Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Representation, Visibility, Legibility: The ‘Queer’ Subject in Contemporary India

In recent years, there have been important developments in academic literature relating to “queer” identity in contemporary India, both in identifying “queer” subjectivities and in developing “queer” theoretical approaches in relation to the study of religion, gender, and sexuality, particularly regarding MSM identities. Such articulations on “queer” identities and approaches continue to shape the study of religion, gender, and sexuality in South Asia, which often mirror, but on occasion can stand in contrast to, individuals’ conceptions of their own identities and lives. The development of these approaches has been the result of an academic interest in theorising multiple and variant forms of sexuality and sexual identity, alongside significant legislative changes that pertain to individuals identified as “sexual minorities” in modern India. In 2009, the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalising same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults in private (Naz Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhi). In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court overturned the High Court verdict as ‘legally unsustainable’, arguing that Section 377 was not unconstitutional. This judgment recriminalised same-sex practice across India (Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation). In April 2014, a different bench of the Supreme Court passed a further judgment, recognising the rights of India’s “transgender” population, including individuals known as hijras (National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India). In this judgment, the Court argued that every human being should be able to choose their gender and granted equal rights to transgender individuals, asking the government to treat them like other minorities classified as “socially and economically backward.” Such political changes, alongside social interest in categorising sexual identities, have inspired and fostered new approaches in order to conceptualise “minority sexualities” as members of civil society and as the subjects of rights-based discourses. In particular, both the Indian state and NGOs have become invested in identifying various MSM identities (men who have sex with men, or males who have sex with males, the latter used to cover “males” who do not identify as “men”), including those who identify as MTF “transgender” or hijra and kothi (a generic term used to refer to MSM who take the receptive role in sexual practice). The focus on identifying these particular groups is contextualised by HIV/AIDS prevention and sexual health strategies, with the result that both academic and activist approaches are infused with the language and concepts used by international mainstream organisations and funding bodies and donors.

Both activism and academia have influenced one another in the formation of conceptualisations of sexual practice and gender identity and the labels used to refer to specific identities. The close relationship between activism and academic literature concerning non-heteronormative sexual identity is bolstered by the overlap of numerous individuals who engage with and drive both spheres. The term “queer” has been adopted in the Indian context, alongside terms used by transnational LGBT subjects, including the terms “gay” and “transgender.” It is important that ‘subaltern’ movements, such as the LGBT movement in India, frame their struggles in global terms, in order to position themselves in relation to transnational movements and consequently gain support on an international level.[1] The use of terms such as “gay,” “transgender,” and “queer” link movements and politics in the Indian context with discourses surrounding transnational rights’ movements. However, terminology is not necessarily adopted wholesale but is negotiated within local contexts and given local meanings. The use of terms that describe sexuality according to a sexual ontology linked with Western experience[2] can also be infused with local contexts and practices: Tom Boellstorff uses the concept of “dubbing” to point out the complexities in the adoption of “foreign” terms and concepts (the terms “mimic” or “borrow” might suggest some form of ‘authentic’ identity behind an “inauthentic” appropriation). At the same time, these very terms are taken up by state organisations to designate different identities classified under the “LGBT” banner, and in the process, the categories that are employed become identities that are owned and used. The issue is that despite the intention of activists, academics, and policy makers in developing labels and expanding categories in order to cover a wider range of “minority” identities, subjects might still exist who fail to identify with particular labels and conceptualise their lives according to these approaches.

In a theoretical sense, the term “queer” has political viability in its refusal to be grounded in any particular reality, by contesting the designation and negative valuation of that which is deemed to be non-normative by those in a position of normativity. Significantly, the term resists specificity: its limits cannot be described or conceptualised in advance. Queer positionality allows for a revision of that which is deemed normative and thus has disruptive potential in redressing the marginality faced by practitioners within various power structures. Yet, Ashley Tellis points out that the “queer” “movement” in India—both academic and activist—has been uncritical in its appropriation of the term and its politics, remaining unhistorical, utopian, and lacking self-reflexivity.[3] Tellis argues that the “movement” claims its radicality “only at the level of words,” since the adoption and usage of the term “queer” instead is symbolic of the elite nature of the “movement,” which does not offer a self-reflective critique of its own positionality, nor does it produce actual strategies to challenge the normative and join with other marginal movements located across complex networks of class, gender, caste, and religious structures that also differ at the regional level.[4] The “queer” movement in India is predominantly made up of upper-class individuals based in metropolitan cities or urban centres, lacks the involvement of women, and is English speaking, where the use of English is a marker of “progressive sexuality,” since subjects can access Western discourses on the sexual subject’s agency.[5] In order to ground their struggle, queer activism in India has attempted to negotiate global discourses on rights and sexual ontologies alongside local discourses on national culture and identity, in order to portray non-heteronormative sexual identities as an inherent part of Indian culture, as well as relating them to transnational global identities and movements.[6] One result of the fusion between transnational and local discourses has been the normativisation of particular sexualities over others, regulating behaviours and bodies in relation to a normative “gay” and Indian subject: a normative “queer,” Indian subject that reflects the upper-class, socially affluent movement. In turn, “deviant” queer subjects, or those with identities seen to be excessively inappropriate or disruptive, according to pre-determined modes of sanctioned behaviour for “queer” subjects, are portrayed as outside of mainstream LGBT culture and as subjects who should be trained to act in “acceptable” ways.[7] For example, in a 2009 consultation relating to transgender rights in Eastern India, participants were given ground rules for the meeting which targeted “disruptive” behaviour, including banning the use of the performative hand clap used by hijras.[8]

The term “queer” has been used within the Indian context to produce a utopian vision of inclusivity, through the lack of an essential subject, and alongside postcolonial theories, has the potential to address critical issues. Framing the movement as a “queer” one allows for various connections to be drawn between multiple subjects across class, gender, caste, and religious lines, as well as the potential inclusion of various subjectivities within the movement. At the same time, an uncritical appropriation or indeed imposition of the term “queer” to refer to individuals classified as having a “minority” sexuality, alongside the necessity of representation under an identifiable term (whether it is “queer,” one of the letters included within the LGBTI acronym, or “MSM”), begs the question of how various identities are represented, in what ways, by whom, and for what ends. The framework envisioned through a “queer” approach is commendable in terms of inclusivity, but is marred through the necessity of identifying beneficiaries for tangible rights and strategies that can benefit these subjects. The scope for studying various forms of sexual identity is limited through specific approaches being undertaken in the Indian context, and I turn to discuss hijra subjectivity in order to elucidate this point. The term hijra is often translated as “transgender” (MTF) or “eunuch.” Neither designation explicates sufficiently the complexity of the hijra subject, a complexity which is evinced through hybrid religiosity, ambiguous caste status, regional difference, and unique gender performance, intersected with ritual status and positionality within the hijra community and its own forms of kinship. Gender becomes a singular identifier that obscures the complexity of the hijra subject and any theoretical approach which focuses on one mode of enquiry becomes inadequate as an explanatory framework for hijra subjectivity. The current drives towards identifying subjects as “minority” sexualities by both the Indian state and NGOs, aided by political and academic enquiries focused on the distinct nature of various subjectivities (for example, the separation of MSM and transgender identities in HIV/AIDS prevention discourse and funding opportunities), posits hijra identity as a sexed and gender identity first and foremost, despite their own insistence on the multiple avenues through which hijra subjectivity is formed, including religion, community, and significantly, an insistence on ascetic sexual practice. Thus, various ways in which hijras represent themselves become untranslatable within the wider approaches and conceptualisations driven by a “queer” agenda as employed in the contemporary Indian context.

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  1. Rahul Rao, Third World Protest: Between Home and the World, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 199. [Return to text]
  2. Hakan Seckinelgin, “Global activism and sexualities in the time of HIV/AIDS,” Contemporary Politics 15:1 (2009): 103-118, 104. [Return to text]
  3. Ashley Tellis, “Disrupting the Dinner Table: Re-thinking the ‘Queer Movement’ in Contemporary India,” Jindal Global Law Review 4:1 (August 2012): 142-156, 149. [Return to text]
  4. Ibid., 150. [Return to text]
  5. Cohen, Lawrence, “The Kothi Wars: AIDS Cosmopolitanism and the Morality of Classification”. In Sex in Development: Science, Sexuality, and Morality in Global Perspective, edited by Vincanne Adams and Stacy Leigh Pigg, 269-303 (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2005), 277; Shivananda Khan, “Culture, Sexualities, and Identities,” Journal of Homosexuality 40: 3-4 (2001): 99-115. [Return to text]
  6. See Rahul Rao, Third World Protest: Between Home and the World, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). [Return to text]
  7. See Aniruddha Dutta, “Claiming Citizenship, Contesting Civility: The Institutional LGBT Movement and the Regulation of Gender/Sexual Dissidence in West Bengal, India,” Jindal Global Law Review 4: 1 (August 2012): 110-141. [Return to text]
  8. SAATHII (Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India), Report of the Regional Transgender/Hijra Consultation in Eastern India (PDF) (Kolcata, 29-30 May 2009), 4. Accessed 11 January 2013. [Return to text]