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As long as there has been a continuum of lesbian existence in a variety of spheres throughout history, there has been much vitriol that it has inspired in men, as well as in Right-Wing women, in India. They have expressed fear and contempt at lesbianism being posited as an option to women, saying “if physical needs are shown to be satisfied through lesbianism, the institution of marriage will collapse and reproduction will stop.”
The above-mentioned quote was in reference to Fire, Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film which depicts a same-sex relationship between two sisters-in-law with neglectful husbands.
With the release of Fire, Off Our Backs, a women’s news journal reported that members of the right-wing Hindu party Shiv Sena stopped screenings of Fire in Bombay and Delhi, damaging theatres where the film was being shown. The Shiv Sena stated that the film was “immoral” and a “bad influence on youth,” with the Maharashtra chief minister congratulating them on as such.
However, Indian lesbians were moved by the film and stirred into action by the backlash it was facing. Though Deepa Mehta herself distanced the film from the label of ‘lesbian’ there was no denying its impact specifically on lesbian audiences when Indian lesbians took to the streets holding placards and signs saying “Indian and Lesbian.”
But while this act of protest could perhaps be considered the first to bolster visibility for Indian lesbians in the public eye, there is a larger context of a movement that preceded and succeeded it, that has gone largely undocumented in the history of women’s movements in the Indian subcontinent.
Fitting in or falling out: Lesbian existence in India
In the coinciding second wave of feminism that was taking place on the other side of the globe in the United States of America, many women involved in feminist organisations identified as lesbians. A subset of radical feminist groups also came to identify as “political lesbians” who, simply put, had opted out of forming romantic and sexual relations with men and pushed for female separatism from men. However, the circumstances around lesbian existence were quite different in the Indian context.
Many mainstream women’s movements and feminist organisations in India chose to distance themselves from lesbian women as a means of self-preservation. They maligned lesbianism as a “western import that undermined national unity” when met with the criticism that feminism itself arose from western influences, as a way to be taken more seriously within the confines of a conservative and patriarchal society. Another pervasive critique of lesbian identity which soon rose up against women who came to identify as lesbians, from conservatives and progressives alike, was that the label itself had bourgeoisie and anti-grassroots connotations, given that it had originated as an English term.
However, lesbian women still managed to find community and support within the underbelly. From 1987 to 1993, lesbian women began meeting informally in one another’s homes. Delhi Group, which was founded in 1998, took to making this practice more formal while eschewing the actual label of “lesbian” to showcase their commitment towards combating elitism. Through the establishment of Sakhi and, later, Women to Women, a network for lesbian women to connect to each other through discreet means such as letters and innocuously named meetings were created, where they were able to explore their sexualities in the private sphere without the fear of judgment or persecution.
But these spaces came with their own internal politics with regards to making them more accessible to all lesbian women, regardless of their economic class, while also grappling with engaging these women in the political dialogue and collective action that could help lead the community towards recognition and liberation. With Women to Women in particular, members of the organisation attempted to replace it with Stree Sangam, given that the former name was in English.
Given that Sakhi was founded on foreign money, with a white English woman named Cath answering the letters they received from Indian lesbians, and that Stree Sangam had also originated through connecting with Indian lesbian groups in Bangkok after an Indian Christian named Lesley heard a Punjabi-American speak about lesbianism on All India Radio, the honourable yet misguided notion to set about disentangling western influence from the lesbian organisation in India, as a way to foster inclusivity, through arguing over the semantics of the label itself threatened the already fraught collectivity that had come to be.
Saying the “L” word
In Fire, Sita says to Radha, “There is no word in our language to describe what we are or how we feel for each other,” which serves as nothing more than an attempt by Mehta to distance her film from lesbianism by feigning ignorance at the unlikely event of two middle-class women being unaware of homosexuality.
However, regardless of her attempts to disassociate the film from the lesbian label, it intrinsically became linked to it with the following riots and protests.
While the label had brought a sense of discomfort to Indian feminists since the inception of mainstream women’s movements in the country, who would prefer to employ “single women” or “women who love women” as an umbrella term for lesbians and bisexual women, it had given a collective identity to Indian lesbians despite the backlash it incurred from all sides.
In her book, Queer Activism in India: A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics, Naisargi N. Dave recollects a conversation with a journalist around labels, where she said, “Identity gives people something to believe in”. She argues, “You remember what happened after Fire. All these women heard the word ‘lesbian’ for the first time, and the number of calls we got doubled or tripled. Don’t tell me that’s less important than all this ‘intersectionality,’ ‘contextuality’ talk.”
To do away with a label that offers disenfranchised women a banner to mobilise under, in the guise of anti-elitism, ignores the lived realities of these women and implies a homogeneous ‘queer’ existence and experience that can still only be afforded to certain sections of the community at large, within middle and upper-class circles.
As Maya Sharma describes in Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India, on reading the word in national newspapers for the first time from the time of the protests for Fire, she remarked, “By the morning of December 8 it had all happened. The word ‘lesbian’ was on the front page of every newspaper I picked up in Delhi. LESBIAN. It looked odd and out of place. Why was a word like that being tossed around? A word so loaded with fear and embarrassment and prejudice, a word shrouded in silence, a whisper that spoke of an identity that must be hidden from others, that frightened word that dare not cross any threshold, was on that winter morning landing at the doorsteps of millions of households in many parts of the country.”
The merge to mobilise
Despite the fact that the word “gay” had been introduced in the Indian context almost as recently as the word “lesbian” had, it did not face similar criticisms and was accepted almost unilaterally. Since then, leaps and bounds have been made towards legitimising both gay and lesbian existence in India, which are now accepted labels, and the movement has since broadened to include others who identify otherwise as well, under the umbrella of the LGBT community.
While the fight to be recognised has tread different paths to get to where we stand today, the divergent threads have come together under the single unanimous banner of ‘queer’ to lobby for their collective rights. Similarly, women’s movements now dedicate specialised resources and awareness to the rights of queer women.
Despite the optimism that is now offered to lesbian women in particular, by larger communities seeking to protect their rights, it is often the case that they are deprioritised by queer movements as they are women and they are deprioritised by women’s movements as they are lesbians. At the end of the day, neither can truly surmount their differences to grasp the interplay of these uniquely marginalised identities that lesbian women must reckon with in every aspect of their lives, from their relationships with themselves, their bodies, and their lives, to their relationships with women, men, family, and the society they inhabit at large.
“Lesbian existence comprises both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life,” says Adrienne Rich in her pioneering text, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. “It is also a direct or indirect attack on male right of access to women. But it is more than these, although we may first begin to perceive it as a form of nay-saying to patriarchy, an act or resistance. It has of course included role playing, self-hatred, breakdown, alcoholism, suicide, and intrawoman violence; we romanticize at our peril what it means to love and act against the grain, and under heavy penalties; and lesbian existence has been lived (unlike, say, Jewish or Catholic existence) without access to any knowledge of a tradition, a continuity, a social underpinning. The destruction of records and memorabilia and letters documenting the realities of lesbian existence must be taken very seriously as a means of keeping heterosexuality compulsory for women, since what has been kept from our knowledge is joy, sensuality, courage, and community, as well as guilt, self-betrayal, and pain.”
The erasure of lesbian history and culture, in favour of a monolithic queer history and culture which only includes the former as a footnote, comes at the cost of lesbian lives being misunderstood and misrepresented. Both mainstream queer and feminist movements fail to recognise the vulnerable position that lesbian women are placed in against the patriarchy by the sheer virtue of their existence as women who do not abide by the defining principles of womanhood under patriarchal norms.
“Lesbians are not women,” is a statement from the French lesbian feminist writer, Monique Wittig, which has been endlessly analysed from a variety of lenses, but serves only as a blunt reminder of the ways in which lesbian women are denied of their womanhood by virtue of their sexuality acting in opposition to the purpose women are to serve under patriarchy.