WHEN the Delhi High Court struck down the provision of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that criminalises even consensual sex between same sex individuals, it also effectively opened up public space long inaccessible for the queer movement in India. The decision not only permits the queer community to carry out a much more democratic struggle against the oppression of its sexuality but also gives it an opportunity to complicate the language of the movement vis-a-vis class and gender issues in the country.
Ponni Arasu, a member of the Alternative Law Forum and a queer activist, said, The decision has given the queer community basic access to law. You could not be identified as a homosexual as it was criminal to be so. So, even when there is a case of civil rights abuse or other forms of oppression, you could never go to a police station. You had to hide your identity. The movement, in a way, starts now as it is out of the courtroom. Gautam Bhan, a member of Voices Against 377, said, No battle is won in the courtroom. It is from here we start to complicate our language of sexuality and engage it with other forms of oppression and discrimination in society.
The decision was long due, considering that the law was framed as a colonial tool by the British to enter the family space and dictate private matters. Earlier, the subcontinents monarchs had not intervened in the realm of sexuality, keeping the state away from disturbing the inherent status quo.
In a way, the queer movement in India, which took a stand against the Victorian law drafted in 1860, can also be seen as contributing to the womens movement in the country. Not only does the queer movement challenge the defining patriarchal nature of public and private spaces, the queer debate also forms an integral part of ongoing class struggles as it deals with the politics of marginalisation.
Bhan said, A Dalit woman who is a lesbian will have existential issues to deal with other than her sexuality. But her sexuality, too, is an integral part of her life. How can we, then, separate issues of sexuality from other democratic struggles of India? Similarly, working class people who could be queer have their economic issues to deal with. We need to use the language of sexuality to check any discrimination of queer people in employment, educational institutes, hospitals, and so on. Such discriminatory practices are a norm but we can take up these issues.
In a similar vein, Ponni Arasu said: Whether you are a homosexual or a heterosexual, the patriarchal tendencies of social relationships always exist. After the High Court decision, we would hope that the queer movement focusses on developing this debate. It is for this reason that womens organisations in India have been finding us as a natural ally.
Contrary to popular notion, the queer movement is not a homogeneous platform. It is a forum for people holding varied views on how the issue of sexuality should be handled on a broader political platform. Nivedita Menon, a feminist and an academic, said: Sexuality cannot be separated from class and gender issues. The 1990s became the decade when womens organisations started to actively engage with queer rights issues, both formally and informally. There was openness in them to push the issue. All this and the High Court decision, thus, is a victory for a process of a democratic dialogue in society. It will be a struggle for the soul of the movement now that Section 377 is not paramount. Questions of class and of the hypervisibility of gay men as opposed to, say, lesbian women and hijras, are going to become central in the movement.
Bhan also feels that there is no need for unity within the movement and that a healthy debate should be encouraged as there are varying opinions about the shape the movement should take. Are you ready to ask personal questions that deal with sexuality? Sexuality in a political sense has a much broader impact on the lives of people, he said. He also argues that the queer struggle need not be seen as a minority movement as it is as much a political movement as other democratic struggles.
In a country like India, the relevance of the queer movement is often questioned, on the premise that there are more pressing issues at hand. However, Nivedita Menon points out that there cannot be a hierarchy of different kinds of oppression. If one is a homosexual, she or he is forced to live a marginalised life. How can such marginality not be relevant for his or her other identities, whether as worker or minority or peasant? Do you think homosexuals are not active in other democratic struggles? Democratic politics must address different forms of oppression simultaneously, she said.
The queer movement in India has also frequently been dismissed as elitist. Ponni Arasu said: Such arguments often ignore the complexity of human lives. There is a large section of the hijra community that has been openly participating in queer pride marches held every year. Bhan said that in many areas, the movements leadership came from working class people. A case in point is the Aravani Welfare Board in Tamil Nadu where the queer people got the Passport Act amended. Now the passport comes with a separate sexual category other apart from male and female.
Before the High Court ruling, the movement was restricted to talking about disease prevention and the repealing of Section 377. Since homosexuals are among the high-risk communities in the spread of HIV-AIDS, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) argued against Section 377, pointing out that by criminalising homosexuality the state was pushing more people underground and thereby accelerating the HIV risk factor. NGOs working in this area have thus helped in strengthening the queer movement. The High Court ruling seemed to echo their concern: The hidden nature of homosexuality groups is impending intervention under the National AIDS Control Programme. An enabling environment is to be created where the people involved in risky behaviour can be provided total access to the services of such preventive efforts.
With the legal hurdles out of the way, queer activists are gearing up to bring the politics of sexuality into the public domain. Ponni Arasu said: It was hard to address nuances when you were a criminal, but now we can get to real work as the decision is not a mere statement but is framed in compatibility with the Constitution.
Social responses to homosexuality, too, have become positively visible only in the last few years after a concerted effort from all sections of the queer movement. Lesley Esteves, a member of Voices Against 377, said: Ten years ago, when we started the queer movement, we were hardly getting any positive responses. Over the years, the media and many progressive sections of the population have become sensitive to the forms of oppression and violence, including police atrocities, that homosexuals in the country face.
The court ruling has also brought with it a fresh batch of obstacles for queer activists. Most religious groups have come out with scathing criticism of the verdict. Swami Ramdev has even said that homosexuals are mentally ill and need hospitals, not legal vindication. Similarly, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Catholic Church and Muslim theological bodies have all ordained homosexuality as being against the order of nature. While some of them have adopted a conciliatory approach towards decriminalisation of homosexuality, they vehemently oppose its legalisation. Nivedita Menon, however, challenges the naturalness of heterosexuality. What is that gene that makes heterosexuality natural? she asks.
The castigating statements of religious groups are, perhaps, a reflection of the fears that they harbour. Legalisation of homosexuality would mean marriage between such individuals, which essentially challenges the fabric of society as we know it. Nivedita Menon pointed out that the patriarchal and religious status quo of society would be destabilised by such a move because the patriarchal heterosexual family is the basis of all identity. Thats why inter-caste and inter-religious marriages attract similar kinds of violent reactions. The family is about descent and inheritance, and there are strict rules about that. Once you challenge the biological basis of descent and inheritance you are a real threat to the status quo, she said.
The choice of the word queer also delineates and brings home the politics of language to the queer debate, essentially making an attempt to redefine the contours of language itself. Nivedita Menon says that queer is preferred by many activists, herself included, as it better reflects a politics that insists that sexual identity is unstable and fluid. That is, rather than simply expanding the number of sexual identities from two pairs (hetero/homo and male/female) to more and more equally fixed identities (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, inter-sex), the term queer points to the openness and potential fluidity of sexual desire and identification over an individuals lifetime. Language is often wielded as a powerful tool to formulate a discourse in a particular direction, as manifested by the liberal usage of the word gay in the mainstream media. Bhan said, If we can evolve a language that is more inclusive, then it would definitely address the complex issues of human lives.
The legal battle has been partly won. Over the years, the movement has seen a shift in the social reaction from fierce homophobia to more openness. What is now crucial to the movement is, perhaps, its ability to make people question the conventional norms of the social structure and to highlight its own aim as one that seeks not to annihilate the accepted social fabric but to ensure that the social ethos reflects the nuances of human life and is not bound only by tradition.