Life outside the closet, the comfort zone of Indian queer folxDemocracy Reportage
A spectre is haunting the queer community of India: apoliticism. From presenting, or enabling the presentation of, the LGBTQIAP+ movement as a never-ending rave, to the addition of the new celebratory drink “377 is scrapped,” the majority of the queer community has successfully established how apolitical they are. And that’s where they have failed themselves and the community as a whole.
While I do not deny that Pride is about the celebration of ourselves and identities, it is not only that. It is never only about celebration. It is a struggle, a movement, a riot and an ongoing battle against cisheteropatriarchy without and within LGBTQIAP+ spaces. And being a transgender womxn of color living in the Republic of India in 2020, I feel that the realization and acknowledgment of the previous sentence has become more important than ever.
As a continuation of my jibe at the scrapping of 377, I must declare that I am a loud critic of the same. The rainbow hangover Indians felt after the Supreme Court of India delivered the historical verdict striking down Article 377, which criminalized any form of mutual sex which did not follow the tenets of heteronormativity, is an insult to the founding parents of the queer movement.
It was a few days after I decided to come out of my closet that the Supreme Court delivered this verdict. And I, a transgender womxn who is anything but straight and therefore, a "criminal" by law, had my oh-my-god moment as soon as I received the news. I went, I won’t deny, to the extent of fancying that life gave me my coming-out gift. Could it be any better? But after a few months I started questioning myself. What was I celebrating? That I was not a criminal anymore? But I never was!
Justice Indu Malhotra was heard stating that "History owes an apology" to the members of the LGBTQIAP+ community for such a long delay in providing redress for the existence of the Article. She was right but I would like to add to the list of reasons why history and Indian society owes us an apology.
Where are the marriage rights? Where are the adoption rights? Where are the surrogacy rights? Where are the necessary amendments to the Transgender Act which were passed by the Indian parliament even in the face of widespread outrage from the trans community?
It might sound harsh coming from a member of the LGBTQIAP+ community but besides being a consolation prize, the scrapping of Article 377 did two things which are not much talked about. First, it re-established the narrative crafted by the cisheteropatriarchal system that queer folx are born to only have sex, and have sex, and have sex, and eventually die one day.
Scrapping 377 without providing us with the rights mentioned above is, basically, reducing our identities to sex and depriving us of the agency that the rights to marriage, to adoption, to surrogacy and to self-determine our own genders provide us.
Second, it erased the only recognition of non-cishet individuals on legal documents — the legal recognition of being criminals. Making us visible as criminals on legal documents and the database of all people who are legally penalized for being anything but being cishet, exposed how queer-antagonist the state machinery is. The state couldn’t have gotten cleverer in getting their hands clean, ensuring the LGBTQIAP+ vote and invisibilizing queer identities by decriminalizing them sans legally recognizing their sexualities — all in one go! (slow claps).
But it doesn’t end there. The Transgender Bill eventually became an Act ignoring protests from a huge section of the transgender population, including non-binary folx. The Act, drafted devoid of a single transgender representative in parliament, not only takes away transgender individuals’ basic right to self-determine their genders (by empowering the District Magistrate to certify or not certify them as who they are), but it pushes transgender kids into a hellhole by making it illegal for any non-governmental organization to rescue a transgender child from their abusive household.
Genderqueer identity is mentioned reluctantly in the body of the Act without really defining it and confuses Intersex with transgender identities. It also determines that any person who discriminates against a transgender individual, physically abuses them, or even sexually abuses them, will be sentenced to a minimum of six months to a maximum of two years of imprisonment.
Comparing the harshness of punishments for the rape of cis women in India, which varies between seven years of imprisonment and capital punishment, this provision of the Transgender Act is almost an invitation to sexual abusers to shift their targets towards more "dispensable" gender identities.
In the name of “protecting” transgender folx — yes, the Act is known as Transgender Persons (Protections of Rights) Act of 2019 — the government blatantly made us even more vulnerable in front of our abusers, our abusive families and the government officials who are infamous for being anti-trans.
That’s not all. The Indian state never stops surprising us with their innovative ventures. The introduction of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state of Assam, which required citizens of this country to prove their citizenship with relevant documents, was a direct attack on India’s marginalized communities including Muslims, indigenous people and transgender individuals.
Having all documents in place while living in India is a privilege that not everyone can afford, and transgender persons who, often have to run away from their abusive households as children or teenagers, who have to dwell on the streets, beg in public spaces for a living, and face all kinds of economic and social constraints, should not be expected to produce all their legal documents to prove their citizenship.
Hence, in the process of introducing the Assam NRC, as many as 2000 transgender folx were left out. It was a reminder that not only our gender identities are subject to invalidation by a government official, but our citizenship is also something we cannot proudly hold on to.
Everything I stated above are what a queer individual, knowingly or unknowingly, signs up for when they decide to come out of their closet. And these are just the legal aspects of it. It goes without saying that there’s more.
I live 2,000 kilometers away from my hometown and my only option for accommodation is a rented apartment. Since coming out is not a one-day event, I was slowly making myself comfortable outside the four walls of my apartment and gradually giving up all elements of pretence which the closet life chained me with.
It was on one of those days that I received a call from my flat-mate when I was at my workplace. She sounded worried and angry. She said that in a heated argument with the owner of the house, she had to hear some hateful comments about me and my gender identity. He said, "Your friend goes out in skirts. I am not liking this. Tell him to find a new place. I don’t like you people."
That was the first severe social challenge I faced which made me question my accommodation security. The legal authorities hadn’t given me any reason to have faith in them, especially on a queer issue. So, I didn’t want to escalate the matter further. My flat-mate and I decided to leave the place and started looking for a new house.
I work in the advertisement industry and my firm had multiple ad campaigns going on at the moment. I did not have much time to look for houses then. It was my flat-mate who took time out for house hunting every day and it was a long struggle. Thirty-one houses rejected us because of my gender identity and it was the 32nd one where the owner agreed to accommodate us. This happened in one of the most "queer friendly" cities of India, Mumbai.
This is, perhaps, the case of a rather privileged transwoman like me whose family didn’t alienate her, whose friends support her, who has a job and is economically self-dependent. I can only imagine what queer people who don’t have these privileges go through in this subcontinent. Where will they go for help addressing these daily issues? The state policies are anti-queer. The society is anti-queer. Can cishet feminists be of any help?
A few days back when the queer community and allies were criticizing JK Rowling for her unapologetic anti-trans tweets and her 3600-word open letter defending her stance about the importance of biological sex as compared to gender, a decently followed Facebook page called Feminism Pakistan wrote a long post defending the anti-trans author.
The situation is not any better in India. A huge number of feminist groups in the subcontinent are queer-antagonists and often show direct and indirect signs of being influenced by the regressive ideals of TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). I, myself, have faced discrimination and was subjected to subtle hate comments multiple times in cishet feminist circles in India, both on and offline.
While cornered and marginalized by the government, society, and even the people who are fighting against injustice, a major section of the queer community maintaining an “apolitical” stance is, in effect, enabling and supporting the widespread queer-antagonism that exists. While I feel that insisting and forcing queer people to take part in the movement actively is rather ableist, trying to silence the voices of LGBTQIAP+ activists who are acknowledging the political nature of the movement enables our oppressors.
That’s what the oppressors want. They want us to not have an opinion. They don’t want to hear our voices. They want us to be apolitical and continue fueling the status quo which has no provisions for our liberation. The system will go to any extent to avoid creating situations which can provide agency to the marginalized queer community. That may include winning over the support of queer individuals in exchange of benefits such as the opportunity to contest elections and other privileges. This is not just a hypothetical possibility. This is rather a historical reality.
A considerable section of the transgender people supported the regressive and problematic Transgender Act on national media and other important national platforms. And they could get away with this because the people who constructively criticized and resisted the Trans Act did not receive the due political support from the wider queer community of India.
The widespread reluctance of a significant portion of the queer community to take action, makes life outside the closet next to impossible for a queer person living in the Republic of India. This life tries to manipulate you back to your closet – the same closet which slowly pushed you towards the brink every day. But once you cross the threshold, once you step outside, the comfort that we initially looked forward to seems like a distant dream.
As the legend goes, when the prince of Ayodhya, Rama, started his journey towards the forest after being sentenced to 14 years of exile, the people of Ayodhya and his devotees started following him. After reaching a certain point he said to his followers that they had come a long way with him and that every man and woman should go back to their respective houses. What he didn’t notice is that the transgender folx stayed back as they were neither considered men nor women.
After 14 years, when he came back, he found a whole lot of transgender individuals waiting for him. Impressed by their devotion, he granted them the boon to confer blessings to people during special and auspicious occasions. But to whose benefit? To the benefit of the wider cishet society. What benefit could the trans community derive from this boon? Thousands of years of systemic oppression and marginalization? Well, that doesn’t sound like a good deal.
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