DIVERSIFYING LGBT+ NARRATIVES IN INDIA
Fire, a 1996 Indian-Canadian movie starring Shabana Azmi (Radha) and Nandita Das (Sita), features a love story between two sister in laws. The film was controversial at the time of its release, sparking off widespread agitation at the portrayal of female homosexuality for the first time in Indian cinema. But it remains ground breaking, not just for being one of the few that offer respectable LGBT representation, but because even in this day, it opens up the audience to an entirely unexplored LGBT narrative. Perhaps the most stirring aspect of this film isn’t the love story itself, but the backdrop in which it unfolds. For the first time, queer women were portrayed in juxtaposition to the traditional framework of a middle-class male dominated Indian household.
The idea that lesbians aren’t just teenage or college girls with brightly coloured short hair and dating apps on their fingertips shouldn’t have been that much of a shock to me. But instances like Radha and Sita awaiting their negligent husbands on the moonlit night of Karva Chauth as opposed to perhaps a Rebecca and Samantha in a coming of age art film was cause for a much needed revelation. Having conversed with many people since then about the same, the fact that a significant amount also related to having an alike eye-opener, proved that there was a bigger problem. In response, a friend narrated her feeling of bewilderment on seeing a woman, old enough to be your local desi auntie, the pallu of her saree atop her head, at Lucknow pride. The image was not typical of an ally but it is noteworthy that it took my friend several moments to consider the possibility that she could be a member of the community herself.
One recounted a similar experience while watching Aligarh, a biographical film about a professor at Aligarh Muslim University who was outed for being gay after being filmed having sex with a rickshaw puller. Being used to viewing LGBT identities with a metropolitan upper class lens, the depiction of a middle aged professor – in a commonplace university, in a small town, in a relationship with a rickshaw puller – in contrast to the widely perpetuated gay man archetype was a humbling surprise to him. For the sake of gay men themselves and the rest of the community, here’s a public service announcement: the LGBT community does not have the solitary face of a high street well-groomed gay man who works in the fashion industry. The reality is that gay and bisexual men come in all shapes and sizes, from all religions, castes and socio-economic strata. But as these intersections are hardly ever addressed – in the news, in films or on social media platforms – the real life connotations of being a double minority in India remain an actuality left neglected.
While HIV+ awareness gaining traction has at least to some extent brought a section of gay men in conversation, further less represented are lesbian and bisexual women in India. And while even many who do have access to online resources and other platforms struggle with being side-lined within the community, many possible narratives never see the light of day. The realities of lesbians from lower and middle class families or those from a rural background remain largely unheard of. Outside the bubble that our privilege has fabricated for us, the same one that is momentarily burst with movies like Fire, the far off possibility that lesbians could very much be your dewraanis or jethaanis or naukraanis continues to be someone’s harsh reality. Only on the rare occasion that a story like the Gujarat tragedy finds coverage – two lesbians committing suicide after eloping and being unable to find a safe space – that we use even a miniscule of our brain capacity to consider the case of LGBT+ people in rural India. And while this lack of proper representation has many enduring effects, the most immediate and consequential one is the way in which it is affecting LGBT+ activism.
With being married off without consent to the immediate threat of abuse and corrective rape being the everyday realities of many of these women, they aren’t being talked about nearly as much as they should be – neither in mainstream LGBT narratives nor in mainstream feminist ones.
Photographed by Aditii.
Perhaps part of the problem is many choosing to remain blissfully ignorant – coddling themselves in their privilege. But seeing many well intentioned people – LGBT youth in India included – omit certain narratives while trying to make a difference, time and time again, has led me to believe that a bigger, more complex cyclic process has much to contribute. A process that is causing India to look at LGBT+ identities as a distinctly urban, upper class and dare I say, westernized, narrative.
With being closeted being the reality of majority of the community in India, real life stories and role models are a tough find. Hence, as un-ideal as it may be, media representation – literature, news and social included – does become the primary source of exposure to LGBT narratives, even within the community. The bare minimum existence of LGBT+ representation here and the comparative abundance of the same in western media has caused westernized notions to force their way into India’s LGBT community to an extent that among the dominant narratives that LGBT youth here are being exposed to, hardly any are distinctly Indian.
That, combined with the portrayal of homosexuality as something explicitly un-Indian by the supposed gatekeepers of our culture is leading LGBT youth in India to believe that in claiming their queerness they need to de-identify with their cultural identity: the premise of the formation of a generation of individuals partaking in LGBT activism who will be looking at the issues of the community with a very westernized and hence also, upper class lens.
Consider the extreme case of a friend of mine: A well off gay guy, educated enough to reference the Stonewall riots and discuss the Bathroom Bill controversy, defends the gender neutrality of fashion at every chance. But despite living his entire life here, amidst a discussion about LGBT+ rights in India, I find that he is ignorant of the Hijra identity, let alone their history and struggle.
Which must urge you to reconsider: what good does discussing hypothetical notions of genderless societies or the gender neutrality of colour bring when done at the cost of ignoring India’s Hijra community that stays ostracized, neck deep in sex work and unemployment. I reiterate the key phrase: at the cost of. I acknowledge that with the amount of diversity within the community, there will always be stark parallels in progress.
It is not my contention to take away from the importance of any contribution that members of the community make in an attempt to create awareness or defend their rights. I only aim to bring light to the possibility that maybe in your all round quest for queer liberation, by virtue of certain privileges you hold, some narratives are being left out.
Possibly, the hardest issues to navigate are the ones that don’t necessarily present themselves as glaring problems in the face of more obvious long-standing ones. While their subtle manifestations might be lost in translation, the gravity of their implications should not be. In the grand scheme of rallying against Section 377 or perhaps defending your own rights, maybe these notions of media representation and intersectionality might not seem like the top priorities for the cause. But claiming activism without acknowledging privilege, activism even at the smallest scale, is a slippery slope. And it’s about time we realize, we’re about half way downhill.
For the sake of maintaining the integrity of and preserving the diversity within India’s LGBT+ community, bringing sidelined narratives into mainstream conversation is a must. The point isn’t to give oppression a hierarchy. The point is to acknowledge that exclusivity – intentional or not – defeats the purpose of any form of activism. For the gateway to a truly liberated LGBT India, remember: intersectionality is key.
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