Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Section 377: Chasing the rainbow

After the first flush of celebration following the decriminalization of IPC Section 377, the unity on show in the run-up to the ruling frays

Chennai: Nirmal, 28, has a new spring in his stride these days. He’s found a new confidence. Battling a messy divorce for the last four years, which stemmed from him being ‘discovered’, he now struts with his head held high at work, home or play. Radhika, 23, is unconcerned about what colleagues think of her. “My piercings and tattoos are my identity, just like my preference for women," she remarks confidently. Travis, 19, doesn’t care that people think he’s feminine. Well, at least not anymore. “I wear my femininity with confidence and I even manage to attract the hot guys at work. I guess it was more about me accepting myself than them accepting me," he says before hurrying off to meet his date, a bisexual boy he’s been crushing on for years.

These are stories the world would like to hear about queer Indians after the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. And yes, these stories, like so many others, are thankfully true. The country’s rainbow community has had so much to celebrate about that the confetti hasn’t settled yet. A new energy has burst into the LGBTQIA+ community across the spectrum. People are openly professing their love for each other, a privileged bunch of gay socialites are renewing their wedding wows, drag queens are the talk of the town and everyone’s generally happy—well, almost everybody.

I hate to burst this bubble. I, like many others, want to only write about the amazing things my community has seen. But to what end? Is there any true purpose behind hiding the faults within the community instead of calling out our problematic behaviour before it is too late?

The LGBTQIA+ movement over the last few decades has been almost unanimously focused on repealing/reading down IPC Section 377. This blind one-goal driven focus has cost us a lot, already. Today, the LGBTQIA+ is not the strong umbrella identity it used to be. Dissenting voices from the transcommunity have been getting louder and rightfully so. The dwindling presence of the transcommunity at Prides is now more visible. More transcommunity leaders are vocalising their inability and disinterest to make/keep peace with the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) community.

The rainbow is falling apart, and we cannot ignore it anymore.

It’s not like this wasn’t predicted. It was. Social workers warned the community of the overreaching presence of privileged cis-male leaders who were worryingly always perceived to be at the helm of the movement. That’s what the outside world preferred to see. For those of us within the movement, however, the transcommunity leaders were always more important.

We could never forget that while our cis-communities hid and avoided run-ins with the system, our transcommunities took to the streets and faced the brutality of regressive state machinery for decades. Their contributions have been conveniently forgotten. Today, media houses like to focus on the more appealing parts of the community. Gay, privileged men took over the movement just when things were almost already done and walked away with all the cheers. Business magazines chose to add this privileged lot into ‘most influential lists’ and a lot of us were left wondering—influential to whom?

A lot of us in South India were disgusted at the behaviour of the atypical Dilliwalas: Shamelessly stealing the limelight from the actual activists across the country. We are thankful that our regional media did not cave in. However, they weren’t completely to blame. Media houses that have been aware of the movement and involved in it seemed to have developed partial amnesia and chose to ignore the activists they knew did the actual fighting all along. This was new for us gay men, but an everyday occurrence for the transcommunity.

All is not well within the transcommunities either. The same economic rift that differentiated the LGB from the transcommunities was now also responsible for divisions within the transcommunity. Not too long ago, a group of urban, educated transwomyn decided that they didn’t want to be associated with the hijra community and began a juvenile smear campaign against hijras. It took some equally powerful voices from the transcommunity to shut down the campaign, but it revealed wide chasms that seemed to already exist.

Today, the queer community stands split on many issues. Drag being the latest addition. India is known for a drag culture (people portraying exaggerated versions of a gender—usually through clothes and elaborate makeup). A drag performer can be of any gender or sexuality and chooses to portray any gender or sexuality. This seemingly harmless art form, which is celebrated across the Western world, is now causing problems for the LGBTQIA+ in India. Aping a largely Western idea of what drag artistry is, most young queer men in India are turning to drag to showcase their inherent talents. What they’re not consciously doing is putting a local context to this borrowed art form.

Dance forms and theatre forms in India have always encouraged drag, but it was hardly ever offensive to anyone. Western drag, however, almost always demeans women, reducing them to patriarchal tropes and almost always offends the transcommunity in India. Most transwomyn complain about how their highly political choice of cross-dressing, which often leaves them vulnerable to bullying and violence in public, is trivialised by the often privileged and urban modern drag artiste. Drag artistes get to cross-dress and trivialise femininity, while transwomyn face violence on the streets for the same thing. Further still, feminists look at drag as a terrible representation of womyn, especially when the performer is actually a cis-man performing a ‘fetishized version of a womyn’ solely for a cis-male heterosexual audience.

Nobody likes to be told that something they enjoy isn’t good. The LGBTQIA+ community is being torn apart by this inability to show solidarity. A problematic Kannada film recently (ironically made by an ‘ally’ director and an ‘ally’ actor) chose to ridicule gay men. The comedian, a relatively popular one, ignored all attempts to call out this homophobia, while several queer womyn chose to do the same thing, simply because they were fond of the comedian. Local newspapers picked up some of the arguments, but the issue was soon swept under the carpet. The community is slowly devolving into an ‘each identity for their own’ scenario. Recently, attempts to call out predatory behaviour in LGBTQIA+ ‘safe spaces’ met with equal resistance. Thankfully, dialogue prevailed in some cases and change is being seen. India’s LGBTQIA+ is ripe for our own #MeToo.

We can choose to ignore the dirt that patriarchal tendencies have created within the umbrella community, but we cannot do so for long.

Domestic abuse within the community is hardly ever addressed or even dealt with. Multiple marginalizations often lead to victims feeling trapped and doubly so. The abusers often get away with even murder as societal watch is something that is totally absent in our communities. In the enthusiasm to accept when nobody else accepts, a lot of abusive behaviour is ignored, simply because most LGBTQIA+ individuals feel that they will be judged by society. “When you’ve walked away from your family and rejected society, who are you going to turn to? When I told my elder brother that my partner was beating me, he turned round and shamed me instead. He asked me if I was enough of a man—that I let another man treat me like a woman in bed and also beat me like his wife—he asked me if I had any shame. After you hear something like that, will you go back to the same person for help or refuge?" asks Sharath, 22, who managed to escape an abusive relationship a few months ago. Sharath’s story isn’t unique. The abuse within the community is rampant. It’s the one sin that unites us all.

Our community is falling apart and it is only because we are doing too little, too late.

At the NammaPride (Bangalore Pride) recently, a bunch of urban ‘woke’ vegans created a fuss when they were almost dis-included from the Pride. The Pride committee eventually allowed them to walk and carry their own flag (something otherwise not permitted). Many other individuals who walked the Pride were terribly offended by this. “As someone who is already judged for eating meat in an increasingly saffron India, I felt very uncomfortable with this group of vegans carrying a Pride flag. That flag represented people like me and it seemed unfortunate that the vegans didn’t realise the communal politics they were playing right into," shares Timothy, 23.

A movement that was proud of its intersectionality, the LGBTQIA+ community today stands divided in its politics. Many accredit their freedom to the Bharatiya Janata Party (that is in power today) and the far-right queer community has taken root across the country. While on the one hand religion-inclined queer leaders are participating in interfaith discussions, on the other queer individuals are also exercising their biases against other religions more openly and fearlessly. The community is no more a left-leaning majority, and moderates and fundamentalists vie for space in most city-based LGBTQIA+ communities. Browsing dating apps such as Grindr will lead you to many profiles proudly claiming ‘Only Brahmins’, ‘Only Muslims’ and ‘Only Christians’—this wasn’t the case a decade ago.

If the biases aren’t about economy, identity and religion, then they are about physical stereotypes that the community now religiously adheres to. For a community that screams out for acceptance, the LGBTQIA+ community in India (much like the rest of the world) is cruel and merciless to many of its own. Set stereotyped ‘types’ are now the order of the hour. Having a preference isn’t a bad thing but shaming someone for not being attractive is taking bias to a whole new level of intolerance. “I am slightly on the heavier side and more often than not, all I want to do is chat and get to know someone on a dating app. My profile is very clear about what I am looking for. Yet, even a ‘hi’ sent to a supposedly good-looking guy can lead to a stream of abuses filled with body-shaming taunts. Some people get some joy out of being mean to other people, I guess," explains Sartaj, 30.

Sartaj shares these experiences with thousands of LGBTQIA+ individuals. The pressure to be good-looking, stay in shape, morph into a personality based on the position you prefer in bed and so much more can often be the biggest triggers for suicidal behaviour in the community. Yet we are nowhere even close to beginning conversations about this.

A community that once inspired social movements across the country is today a sad reminder of what it used to be. Being afraid to call out our flaws openly and introspect has led to this sorry state. Today, as we stand as free individuals celebrating our new-found freedom, it is important to remind ourselves of where we stand as a community. Ignoring these issues will only make them worse. The only way forward is addressing them and collectively trying to find solutions. This might hopefully lead India’s LGBTQIA+ to be the inclusive, accepting and wonderfully woke community that it started out to be.

Romal Lāisram is the editor-in-chief of Provoke Lifestyle, Chennai. He is also a human rights activist and the founder of Queer Arts Movement, India.

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