Ins Kromminga: A Conversation

Below are excerpts from an interview I did in November, 2009, with a fascinating artist and activist, Ins Kromminga, who initiated a process in me, simple and obvious, and yet complicated and hardly ever embarked upon vis-à-vis the politics of gender and sexuality. Ins has challenged the routine of the politics we engage in and the worldview we sometimes unintentionally take for granted and thus make static.

Ins Kromminga was the guest artist at the Nigah Queer fest ’09. The fest, which has partially collaborated with the Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, for the past two years has invited one artist from Germany each year. Ins Kromminga is an artist and activist who works on a range of issues concerning intersex persons. He/She is the German spokesperson for the Organisation of Intersex International. I whisked him/her away for a while during the Nigah picnic, at Nehru Park in Delhi, the closing event of the fest this year. Below are Kromminga’s opinions on intersex persons’ issues and the role of art in the same.

Ponni Arasu: What is “intersex”?

Ins Kromminga: I will try and explain this complex aspect in as simple a form as possible. It is a form of bodily reality where a person’s body integrates parts that are usually considered to be “female” and “male”. This can be at multiple levels. It can be in the genitalia, chromosomes, and the genetic system on the whole and so on. There are many variations in this continuum. Medical science has identified eight categories to determine any human being’s sex and all persons have to fit within these to make a clear-cut call on a person’s gender. Continue reading “Ins Kromminga: A Conversation”

Elle Woods: On the Other Side of Oppression

As a pro-feminist queer who whole-heartedly endorses radical feminism, I took myself to task for admiring the ‘post-feminist’ film Legally Blonde when I saw it the other day. Is Elle Woods, a bubbly ultra-pink sorority girl who survives the rigors of Harvard Law while being true to herself, an icon of liberation? Or is she just a pop-culture fantasy of a woman who ‘has it all’ – unrealistic, not to mention, anti-feminist, in how she represents an ideal of empowerment that ultimately only caters to male desire?

Both, I would argue. But let’s first bring those readers up to speed who don’t know the radical from the postmodern in their feminism: while the former position holds that femininity and masculinity are effects of structural oppression and privilege respectively, the latter, valorizing agency over structure, recognizes the plurality of ways in which we can be feminine or masculine, none belonging exclusively on one side of any dichotomy that we can think of. While radfems think of femininity as a handicap to self-actualization, post-feminists do not want to fix the meaning of femininity, positing it instead as an unstable, shifting construct.

Of course it’s difficult to endorse Elle Woods as some ground-breaking icon of anti-establishmentarian feminist ideals given that alpha-femmes like her have always been the favorites of the American entertainment industry. Only now, the trope of feminine-charms comes combined with the trope of empowerment, so much the worse for how that is an even more unattainable ideal for women than traditional femininity. So, nothing liberating about that. But central to the plot is Elle’s struggle as a lawyer who won’t divest herself of her identity, even though she is competing at a game whose rules have been defined by men. She is no Lady Macbeth who needs spirits to ‘unsex’ her and ‘make thick [her] blood’. The male Professor Callahan who hires her for an internship on an actual courtroom case will not only have to accept her pink, scented resume, but also deal with her rejection of his ‘reason’ which required her to reveal the defendant’s alibi against their wishes. Values of sympathy and sisterhood trumped the courtroom reason, and she won the case without having to resort to the alibi which would have destroyed the defendant’s professional life.

And this, dear cynic, is where I see the potential of liberation in this narrative: the liberation of femininity from associations of dependence and weakness.

The bit of theory I shared above can make sense now. While historically, femininity might have been a tool of oppression in patriarchal culture, it is possible to envision a world beyond oppression, and by extension, one where femininity is not a handicap. When oppression is out, what’s left behind is people’s sense of selves. And isn’t it progressive to encourage people to build an authentic sense of self on their own terms free from undue social pressures? Wasn’t this the principle at the heart of all twentieth-century social movements? So why not extend it to a feminine sense of self? If you’re effeminate, you’re dismissed as frivolous, and your expressiveness and grace are called displays of ‘weakness’ and ‘excessive refinement’. Now how objective is that judgment? And don’t get me wrong: there is no fighting oppression by dolling oneself up and playing nice all the time if that’s all you do. Women lack the agency to be assertive, and changing that should be a goal for feminism to work for. But can’t one be assertive while wearing a lipstick? Obviously it’s more than just about self-presentation: a feminine sense of self can engender an ethos that affirms community, embraces difference, celebrates personal affection and sensitizes rational judgment through emotion.

Lest I be accused of ‘essentialism’, I want to make it clear that these values are ‘feminine’ only in the sense that they are labeled as signs of ’emasculation’ or ‘effeminacy’ in a culture that ennobles the ethos of control and repression of emotion, and privileges competition over cooperation. It’s also telling how the words ‘effeminate’ and ’emasculate’ are used to denote a lack of virility, or manly vigor, while the word for womanly vigor, ‘muliebrity’ is much too obscure, and there is none to denote it’s lack. Such labeling is also used more for gender-nonconforming men. ‘Effeminate’ and ’emasculated’ are almost never used for those born and raised as women: it is reserved for males who shun ideals of virility. So there is a systematic devaluation of femininity in which not only women, but also ‘the sissies’, ‘the fags’ and the ‘queens’, not to mention transsexuals, become degraded. Noteworthy among the various ways in which this plays out is the medicalization of femininity: because of the stereotype of woman-as-week, doctors are twice as likely to be diagnose women with depression, even when they have similar scores on standardized measures of depression or present with identical symptoms.1 Similarly, the referral rates of ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ (now called ‘Gender Incongruence’) have a sex-ratio of 6.6:1 of boys to girls – in other words, if there’s a mismatch between your assigned gender role and your sense of self, you’re more easily pathologized if you identify as feminine.2

For this queer guy, ‘masculine privilege’, in the final analysis, is just a prerogative to be selfish and sloppy. Radical feminism might be able to win that prerogative for women, but those of us who reject virility, irrespective of our assigned genders, let us aim higher: for a different world in which, no longer imbued with a sense of shame and lack, femininity can become an ideal for self-realization, beyond the matrix of oppression and privilege.



1. Callahan, E.J. et al. (1997). “Depression in primary care: patient factors that influence recognition.” Family Medicine, 29: 172-176.

2. Kenneth et al. (1997). “Sex Differences in Referral Rates of Children with Gender Identity Disorder.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 25/3: 217-227.



A Gay of No Importance

It has been an audacious and difficult decision for me to finally come out and accept my gaiety. Coming out has seemed like deliverance from my every sin, for which I will be pardoned and will start living happily hereafter.

But I forgot that life isn’t a fairy tale with a King Midas with a golden touch or a magical kiss which can transform a toad into a handsome prince. I used to think that my perennial tears for being unaccepted and unloved would be gone as my queer folks will take me in with arms wide open. But it turned out to be a different story. I was unaware that my gaiety has to go through a lot of litmus tests before I could be certified as an Authentically Valid Gay. Continue reading “A Gay of No Importance”

Heart Place

In an issue about place, to talk about placelessness is about the most obvious thing I could have done, and the most boring.

But this is just what I am going to do, and like most things, it has an odd reason. A few years back at my Rhodes scholarship interview which was an absolute disaster, I remember being asked about my ‘academic interests’. Girish Karnad, the playwright, was the one who asked the question. Now the least that he could have been sure of was that a third year literature undergraduate might have passions and ambitions, and a heart to reach them, but he does not have this stale thing called ‘academic interests’. But my answer was as rehearsed as his question. Indian writing in English, specifically the novel, I offered.

I had an excellent teacher for Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, I could not have said anything else. But Karnad smiled menacingly. Shit, I should have said drama, Indian drama. Give him what he wants, what he does. He went on to say: ‘So you are interested in the Indian English novel, so let us ask you about poetry.’ Blast! What? Is he kidding me? Poetry? But I just said…! Anyway, that was when the downward spiral began. My answers were as stupid as his question was sly. Talking about placelessness when I should be talking about its opposite is my childish revenge on Karnad. I am going to be as obvious and as unimaginative as he was. If this piece is a disaster, I would have succeeded.

Lengthy preface, I know. But let us get back to what a third year literature undergraduate does have and what a Rhodes interviewer does not: a heart. Let us talk about the place of the heart. It is a tough job to begin because you do not have a precise point to set off. It seems to me that the heart is a name for all kinds of movements. Your heart goes out to the things you like, the people you adore. Involuntarily, it seeps out of you and lands at the step of the objects of your affection. It is a gift like no other. It may be accepted or rejected. It may be kept in suspension, waiting for an answer for days on end. It may be the epitome of placelessness. And yet it is winged, air-borne. “The verie instant that I saw you, did My heart flie to your service,” Ferdinand tells Miranda, lovers you might recall from Shakespeare. It jumps out of its slot and goes elsewhere. When you say too much, share too much, you wear your heart on your sleeve. So how do you ever stop and look when your heart jumps to so many places?

And since there is no fixed point for the heart, that red apple like heart we see all around us was the nearest we have got to a consistent shape, at least. But that shape does not remain. The heart is brittle; it breaks in suffering. You eat your heart out in sorrow, you weep your heart out in pain. Never a fixed point; always opening up. And what do you do when someone you love passes you by and your heart starts racing? You forget about the point which has now become a line, at high speed. And who can gauge the speed of a racing heart? Not even those who try to wrench it away from you.

Sometimes you wish that the others had a heart, sometimes you wish you could part ways with yours. It was Ghalib who said “Wafa Kaisi, kahan ka ishq jab sar phorrna thahra/ to phir aiye sang-e-dil, tera sang-e-aastan kyoon ho”1 Khushwant Singh has done a translation which scarcely passes muster but I have no one else to quote: “What kind of loyalty, wherefore this love? It is my own head I have to break./ Then, O stone-hearted one, why at your threshold must I smash it for your sake.” What sort of thing is this heart which sometimes we ache to part with, bestow it as a gift to someone else, and at other times, we feel it throbbing with pain or happiness, somewhere near us, in us, in a good or bad shape? Full or incomplete. Because sometimes all of it is there and at other times, a part of it. When we cannot concentrate on something, we do not do it with all our heart. The promise that we make without our heart in it is a bad promise, unlikely to stay. It has the effort but not the guarantee. It is half-hearted.

It was near the end of the first year of my PhD in London. I used to live in Stoke Newington. It is a nice, bustling place in Hackney borough. Concentric Zone Two of London. Despite having spent several months there, I did not seem to know the place, whatever that means, knowing the place. Of course I knew the streets and the turns but I did not get that feeling, you know, the one which comes from your gut, or from your heart perhaps. Five years in Delhi had to have its withdrawal symptoms.  I seemed to have had all the fun in central London where most of my friends lived. And I knew I was going to shift out in the second year. So I set out on a mission. One of my friends Shilpa Phadke had once said that loitering is the best way to know and own a place. So be it, I thought. I set out to know and own Stoke Newington. Often during late nights, eleven sometimes, sometimes two. Some of my friends would have killed me if they knew that I was roaming around Hackney at that hour. They had heard pistol shots, they told me. They always hear pistol-shots, don’t they, never see one being taken! But the walks paid off. They started in this artificial, commissioned kind of way, like an air-steward’s smile, but they ended in a way only surprises do. With a sense of wonder. With the rarity of genuine effect. There was this one image which has stayed with me from during those walks. And now at least with the recollection of that image Stoke Newington has become a memory. Perhaps the only thing we can own in any definite way is a memory. We own a place by remembering it. It never leaves you at any rate, for all you wish. At one of the turns, I saw a small church. The clergy seemed to be trying to be cool and get the young ones in. On a big white board an apology of a valentine card. “Gd ♥ U / Y dnt U ♥ Gd?”. SMS lingo to attract a pious congregation! England has as many denominations of churches as there are people; desperate times call for desperate measures. But it is that heart that has tied me to the place. Tied, I mean, in the way it is possible to be tied to places. I reached back home that night and one of my friends’ Facebook status messages was “I ♥ NY”. t was a vulgar coincidence. But it was heartening!

Transformation, Emancipation

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? Continue reading “Transformation, Emancipation”

The Cure for What Ails You

by elvis santana

One of the worst, or at least most difficult things about being gay and Muslim is that…well, you’re not really both gay and Muslim at the same time. At least, I haven’t been able to find that reconciliation in my own life just yet, and it’s frustrating, because I don’t think that sexual orientation should inevitably lead to a sense of spiritual emptiness.  Of course, it’s complicated by many other things too. For example, I decided about a decade ago, that since I was going to Hell for being attracted to other men anyway, I didn’t really need to worry about following any of the tenets of Islam (fasting, praying, pilgrimage etc.). And tautologically, since I wasn’t performing any of those key activities, I was going to be damned anyway, so why not enjoy some booze and a quickie with some stranger (or several, depending on how much booze is involved)?

But this is about more than just alcohol.  It’s actually way more about sex than anything else.  Maybe that’s because all of the major faiths of the world have no shortage of verbiage on the topic; how to do it, when to do it, why to do it, with whom to do it…it’s actually remarkable.  I’m not a religious scholar, but there seems to be an almost unhealthy obsession with regulating sexual activity.  And in all fairness, there are some good reasons for this level of attention–overpopulation, abandonment, irresponsibility, societal dysfunction, etc.–but it’s all a little LCD (Lowest Common Denominator), isn’t it?  I mean, the link is not a hard one to follow: all faiths recommend procreation within an environment for what, if one were in a particularly cynical mood, could be easily described as “Grow me some more of my cannon fodder, baby”.  It makes sense: all faiths were, at one point in their respective existences, nascent and vulnerable.  A great way to buttress a faith is with large numbers of believers, and who better to create and rear said believers than…well, other believers?

It would be very easy to turn this into an article about free love and polygamy and all sorts of theoretical conceits that really only worked for about 300 stoned hippies in the 1960s.  The truth is that sex is something of a sacred act, partially due to indoctrination, and partially because for your traditional heterosexuals, it can have wide-ranging consequences.  Unlooked-for pregnancies and all the drama they entail, STDs, emotional vulnerability (OK, so the last two can be shared by humankind as a whole)…all of these are very good reasons for people to think about what they’re sticking where, and with whom.  For people to whom the idea of a spouse and children is effectively the only reason for being–to further grow their particular branch of a family tree, or just because it fulfils them (there are biological imperatives here too, and they should be recognised), it is difficult to even articulate, let alone acknowledge the concept of a life that finds happiness in the choice between stability and instability, in creating its own rules and strictures; the kind of happiness that comes from making their–our–own social bindings.

Unfortunately, there’s no real way to simultaneously embrace both freedom of thought and the strictures of organised religion.  You can’t–for the purposes of illustration–combine blowjobs and prayers as a mutually inclusive lifestyle choice, not if you hold firm to the tenets of either behavioural mode.  To me, that is where the frustration and the difficulty lie: you don’t really get to choose.

Well, you do, in a way.  You can choose to believe that you are innately evil and an abomination and spend your life in a frenzy of apology to make up for being the aberration that your faith condemns you as–you struggle to overcome your nature, because that’s the test that God has placed in your path.  You twist and warp who you are so that it’s in keeping with a book and rules laid down millennia before you had a say in anything, and because your parents or guardians made the choice of a faith on your behalf.  You could also–a la Irshad Manji and Al-Fatiha–insist on carving out your own identity, but only insofar as it can co-exist with the strictures of your religion, which is a bit of a bastardisation of both without the satisfaction of either.  Or you could accept yourself for who and what you are–realise that you just are a certain way and that while you have an ethical and moral obligation to behave appropriately for the society in which you live (no murder, rape, theft etc.), you also have an obligation to be honest and truthful to yourself.

See, not having or following faith doesn’t mean you have to behave like a raging tool.  You can still respect your parents/elders, behave with decorum, treat other people well, follow the basic precepts of civilised conduct etc.  Getting hammered on week-ends with your friends doesn’t make you a bad person.   Nor does the fact that you don’t pray on a regular basis have to mean that you’re going to suffer in an after-life.  For my part I refuse to believe that if I, as a good person, make a concerted effort to treat people fairly and well, to give back to my community inasmuch as I can, and generally live my life with a sense of caring…well, any religion that would, in the fact of that, condemn me for trying to find love with someone of my own biological gender, is a faith I’m better off without.  I fail to see how my inability to pray–and I do this out of respect, because I don’t see the point in performing empty rituals blindly just as a contingency plan for Heaven–daily outweighs the fact that I give a hefty chunk of my pay-cheque to charity every month.  After all, isn’t the point of damnation to punish you for what you’ve done wrong, rather than not done at all?

And as long as we’re talking about honesty, not a day goes by that I don’t secretly wish–just a little bit–that I were straight.  Life would certainly be a lot easier.  This is not to say that I’m unhappy with who I am.  Au contraire, I find that my homosexuality has given me the kind of life experiences that I’d probably never have come across otherwise.  But anyone who thinks that we homosexuals deliberately make a choice as to our lifestyles and willingly repudiate “normalcy” (highly over-rated anyway) has been mixing several kinds of prescription-only medicine.  Let me make this simple: given the status quo in the world today, why would anyone choose to be queer?