, one respondent, noted that the word “lesbian” was thrown around frequently, sometimes as an insult, and is used to describe girls who have short hair and wear trousers.
“Bi-erasure” was also noted, wherein those who identify as bisexual are not regarded as being members of the queer community, particularly if they are attracted to those of the opposite gender, conforming to the “standard” notion of attraction and heteronormativity. Criticism of redressal mechanisms available was also universal; a substantive majority revealed that they were unaware of any mechanism to be followed should they be victims of overt bullying, with many noting that they were entirely absent. Unanimous verdict was that there was no institutionalised Mental Health support for the Queer students.
From an intimate interview with a Queer student from a women’s college, I got in-depth insights of the relationship of the college administration and the Queer community. That particular college does not have a Queer Qollective so their Women’s Development Cell represents LGBTQ+ interests. The term, “Women’s Development Cell” coined during the “second wave” of feminism in the 1970s when any discussion on gender was often equated with the issues women were facing and considered synonymous with “female empowerment”, is now considered somewhat anachronistic. The terms “development” and “women” are vague and misleading and both taken together end up being problematic and restrictive, and not indicative of the actual quantum or nature of work done by such groups. While the deconstructive meaning of gender and of being a woman, are discussed actively, by the student body, according to my source, in contrast, the administration’s positions on these issues is not sympathetic, noting the efforts to form a Queer Collective distinct from this Cell had been stymied for years.
The opposition presented by the administration is, almost petty, she noted, describing an instance wherein, after the judgement on Section 377, a panel discussion was organised on Queer Identities in Universities which saw the presence of a diverse panel of speakers, including a graduate from the North-East, a gender non-conforming person, and a Bahujan; the administration, upon seeing the written proposal, agreed to the event provided the word “Queer” was omitted from the title. Whilst the cell agreed to the changes in the printed material, they retained the word in the online material utilised, as none of the faculty advisors could see their social media. She also pointed out that the administration often had layers that expressed varying degrees of disapproval; in this case, the administration she was referring to comprised of the faculty advisors to the society and to the Student Union, and the Principal herself, with a majority of the objections being driven in a top-down manner. Some specific instances of discrimination by professors in the classroom she recalls are :
“I know about all the lesbian stuff that goes on in the girl’s hostel, but ultimately you’ll have to marry a man.”
“Which parent wants a homosexual child?”
When I came out as bisexual, the friends I shared this to were extremely supportive, and so was my family, albeit after teething struggles that involved me doing significant emotional labour in laying the groundwork for my family to adapt to my orientation. Since the assumption still is that your child will be straight and cis, it puts the burden on the Queer individual to “come out” and convince the people around them that they are valid. Acceptance by one’s family members still remains the biggest hurdle and constitutes the primary reason of fear for those who want to come out.
Many Trans acquaintances and friends have shared that, whilst growing up, they had body dysmorphia which they attempted to cover by wearing oversize androgynous clothes only to find that their mothers would throw out their masculine presenting clothes and fill them with feminine ones, even taking them to the gynaecologist to ask why their breasts were not growing.
Similarly, the non-usage of preferred pronouns and names is also traumatising – an occurrence that is compounded at family gatherings and functions wherein relatives are, perhaps intentionally, not cognizant of preferred identities. In addition to the family environment, the broader peer group and school experience is still one of the major sites of trauma. Any perceived deviance from gender norms would result in bullying.
At school particularly, it is more difficult for boys who did not ascribe to traditional masculine attire than it is for women who did not wear feminine clothes. even at the university level, it is seen as more “acceptable” for women to wear masculine clothes and have short hair, than for men to wear feminine outfits because of the internalised misogyny in heteronormativity.
My source cited the example of a genderfluid panelist who had been invited for one of the events organised by the cell, and had come dressed in a bindi, earrings, and a long skirt; at the gate, however, he was denied entry by the guard, and was only allowed to enter when he took those off and revealed the jeans he was wearing underneath. She cited additional examples of how the heteronormative framework was normalised, including by the support staff at the university, such as when a female student with PCOS, which tends to lead to facial hair growth, was asked why doesn’t she get it waxed by a female guard.
Having no openly Queer faculty and no representation of Queer struggles and stories in the syllabuses as well, from primary to higher education exacerbate feelings of isolation and alienation. We as a society are institutionally failing the Queer community consistently from a young age. A majority of the respondents noted that ally groups were not present on their campuses and lamented their absence, opining that an ally group would greatly help with sensitising campus peers about LGBTQIA issues and providing a safe space to members of the community so as to enable “queer students to look out for each other,” as one respondent summarised.
Ally groups, this research suggests, help – but only to an extent as the Queer community is itself so diverse and has different struggles, with bias prevalent between members – with “bi-erasure” and transphobia amongst gay men, for instance. Where they do exist, ally groups are frequently cited as providing safe spaces for members of the community, many of whom come from conservative backgrounds and from equally conservative undergraduate campuses – if at all – and the ability to be open about their identity in front of others who can empathise and, in many cases, share the same lived experience, was described as emancipatory.
The secondary impact of ally groups was that they contributed to attitudinal shifts in students, providing them with more empathy and information regarding the issues of the community. Anecdotally, the events held by the ally group and participation in orientations for freshmen, led to significant shifts in perception, particularly amongst incoming batches. However, as my source stated in eloquent terms, “being an ally is a mindset and revealed through actions; membership of an ally group does not equate to being an ally”, and the sheer diversity of the community, – an ally group is a necessary but insufficient condition to ensure equity on campuses.
As noted earlier on multiple occasions, a conservative and openly hostile administration is the biggest hurdle to the advancement of the community’s causes on campus, second perhaps only to the conservatism of family members and the reluctance to openly discuss sensitive issues such as sexuality and identity in households. This discussion, along with the intersectionality between background and heteronormativity, leaves a lot of institutional and interpersonal grassroot level unlearning and relearning to be desired. Believing Section 377 repeal to be a cure-all for Queer struggles, is like putting a band-aid and saying the cancer is gone.
Anubhuti Rabha is a bisexual tribal from Assam, who has depression because of the nexus of capitalism and brahminical patriarchy. Sometimes dancer, sometimes activist, full-time searching for new experiences and difficult to identify because of constantly changing hair colour.