“Violence has been mutating just like the virus since last year. Homelessness, sexual and emotional abuse, physical assault are just terms until they become lived realities for the queer community that like any other marginalized community in India is suffering horribly due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Kolkata-based Priyadarshini Chitrangada. The 24-year-old junior program officer at Sappho for Equality identifies as queer, lesbian, non-binary and uses the pronouns she/they. The organization in Eastern India — that works for the rights of persons who are gender assigned female at birth (AFAB) but identify as lesbians, bisexual and trans masculine in rural, urban, semi-urban areas — has been steering relief distribution across West Bengal since last year.
Livelihood remains the biggest challenge for the community in Bengal. Take the instance of a trans man who was thrown out of work at a pharmaceutical company when they got to know the real identity of the employee. While the nation continues to reel under the economic downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the LGBTQIA+ community are also rapidly disappearing from the workforce. Invisibilization of queer persons in the formal economy is not new, but anecdotal insights suggest workplaces are using the pandemic to not integrate members of the sexually marginalized community back to the workforce.
Queer members belonging to economically marginalized communities have been forced to leave their homes in case of loss of income. Being locked in with perpetrators of abuse has meant being subject to misgendering (intentionally using wrong pronouns), being called by dead names or forced to dress ‘correctly’, leading to emotional trauma.
Rape as punishment
Hetero-patriarchal structures of control and coercion routinely oppress community members. Women identifying as lesbians have been forced to marry as the lockdowns cut their access to police intervention severely. “Society perceives alternative sexual identities as gondogol (problem) or a perversion, hence corrective rape is administered,” says Priyadarshini Chitrangada. Corrective rape as a form of punishment to ostensibly “cure” women identifying as lesbians and bisexuals is an ugly reality, and is reportedly approved and perpetrated by the woman’s family members.
In several news media reports, Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli, a transwoman LGBT activist and public policy scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, has voiced this home truth. Mogli has highlighted the invisibilization of lesbian women and transmen even within the LGBTQIA+ community, which itself is discriminated against by dominant gender identities.
Rural, in this context, by letting the urban popularize only positive but sanitized stories of family acceptance acts as a convenient cushion to hide violence institutionalized by the Indian family structure. Such a binary of urban as positive/ rural as negative do not exist in reality. However, the trend of not documenting violence meted out to a large section of the LGBTQIA+ community enough turns out to be a pattern. This politicized narrative further denies space to those who already lacked agency owing to their distressed socio-economic conditions. Visibility of trans men, similarly, remains a problem, though experts warn against thus hierarchizing trans trauma.
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Why we must not whitewash intersectional identities
Moulee C, co-founder, Queer Chennai Chronicles (QCC), had designed the ‘Social Justice Pride Flag’, introduced at QCC Queer LitFest 2018, Chennai. The organization is dedicated to chronicling the complexities of the queer community as evolving in the unique urban landscape of Chennai with its long interwoven history of culture and caste. QCC integrates Ambedkarite, Dravidian and Leftist ideologies specific to Tamil Nadu into their work.
Amplification of LGBTQIA+ identities via social media groups and online communities has helped the community gain access, voice and visibility. However, such conversations and activism can’t ignore socio- cultural movements that anchor queer protests. “The QCC Social Justice flag is a call for the queer community to look into the caste, class, geographical and other socio-cultural privileges some of us have, which also marginalize fellow queer voices,” explains Moulee C. Platforms like Dalit Queer Project and The Queer Muslim Project also present intersectional narratives.
Not recognizing the intersectionality of caste and class that produce diverse and complex realities within the community is to whitewash it as a monolithic identity, seen as the ‘other’ to the heteronormative community. “There is a dominant and uniform template of how to approach queerness that limits its contextualization. The issue is that in today’s urban settings, most of us are informed through the Internet and who is producing the dominant narrative online? It is mostly the upper-class,” says Dr Pragati Singh, founder, director and editor-in-chief of Humans Of Queer, a website and online platform that was launched this year on June 1.
Pride: Protest or party?
Pride is a celebration of identities, but it is not a party, asserts Priyadarshini Chitrangada, who is currently part of Sappho’s project to procure and curate books for its gender, sex and sexuality resource center Chetana. At their first Pride walk in Kolkata, they recall discovering people like themselves for the first time. Cis-gendered persons do not need a mask as heterosexuality is assumed to be the standard. Hence, Pride is political, they assert, as it’s a set of rights and demands. “Pride is not about June, or the benevolence of pink capitalism. It’s the only time when we get attention and our calendars are blocked, but I am not a clown who will wear the rainbow logo and advertise jewelry (referring to a brand collaboration request),” says the social worker who pursues poetry and photography for their Instagram account when not working.
Has Pride lost some of its political urgency in favor of populism, or has it transitioned into a 'party' as some call it? “Most Pride parades in India are community-funded and stay away from corporate sponsorships to remain political. The nuances of such parades are rooted in the history and struggles of the LGBTQIA+ community, no matter how brief. In India, documentation of queer history is missing,” says Moulee C.
Moulee C reminds that alongside the political positioning of Pride, what has to be understood is the evolution of a younger queer generation who have grown up watching the rainbow logo on their social media feeds. So, when people watch Pride parades they see people wearing a multitude of colors where dance, music and glitter form a happy collective. Then they ask, how is this ‘party’ political? “The Indian society is dominated by the cis-heteronormative aesthetic. So, when queer persons disturb that dominant norm through clothing, singing and dancing, it is a form of dissent. All dissent doesn’t need to be angry; Pride is protest,” asserts Moulee C.
Also watch: Five Ways You Can Be A Better LGBTQIA+ Ally
Romance and respect
The hetero-normative gaze limits the representation of queer relationships. “For example, in a lesbian relationship, it is expected that one is a man and the other a woman. Similarly, a polyamorous relationship doesn’t make sense to the heteronormative definition of relationships, which is always about one man, one woman, one love. Then there’s the queerplatonic relationship that challenges the notion of sex and romance being fundamental to a relationship,” says Dr Singh, who is also the founder-director of the asexual community initiative, Indian Aces. She saw a gap in the representation of the lived realities of diverse personalities from the queer community online and hence the platform largely resists from sharing stories of influencers, celebrities from the community.
Despite decriminalization of Section 377, for the queer community celebratory Pride remains the only visible platform to counter dominant cultural codes and to own their identities without inhibitions. With or without woke enlightenment, Pride is political, as it continues to demand equal rights, representation and respect.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)