TW: Mention of violence and abuse
Between surviving abuse and writing about it, lately, I have also taken to dreaming: dreaming of ways to fight back, to heal, to move beyond; dreaming of love, kinship, and community. Queerness has kept my dreams about healing alive, affirming my practice of finding joy in my body, in myself. Dreaming has been a radical practice that is grounded in a relentless aspiration to heal, but I don’t want to heal alone. The healing I believe can only entirely happen when the potential for future hurt is curbed, learned to be dealt with, or eliminated.
Healing has always been a communal affair, which brings me to safe spaces and the queer community. This has been a difficult piece to write precisely because of fear, both as someone who is closeted, but also as someone who has extensively worked on queer issues. What are my dreams and wishes for them? When I dream of a queer community, I dream of a “safe space”, a space that is safe for our bodies, minds, and the infinite possibilities of our gender and sexual expression. Space where everyone is safe from the horrors of the trauma inflicted on us by the heteropatriarchal society, where no one is exploited, retraumatized, or wounded; where everything is radical and revolutionary. However, so far this community has just been a community of dreams.
Within the queer community, safety is often an illusion, as the community remains fractured along the lines of gender, sexuality, caste, class, religion, etc. Queer resistance in India still relies on an illusion of homogeneity within the movement which undermines the complexities of queer subjectivities. The ‘queer movement’ in India is classist, casteist, sexist, and complicit with power structures of the most oppressive kind and there is often silence around these issues within queer spaces. Often glamorized under the inflated rhetoric of “love is love” and queer emancipation, we are left grappling with the perpetuation of several structures of oppression and violence within the community.
A lot of us are trying to combat what we have internalized. We have brought the very systems along with us by replicating the patterns that turned us away to inflict violence against ourselves. However, we should remember that this violence itself does not take place in a vacuum. I want to attend to some of these complexities, about the nuances of community, kinship, and survival that operate on experiences of trauma, pain, violence, and shame. How do we practice liberation? How do we practice solidarities across this infliction and invisibilization of trauma and violence within the community? How do we envision safe spaces?
Over the course of preparing this article, I have had several vital interactions with queer folks who cited for me their experiences of abuse: emotional, physical, sexual especially those within the community. Each one of them had some ready-made response to what they would want from their abusers for them to heal. Almost every one of us ended with a kind of hopelessness regarding what was to be done.
A friend confided in me about the cis-gay men that they have been with, most usually tops, who didn’t even know that they were violating boundaries because of how entitled they felt to the other person’s body. They spoke to me about instances of barebacking without any prior consent from your sexual partner etc, which not only gets the other person anxious about boundaries but also causes sickness. While another acquaintance spoke to me about how they were a part of a queer activist group and suffered abuse from one of the other members, who also held a significant position within the group. However, on taking it up with the group, they swept it under the carpet as a private affair between two consenting adults that should not be dragged into the collective. This is not an isolated case. So many collectives and activist groups tend to overlook these moments of disclosure, to avoid “infighting”, which often shield the abusers from taking any sort of accountability.
There are also many instances of abuse and violence within the community that go unrecorded, unspoken; instances of intimate-partner violence, domestic violence, rape, emotional abuse, etc. Too often it takes a lot of time for one to even come to terms with the fact that what they are facing is abuse, often leading to belated expressions which reveal the terrain of what cannot be said within the community. One of the main issues is also the fact that most of us are living closeted lives, where we can’t make our abuse widely known since it comes with the very threat of outing ourselves. A closeted relationship often leads to closeted abuse and closeted hurt.
Our experiences are not isolated and become part of a script that is collective and historical, drawing on a long and varied history of violence against the community, and while I have heard many stories about combating abuse, I have not encountered many stories that focus on healing. I believe that both are important tools for our emancipation. It becomes especially difficult to combat abuse when it happens within the community. In these cases, things are made extra tricky because of the dissolution of the victim/perpetrator binary. Violence within the community becomes incomprehensible because of the invisibility of the marginalized’s potential to harm within the community when on the outside they have always remained vilified. Many of us have been victims of violence, abuse, and oppression at various points in our lives, and often pass those patterns of abuse onto others by becoming perpetrators ourselves. The belief that sexual abuse is a rarity, happening on the outside by some fundamentally terrible person who looks scary, rather than many violations created by the people we know and love and call kin, plays a major role in enabling the culture of abuse within our communities.
Negotiating this truth complicates the oversimplified constructions between the victim/perpetrator and the abuser/abused. We realize that there were moments where we could have been toxic, could have been abusers, and that the people we love and care about could be rapists and abusers, and realizing that we are all equally susceptible to abuse as we are to being abused. How do we separate that from what our ideas of safe spaces and community and kinship are? We don’t want to admit that we are also capable of hurting the people that we love. It makes it difficult to place any reductive blame on the abuser because we need to acknowledge the nuances and fluidity of these terms and recognize the need to move beyond “either/or” towards the possibility of “both/and”: that someone can abuse while having been abused. Even though the abuser’s previous experiences of victimization often become a mitigating factor in the abuse that they mete out to others because they typically come from a horrendous background, for example, of ritual abuse, there are still ways to deal with the hurt that they have caused.
The dissolution of these dichotomies also allows us to deal with the legal institutions that are bent on punishing and fixated on the ideas of good and bad. An idea of justice that is reactionary does more harm than good, especially for marginalized communities. I am also tired of the call-out culture especially on social media. I am tired of the futility of tearing each other apart from each other online because I believe that call-out doesn’t equal accountability. When the call-out culture began during the time of #MeToo and the LOSHA, it created an affirmative space for victims of abuse to come ahead with their experiences of abuse. It allowed people who had been silenced to take up space and disclose their abusers, and this has in ways helped to deliver justice to those whom due processes had failed. One does not need to be called out or canceled but instead needs to acknowledge the harm that they have caused making sure that none of it is rehashed while changing our behavior so that we do not harm others again. Especially when it comes to the queer community, due process and state mechanisms have almost always failed us. The state, the police, prisons, and other advocates of justice are often the biggest perpetrators of violence in our communities. As a resolution, we need to propose alternate systems to work together with those that the system itself has disappointed. If we are not going to rely on police, prisons, or the courts, then we are the ones who will have to address things such as domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, murder, stalking, child abuse, and child sexual abuse.
We need to challenge abuse within the queer/activist community. To do this, we need to approach accountability as a transformative practice that needs to go hand in hand with our own positionalities and locations within the community by creating community-based alternatives to the state that allows healing. I want to meditate on how we could envision these accountability processes so that we ensure a halt to the culture of abuse that is rampant within marginalized communities. Deflecting accountability on the excuse of being marginalized is all the more harmful. These meditations often come with anxieties that follow the need to figure out what we need to do with abusers within the community. This is where the community comes in handy because as Leah Lakshmi Samarasinha cites “community accountability means that you don’t have to do it all yourself”.
How do we practice accountability? We must start knowing that accountability is never innate and needs to be practiced. Practicing accountability is an act of care that relies on creating an affirming environment upon which the survivor can set the terms for their healing. This affirmation needs to center the needs of the victim. If you have abused someone, it’s not up to you to decide how the process of healing or accountability should work. We need to start by learning to listen to the person who has claimed the hurt, and acknowledge that we and people we think we know too well, are capable of harming others. We need to listen without being defensive or talking over the other person. Someone disclosing their experience of abuse does not always have to be seen as an accusation or an attack. It could be seen as someone trusting you enough to confide in you about the ways that you might have hurt them and this often means that the person acknowledges your maturity and your ability to handle confrontation. Next, we need to take responsibility for the abuse. Taking responsibility means we admit that our actions have hurt someone, apologize and then critically engage with our actions. Being accountable itself takes a lot of courage and maturity. It is scary to take accountability and responsibility.
Survivors could also engage in a way that does not replicate the penalizing systems of the criminal justice system because as long as penalization remains at the centre of our ideas of justice, there is little space left for accountability. The process can be exhausting and horrifying because the first instinct that we are met with when someone harms us is that this harm must be known and that we must harm them back. However, the landscape of accountability can only flourish when we create systems that are generative and not punitive, and I think maybe the most reasonable response is to stop putting reductive blame on who could potentially be the perpetrator but rather to focus on identifying and ending patterns of violence and why they occur.
It is impossible for us to deny the pain, shame, and alienation that underlie our hard-won experiences of pride. We often stay quiet about the abuse meted out to us because we sincerely believe that we are not entitled to, or deserving of love and kindness, and healing. As a community, I believe that we need to attend to healing older wounds in order to get on the path of healing the collective. We need to focus on our humanity and shift the conversations from our brokenness. Without this introspection, perhaps there is no space for liberation within a system built on shame and stigma, perhaps no space to heal. Till then we continue this dream of a future, of a community that will allow us safety, rage, and healing. Till then we will dream because dreaming is also activism.
Trishala is a literature and culture studies graduate. She writes about survivorhood, queerness, community, and healing.
Images’ source: Alia Sinha