Gautam Bhan, Kafila, 28 June 2008
A gay man is given two years of electroshock therapy in a major city hospital to “cure” him — the National Human Rights Commission refuses to file a complaint. A 2004 book on queer politics sees 34 contributors write under their full names, many for the first time. Lesbian women continue to commit suicide rather than be forcibly married. Large sections of the media openly support campaigns against Sec 377 — the 1861 law that criminalises “unnatural offences” — and widely carry an open letter written by Vikram Seth and Amartya Sen against the law. The law still stands over the head of the gay community, but the challenge to it in the Delhi High Court inches towards a verdict. Meanwhile, aravanis (as hijras are known in Tamil Nadu) win a landmark battle for the legal right to have government identification cards and passports issued under “E” as their gender.
Sunday’s three-city queer pride march comes at a curious time for sexuality and rights in India. Changes over the last decade have been dramatic: a movement has emerged, rights have been advanced, attitudes (at least in urban India) are changing. Changed enough, at least, for a group of individuals to come together and find that there is desire, capacity and support to pull off Delhi’s first pride parade. There is no doubt that this is a milestone. But of what? In some ways, little has changed — the law, prejudice, fear, and violence still line the fabric of everyday life of most queer people. The march ends in a vigil — cautious celebration is inevitably tied to sobering reflection on the Indian version of Pride.
So why Pride, and its eternal unasked question: why the need to be public? “Public” is a word uttered with some trepidation in India, especially when it is in the same sentence as “sexuality”. Queer people have long been objects of description, caricature and violence in public domains: in film, in media, on the streets, in the everyday. They have appeared by choice mostly in response to yet another arrest, or incidence of violence: constantly aggrieved, constantly demanding. Pride is another kind of public presence. It is a claim — a claim to the right to belong to this city, to be treated equally in its public spaces, to see positive images of oneself. This is, in essence, what any movement, any politics is ultimately trying to attain: not just legal but substantive freedom. Not just tolerance, but acceptance. Not just the faces of those eternally repressed, but the images of a community that has come far and that has finally, slowly, begun to find the strength to fight for its rights.
Sexuality is instantly reduced in any conversation in our country to sex. Sexuality is not just about sex. What Pride is taking to the public is not just sexuality, but its politics. It is about identity. It is about self-respect. It is about not being fired from your job because of how you look or whom you share your apartment with. It is about being able to tell your doctors your full medical history without fear. It is about being able to protect your partner and share benefits, taxes, home loans, and health insurance. It is about being able to approach the law as a citizen, rather than with fear. It is about being able to be free of violence. It is about, ironically, being able to forget. To forget that one’s being gay or lesbian or transgendered is just one part of one’s identity, rather than everything that one is. In India today, you cannot forget. You cannot forget your caste if you are a Dalit, your gender if you are a woman, your religion if you are not Hindu or your sexuality if you are not heterosexual. The right to forget is a freedom. Pride is the right to fold sexuality into our everyday, to let it be part of us but not define us, and certainly not define us as a despised, abnormal “other”.
If many of these struggles sound familiar, it is because they are. In caste, class, religion, or sexuality, the line between acceptable/unacceptable, normal/abnormal, natural/unnatural and private/public is constructed in the same way. Recogni- sing these connections will help us build a politics that does not emerge from the bounded confines of one movement versus the other, but instead realises that all oppressions work through the same mechanisms of exclusion. This is what will bring the many non-gay marchers to Sunday’s Pride — a recognition that the city they want to live in for themselves is one which makes space for queer rights, and will, by extension, make space for other, linked freedoms, ones that are possibly closer to their lives.
No one believes that if the community wins the ongoing case in the Delhi High Court against Sec 377 India will change overnight. It is events like Pride that will take the battle for inclusion outside the courts into the spaces where queer people live their lives: families, homes, offices, buses, streets, and city spaces. On Sunday, the first step towards an inclusive city will be taken. All those who walk in it will walk for freedom — not just freedom for queer Delhi citizens, but for their own as well.