Centre for Internet & Society

This blog post lays out the discursive construction of sexuality and queerness as intelligible domains in the Indian context while engaging with ideas of visibility, representation, exclusion, publicness, criminality, difference, tradition, experience, and community that have come into use with the critical responses to queer identities and practices in India.

In Brief

To understand the relationship between queerness and Internet technologies we must start with a critical analysis of what ‘queer’ inaugurates in the Indian context and to think forward from there with the technological— a thinking forward that is removed from a purely calculable instrumentality.  What we will in this post try to argue is that practices of same-sex love in the Indian context operates through a setting up of sexual and nonsexual spaces for expression of same-sex desires and towards the end of this post attempt to delineate instances in the spatial domain of cyber space where this enframing is revealed.  Simultaneously we will also then set up the critically queer as a mode of encountering and negotiating the domain of the sexual in the nonsexual.

Sexuality in the Indian context

The last four decades has seen the particular reiteration of the ‘gender and sexuality’ frame in the social sciences in India.  As Mary E John and Janaki Nair in their introduction to ‘A Question of Silence’ note, sexuality since the 1980s “tended to condense into the more specific question of sexual preference associated with identity politics of the gay and lesbian communities.”  The claim has been that this discourse has, in the Foucauldian sense, led to structuring the possible field of the action of people.  This emergence of the sexuality question in India has not come with a rigorous examination of ‘sexuality’ as an intelligible domain in the Indian context.  Here domain refers to a discursive space that is contingent on the theoretical existence of certain phenomena.  Queer studies in the west have set up sexuality as a domain that cuts across social disciplines. As Eve Sedgwick puts it, "[A]n understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition." (Epistemology of the Closet, 1990) The question, then, is if this condition of analysis is also true for the non-West.

The emergence of  gay and lesbian politics in India is tied to a development discourse that saw in the post-stonewall assertion of sexuality identities a radical potential that was, as yet, missing in the Indian context.  The mushrooming of support groups as noted in Shakuntala Devi’s book ‘The World of Homosexuals’ as far back as the 1980s notes the critical function of pedagogy that they performed by creating a discourse of sexuality and identity. This is evidenced even today when people who introduce their homosexual orientation by describing it as a field they entered at a particular point in their lives are corrected to describe it ‘accurately’ as an orientation in the identitarian sense of the word; our Marxist legacies pointing to a false consciousness of their own experience and locating practices firmly within the domain of sexuality. Similarly an assertion that uses the phrase ‘doing gay sex’ is corrected to ‘being gay’.  Another instance where practices are seen as inhering in identity is the familiar scene of a practicing homosexual man or woman who has pointed out the schizophrenic nature of being married to the opposite sex while still continuing to do ‘gay sex’.  In fact, most, frameworks of peer counselling set up in the metros are infused with various degrees of pathologisations that reify identity ignoring aspects of social relations altogether.

The new left project that is best exemplified in the writings of John D Emilio— that attempted a structural approach to oppression based on sexuality by looking at the heterosexual family as an institution that reproduces capitalist ideology in the modern world, also gains currency in the field of resistance that marks rights based sexuality activism in India which draws much from an already existing global network of Marxist thinking and practice.  In this argument heterosexual coupling is seen as the primary  institution that disciplines us into the binaries of male and female sexed subject positions through a fixing of the woman as mother and wife valuing them as reproducers of labourers over their production as labourers and a containment of male sexuality through monogamy and normative heterosexuality wherein homosexuality is then seen as being disruptive of this reproduction of the form of sexual economy that is both a product of and reproduces modern capitalism.

Emerging from these constructions was also another academic procedure in the construction of homosexualities outside the west which was to discover a tradition of same-sex relations.  Geeti Thadani’s Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India and Ruth Vanitha and Saleem Kidwai’s Same-Sex Love in India are examples of this.  Geeti Thadani poses a pre-modern utopia of gynefocal same-sex love between women (named lesbian as well) that were put paid to by Islam, colonialism and shifts in Hinduism.

Same-sex Love in India explicitly seeks to tackle the contemporary claim that homosexual behaviours are alien imports from the west.  Even when they speak of passion, erotic emotion, love as opposed to sex, shame as opposed to guilt they rarely set out to explain these in terms of social relations and construct these ideas as pre-colonial realities that are disrupted by colonial modernity. The authors state in their introduction about the work’s mission to “help assure homo-erotically inclined Indians that large numbers of their ancestors throughout history and in all parts of the country shared their inclinations and were honoured and successful members of the society who contributed in major ways to thought, literature and their general good.  These people were not regarded as inferior in any way nor were they always ashamed of their loves or desires. In many cases they lived happy and fulfilling lives with those that they loved.”

The Khoti and the Hijra

The  search for indigenous categories has also led us to the kothi and the hijra.  Categories marked as traditional and remainders, we are told, of the pre-colonial and pre-modern. The hijra is offered two possible positions.  A possible translation through a transnational medico-legal discourse into the transsexual or the inter-sexed or under a cultural citizenship model into the institutionalised or culturally intelligible tradition of a third gender, who are, to quote Serena Nanda, “…neither male nor female but contain elements of both”.

In medical science the becoming of the hijra is explained as a gender identity disorder— a confusion over the apparent misfit between biological sex (of which there are only two) and a psychological true gender (again only two).  Biological men who identify themselves as women are hijras— an identification that is made possible only through institutionalised relationships of power, in particular the power of relegation, which psychiatric discourse in India too reproduces to a large extent.

Narratives of hijras who state that if they only knew that men could have sex with other men as men then they would not have opted for castration is something we would find hard to illuminate in the translations effected on these bodies by the present categorisations of hijraness as transgender/transsexual/M2F/third gender all of which fundamentally cannot allow for such a claim.  Such a narrative is a question posed in relation to knowledge about ‘gayness’ as identity and more importantly as the visibly dominant identity within the broad spectrum of alternatives.   The medico-legal discourse of course now can jump in, and who is to say that it hasn’t already, to claim that the scientific knowledge that enables them to recognise gender identity disorder would have prevented such misrecognition and the ensuing decision to castrate.

So from a colonial practice that saw hijras as a criminal tribe and criminalised emasculation in 1888 and later also listed emasculation in the IPC as a criminal offence we have now a medical science that claims for itself to be the sole arbiter of gender identity. The many stories of the violence of medical practices that rarely grant recognition of gender identity disorder for years on end and instead identify a horde of other psychological illnesses such as schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, etc as the true disorder are but indicative of the substantive ways in which such knowledge systems affect lives. We still need to consider if epistemic force fields have no effect whatsoever in relation to the modernisation of these categories as distinct identities in relation to the state?

The kothi is understood both as synonymous with hijra and as an attribute of hijraness.  The kothi is also the hijra prior to nirvan, the castration experienced as generative of hijraness.  That is to say that kothiness is what makes intelligible a hijra where kothiness would be that very set of acts that is often characterised by, to quote Serena Nanda, “adopting feminine mannerisms, taking on women’s names and using female kinship terms and a special, feminised vocabulary…they use coarse and abusive speech and gestures in opposition to the Hindu ideal of demure and restrained femininity”.  Kothiness is in many ways all this and more but the kothi is defined for us today solely through the optics of penetration.

The kothi as identity is today strengthened and discursively constituted by the strategies of the HIV/AIDS industry and various NGOs.  If we are to trace movements in HIV/AIDS discourses on same-sex attraction we will find a replication of the very same models we set out earlier.  Initial interventions in this regard like those of the ABVA and Humsafar trust saw ‘gayness’ as a possible identity through which HIV strategies in this regard could form.  An invocation of visibility versus invisibility was stressed which pushed forth the idea that the homosexual as population that was presently under a false consciousness will first have to group themselves under the identity ‘gay’ from where a protracted politics of position will enable the end of oppression on the basis of sexuality in particular through a relationship with HIV/AIDs much like it happened in the west through groups such as ACT-UP.  It was also supposed that these identities based on sexual orientation could, now empowered, decide that they are not gay but some ‘x’ identity  where ‘x’ becomes a culturally translatable, and indeed culturally intelligible, term for gayness.

Another position that was rhetorically differentiated from this orientation/identity model was another model of HIV strategic framing of India as a truly ‘queer’ space where the western categorisation of identities based on sexual orientation do not and indeed cannot exist (exemplified in the writings and statements of Shivananda Khan of Naz Foundation International.)  This framework in denouncing sexual orientation as a culturally intelligible characteristic posits gender identity as the organising principle of male to male sexual encounters in India.  The kothi, the panthi and the dupli are then pointed out as proof of this theory by a process of defining these categories. The kothi becomes the woman identified performer of femininity who takes on the passive penetrated role in sex and who only desires the panthi, the active non-feminine male identified. The dupli is then presumably within such a logic placed as someone who desires both the active and passive roles like the bisexual self who is characterised through an essential desire for both orientations/sexes.

It becomes clear that both these seemingly diverse positions are engaged in the discursive construction of a specific notion of sexualities as object choice positions where the object of desire is framed within the sameness/difference, male/female model and as identity.

What these moves do not explain is why these identities take their particular forms of expression here.  Instead what we have is only an enumeration of new categories with the discovery of newer non-heterosexual practices.

Critically Queer

The post 1990s saw the emergence of the critically queer which at its most rigorous was theorised as a breaking out of heterosexual iterations of power. At its heart was the Foucauldian historicising of sexuality as an accumulating domain in the West beginning from the Roman period to the Western modern.  We suggest that a similar accretion of the social domain into the domain of sexuality never takes place here and what instead accumulates is a mode of separating same-sex sociality into sexual and non-sexual domains with the scope of regulation restricting itself to this separation as opposed to the repression hypothesis that Foucault proffers for the West,   which is not only to say that a range of sexual practices are performative to the extent that they mark out for themselves a separate domain of sociality for the sexual but also that identity has little or no part to play in this performative.

Let us look at two particular instances in everyday LGBT sociality to highlight this separation of domains.

Many of the male support groups that were set up in the formative years of what is being referred to as the LGBT movement in India emerge from public or privately created sexual spaces and over the years has seen an active regulation of this space to keep out the sexual.  This mode of being is even evidenced online when a new member to an online forum set up for LGBT people expresses a sexual desire.  Other members of the group almost immediately ask him to refrain from expressing his sexual desires in this space and suggest instead a networking site like ‘Planet Romeo’ for “such activities”.  The last decade also saw the rise of parties, aimed at increasing visibility, that are organised for gay identified men in Mumbai, Bangalore or Delhi that often follow a strict no drag no sex rule which also includes self-policing of all toilets.  So we have men dressed within clearly regulated notions of how men should dress who are dancing, whereas even two decades ago stories of parties organised similarly did not have these rules.   The Bangalore karaga for instance allows for not just cross-dressing but also same-sex sexual encounters and that too in public spaces as opposed to the private spaces where entry is regulated. There are of course differences between the two but the point is that we are increasingly expected to accept as natural and necessary for the greater common gayhood these limits that we impose on ourselves and our actions.

This frame of marking out a separation between sexual and non-sexual sociality might better explain the various levels of incomprehension exhibited in the recent case of professor Ramchandra Srinivas Siras. Professor Srinivas Ramchandra Siras of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was found dead just days after the Allahabad High Court ordered his reinstatement to his position as reader and chairman of the department of Modern Indian languages from which he had been summarily dismissed by AMU authorities on the basis of misconduct.  The misconduct in question being Siras’s perfectly legal act of having consensual sex with another adult man within the privacy of his allotted living quarters on campus.  The legal act was shot on tape by three sting-crazed citizen-journalists who violently broke into his house, followed by the AMU proctor, deputy proctor, media advisor and public relations officer.  AMU’s decision to suspend Siras came significantly seven months after the Delhi High Court legalized consensual homosexual sex.  Most accounts of LGBT activism relate this narrative as one of homophobia, despite the fact that a fact finding team of sexuality activists note that almost everyone they spoke to in the university knew that Professor Siras was sexually attracted to men for the last 22 years that he has taught there or for that matter that the university has also thrown out lecturers who chose to break any similar sexual code like marrying outside of their religion.

One would be hard-pressed to find a similar narrative in the West.  One can argue that AMU authorities acted with a moral outrage only in relation to the tape that suddenly threatened the sanctity of this marked space of Siras’ private sexual act that had through its capture in public technology threatened to enter the non-sexual realm.  If we are able to look at this event through the lens suggested then we have a better explanation for the long-term acknowledgement of Siras’s sexual practices and the ways in which any transgression of this space (here forcibly induced by the violent intrusion into Siras’s room and the recording of acts marked out constantly as sexual.  A condemning of the violence of intrusion into Siras’s home, while being both important and necessary, does not in any way address the rigidity of the marking out of sexual and non-sexual fields.  A demand for privacy in this context, as is seen in the instance of legal activism against and shift effected in section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, we suggest, operates in keeping these two fields distinct and does not challenge, in any way, the separation of the two domains.   It is precisely in this transgression of fields that we wish to locate the project of the critically queer and the question of the technological.

Gender and Sexuality: A note:   We want to flag here that while we agree that gender is a domain available for understanding social practice and identity its link to sexuality is not implicit.  We will take this up at length in future.

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