The Rising LGBTQIA+ Political Class in India is Fighting Not Just Politico-Legal Battles, But Also Those of Caste & Religion
This multilayered LGBTQIA+ polity will be in the spotlight on the same societal stage that has kept it in darkness for a long time. At the same time, the community itself will have to confront issues of inclusiveness within itself.
The Pink List
In April, 22-year-old Columbia graduate Anish Gawande, 24-year-old graphic designer Smriti Deora, and 25-year-old journalist Devina Buckshee launched the Pink List India, a website that lists all the Lok Sabha candidates that support LGBTQIA+ rights along with LGBTQIA+ candidates running in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Gawande says their aim—among other things—was to create a compilation of utterances by candidates and politicians to ensure that these can be used to understand the changing nature of the queer political narrative in India. Curating these utterances, Gawande says, confirmed that the queer political system in India works very differently from how it works in western liberal democracies.
“[In the U.S.] there is, in many ways, a delinking from a dominant religion that prevents the traditional conservative Right-wing from supporting LGBTQ rights,” Gawande said in a phone interview from Mumbai. “But in India, it is not a problem for some who profess to support Hindutva—distinct from Hinduism—to still support queer rights.”
“They don’t see that as the dichotomy,” Gawande added. “And I think that’s something that Indian politics and Indian queer politics is going to have to grapple with a phenomenal, unprecedented level in the years to come.”
After the scrapping of Section 377 in September 2018, there has been a new awakening in India’s LGBTQIA+ community to keep the pace of the movement steady. The just-concluded Lok Sabha elections have seen almost half a dozen LGBTQIA+ candidates across the country. This emergence of the LGBTQIA+ political class will, and has already begun to, bring forth the reality of intersectionality across religion, caste, class and nationalistic politics in a community that was marginalised for too long. This multilayered LGBTQIA+ polity will be in the spotlight on the same societal stage that has kept it in darkness for a long time. At the same time, the community itself will have to confront issues of inclusiveness within itself.
LGBTQIA+ community in party manifestos
2019 Lok Sabha elections saw major political parties making — if not substantial at least superficial — moves towards the LGBTQIA+ community.
In January, Congress appointed Apsara Reddy as the national general secretary of All India Mahila Congress (AIMC). She’s the first transgender woman to hold this position. In April, LGBTQIA+ activist Harish Iyer formally announced that he had joined the Congress party.
I have officially joined the @INCIndia and look forward to working with the Mumbai Congress team in weeding out homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and the politics of hate. pic.twitter.com/G0wJYEJL1w
— harish iyer (@hiyer) April 9, 2019
There were even mentions of LGBTQIA+ causes in party manifestos – however fleeting. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto talked about “Empowering Transgenders” with promises “to bring transgenders to the mainstream through adequate socio-economic and policy initiatives” and ensuring “self-employment and skill development avenues for transgender youth.” There was no mention of any other section of the community.
Congress’ manifesto promised to “protect the rights of the LGBTQIA+ people,” withdraw the Transgender Persons Bill, 2018, and require gender sensitivity training in all government organisations.
Communist Party of India (CPIM) perhaps had the most detailed section for LGBTQIA+ rights.
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) March 28, 2019
These shifts made some activists cautiously hopeful while others remain sceptical. But what’s driving this change is clear to all.
Noor Enayat, publicist and queer rights activist, based in Delhi, thinks it is mostly because the time is right.
“First because there’s a huge support for the [LGBTQIA+] community in general,” Enayat said. “The world has changed, and a lot of people have come out of the closet and second because we are a huge chunk of voters. So, they have to talk about [our issues]. That doesn’t mean any of them is going to make any change; let’s be very real about it.”
What’s at stake for the country and the community?
In 2014, prominent American Economist Dr M. V. Lee Badgett published the results of a study that calculated the “Economic Cost of Homophobia” in India. The 2012 study concluded that homophobia cost the country somewhere between 112 billion rupees ($1.9 billion) and 1.7 trillion rupees ($30.8 billion).
Commenting on the study via email, Dr Badgett said that she could evaluate only a few factors of the many ways that LGBTQIA+ exclusion might have affected the economy and, even with that limitation, the cost of stigma and exclusion was high.
Her study also points to another issue: the dearth of data and research about the LGBTQIA+ community in India.
“The lack of data in India is a big problem for understanding the life situations of LGBTQ people,” Dr Badgett said. “Since I did not have the data to measure some of the costs very directly, I had to use studies from community-based samples and to make some estimates of the economic effects of discrimination with data from other countries. As a result, my estimates could not be very precise. I made assumptions that were ‘conservative’ in the sense that they would tend to underestimate the cost of exclusion.”
“I was not able to include many areas that are likely to add to the costs of exclusion, such as the harassment and discrimination LGBTQ people face in education,” she added.
All this suggests that the community has not been a priority for the sixth largest economy in the world.
After the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the community has geared up for a long struggle for equal rights in surrogacy, same-sex marriage or partnerships, adoptions, education and employment opportunities. In April, a review plea was filed in the Supreme Court to revisit an order that dismissed many of the LGBTQIA+ community’s civil rights.
According to Noor Enayat, everything is at stake in these elections.
“We have a fascist Right-wing government in the Center right now, and if they come back, it’s just going to become worse,” Enayat said. “They were not, contrary to what they’d like to claim, the ones who struck down Section 377. It was the Supreme Court. In fact, the lawyer representing the government very clearly said to only rule on the criminality effect and to not go near civil rights and liberties. [This] government is never going to allow any kind of civil rights for LGBTQIA+ community because that in itself questions patriarchy and patriarchy is what’s the Right-wing is built on.”
At the centre of the community’s concerns is also the contentious Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018, which has been sharply condemned as it will undermine Transgender persons’ rights to life and livelihood more than it will protect them. Despite recommendations made by the community, the latest version of the bill has retained all its problematic aspects including a district committee for gender screening, lower penalties for offences against trans persons as compared to cisgender persons, and criminalisation of traditional livelihoods if found “enticed to beg.” Given that transgender people are often harassed under the anti-begging law even when they are not engaging in it, this bill will make their everyday lives an uphill battle. Not to mention the fact that many, because of lack of employment opportunities, are in fact reduced to begging.
The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, which was passed in December 2018, prohibits homosexuals and singles from becoming parents through surrogacy and absolutely brushes off a fundamental human right that married straight citizens take for granted.
Enayat is aware that the community has a long, bumpy road ahead of it.
“It took nearly two decades for the [Section 377] case to move anywhere,” Enayat said. “It’s going to take at least two decades for any [other LGBTQIA+] rights to come through. But if you have a Right-wing government in place, they won’t let any movement happen.”
Caste battles in the LGBTQIA+ community
When 26-year-old Ashwathi Rajappan was born, doctors told the family that Rajappan is a girl with a disability that can be fixed by surgery. For 22 years Rajappan, who prefers the pronoun they, led their life as a woman. It was only when they went to pursue their post-graduate degree that they realised their true identity. Rajappan started working for the intersex community as a volunteer and decided to contest in the Lok Sabha elections.
“I am a Dalit. I am an intersex person,” Rajappan said. “There are many intersex people who are living without realising who they are. I wanted to work for them… So I decided to run in these elections.”
A Lok Sabha candidate needs signatures of ten electors from their constituency as proposers on the form when he/she files his nomination.
When Rajappan, Chinju to friends, filed their nomination from Ernakulam, Kerala, on the morning of May 4 as the first openly intersex candidate, their proposers included a differently-abled person, a transgender person, three Muslims, heterosexuals and gays. The list was revelatory of the new energy in the marginalised communities to partake in the democratic process.
Rajappan was expecting at least some objection when they filed.
“When I filed the nomination, it felt like I had already won the election. I look like a boy, and my identity [on official documents] says female,” Rajappan said. “But there was no objection. I proved [to my community] that irrespective of my age and gender, I am also eligible to participate in the election.”
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But Rajappan, who is working for an all-inclusive manifesto that even proposes housing for migrant workers, is well aware of the fault lines in the LGBTQIA+ community.
They pointed out the problem of colourism in the visual representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in the Indian media and how photographs of light-skinned members are used disproportionately. Colourism in India is firmly rooted in the caste system.
What’s in play is a tug-of-war for power between LGBTQIA+ followers of majority and minority religions, between upper caste and lower caste members of the community and even between transgender persons and others on the rainbow spectrum.
“There are many Right-leaning people in the Queer community,” Rajappan said exasperatedly. “I personally know many who support BJP and the Hindu Savarna values.”
In November 2018, Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti invited Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi as a representative of her Kinnar Akhara to attend a two-day conclave, attended by 3,000 Hindu seers from across the country, demanding an ordinance to build a Ram temple in the disputed property in Ayodhya where Babri Masjid once stood. This was the first inclusive step forward from the Samiti towards a transgender Akhara.
Tripathi is a Kinnar activist and one of the first during the 1990s AIDS epidemic in India to beseech the government to include transgender people in the prevention and care of the disease. Kinnars, who can be transgender persons, intersex or eunuchs, are as much revered by Indian society on auspicious occasions as they are snubbed on every other day. Tripathi has worked for the inclusion of the community for years. In 2014, she established the Kinnar Akhara (ascetic order) in Ujjain and transitioned from being a social activist to a religious Mahamandaleshwar (chief) of her spiritual group.
Tripathi is also an Upper Caste Brahmin.
“The Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti invited the Kinnar Akhara for the first time … This shows the openness of the Vedic Sanatan Dharma, and it is open to the transgender community,” Tripathi told The Indian Express. “Today it was clearly said, jo Ram ka hai wo hamara hai, he who belongs to Ram, is ours too.”
“This is a cause for millions of Sanatanis whose self-respect and dignity is being unconstitutionally taken away by the policies in the country, the state and Central government,” she added.
Tripathi’s stand about the Ram Mandir land dispute, an issue that has been a political lightning rod for two decades, came as a shock to some in the LGBTQIA+ community and was met with instant criticism and a unified stance by others across the country.
Indian Trans, Intersex and Gender Nonconforming (T/IS/GNC) individuals & groups, in response to the Kinnar Akhada’s call for a Ram temple, issued a statement that, among other things said, “Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a dominant-caste Brahmin trans woman, has been appealing to Hindutva ideology and justifying the existence of the caste system in India ever since she began aspiring for a political position within the current ruling party. Her position negates the politics of communal harmony that is espoused by Hijras and Kinnars, who have historically maintained a syncretic faith of belonging to both Hinduism and Islam. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s position idealises a mythical past of the Sanatan Dharma and supports the Right-wing politics of communal hatred in the guise of ‘we were always accepted’.”
Tripathi didn’t respond to multiple messages for comments.
Homonationalism in India
Members of LGBTQIA+ communities holding hands with Right-wing polity is not new, and we can find examples of this in other countries where nationalism and majoritarian supremacy is finding a foothold again. For example, during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, 30-year-old openly gay Lucian Wintrich found fame after his Twinks4Trumps photo series found its way into the limelight. He made his way to the Trump White House as the correspondent for The Gateway Pundit, a far-right website founded by Jim Hoft, another gay man, only to be dumped later when he appeared on a white nationalist podcast. British gay right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos is another example of the handshake between the Right and LGBTQIA+ community figures, especially those with the privilege of belonging to the dominant class and race.
The same entanglement of caste, nationalistic politics and LGBTQIA+ movement is bringing the concept of Homonationalism centerstage in India.
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Homonationalism is a term coined by prominent Queer theorist Jasbir Puar in her groundbreaking 2007 book Terrorist Assemblage: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Talking about Homonationalism in her keynote at an April 2013 conference organised by The Center for LGBTQ Studies at The CUNY Graduate Center, Puar explained the origins of the term and the underlying theory that emerged in the 90s.
The standard refrain of transnational feminist discourse, as well as Queer theories, at that time, was that the nation-state is heteronormative and that Queer citizens are inherently outlaws to it. Puar challenged this assumption.
“Homonationalism fundamentally highlights and critiques how lesbian and gay liberal rights discourse produced narratives of progress and modernity, that continue to record some populations’ access to cultural and legal forms of citizenship at the expense of the partial and full expulsion from those rights of other populations,” Puar said.
Simply put, LGBTIA+ equality movements work on the supposition that the western nation states should ideally include all its marginalised citizens into its fold, whereas Homonationalism argues that this discourse cannot be true as history shows nation-states have always extended some citizens full legal and cultural rights at the expense of others.
These others can either belong to a different race or a demonised religion.
LGBTQIA+ Indian Muslims and the movement
It is very hard to find Indian Muslim LGBTQIA+ members — either in the physical world or online.
28-year-old Rafiul Alom Rahman created The Queer Muslim Project’s Facebook page in March 2017 because he saw that there was no space for conversation about the intersectionality of religion and sexuality even in queer spaces, especially for Muslims. As he began sharing articles, videos and resources on the page, he saw the number of the members rise. By the end of the year, he was getting pleas of help and grateful messages from across the country.
“[When you are Muslim and identify as LGBTQIA+] there’s always this feeling that you do not belong, either in queer spaces or liberal spaces,” Rahman said, “And in traditional Muslim spaces there’s an outright rejection of LGBTQ IA+ individuals and identity.”
In a country where attacks on Muslims and Dalits have increased alarmingly over the past few years, an online space where one could educate oneself about community-related issues and hold discussions without any fear of judgement threw a lifeline to an extremely isolated sliver of an already marginalised community.
Realizing that there was a desperate need for offline interaction, Rahman organised a retreat in January which was attended by 25 participants from all over India and included two sessions facilitated by Professor Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, author of Homosexuality in Islam and Living Out Muslim: Voices of Gay, Lesbians and Transgender Muslims.
It became very clear during the course of the retreat, Rahman said, that there’s nominal Muslim representation in the mainstream LGBTQIA+ movement in terms of leadership and Islamophobia is ubiquitous. Members have often told him how they felt humiliated in liberal and queer spaces because of their faith. Most people work on the general assumption that the sexual identity and Muslim identity can’t go hand in hand and so it is expected from LGBTQIA+ Muslims to laugh at Islamophobic jokes because they have a seat at the queer table.
All this adds to internal struggle, which was evident at the retreat.
“The place was charged with emotions,” Rahman recalled. “People broke down in tears. A lot of them felt that they never had space where they could talk about Islam or where they could reclaim their faith. Even in queer spaces, you have to carry this sense of guilt if you are a person of faith, and you can’t talk about your religion, because you would be seen as a conservative or as somebody who’s betraying the cause.”
Rahman is mindful of the fact that some organisations that are part of running the pride movement have “problematic politics” and have often misunderstood what he is trying to accomplish.
“They have condemned the Queer Muslim Project,” Rahman said. “Calling it sectarian and biased and accused us of promoting some sort of Islamist agenda, while being oblivious to the fact that it is their politics that is based on exclusion.”
Rahman says the movement and the community need to be more reflective about inclusion and, given the battle ahead, needs to do it swiftly.
“We have to be intersectional,” Rahman said. “We have to talk about the concerns of not just people who identify as LGBTQIA+, but also people who come from different caste and religious minority groups, are differently-abled and even those who don’t speak English.”
And while the LGBTQIA+ community has proved that it has a fighting spirit, time will tell if its polity will rise above the divisiveness prevalent in the conventional political landscape.
Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.