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.

The issue of representation is therefore key in conceptualising the “queer”—or indeed, any—subject, where the subject is rendered legible within mainstream discourses. Since the practice of representation relies on an identifiable subject as the bearer of rights, the representation of any particular subjectivity is necessarily normativising, in the sense that the subject is made intelligible within pre-determined and sanctioned modes of understanding. Hakan Seckinelgin argues that practices relating to the reality of an individual’s life must be translated into a “politically intelligible” identity so that the subject, in order to be a political actor, can be rendered legible.[9] At the same time, any articulation of an identity that makes it fit into a pre-established, sanctioned category—where it can be recognised by state mechanisms—leads to what Ratna Kapur terms the “flattening out” of the (sexual) subject.[10] In such a process, heterogeneity is necessarily denied in order to identify a homogeneous subject—the individual or group—as the subject of rights.

Representation therefore requires the visibility of the subject and their necessary legibility according to state processes. James C. Scott’s work points to the role of simplification and legibility in processes of governance, where the modern state has erased undisciplined forms of knowledge in its demands for legibility through an ongoing project of standardisation and uniformity.[11] In the quest for knowledge that claims universality (at the expense of local knowledges that make no claim to universality, which, nonetheless, inform certain elements of state knowledge),[12] the state transforms complex realities into simplified categories, where such simplification is in fact different from the reality to which such abstractions allude. Scott argues further that the modern state attempts—through its officials—to create a population with “standardised characteristics” that are easiest to assess and manage.[13] Thus legibility not only reduces disorder but also creates the population that it names: he writes that categories “that may have begun as … artificial inventions … can end by becoming categories that organize people’s daily experience precisely because they are embedded in state-created institutions that structure that experience.”[14] Scott points to the way in which subjects are brought into being through state mechanisms, where homogeneity and visibility are necessary to identify different subjects. At the same time, the presence of various local knowledges within techniques of statecraft point to the incomplete nature of the dominant ideology, which fails to grasp, or indeed represent, the complexity of local subjects and situations. The suppression of difference, of heterogeneity, reveals a separation between complex practices of real life and the politically legible actor; moreover the act of categorisation, in this case relating to the “queer” hijra subject, might fail to be comprehensible for those collated under such a label. The enshrining of the term “TG” or “transgender” within state discourses and state-created institutions has become a category through which individuals order their own lives and experiences, precisely because it is a sanctioned category for identification and recognised by the modern state as a identity to which certain rights are tied. This can be evidenced through the 2014 Supreme Court judgment and its focus on defining who counts as “transgender,” as well as increased identification with the term “transgender” following the judgment.

Two issues relating to representation have thus been raised. First, the issue of a lack of representation among “queer” subjects where “queer” has a pre-determined meaning and set of behaviours in the Indian context, and second, problems relating to representational practices themselves. I have discussed a lack of representation in relation to hijra identity, where the hijra subject is rendered legible in relation to specific facets of their identity (particularly gender and sexual practice), with the result that a “queer” approach has, until now, been unable to sufficiently translate the hijra subject according to their own modes of understanding and being. However, I wish to address the second issue of the problems relating to representational practices and question whether it is possible to keep the radical potential of the term “queer” within these practices of representation.

If identifying queer subjects within pre-determined modes of categorisation leads to simplification and homogeneity, any approach adopted by public discourses should take into account both the failure of pre-determined categories themselves and the potential for heterogeneity and unintelligible forms of subjectivity. Homi K. Bhabha writes that what is “theoretically innovative and politically crucial” is developing narratives beyond original subjectivities, demanding that we investigate the processes, the in-between spaces, in which self-hood is configured and knotted together from various strands, histories, and spaces.[15] The idea of moving beyond original subjectivities—such as those designated “queer” in the Indian context—might also be supported by taking into account Jack Halberstam’s work on the notion of “failure.” For Halberstam, “failure,” “unbecoming,” and “not knowing” may offer “more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world,”[16] critiquing heteronormative conceptions of space and time. If “failure” allows subjects to escape disciplining (hetero-)norms, Halberstam’s argument that an investment into counterintuitive modes of knowledge (akin to the non-universal knowledges described by Scott) that provide a form of resistance and propose different relations to knowledge[17] can be useful in re-conceptualising the paradoxical nature of representational practices that simultaneously identify and fail to identify various subjectivities. If the subject itself, in terms of identifying and maintaining an identity, is inherently bound up in an ongoing process of “failure,” then this acknowledgment can inform an approach that attempts to maintain the radical and inclusive potential of the term “queer” within mechanisms that demands identities be articulated in a legible and simplified way.

In relation to hijra identity, ‘failure’ and heterogeneity are concepts that are evident in identity-construction. While hijras do not appear to interpret their identities in relation to a discourse of failure, their ability to acknowledge the porous nature of categories for identification and to exploit the potential benefits of different strategic identifications demonstrates an understanding by hijras of the processual nature of identity construction. Hijras often make strategic identifications that benefit them as individuals or as a collective, identifying their caste, religion, or gender as different in varying situations (both temporal and spatial). In addition, they deliberately create ambiguity around different facets of their identities, failing to correct non-hijras identifications of themselves as belonging to a particular gender, caste, or religion. Located outside of traditional networks of belonging (religious, kin, and caste networks), hijras are seemingly less bound within strict, mutually exclusive categories, allowing for more flexible identification with multiple subject positions. Hijras appear to acknowledge the processual and iterative features of identity construction, aware of the failure of categories to contain or represent hijra subjectivity in its totality and in turn, the failure of subjectivity itself. In this way, hijras’ own identities are bound up with an ongoing process of failure, informing and complicating representational processes associated with queer, and indeed all, identities. Analysing hijra identity thus provides an avenue for the potential ways in which the radicality of the term “queer” can be retained, by considering the preservation of heterogeneous identifications and notions of failure within any particular identification. Maintaining the radicality of “queer” is significant, in order to complexify its use as an identity category and as an identifiable subject for rights-based discourses and to problematize representational practices more generally.

Representation is inherently contradictory, serving on the one hand to secure benefits for “queer” subjects, and on the other to render invisible heterogeneous forms of “minority sexualities,” such as various forms of hijra identity, in contemporary India. It is crucial to rethink ways of representation that allow for inclusivity and heterogeneity, rather than homogeneity and the closing down of difference. Appreciating the multiple and complex ways in which subjects are configured, the possibility of unintelligible subjectivities, and the constant limitations of pre-determined modes of intelligibility are necessary, in order to maintain heterogeneity within public discourses and state mechanisms that demand simplification. Approaches being developed through conversations between queer studies and studies of religion, gender, and sexuality in India shape the theorisation of the normative “queer” subject of academic study and representation should be a significant issue in such discussions, as part of the move towards identifying “minority” sexualities and focusing on rights and strategies to benefit such subjects. The gaps between the normative “queer” subject—the metropolitan, socially affluent, English speaking subject—and the wider range of apparently “queer” subjectivities represented as part of the wider “LGBT” collective in India—the rural, poor, regionally different subject—suggest that greater care and reflexivity must be shown in addressing positionality and the language of self-identification, in order to engage more fully with the envisioned “queer” subject: the subject whose limits, actions, and presence cannot be known, or be recognisable, in advance.

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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]
  9. Hakan Seckinelgin, “Global activism and sexualities in the time of HIV/AIDS”. Contemporary Politics 15: 1 (2009): 103-118, 109. [Return to text]
  10. Ratna Kapur, “Out of the Colonial Closet, But Still Thinking ‘Inside the Box’: Regulating ‘Perversion’ and the Role of Tolerance in De-radicalising the Rights Claims of Sexual Subalterns,” NUJS Law Review 2: 3 (July-September 2009): 381-396, 384. [Return to text]
  11. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). [Return to text]
  12. Ibid., 313, 340. [Return to text]
  13. Ibid., 81-2. [Return to text]
  14. Ibid., 83. [Return to text]
  15. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (Abingdon: Routledge, 1994), 1-2. [Return to text]
  16. Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 2. [Return to text]
  17. Ibid., 11, 23. [Return to text]