LOUNGE WEB OPINION: Satyamev Jayate and Section 377
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Satyamev Jayate is Sanskrit for truth alone triumphs. But try as we might, there is barely ever a truth that can be told while another isn’t being simultaneously suppressed. First things first, however. The episode of Satyamev Jayate which aired on 19 October showed that the time was ripe for change—it is possible for people to be gay, lesbian, hijra and a woman after a sex-change operation, and still be loved and accepted by friends, family and society. It showed that it is possible to live similar lives of dread, fear and pain.
In the episode, actor and show host Aamir Khan asked people to ring a toll-free number and register their support for the cause. According to data made available from the Satyamev Jayate team, already 1.05 million calls have been registered, with more pouring in each day. The plan is to appeal to the government, as Khan has done in the past, in the hope of getting Parliament to amend Section 377.
It was also aired on Doordarshan, so we know that potentially millions of households were made to think of sexuality and gender issues in ways that we don’t usually think of—as more than just binary or essentialist. And for that, the team and crew and participants who appeared on the show need to be feted. The way Gazal Dhaliwal spoke of her sex-change operation as a means to becoming her true self, a woman; Deepak Kashyap’s point about accepting oneself before seeking out someone else’s acceptance; Simran Sheikh’s courage in seeking out the hijra community when her own family refused to accept her—all these stories were told in a way that appeals to the viewer’s emotions. The episode generated a great amount of optimism within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and on Tuesday, Dhaliwal answered questions on Twitter through the Satyamev Jayate handle, talking about the need to present LGBT people “just the way they are” using the medium of Bollywood, which “reaches out to the masses the way nothing else can”.
The website of Satyamev Jayate has more videos and articles about a few other aspects of LGBT living in India: parental support, forced marriages, the occlusion of work spaces for the hijra community, among others. Which is all wonderful because these things cannot be stressed enough; these stories need to remain in circulation so we never forget our complicity in everyday acts of violence.
However, the underlying assumptions in the episode were also stark. A middle-class definition of success, incremental, aspirational, turning from a job of low status to high through the redeeming power of education, moving from non-acceptance by family to one of co-option through marriage, underwrote all the stories. The absence of a transman’s story was telling. Within the LGBT community, the transman community remains one of the invisible (even the website lacks an article or video about transmen). The essentialism that underlies gender and sexuality remained firmly in place, as each participant emphasized how they had felt/acted differently since childhood. The impulse to normalize was unmistakable, as the ever articulate Dr Anjali Chhabria discussed parents’ discomfort in confronting possible homosexuality of their children.
By all means, normalize, aspire, study, work, seek acceptance. But do know that this is not the only successful way of living a queer life. There are many folks who lead lives that don’t subscribe to the heteronormative imperative of getting married or living monogamously, who aren’t earning very much money, who haven’t received acceptance from their families, who are survivors of violence from their same-sex partners and families, who face up to the demands of patriarchy in ways that are unimaginable to others, for whom the demands of masculinity are less a matter of pride and more a matter of necessity, who do not wish to, or may not have the means to, undergo sex-change operations but are clear that their gender identity isn’t what was assigned to them at birth, who battle multiple forms of disenfranchizement of caste, religion and class, besides gender and sexuality, who live with pride with their HIV-positive status and do not, importantly, aspire to the normalcy that was on display in Sunday’s episode. These are successful, proud queer people, too.
Section 377 affects everyone, including married heterosexuals, because the law offers a standard definition of what constitutes acceptable intercourse—penile-vaginal. The section, as it stands today, does away with the need for consent between adults and as such assails an individual’s constitutionally guaranteed rights to personal liberty and expression and freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex.
There are many other battles that still need to be fought—the right to inherit property from one’s domestic partner, the right to become a parent with one’s same-sex partner, the right to marry and live with one’s partner, anti-discrimination laws that allow people of non-heteronormative genders and sexuality to exist in peace in a society where love jihad is a perceived threat.
In our bid to naturalize and normalize non-heteronormativity, the tendency to draw similarities is understandable, and indeed often necessary. But what is equally important is to be aware of the blind spots that this engenders. Let these truths triumph too.
Satyamev Jayate airs on the Star Network and Doordarshan at 11am on Sundays.