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On July 2nd, 2009, the Delhi High Court ruled that the law outlawing homosexual acts was discriminatory and a “violation of fundamental rights.” The ruling overturns a 148-year-old colonial law, which describes a same-sex relationship as an “unnatural offence.” The recent ruling decriminalising homosexuality in India, being touted as India’s Stonewall, is generating debate and controversy. This ruling comes at a time when there is much unrest and agitation around the notorious Proposition 81 and other lesser-known rulings around hate crimes and non-discrimination acts and marriage rights.
A piece of legislation insofar as it remains encoded in legality is not of much use. Granted, it provides recourse to law and aims to safeguard rights and protect from vulnerability those whose rights have been dispossessed. In this case, homosexuals and transgendered peoples, who have been Other-ed by the draconian laws written into existence by bigotry and privileged intolerance. Securing human rights, however, remains a process. New rulings and laws must be accompanied by social campaigns that must explain and create acceptance and understanding around new unprecedented pieces of legislation. The judicial framework even remains inaccessible to many. How can this ruling be extended beyond red tape bureaucracy and provide a real solution to the queers and non-straight-identifying people of India?
At the same time, credit must be given where it’s due. The fact that the Delhi High Court was able to overturn this ruling is proof of a vibrant and clamorous lobby for queer rights. It is of course an indicator of the change in the Indian society and state, towards granting rights and protections to queers. While it is clear that LGBTQ organizations and activists have been advocating rights for homosexuals for a long time, the State must now build upon those efforts through the legal framework (initiated on July 2nd) to make this change more palatable.
Essentially, the new queer movement seeks to broker alliances across all kinds of social binaries, of gender, sexuality, class, race, ability and create a wide range of opposition to counter the status quo. It needs to and has broken away from old patterns in which there no alliances between gay men and lesbians. The idea of ‘queer’ as imagined by radical activism and organising challenges to heterosexism, though a movement built by the collective experiences of all those who have been Other-ed and their allies. This battle is being waged to deconstruct the existing power dynamics by challenging the heteronormative ideology to be able to garner meaningful change.
Despite the collective and coalitionist nature of this movement, ‘India’s Stonewall’ seems to be set in celebrating and protecting only gay men. Where are the voices of the lesbians and the transgenders? Where indeed are the queers? There has been a lot of publicity around gay men and gay activists and organisations that support homosexual men, and indeed a lot of anger too; however, men have dominated the discourse. In conservative patriarchal societies it is difficult to be a gay man. Coming out requires a great deal of courage, a lot of patience and indeed a lot of love. As Che Guevara famously said, “a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” To be queer is tantamount to heralding a revolution. Yet, female-identified, female-bodied and transgendered people have all been sidelined and excluded from this revolution. Gay men are socially ostracised, stigmatised, attacked and murdered at worst; tolerated at best; and in some few cases, accepted.
It is however, lesbians and female-bodied people who do not identify as straight that cannot be tolerated. Male privilege must not be forgotten when it comes to the oppression of heterosexism upon those who exist on its margins. Is it is easier to be a man and to be gay than to be a woman and to be gay? Governed by mores where it is socially inconvenient and a social liability to be a single woman, it is at times unthinkable to be a woman loving or living with another woman in a society that has grown old and rigid in enforcing different standards of acceptable and appropriate behaviour for men and women. However, is it even judicious to be asking such reductive questions? I was made to re-think the need for this question through an email conversation with a friend who pointed out the “unique violence and threatening nature about the inherent machismo quality within societies that makes coming out as gay for men particularly affronting.” We need to measure the different impact of heterosexist norms upon queer male bodies as opposed to queer female bodies, however to create yet another hierarchy would be conceding the battle. It has been argued that privilege can be manipulated in a radical way to use that space and visibility to the movement’s advantage. I have my own concerns about this as this strategy can oftentimes fail in its methods and instead reinforce the existing system by pandering to its hierarchies instead of deconstructing them. However, insofar as this can be empowering and empathetic, it should remain a part of organizing and activism.
In conservative patriarchal societies, it is often noted that it is not just homosexuality that is closeted; heterosexuality also needs to come out into the open. It is clear that this is as much an issue of social emancipation and raising social consciousness, as legal rulings. It is an issue that must not abandon or isolate the lesbians or the trans communities in favour of those who are male-bodied and male-identified and indeed male-privileged. This is a movement for all of us, queer or straight, male or female, cis or trans, gender conforming or genderqueer, to come together and challenge the existing paradigm.