On April 17th, 15 transgender persons and rights activists who were peacefully protesting at the M Karunanidhi Memorial on the Marina in Chennai were manhandled and detained by the Tamil Nadu Police. They were there to demand horizontal reservation for the transgender community within education and public employment. On the same day, the Supreme Court was hearing a case regarding same-Sex marriage legalisation filed by 15 petitioners while the Central Government filed its statement terming the demand as ‘an urban elitist concept‘. The protestors in Chennai were ushered into buses and dropped off far away while news outlets extensively covered the court proceedings that carried on.
The Queer Liberation movement in India is at a watershed moment in history but it also risks navigating a fine line that could devolve into a diffused, depoliticised entity that gives benefits to the most privileged amongst us, while leaving the majority of the queer community adrift. One striking difference was probably the increasing boldness that corporate brands had in including queer representation in advertisements. To them, this was a community that could be commodified, advertised and have products sold to – the Pink Rupee of the affluent Indian queer was rising in market value afterall.
Queer solidarities beyond the binaries
The mainstream LGBTQ movement in India faces a question of existential relevance; whether to prioritise assimilating into systems of oppression that will give trickle-down benefits to its members – reaching the most vulnerable of us last, or whether to push for radical, intersectional solidarity and structural change. We already see this happening with the depoliticisation of Pride Marches happening across the country. In the Mumbai Pride Parade immediately following the civil unrest regarding the NRC-CAA protests and the abrogation of Article 370 that revoked state autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, participants were instructed not to ‘allow political messaging or placards‘.
This hints at an insecure State apparatus that does not want liberation movements like the queer movement to stand up in solidarity for other oppressed communities in the country. By sectioning, dividing, censoring and depoliticising Pride, it transforms the space into one that is purely for aesthetic purposes that benefits the “respectability politics” of the upper-caste cisgender folks who are part of the community. In other Pride marches, flags bearing the Ambedkarite symbol were asked to be removed because they were “too political”. Queer spaces across the country are increasingly being gatekept from the less affluent and marketed as places of aesthetics and performance as opposed to active politics and resistance.
Queerness has and always will transcend the borders of a nation-state, but the efforts to tap into this international solidarity are glaringly absent. When Pakistan’s Islamic Court struck down one of the most progressive Transgender Legislations in the world, there were barely any calls for lending solidarity across the subcontinent, emanating from the queer community in India. On the contrary, queer politics, and the same-sex marriage litigation that has been going on in the Supreme Court in particular, has been one area that converges exclusionary, fundamentalist and queerphobic forces that plague this country. All major religious denominations, along with state governments ruled by parties from across the political spectrum and the Central Government regurgitated the same conservative talking points of opposing marriage equality: ‘traditional marriage structures‘, ‘religious beliefs‘ and ‘preserving the sanctity of the family‘.
Homonationalism and the state
While the country grapples with increasing attempts at rewriting its history, efforts made to install a Hindu Rashtra, growing religious majoritarianism and diminishing democratic freedoms, it has found a way to co-opt queer politics through ‘homonationalism’. Organisations such as Queer Hindu Alliance and other bodies advocate for the furthering of LGBTQIA+ rights but based on the premise that while “Hindu scriptures” have always been accepting of queer rights, it is the foreign, imported “Abrahamic religions” that spread homophobia and deter calls for societal integration.
We see this when Queer Hindu Alliance celebrates the abrogation of Article 370 saying it will benefit the Queer community of J&K but the ground reality says otherwise. The pinkwashing of human rights abuses is further propounded and absorbed as queer politics is weaponised as a means to promote majoritarianism. This rhetoric thus serves as a dog whistle to further alienate religious minorities from the Queer Liberation Movement and promote the hegemony of Hindu, Savarna “Good Queers” of the nation-state.
The striking down of Section 377 that decriminalised Homosexuality was based on legal precedent from the 2017 Right to Privacy verdict. However, by grounding decriminalisation on the basis of privacy, it ignored the notion that ‘privacy’ is often a luxury. The entire rhetoric of ‘the state should not intervene within the four walls of your room‘ assumes that you have a room to begin with. Queerness is not always within the privacy of one’s home; it is in the streets, in the railway stations, cruising parks, movie theatres and other spaces that crouch beyond State-CCTV surveillance and are unmonitored by the mores of a conservative society dealing with a deep-rooted colonial hangover.
This brings us to the current conversation dominating the discourse of the queer liberation movement in India. If the only change made is switching the words “man and woman” to “spouse” in an effort to make it gender neutral, it still allows for the state to carry on as usual without passing effective institutional change to target the structural violence at the root of most queer communities. The State has weaponised the language of the cisheteronormative neoliberal family structure and the institution of marriage to deny inclusion of queer communities: it is this very structure and its norms that need to be evaluated and disrupted.
What is the guarantee that state-sanctioned same-sex marriages won’t just propound the same caste endogamy that has been so endemic to Indian society? Even the first gay Indian matrimonial newspaper ad had the phrase “same caste preferred” afterall. What we need is a radical and progressive understanding of family, rights and emancipation. We need not look far, Cuba had recently passed an instrumental Family Code through a referendum that sought to democratise the institution of the family and expanded rights for LGBT+ people, recognition of women’s household work and strong measures against gender violence and child protection.
Expanding the lexicon of queer rights
We must keep in mind that the Queer Liberation Movement does not and should not have its end goal in just ushering in same-sex marriage unions that will only immediately benefit monogamous, cisgender mostly upper-caste, urban, upper-class homosexuals. This article is not to discredit the merits of the highest constitutional court recognising same-sex unions. Of course that is exceptionally important. It will enable a conversation for furthering queer rights, and offer a legal precedent to protect queer couples. But for how long? Co-opting into a system of oppression advantages the most privileged of us and leaves the rest of us begging for scraps.
Many of us might feel dejected, disappointed and enraged at the current Supreme Court verdict but we must channel this frustration into larger discourses of the community and sustain the struggle. Efforts for queer emancipation must be directed towards grassroots level mobilization and access to education, housing, healthcare, transgender rights and a radical reimagination of spaces, communities and politics; the way our cities and towns are designed, access to public spaces, combating gentrification, standing firm against the corporatisation of Pride, calling for better working conditions, access to mental health resources and so much more. Legal instruments to affirm queer identities are still missing.
We require an Anti-Discrimination bill that encompasses non-cisgender/heterosexual identities, to protect specifically LBTQ individuals who are victims of ‘natal family violence’ and provide legal means to recognise chosen families. Horizontal reservation must be implemented to ensure that not all members of the Transgender community are roped under a single ‘OBC quota’. Conversion therapy still continues across the country, as witnessed in Kerala, and a bottoms-up approach that sensitises healthcare workers and institutions is the need of the hour. The queer community is not a monolith. Its struggle has to be interwoven with the struggle against fascism, Hindutva majoritarianism, patriarchy, queerphobia, poverty, state-sponsored oppression, minority disenfranchisement and the increasing marginalisation of dispossessed communities in the country while creating solidarities with feminist movements, labour unions, student organisations, the anti-caste movement and transcending narrow categories of identity-politics.
Countering the ‘privatisation of desire’
Ironically, the one entity that might benefit from the legalisation of same-sex marriage will be the Indian Government and the Capitalist cisheteronormative establishment. By allowing for Marriage Equality, it might satiate the demands of Savarna, bourgeoise queer folks who, now content with their inclusion into the system, will either wither away in diverting resources for a larger overhaul in the way systems work or shift focus to lighter demands.
Because ultimately, marriage equality legitimises the institution of marriage and assumes that “marriages” are inherently “equal” themselves. The Regime will now not have to fear an incessant social movement that tries to raise issues that hint at human rights abuses happening elsewhere in the country. Or atleast, that’s what it hopes for.
The majority judgement of the Supreme Court case has stated that while queer identities are valid and have to be respected: any law to include them in state-sanctioned institutions cannot be altered by the court but must be passed by the legislature, effectively passing the buck, and the future of queer rights in the country, to a majoritarian government that propounds Hindutva nationalism. While the RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat has said that ‘LGBTQ people should have their own private and social space‘, it is this very ‘privatisation of expression and desire’ that is problematic.
The Sangh Parivar is not and will not be the bearers of Queer Liberation. Ironically then, it is the very same homonationalists, the mostly savarna cis-het homosexual men of the community who tend to be allied with the ruling regime, who have the greatest leverage to push for queer rights allowing for the possibility of further exclusionary rhetoric. This cannot happen at the risk of losing sight of the values of the Queer Liberation Movement such as intersectionality.
Citing the separation of the judiciary and the legislature while saying that the court can only ‘interpret’ the law; it has washed off all obligations to safeguard the rights of the queer community while offering piecemeal words of sympathy. CJI DY Chandrachud has said that the police must not harass queer people on the basis of sexuality or gender identity; how much this will go on to affect the structural violence that queer Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan and working class individuals face everyday is left to be seen. Companies like Vedanta have touted their ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ initiatives and said they were hiring Transgender individuals, but this ignores the fact that the corporate has also been pursuing Bauxite mining in Sijimali, Odisha and just last week held a public hearing that saw paramilitary troops repress protests by Adivasi groups against fears that it will negatively impact the 18 revenue villages that fall under the project.
The ‘homonationalism’ line of assimilationist politics might also just lead to increased marginalisation and structural violence to be meted to minority groups in the pursuit of ‘rights for a few but not all’. The verdict is clear in one thing: the fight for Queer Liberation cannot be done purely through the courts and amicable discussions. It requires active resistance politics, mobilisation and confrontation from all fronts. While this might seem to dampen some of us, we must look at it as an opportunity to reorient it in a way to strengthen solidarities, dissent and communities.
The Queer Liberation movement in India must be prepared to weather all storms while also holding solidarity with the spirit of dissent and resistance that other social movements in the nation are pushing for. True emancipation does not arise when only the most privileged celebrate their rights. It happens when we ensure society allows its people to reach their full potential unhindered – because ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere‘.