There is immense power in calling out homophobia and you don’t have to be queer to experience it. Not only do we empower others and ourselves, in the process we also—and I say this with all the earnestness that’s gone out of fashion in these ironic times—make the world a better place by doing so. For instance, the new Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016 that was introduced by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj last month was as much a blow to a woman’s right over her body as it was to the possibility that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons, single men and women, and heterosexual men and women in live-in relationships can have a child. The Bill was the government’s attempt to protect women who are victimized by the unregulated multimillion-dollar surrogacy industry, but it also defined the family unit that deserved to benefit from this law and, in doing so, left many outside the pale.
The truth, of course, is that there are other kinds of families. Many queer persons survive with the help of supportive networks when their own birth families fail them. Hijra gharanas are historical examples of such family spaces. Other queer families comprise partners, supportive friends, lovers, former lovers, co-parents—these are families of choice and a reality for many. Some, who are at the receiving end of homophobia, may choose to make a clean break with birth families that have treated them with violence and humiliation—an unfortunate reality of so many queer people. Indeed, many have had to escape violent families just to survive; many others are still living in such nightmarish situations.
But what of those queer experiences that don’t involve physical violence at the hands of caregivers like parents or siblings—even if everything looks ostensibly fine, it doesn’t mean that such spaces are necessarily discrimination-free.
Let’s say you talk about your gender identity or sexual orientation with your parent, and they reply, “We understand you, but let’s not bring this up with the neighbours right now. They won’t get it.” Would you call your parent supportive or discriminatory? An 18-year-old college student in Mumbai once narrated her coming out story to me. When she told her mother that she is a lesbian, her mother had a long conversation with her, in an effort to understand what that meant. But she also told her daughter in clear terms that her husband—the student’s father—would not get it. She asked her daughter to keep her sexual identity under wraps till it became absolutely necessary to bring it up. When would that be, I had asked her. “When it’s time to look for a boy for me, I presume,” she answered wryly. For this bright young student then, the next few years will necessarily entail a deep silence about aspects of her personal life that she has no reason to be ashamed of. Would you call this a supportive environment? In an attempt to be supportive of her daughter, the student’s mother is only perpetuating homophobia.
Let’s assume you’re at a family lunch, and your sibling pointedly refers to your partner as a friend, while their partner is being called out by their proper relationship status. Would you call that discrimination or is it too small an issue to confront?
In many instances, the care of the ageing parent often falls on the queer and/or unmarried child. It is assumed that because they don’t have legal family units of their own, their labour must be brought in to serve the birth family. After all, it’s filial duty.
In matters of inheritance, some siblings may demand a greater share of family property or wealth because they have children of their own, while the queer and/or unmarried person in the family doesn’t (even less possible now, given the new surrogacy Bill). Not many would recognize the discriminatory nature of such expectations, in which the queer and/or unmarried person must bear the price of the choices made by heterosexual people, which are legally, culturally and socially validated. The discrimination inherent in this is, as in the instances above, a blind spot.
But, of course, there is such a thing as love. And it shouldn’t be so hard to imagine creating a more equitable and safe environment in some birth families for love to be expressed. It’s not easy to use the word “homophobic” or “discriminatory” for those whom we have loved as children, whom we have felt loved and protected by, and towards whom we feel a sense of responsibility as we, and they, grow older.
Yet, in the face of the myriad ways in which families—legal ones, of course—discriminate against gender and sexual identities, some of us make it harder for ourselves by being blind to what’s really going on. Part of this has probably got to do with the fact that we are taught to maintain status quo, because it allows us privileges, whether of class, caste or sex. We are asked to either brush things under the carpet, or understand the context of persons who are discriminating—familiar to many of us as cardinal rules of the Great Indian Family Honour Contract. But calling out discrimination—misogyny, homophobia, communalism, casteism— has nothing to do with love. It has everything to do with telling those who discriminate that they are wrong.
Because calling someone homophobic is to open up the possibility that they may, one day, stop being homophobic. Calling out the casual, small ways in which inequality is engendered by the birth family is to allow the space to transform. Asking someone to reflect on their actions is to open a dialogue that they will, one hopes, engage in. That’s not a breach of contract; that’s extending support to those who need it. It’s high time we rewrite the old family contract and create a new one, which favours those affected by discrimination within our families, and not those who are inflicting it. To call out homophobia is a brave act. To be called out and then to question your own assumptions—truly engage with the challenges facing your queer family member—is just as brave.
The Sex Talk is a column on gender, sexuality and blind spots. Dhamini Ratnam tweets at @dhamini