THERE IS NOTHING QUEER ABOUT IT
Speaker Profile: Anish Gawande
Anish Gawande is a writer and a translator. He is the Director of the Dara Shikoh Fellowship and the Curator of Pink List India initiative. Anish Gawande graduated with a degree in Comparative Literature and Society from Columbia University and is currently a Rhodes Scholar pursuing a degree in Intellectual History from Oxford University.
Question: What was the basic idea behind QUnion and Pink List Initiative and what are the future ideas that you have in mind?.
The Pink List came about predominantly as something which was deeply personal. Growing up in Bombay I had always assumed that to be a part of politics while being queer would mean leaving the journeys I had imagined I would undertake in politics, public policy, any form of front-facing/public-facing, which I have been very keen to pursue. That was what kept me in the closet for the longest time. I actually came out on a sort of stipend funded grant to Paris, in a city where I knew nobody and nobody knew me and which is where I said this is the best to place to come out because if I do come out nobody is going to be watching.
At the time it felt like, coming out meant shelving off of all of these other plans, so I completed my degree thinking that I would be going into academia, research or other avenues and I had given up on coming back to India and starting work on Indian politics until I got a call-in invitation to work on the Lok Sabha elections. At that time I was very hesitant because I didn’t know whether this has ever been done before, I didn’t know if there have been queer people who worked out in crowd in the electoral field before. I don’t know if I was sure about how to jump into this. But eventually, I thought what’s the worse that can happen and so I ended up coming back after completing my undergraduate degree in comparative literature.
I started working on the Maharashtra Congress’ campaign and travelled across rural Maharashtra, Ichalkranji and other towns, and it was an incredibly eye-opening and an enlightening experience because this was something I never imagined was possible. The attire completely set me apart when I was sitting on stage with politicians 40-60 years old with their different aesthetic.
I realized that there were a lot of politicians who were supporting queer rights who weren’t sort of the urban elite who you would expect to stand up for LGBTQI+ rights, there were a lot of politicians from rural areas (beyond Shashi Tharoor, Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot), from constituencies which were not progressive in the ways in which we imagine progressiveness to exist and who didn’t stand to benefit much from being queer positives.
At that time travelling across the place, it became important to highlight what the state of Indian politics with respect to queer rights was. We learned pretty quickly that it should not be and cannot be a platform/initiative which endorses politicians. Thus, we came up with Pink List India as sort of an archive to track what Indian politicians, especially the candidates for 2019 general elections have said on LGBTQI+ issue.
We are going to find out what our candidates, who we are going to choose to represent us, think about queer issues and that’s how Pink List India came about. It came about as an Instagram page that has become much more than that today and it has been an overwhelming journey. A journey filled with a lot of personal narratives, it’s a platform I wish I had when I was growing up, to see that I wasn’t alone. It’s a platform that has developed organically with a lot of critiques (valid critique) which has come from various places. The platform now has the potential to carry forward, conversation on politics and queerness, Transgender Act 2019, Article 370 and about other measures towards equality that are being undertaken as we speak.
Question: How much you think the movements for the rights of the LBGTQ community have been successful in the legal realm? To what extent society mirrors or reflects that success?
That is a very interesting question because success is such a loaded term. I would say we have achieved some forms of progress. I think from the 1994 ABVA AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan Petition in the Delhi High Court against Section 377, IPC to the 1999 Petition that was filed by Naz Foundation to the success in 2009, followed by failure in 2013 in Supreme Court and then a success re-success in 2018 again in the Supreme Court. Amidst this, the landmark 2014 NALSA judgment which was a path-breaking judgment, despite several flaws, in the fight for trans rights.
We have seen more progress in the legal realm, I would argue than we have seen in other spaces. I don’t we have come as far in the political realm, I don’t think in politics we have made as much progress, I don’t we made as much progress in creating institutions that can support young queer people across the country to come out and support them when their families disown them, to find access to resources on safe sex or what it means to exist as out in the crowd in varied environments.
We made limited progress on the corporate front. A very good friend of mine, Parmesh Sahani wrote a beautiful book “QUEERISTAN”, it tracks the journey of queer inclusion in corporate India. All in all the legal sphere has been where we have made the most progress.
Unfortunately, it’s also the sphere that translates the least into lived experience. Despite 377 and NALSA judgments, we have seen legislation like the horrendous The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 become law. We have seen countless examples of how our institutions have failed to respond to the needs of the queer people especially now during COVID-19 when queer people have been enormously and disproportionately hit, like all marginalized communities, by the pandemic. Lack of access to simple things like food and sanitation and gradual lack of access to safe spaces (with many queer people stuck at home in toxic environments).
While I agree that a lot of our battles were framed as the fight against Section 377, the fight for marriage equality et etcetera, I want to see this reframed into battles that are the availability of domestic violence helplines in every state in multiple languages, as a fight for shelter homes for queer kids who have to run away from home, the fight for access to queer-positive sex education for children, the fight for actual reservation for trans people in jobs and education that allows for progress beyond paper.
A lot of fight we have fought in the legal sphere have been fought because the law remains a more progressive ‘space’ because of its caste and class privileges.
Question: We have noticed that the Supreme Court, and in fact courts, in general, have stood up for the rights of queer community, whereas the legislative response to the problems which are being faced by the queer community has been mostly underwhelming. We had Tharoor’s Anti-Discrimination Bill being dropped without a deliberation, we have had horrendous acts like The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. How do you think the queer community can garner enough of political capital and lobbying power so that their voices are heard in a better way?
Often, the criticisim that is levelled at the queer community and other marginalized community you fight for is that they are speaking to an eco chamber. You are only speaking to people who already agree with what you believe in, you need expand yourself and reach out to more people. I fundamentally agree with that, the queer rights movement is an eco chamber, the dalit right movement is an eco chamber, feminist movement is an eco chamber, I think many of our movements that we lead today are eco chambers where we only speak to those who already believe in what we believe in.
Now, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Eco chambers also provide safe spaces , I don’t want to be constantly attacked, I don’t want to build my narratives and leading my life within a space that denies me my identity or my right to existence. What I do think is very powerful is when these eco chamber start speaking to each other. So, an eco chamber in and of itself might be limited but when eco chambers start speaking ot each other, the voice cannot be suppressed.
For example, the queer movement’s only way of true progress is by allying with and becoming a part of other social justice movements that currently operate. A beautiful way in which this played out was during Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register for Citizens (CAA-NRC) protests where the issue of trans people excluded by CAA-NRC and the issue of human righs and right to equality in general became a queer issue. There you saw something magical. The fight for LGBTQI+ rights intermingled with fight against Islamophobia, with anti-caste movements.
Later, it allied with environmental rights movement when President Jair Bolsonaro came to India as Chief Guest on Republic Day. Bolsonaro has been widely critiqued for his policy in the Amazon which has lead to wild scale deforestation in Brazil and he is also a rabid homophobe. When Bolsonaro became our Chief Guest it was a shame and blot upon the history of this country’s welcoming of foreign leaders and the commitments we stand for. In Bombay, queer rights and environmental activists came together. There was a slogan which came up – “Aarey, Amazon, queer ladai, Fascist-fascist bhai bhai!”
There was a shared commitment to protest against authoritarian leaders and policies that are detrimental to varied causes and social justice. That’s where this fight is headed and that’ where it will find it’s success. It’s time to stop begging, demanding and requesting rights and start recognizing that we are not pity or sympathy projects. We are capable of leading and driving powerful expansive and very potent political movements that can ally with other movements across the country. To create social justice and civil rights platform that truly has the power to make transofmrative change, politically and otherwise.
Question: Since you have been working on ground level promoting the interest of the community, it would be interesting to know, how did you find the attitude of the law enforcement agency and how does that attitude impede your campaigns and projects?
During the Mumbai-Pride Sedition case incident I was making chips to the azaad maiden police station in Bombay. There was a young trans student who was charged with sedition and had a chargesheet filed against them. I was called in for questioning and I was very clear with the police officer in charge that the case was frivolous and politically motivated. As a result there was an expansive conversation on what it means to be transgender non-binary in Marathi. How do you explain what a trans non-binary identity is to somebody who is not well-versed in the vocabulary of the social justice movements.
There is an important need to engage in sensitization and awareness programmes across the law enforcement system while constantly understanding that the police are not our friends. The queer projected started off with the first brick being thrown off because the police raid on a gay bar in New York City. The history of the queer movements is a history of resistance against police brutality, against incarceration, against the police state itself. While we call for dismantling of the police and the police institutions that continue to inflict on communities that are marginalized, we must remember that in the short term self-presevation requires the creation and sustinence of sensitization programmes and engagement with law enforcement without worshipping or deification of the law enforcement agencies.
Queer lives across the board have had to engage with the law enforcement because it is a priveleg to day that I will not interact with the police, especially when so many queer bodies are dependent on professions that have the highest engagement with the police, sex workers, street worker and other professions.
As far as the question with respect to the situation of law enforcement right now is concerned, it is absolutely horrid. People are still getting arrested on Section 377 charges for sodomy, trans people are still getting penalized for merely existing. We have to recognize that the law of the land does not operate in the same way in every region with every person. You might expect after High Court and Supreme Court verdicts or after actions of the government, you might see change but it is not that quick. Queer people like others continue to suffer from the violence of law enforcement agencies as under trial (not getting court dates on time), as individuals who are denied bail on frivolous grounds, as members of a community that is continuously ridiculed stigmatized and persecuted by the police and other communities. This is a challenge and the law enforcement remains a challenge today.
Question: If we look at the structure of the queer community itself, there are some marginalized communities within the marginalized communities. Let’s say the communities with limited power capital – example being intersex people. So the queer movement and the voices in the movement have been dominated by the idea like the marriage project etc. In such a scenario, how do you think we can accumulate power capital for those communities which are excluded within the queer community?
This is a very interesting space to work within. I think there is a need to shed this idea that the Queer movement is a singular entity. I don’t think it operates as a singular entity. There is also a need to distance ourselves from this assumption that we will all be fighting the same fight – all of the Queer community together will come out for one issue. Because of India’s unique experience with Section 377 there has been a sort of warped understanding of the Queer movement as one that takes on projects until they are finished. It was that for the fight against 377, everyone comes together, every pride, that’s the slogan – “Remove 377, remove 377, remove 377”. It’s a very limited way of looking at queerness in the Queer movement. It’s not something that’s productive because there were movements that were arguing for trans rights at the same time. There were movements that were arguing for mental health access for the Queer people at the same time. There were movements that were arguing for shelter homes at the same time. You know so many different moments exist within a moment. In the same way that you cannot ask for the Feminist movement to have one single issue that it rallies behind right. Like, tomorrow if I were to say that the feminist movement’s single point of agenda is a rape law. You just cannot have that operate a large movement. The Feminist movement’s agenda is also equality at the workplace. The Feminist movement’s agenda is also to prevent stigmatization of periods. The Feminist movement’s agenda is also to prevent caste atrocities and discrimination on the basis of other identity markers. All these exist simultaneously.
Similarly in the Queer movement after the fall of 377 you are going to see the existence of and preponderance of several projects that are equally valid. The important thing here though, the existence of all of these projects does not mean that all of them get the same amount of attention or the same amount of recognition as the others. Menaka and Arundhati happen to be good friends. I think while there has been a significant critique of the Marriage Project, including by me there is an understanding that the Marriage Project is one of the projects that the Queer movement is putting forth. It is not the only project. And it is the job of the Queer community at large to acknowledge this and say that multiple projects are now possible. For me, the important factor to highlight is that the existence of varied marginalization within queerness, which include Dalit Queer people, Muslim Queer people, intersex folks, non-binary folks. These are all identity markers that require awareness and education within the Queer community, to begin with. There is a lot of unlearning that Queer people themselves have to do – of other forms of marginalization. And I think that sort of self-reflection is important before we embark upon the amplification of other sorts of projects.
As a community, I think it is important to reflect upon and reconsider our own stances before trying to change those of others. And then I think its important to acknowledge that, exactly as I said before, the Queer movement cannot exist in isolation. If you try and sort of chip away at the block and say that this XYZ movement is important, why is this not being considered – you push yourself down into a rabbit hole that is not very productive. The Queer movement has been and must remain a movement for equal rights regardless of caste, class, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s a movement that must ally itself with other movements that fight for self-determination, that fight against hate, that fight against discrimination. And once these alliances are built, once these ethical foundations of the queer movement reflect the sort of idea of queerness as something that argues against ‘the normal’ and argues against forms of discrimination, you will see the sort of natural amplification of these voices.
I think imagining that this Instagram amplification of marginalized voices is something that is sustainable strategy is flawed. It is not as easy as putting up a story about intersex people on your Instagram – which I think what has been understood as and accepted as the definition of amplification in the spaces we inhabit today. I think that to me is slightly scary. Amplification to me does not mean – once in a while just highlighting one random marginalized community. Amplification must be and requires a rooting in local politics. It requires the creation of and the sustenance of local communities. It requires and thrives on the commitment to building grassroots movements. And that is when you see these barriers breaking down. And in this sort of large scale influencer generation, there simply is no scope for me personally, for any form of justice to truly be delivered or for any sort of amplification to truly take place. I think we need to build our own communities and these communities need to start talking to each other. Imagining that there can be a National Queer Movement and an International Queer Movement is playing into these flawed notions of the nature state and these ideas of representation that don’t really work.
Question: Anish, from what you said right now. How would you make the movement more inclusive? Definitely there are issues that are not even talked about. The movement is still largely dominated by a few dominant voices. Even the instrumental changes which have taken place after the Supreme Court verdict have been very gradual. How do you think we can speed up the process and at the same time make the movement more inclusive?
I think that one is that, acknowledging again that there are multiple projects that operate as a part of this movement and as somebody who works on queer rights, identifying what you want to work towards. Breaking down big changes into small chunks and then working towards achieving them is often the best and the fastest way of achieving change rather than trying to fix the system in its entirety all at once. The second way to ensure that we move faster and accelerate this process of change, which cannot be accelerated beyond a point; remember we have come so much further in the past 10 years than we have in decades is by acknowledging that there must be a shared commitment to certain values that define Queerness. I think this is very important especially as we move forward now but would you consider would you consider Sadhvi Pragya Thakur a feminist. No, right. Just because you are a woman does not make you a feminist. The fact that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or asexual or any other identity does not inherently make you part of the Queer movement is something we have to recognize. That what are the shared values, what are the shared commitments to equality, what are the principles that we all must believe in to be a part of this movement is something that needs to be built upon.
Now the Queer movement is expanding. You know earlier when there were such few people who were out, when you barely had anyone out of the closet, when you had such few queer people who could be representatives of the Queer movement. The Queer movement was defined as anyone who was Queer. I think today we are going to move towards a Queer movement that requires whether you are Queer plus whether you believe in the shared idea. I think finally what is incredibly important is to undo the shackles that we have put ourselves in and stop buying into this lie that we’ve told ourselves time and again that the British got in homophobia and transphobia or that India was a heaven for gender and sexual minorities before colonization. Because it is a project that is dangerously close to like a ‘Make India Great Again’ form of the ‘Make America Great Again’ movement that is sort of a erasure of the history and a romanticisation of the past.
Let us acknowledge that any movement, any movement for social justice, any movement for the rights of several communities operates on a scale of progression that is not linear. You can’t compare today to 5000 years ago, you can’t compare today to 300 years ago and you cannot most certainly say that any part of the world was a safe space for Queer people at any point in history. The very fact is that Queerness is a rejection of the normal, that Queerness has always existed in opposition to the normal and that Queerness has always been prosecuted and marginalized. The fight for Queer dignity and Queer identity is one that sort of goes beyond colonization. Two reasons that is important is because that it allows us to challenge things like the Transgender Persons Protection of Rights Act, which I call shudh-desi transphobia. This is an act passed by Indian lawmakers, elected by Indian people in a country that became independent 75 years ago. You cannot blame the British for it. You cannot blame colonization for it. You cannot blame Mughal rule for it. It is one that is passed by the same people that we were told are the most accepting most inclusive people on this planet. So when we acknowledge that our fight is and has always been against the mainstream repression of Queerness, when we acknowledge that we cannot be part of these silly revivalist projects that only seek to use Queer bodies for narrow political gains because remember that Queer people were accepted before British colonization quickly become Queer people who were accepted before Mughal Rule and then quickly becomes a sort of Islamophobic argument which says that all Muslims are homophobic.
So we need to reject these revivalist projects and accept that Queerness has always existed but has also always also been prosecuted and persecuted, regardless of what time and space you see and history. And understanding the history of Queerness as a history of persecution, as a history of fighting for rights is one that will enable us to shed this false sense of complacency that now the British are gone, 377 is gone, their law is gone and we are going to be a Queer Heaven. We need to accept that this is a fight and a struggle that requires all of us to remain committed and remain committed to the ideals like I mentioned – of equality and the commitment to the forms of resistance against discrimination that will shape what Queerness means and whether the Queer movement means beyond just an identity marker.
Question: Could you please recommend a few readings for our readers on this subject and a few readings you have been reading these days pertaining to this subject or in general?
So, always my favourite part of any talk. One, always start with reading Maya Sharma’s Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India. Beautiful book. It documents forms of Queerness that operate outside of religion, outside of Kamasutra and Mahabharata versions that treat Queer people as cursed and as outcasts and as sad stories into more localized forms of Queerness that operate in very interesting ways and negotiate their local context in very interesting ways, predominantly outside Gujarat.
Also an incredibly important book, that has been relevant for me is the Collected Works of Anjali Arondekar. She is someone who writes on the archive and the sort of historicization of Queerness. She is someone who really has shaped my views on finding Queerness in the archives, what it means to excavate Queerness and what it means to understand the negotiation of Queerness and the law.
I would recommend this because it has such incredible Queer voices that don’t get highlighted much is The World that Belongs to Us, which is a collection of poetry edited by Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal. The poems there are the reality of so many Queer people outside the confines of metropolitan India.
Then I would say Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a personal favourite in terms of Fiction. James Baldwin, black gay American writer ,writes powerfully and incredibly beautifully. Finally, I would say, A.Revatht’s biography is an important book for understanding the movement towards trans- rights and trans-identities.
These are a bunch of recommendations and that’s all I have on my end.
Host – Anchal Bhateja and Namrata Jeph
Technical Editor – Aarzoo Gang
Transcript – Prakhar Raghuvanshi and Yashaswi Pande