A city needs queerness

Queer spaces in cities are not defined by the mere presence of gays, lesbians and transgenders, but by how we are living in that space


Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

“They kept on saying we are not here. But of late, we are here”—David Kato, slain Ugandan lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights activist.

On Sunday, New Delhi’s ninth Queer Pride Parade began from the intersection of Barakhamba and Tolstoy roads, and ended at Jantar Mantar. A kilometre-odd stretch of public space, however briefly, turned into carnival grounds. What we know about public space in Indian cities is that it is very rarely public. One inhabits public space always under particular conditions, mediated by the interplay of one’s gender, caste, class, religion, age, ability, clothes, comportment and the time of day.

Conforming to the codes of public space has the effect of making one invisible, and not standing out in public is a privilege in a time when mere presence is a perceived threat. But what we sought to do on Sunday was echo David Kato and affirm presence—we are here. We are here as members of the queer community, and we are also here as Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis, transgenders, sex workers, persons with disabilities, communities displaced by development, and we are also here as a part of Delhi.

“Delhi’s QueerFest has an intimate relationship with the city”, said one of the event’s organizers, as he spoke at the Open Mic Night, which marked the start of QueerFest on Friday. His statement is reflective of a reigning argument in the study of queer geography, which situates the development of gay, lesbian, and other gender non-conforming subcultures in the metropolis. Cities such as Paris, New York, London and San Francisco have well-documented histories of origin, flourishing and repression of queer communities.

For instance, the Harlem Renaissance in New York was a uniquely urban spectacle. In the 1920s and 1930s, a distinct black homosexual subculture began to evolve in Harlem. It was shaped by the south to north migration of African-Americans to work in industries, thereby allowing black selfhood to reinvent itself as an urban salaried worker. This also coincided with prohibition, which inadvertently brought about a lively bootlegging industry that in turn fostered a queer nightlife famed for its integration across lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. The Harlem Renaissance declined after the stock market crash of 1929 and the repeal of prohibition, forcing much of the erstwhile queer community to go underground or into the closet. Subsequent political movements for LGBT rights have invoked the history of Harlem to stake a claim of origin and continued existence.

It would be flawed to hastily apply the same relation of city and queerness in developing countries where being actively queer means risking bodily harm, then and now. Queer cultures and histories in the cities of the Global South suffer from inadequate documentation. But seminal publications such as Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s Same-Sex Love In India: Readings From Literature And History did much to highlight existing traditions of queerness in Indian culture as well as challenge the notion of homoeroticism as a Western import.

But how does queerness change the city itself? An ongoing research project in Jawaharlal Nehru University on urban queer geographies does not treat the city as a precondition to queer life, rather, it interrogates the aspirations one comes to a city with—that of finding community, ducking familial violence, the possibility of a fuller life. The presence of difference, individuals living at variance with established societal norms within the city, lends courage and a sense of possibility to those looking to live similarly. As the renowned scholar Judith Butler noted, “For those who are still looking to become possible, possibility is a necessity.”

Small, sustained, everyday challenges to a heteronormative order has the potential to liberate everyone who finds themselves circumscribed by that order, not just sexual minorities. Take single women living alone in cities, changing the way women access public space and public life. Think of transgenders accessing the Delhi Metro in the general category, and how the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corp. has recently introduced the third gender option for booking tickets. Why are university spaces today so embattled, and for lack of a better word, queer?

Queer spaces in cities are not defined by the mere presence of gays, lesbians and transgenders, but by how we are living in that space—through challenge, transgression, courage and criticality. It takes courage to live differently. It takes courage to accept one’s own difference and demand that one be accepted as a reality, a presence, and possibility.

On Sunday, every condition that underpinned Delhi’s conditional public space was ignored, challenged, and gleefully jettisoned. If a road is intended for vehicular traffic, we made it a pavement on Sunday. If a pavement is for purposeful pedestrians, we made it our purpose to dance in all directions. If our politics have been dismissed as “quota problems”, if our history has never even been part of History, if our access to education, healthcare, housing, and public facilities have been curtailed, if the cities we live in have not been designed with us in mind, we gathered on Sunday to demand a future that won’t overlook us.

If we chose our clothes every morning based on what would minimize violence to us in public, we wore what we wanted on Sunday, refusing to cooperate with the terms of violence. If we had been raised to speak softly, we shouted defiant slogans, in solidarity with our own muted selves and with those who had been muzzled. How much more loudly must we shout just to be able to imagine radically different lives than the one that has already been imagined for us?

Rihan Najib is a staff writer at Mint.

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