Locating the Indian Queer within the Tyranny of a Heterosexual Marriage
If you apply Michel Foucault’s theory of the queer in the Indian context, 95% of Indian queer male population is not gay but homosexual.
In December 2016, I received a wedding invitation card on WhatsApp. Another of my friends is getting married, a commonplace occurrence. This time, however, I was genuinely surprised. For one, my friend has been a ‘card carrying’ gay man. In November, he even dressed up for the Delhi Queer Pride march. What gives? I invite him for a drink and ask why he is getting married to a woman when all he wants in his life is a man. Would this not be unfair on the woman? He says he could get it up with women, and he loves children and he will treat his wife kindly, which more than most heterosexual men do. These are the usual reasons gay men give as they enter the holy matrimony, willingly or unwillingly. I egg him on; he is an academic, he can muster a better answer.
He takes a long sip from his tumbler and says, “What else can I do?”
In this existential question lies the reality of queer identity in India. It’s a trap. And you are alone inside the trap. It is an oppressively heterosexual world from where there is no escape. The identity remains an individual construct, changing its shade from person to person. There is no collective queer identity; whatever queer visibility we see in India today (from Fawad Khan as a gay man in a Karan Johar film, or Laxmi’s new book, or gay pride marches across different cities) all of these are political, caused-based and they fail to make a dent on cultural hegemony.
I am not ready to give up. “You are young and independent,” I tell my friend. “You know what is what. Why don’t you tell your parents that you are gay and be done with it?”
“And you know what they will say?” My friend retorts, “It’s okay, beta. We are all gay. You just get married and give us a grandkid. Then do whatever you want to do.” My friend grins. He indeed plans to do whatever he wants to do. He then regales me with his escapades with a young man he met during his engagement, at his would-be wife’s house. He intends to turn it into a full-blown romance soon after the wedding.
My friend is not an isolated case. He is the ungainly manifestation of a disease that is rotting Indian society from inside with no cure in sight. If you remove the apparent complexities (globalisation, education, awareness, individual independence, breakdown of joint families, and the apparent freedom from religious and cultural mores), deep down Indian society remains patriarchal in its most primitive sense. If you are a man, you have a few basic duties – earn a livelihood, get married (within your caste/ tribe/ religion) and produce a male heir to continue the family name. After that, you are allowed to do whatever you like, with discretion, of course.
This is what Indian gay men have been doing for a long time and will continue to do so, some willingly, some unwillingly. Of course, women in general and gay women in particular get the raw end of the deal, but that’s a story for another time.
The Gay Man as Homosexual
So if you apply Michel Foucault’s theory of the queer in the Indian context, 95% of Indian queer male population is not gay but homosexual. To simplify Foucault’s distinction, homosexuals are satisfied with the gratification of their base physical needs (in India, the post-AIDS crisis led to the coinage of the term MSM – Men who have Sex with Men). Being gay, however, is a lifestyle choice. It is an intellectual activity. It demands rejecting the existing structure and creating new ones. Like any other intellectual activity, for its survival, gay identity too needs a nursing environment.
In India, this environment is non-existent.
In India, the attitude towards gay identity is akin to attitudes towards mental health disorders like depression. Everyone knows what depression is, but no one is willing to own it and seek help. There is no help in sight either (“Why are you so sad, be happy!”). The way most Indians still think that mental health disorders are the fancy of rich Westerners, they consider being gay is an imaginary aberration, influence of the Americanised Western Culture (“If you like doing it with other man, then go ahead and do it; why do you need to make a show of it.”).
This is where a fissure reveals itself within the smooth, polished surface of Indian patriarchy, fuelled, of course, by the “Americanised Western Culture”. As Aristotle would tell you, mimesis is the first step to constructing identity. Being gay is “making a show of it”. This is why we need gay pride marches. This is why we have gay stereotypes (high-pitch voices, effeminate body languages…).
Until recently, the deepest crack in this fissure was the Draconian Law, IPC Section 377. It’s been a long struggle to repeal the law, and finally it happened after the Supreme Court lifted the ban on ‘gay sex’ on 6 September 2018 (Earlier, in 2009, the Delhi High Court had ruled that Section 377 was unconstitutional. Four years later in December 2013, the Supreme Court set aside the decision.).
Meanwhile, as NGOs, activists and lawyers’ collectives fought the hard and brave fight against the legal system for two decades, the Indian gay (or homosexual) identity conveniently shifted to cyberspace and found hedonism, with a generous help from patriarchy itself (“Let boys be boys as long as they get married, have children and continue the family tradition.”).
For post-1990 generation of young men in India, being gay is the freedom to have sex with other men, and there is freedom aplenty. Earlier, men with same-sex desire found each other in stinky toilets and dark public parks. Today, they find each other within the touchscreen of sleek smartphones. This is where the identity begins and this is where it ends. They get off on each other, exchange numbers, go on their separate ways, and play heterosexual.
But what about the gay rights activists who have been fighting for the cause tirelessly? What about the writers, artists and filmmakers, not to mention fashion designers, who have been working towards making the identity visible in the mainstream?
Gay Lives and Gay Rights
There are layers to constructing identity. First, personal. Every gay man is born gay (Lady Gaga is right.). But how he comes to terms with his “inherent gayness” depends on the environment. This environment is missing in India. While Indian society is almost licentiously permissible to same-sex male bonding, this allowance is laced with venoms of patriarchy and deep-seated misogyny. This, in turn, poisons same-sex love between young men. Sex is fine, but love between two men is an aberration in a culture that adheres to strict gender roles.
This is where a gay man finds himself in a trap, a movable glass cage invisible to everyone else other than the person concerned. He knows there are others like him, also trapped in such glass cages, but to find them he has to moves through a series of obstacle courses, where the key is to have sex with a series of unlikely men before he reaches his desired community. By then it’s too late; lust will have replaced love.
Community is the operative term here. What the country needs is a visible gay community. It is missing. What we have instead are self-contained silos, small groups of like-minded people who would come together, discuss the issues for a few years perhaps and then would retreat to the veneer of heterosexual family life.
If you look around, there are numerous gay groups in every Indian town, city, metropolis. But there is no mother organisation to bring all these groups together. This is the symptom of a bigger malaise.
India is a country divided into categories – geographies, ethnicities, religion, caste, class, everything and these finer differences have impaired the formation of a singular Indian gay identity.
There have been several non-profit organisations working with sexual minorities. It has been an important work. However, with the spread of AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the focus of these groups changed, from being harbingers of societal change to providers of healthcare services. The issues of gay identity remained where it was, within the glass cage. The status quo remained unchanged.
Then there’s the law. While it’s been a year since homosexuality was decriminalised by the law of the land, nothing much has changed on the ground. The change can come only after the social fabric is torn apart. For this, we need a sustain movement, which is yet to begin. Yet, scrapping of the law has been a great start, as the law signifies an authoritarian condoning of oppression against sexual minorities.
Thus, without a visible community or support system, every generation of gay men in India had to fight a lonely battle to hang onto their identity. The fields of this battle have changed, but the rules remain the same. The upper and upper-middle class millennials, meanwhile, especially in cities, with affluence and accessibility, have created their own rules. They have created their own support system. They live with their chosen same-sex partners, like heterosexual couples. Some even have convinced their parents to accept the unions, this make-believe marriage, and parents are malleable, after all, it’s a marriage. But this is not a step towards realising a gay identity, not even the remotest. This is conformity at its worst.
The Marriage Equation
Yet, this conformity has emerged as the key motivation for asserting gay identity in India. While this is a misplaced foundation if you consider the process of constructing a nationwide gay identity, it has found its vocal supporters, simply because it promises the ultimate goal every Indian man desires – marriage.
Therefore, it is important to understand this curious development. The blame for this, of course, goes to Americanised Western Culture (especially after the US passed the Marriage Equality Act on 24 June 2011, which made same-sex marriages legal in the US state of New York, and then its nationwide implementation). While internet, especially social networking sites, is working overtime to promote the cause, even the mainstream media has thrown its weight behind it.
But this demand, the right to marriage for people of alternative sexual identities, in India, is at best a romantic proposition, and it worst, impractical.
This does not means that a person of alternative sexual orientation should not find a partner. But this ‘marriage’ should not follow the hetero-normative model. Being queer means being opposed to everything mainstream. Marriage is a mainstream institution, sanctioned by religion, nurtured by society and protected by the law. To expect the same in the context of the queer identity is not being queer enough. Being queer is to look for alternative models, alternative lifestyle choices, and alternative families.
Society, Religion, Culture and the Import of Heterosexuality
As Michel Foucault argues, in the West, homosexuality has always been a visible category; it is dominated and nurtured to explain its binary opposite, heterosexuality. Homosexuality is made visible to serve as an example, to positivise heterosexuality. A gay man was marginalised to highlight the benefits of a heterosexual lifestyle: If you are not normal (heterosexual), you are a pervert (homosexual).
The Western culture, within its capitalist set-up, thrives on labels, where one is forced to conform to an orientation: Do you like Pepsi or Coca-Cola? Are you a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian? If you don’t want to marry, what do you want to do? If you are not straight, what are you? Homosexuality is a shorthand. There are several other labels – bisexual, transsexual, pansexual, genderqueer, and so on. Some of these labels are created and popularised by non-hetero-normative groups themselves, in order to break the overwhelming oppression of the term homosexual.
In the quest for equality for any minority group, the first step is to form an identity, and create a set of social signifiers. In the West, it was easy to create this identity because its roots were always there. The word Queer was always there. What was needed was the courage to own up the identity.
With the help of literature, from Oscar Wilde to James Baldwin, and theories, from Michel Foucault to Judith Butler, to political activists like Harvey Milk, in the West, the identity was formed and took its roots. What also helped was the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when the so called ‘gay cancer’ begun to affect the heterosexual world and mainstream medical scholarship spent time and energy to fight not only the new-fangled disease, but also the idea of homosexuality that it’s not as a disease, but as deeply-held identity of individuals.
In India, the path to forming this identity in cultural context has been long-winding. This is because the very idea of homosexuality was rejected. Since then, there has been research and it has been proved that homosexuality has been prevalent in India from the days of Kamasutra. Still a name and a structure of operation were missing.
The Western construct is always binary (always man or woman, not ambivalent sexual identities. This explains why sex reassignment surgeries and sex correction surgeries have so advanced in the West.), in India, there exists the category of third gender (the hijras; this also includes sexual activities, behaviours – constructs which are neither male nor female in the context of the mainstream). This makes the application of the Western model of sexuality in India all the more difficult.
In the West, the difference is in the mind; in India, it’s in the body.
Yet, we picked up the Western model. It was easy. What was difficult was to explain it to the mainstream and make them understand and accept. It was difficult to wash the label of foreign import and make the identity inherently local.
Take Section 377 for example. In UK, where the law originated (called the Sodomy Law), it was easy to fight against it, because the law was being implemented and was used to harass innocent victims. In India, the law was rarely invoked to punish homosexual activity.
Changing legislature and more so, changing prevalent cultural norms, is a long-drawn process. In the West, we arrived at the culmination of marriage equality through a series of trials and errors – abolition of the law, and change of the mainstream point of view (saying this, we will have to accept that acceptance of sexual minorities in the mainstream remains an issue even in the West, especially in the context of religion. In public life, however, this acceptance is achieved grudgingly, as the law protects minority rights).
In the West, a gay marriage is an exact replica of a heterosexual marriage. Everything is the same. Only, instead of a bride and a groom, there are two grooms or two brides. This is ironic because queer identity demands a break from the hetero-normative, the essential.
Economy played a role too. As Karl Marx tells us, a family is the smallest and most powerful part of the capitalist mechanism. Capitalism thrives on selling products. A so-called heterosexual family is the ultimate consumer. If the idea of family disintegrates, the consumption of products will go down and capitalism will be in danger. (Marx writes in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced family relation into a mere money relation.”)
Thus, in the West, a same-sex relationship is okay as long as it emulates a heterosexual relationship and be part of the capitalist market. So the Western gay rights movement is lured to believe that marriage equality is the goal of gay rights.
This is the danger. It demands adherence to the heterosexual model of family. The structure would accept two men (or two women) living together as long as they are part of the market, build a home together, take a loan, spend at supermarket and in general be part of the capitalist market.
The silver lining, however, is the fact that in the West, marriage hinges on individual choice. In Indian, marriage is given. It is an individual ‘dharma’, to continue the bloodline. To maintain this hegemony of marriage, the expression of sexuality is allowed to be fluid in India (but in secret). This is the legacy of a shame culture.
The Body, the Mind and the Shape the Great Indian Family
As opposed to shame culture, the West follows guilt culture. Guilt requires punishment. Therefore, all non-normative sexual expressions are perverse, requiring punishment. This is the beginning of the anti-sodomy laws. The law itself was an offshoot of the Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. As the Western Culture followed the binary model of hetero-normativity, this punishment was necessary to highlight the benefit of the norm. This, in turn, inspired the “perverts” to come together and seek their rights. The success of the feminist moment was a revelation. The queer rights movement had a same enemy — the white, upper class, heterosexual male – the patriarch.
A civil rights movement seeks equality in the context of the mainstream. The feminist movement wants for women the same rights and privileges as men. The LGBTQI activists want a homosexual family in the context of sexuality.
This muddies the water; for “equality” is an odd concept. A minority group can survive only based on its differences to the mainstream. If it starts parodying the mainstream, it stops being a minority. The capitalist market takes advantage of the situation, albeit grudgingly — it allows women to have their ways as long as they did not disrupt the working of the patriarchy; it allows gay men to set up houses as long as they do not go against patriarchy.
In the cultural hierarchy of India, an individual does not have rights; he is part of a community, and if he strays from the norm, he brings shame to the community. Community shame is not a punishable offence as guilt is. While the guilty is excommunicated from the existing structure, the shamed one is not allowed to leave; instead, he is forced to make amends.
To maintain this oppressive sense of community, the Indian culture has devised several same-sex spaces, which at the first glance may look liberal, but makes the process of forming a sense of minority identity all the more difficult. The community allows a man to nurture his differences as long as it is done in private. This is the legacy of the shame culture.
In the heterosexualised Western culture, two men are not encouraged to form a close bond; a man is expected to seek out female companionship. In India, female companionship outside marriage is discouraged while men can form close bonds; we have a host of mythologies, histories of male bonding, from Krishna-Sudama to the Jai-Veeru friendship in Sholey.
As Karl Marx reminds us, the goal of any civil rights movement is equality, the ultimate utopia. Marx says when the oppression of the ruling class goes beyond endurance, the proletariats will rise and revolt against capitalism to establish a classless society. This is a utopia. The goal of every minority struggle for rights is to seek this utopia.
We know equality is a myth. For a social construct to run smoothly, we need binaries, we need the periphery to define the centre, we need woman to define men, and we need opposition to same-sex love to validate heterosexual union. Concerns may vary from time to time, place to place, but the structure remains the same; the mainstream feeds on the minority and vice versa. If a minority seeks to have the same privileges as the mainstream, it stops becoming a minority. If a same-sex marriage is recognised by mainstream, the married couple stops being a minority.
Joining the mainstream is not the goal of a minority rights movement. A minority revels in the difference of identity as a badge of pride. This is how the gay rights movement took up a derogatory word ‘queer’ and appropriated it to something of an emblem of alternative sexualities. The queer identity does not want to emulate the mainstream. If it does, it’s not queer identity.
The Western model sells an either/or situation. One is either straight, or gay, or bi, or something else. There is no confusion. The divide is in the mind, not in the body. There is no culture of hermaphrodites.
In India, gender is physical. Kamasutra mentions the existence of a third sex. This is a trap for a gay man. While the patriarchy would allow the third gender (Hijras) to form a community, it seeks to reclaim those who are biologically adequate. The identity hinges on the reproductive organ. So a man must marry and try his best to have a child. This “duty” exceeds earthly concerns; for a childless man can never cross over to the other world.
Towards the Formulation of a Queer Theory in India
In this context, in his works, the author and activists R Raj Rao has woven a multilayered tapestry, as complex as the culture he has chosen to dissect with the precision of a skilled surgeon, and as simple as the underlying structure which he reveals to us with the nuances of a seasoned novelist. Rao embarks upon the unenviable task of finding a cohesive understanding of the alternative sexualities in the content of the current social and political realities.
The keywords are ‘current’ and ‘India’.
In the West, Queer Theory is an established discipline, with representations of queer sexualities in writing (from Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde to Hanya Yanagihara) and in public spheres (the AIDS epidemic, the fight for same-sex marriage and changes in laws). The issue has been in public domain for long. There has been a series of seminal works, from Michel Foucault to Eve Sedgwick, which helped Queer Theory achieve mainstream recognition.
The subject remains a taboo in India. Post-2000, however, we have seen a number of books on alternative sexualities in India. Most of these books take the main crux of the Queer Theory from the West (closet and coming out, for example) and applies it to India, in representations, in writing, films, art, and communities, especially the Hijra community. These books contain important scholarship, yet the point of view remains western, which comes with its own inherent biases. (For example, theories of closet and coming out do not exactly apply in Indian context. The idea of the closet presupposes that society understands what queer sexuality is, and hence wants to suppress it. In India, the understanding is blatant rejection.). Again, a large chunk of this scholarship, including the monumental Same Sex Love in India, tries to understand Indian attitudes towards queer sexuality by digging into the past, beginning with the epics. This is a worthwhile study, but it misses the point while discussing the current attitudes toward queer sexuality, especially in the context of small-town India.
Rao wants to bridge this gap, and he is more than up to the task. As a university teacher, he is one of the first in India to offer a course on Queer Theory at the Department of English, University of Pune, much to the contestation of the authorities. Again, as a vocal and out gay man, he is the witness to changing realities of how queer identities are being negotiated. He is also a celebrated fiction writer (The Boyfriend was the first gay novel published from India.).
Rao begins at the beginning, with Wilde and the birth of the Western Queer Theory, and he uses the key markers of Queer Theory as signposts to narrow down his subjects of enquiry. So he uses label headings – ‘Identities’, ‘Normativities’ ‘Homophobia’, ‘Perversion’ and so on, as his chapter titles. He begins with a familiar concept and then delves deep into the myriad representations it manifests.
The first chapter is ‘Gender and Culture’, where Rao draws the distinction between gender and sexuality and feminists draw the distinction between sex and gender in the context of the prevailing culture. If gender is a performative gesture, can the idea be extended to sexuality? Can we say that sexuality, and especially heterosexuality, is a gesture-based on performance, ask Rao, and then states, “I call sexuality a social construct because it is society that expects a male (a state of being) to grow into a man (a state of becoming).”
The second chapter is ‘Identities’, where Rao examines the social contexts conducive to the emergence of MSM identities, and study the impact of MSM behavior on masculinity.
The third chapter is ‘Normativities’ which deconstructs the idea of the normal. Rao begins with Oscar Wilde’s formulations of anti-essentialism and individualism and moves on to Foucault’s distinction between the words ‘homosexual’ and ‘gay’, and his suggestion that if one is in possession of a ‘deviant’ sexuality, one must use it to radicalise one’s ways of seeing.
The fourth chapter is ‘Homosociality’, which dissects the Indian concept of friendship, yaraana, in the context of the available of same-sex locations, which are permissive and oppressive at the same time — prison, hostels, the nukkad or street corner, the male public urinal, the beer and country liquor bar, the paan-beedi shop, the gents’ hair cutting saloon, the taxi and auto-rickshaw stand, the second class local train compartment in cities like Bombay, and so on.
The fifth chapter is ‘Homophobia’. Homophobia may loosely be defined as a prejudicial fear and hatred of homosexuality, homosexual people and homosexual acts. Here Rao discusses how the idea of homophobia is reversed in India. In the West, homophobes are always the others, the mainstream against the minority. In India, however, homophobia is largely internalised. Here homophobia is nurtured within the queerness of an individual as he fails to come to terms with his inherent queerness.
The sixth chapter is ‘Lesbianism’, which discusses the tenor of female queer representation or the lack thereof, in writing and in representation, as a struggle between ‘decorous’ and ‘gross’. Rao begins with Ashwini Sukthankar’ landmark volume Facing the Mirror and contrasts it with Hoshang Merchant’s Yaraana.
The seventh chapter is ‘Perversion’, where lists the sites of perversion as opposed to acceptable — sodomy, cunnilingus, fellatio, masturbation, rimming/reaming, nudism, exhibitionism, fetishism, S/M, incest, bestiality, adultery, pedophilia, voyeurism, group sex, necrophilia – and asks, can normativity be destabilised without a validation of perversion?
The eighth chapter is ‘Historiography’, which begins with the legacy of the infamous Section 377 and moves on to representation of the queer in literature (in Hoshang Merchant’s Yaraana and Forbidden texts/Forbidden Sex) and the ignorance of queer readings by mainstream critics with America critic Bruce King being just an example.
The ninth chapter is ‘The Politics of Section 377 Since May 2014’. Starting with the date when the rightwing BJP government came to power in the centre, Rao discusses the implications of the Supreme Court verdict which overturned the Delhi High Court verdict to read down the section criminalising homosexuality.
In the end, one could argue that the book fails to come up with a cohesive theory, as one would expect with such a text. Considering the subject, however, such a theory is impossible to arrive at. In the West (the US and the Europe), the queer movement (the right for equality) has matured. It has, to a certain extent, reached it goal (same sex marriage, church acceptance to a certain extent). In India, the movement is yet to begin. So what Rao does is to chart a roadmap, highlighting the sites of transgression within a seemingly mono-sexual society, and he does it with the eye of a theorist and in the language of a novelist.
(Dibyajyoti Sarma, who has published three volumes of poetry, Glimpses of a Personal History (2004), Pages from an Unfinished Autobiography (2014), and Book of Prayers (2018) and numerous writing credits in journals and magazines, wrote his M.Phil thesis on Queer Identity in Indian English Poetry in the Department of English, University of Pune, where he also taught briefly. With Dr R Raj Rao, he co-edited the book Whistling in the Dark: Twenty-one Queer Interviews (2009) for Sage. He is an independent editor based in Delhi.)