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Politics Of Visibility: India’s Queer Movement And IPC-377

By Sonia Joseph

17 December, 2013

In 2009, I was living and working in Bangalore, India when the Delhi High Court handed down its historical judgment to pull out the teeth from IPC 377 and de-criminalize consensual sexual acts. As a queer woman connected in various ways to queer activist spaces, I remember that day well. Everywhere I went, we greeted each other with a joyful, “did you hear?” even as we knew the answer.

There were celebrations and parties all day; panels and seminars all year that filled us with the legal language that was fast becoming commonplace --- “reading down”, “repealed”, “against the order of nature” . Heated discussions on the worthiness of pouring so much energy into repealing a law that had only rare and isolated consequences for sexuality and gender minorities in India --- was briefly laid aside in the immediate euphoria of the moment. Why be cynical when Goldman Sachs now had a “LGBT group” within their corporate offices in India? There were cheeky and cleverly disguised suggestions to same sex loving on television ads now. And then there were the pride marches. Every year, with increasing exuberance and abandon, cities all over India were unfurling that rainbow flag, dancing and having a good time. The nation-state seemed poised to embrace the queer project as part of its march forward into a shining and modern India. India’s queer movement had officially become visible and proud through the traction found in a legal courtroom.

Meanwhile, in a poor locality in Bangalore called Dasarahalli, with an especially high population of gender and sexuality minorities, things have been changing even faster. Rental hikes and luxury bungalows have mowed down formerly affordable housing and driven many residents to the outskirts of the city or out of state. There was news of hamams closing down, sometimes because of the changing local neighborhoods, sometimes after too many police raids. In 2008, the detention and torture of several activists from a local NGO called Sangama gained international attention, including from Human Rights Watch. Police had beaten and driven out nearly 100 hijra residents from their homes and were systematically conducting gender cleansing of hijra communities. [http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/11/18/india-stop-social-cleansing-bangalore.] If violent gentrification and economic shifts were not displacing communities, the state police were intent on purging the visibly poor and anyone else who have no role to play in shining India.

Fast forward to 2013 and nearly every single Indian newspaper (and most of the foreign ones too) used a photo-op of a satin, multi-colored rainbow to announce the Indian Supreme Court decision to criminalize homosexuality. It hurt. We had come unmasked, with the paint washed off our faces, ready to be told that the sex we were having was not against nature (those of us with no penises got to be included by proxy). Instead we are insulted, told we were miniscule and our troubles unworthy of national attention. And then there was the embarrassment.

India was supposed to join the global momentum set up by the politics of queer visibility and let Indian queers come out of the closet. Instead we learn that the Indian Supreme Court was content with the colonial relics left to us by the British. There are many other such relics that have not as of yet merited global rage.

In 2011, the Alternative Law Forum (Bangalore) called a meeting to discuss a proposed amendment of the Karnataka Police Act of 1964 that would now include pieces of another colonial law called the ‘Hyderabad Eunuchs Act” (which in turn was a derivation of the colonial-era ‘Criminal Tribes Act’). Laws designed to not only criminalize hijra communities, but to legalize the police violence that was already terrifyingly ordinary. Among other draconian measures, the law required hijra residents to register at the nearest police station.

In 2010, a sudden (although not new) spate of suicides in the hijra community in Bangalore caused enough widespread alarm that it merited a concerned discussion on counseling and hotlines during pride march planning. Later it was found that many of the cases that were originally believed to be suicides, were badly-disguised murders. No one was arrested. No judge presides over the murders of trans* women. The truth is difficult to unearth with the pervasiveness of gender and sexuality minorities who do not believe their lives are worth living. The normalization of suicide ideation has become another treacherous survival tool that manages the raw grief of losing too many of our friends, lovers and family.

The politics of visibility and outrage about criminalizing 377 demand that India, as a nation, acknowledge its LGBT citizens. It matters less whether those who lay no claim within liberal India’s progression towards modernity --- have a stake in these political appeals to the state.

While section 377 had nothing to say about the sex happening among queer women and trans* masculine people, the state and family have not been so silent about the topic. The court and family have other ways to ensure that women and trans* people do not matter, and remain miniscule. Laws related to kidnapping, Habeas Corpus proceedings, missing persons reports are routinely deployed to “legally” restrict relationships and autonomy. If these brave queer people manage to fight these legally sanctioned proceedings in a courtroom, and manage to win, there is always intimidation, blackmail, threats and violence. Among many in the queer community, marriage is an institution that represents the primary hetero-patriarchal force used to take away power, choices and rights.

Within the frame of available visible narratives, arguably the most invisible group of gender minorities in India are female-to-male trans* masculine men – and in particular those who come from poor and working-class communities. Around 2008, I remember watching an episode on a popular, local Kannada talk show on trans* men. The episode featured a minor female celebrity as host -- resplendent in gold and iridescent sari -- who would spend two full episodes “interviewing” a working-class, Dalit trans* masculine person. She spent two days attempting to convince them of the abnormality of their gender expression, punctuated with knowing asides and looks to the TV viewer. There was the usual fetishistic curiosity about their gender and sexuality, alongside a liberally progressive, feminist message. (The Dalit trans* masculine person was unknowingly insulting women by not agreeing to be one.)

What was particularly vile were the two big “reveals” during the show. One was a typically sensational audience reaction to the interviewee as someone who was “really a woman”. The second “reveal” was when this person was forced into a sari and trotted out in front of the camera. The show includes backstage shots of them crying silently as they wear the sari. Make no mistake --- this was an act of violence against a gender minority for the sake of popular entertainment and mass consumption.

On Dec. 15th, a Global Day of Rage was mobilized by groups and activists in nearly 40 cities all over the world to send a carefully enraged middle finger to the Indian Supreme Court. From the very beginning, there was little reason to believe that striking down IPC-377 would have meaningfully changed anyone’s lived realities. Even before Indian Supreme Court’s decision this year, IPC-377 was being used to harass and humiliate sexuality minorities. But now the state has a new, freshly sharpened tool against those most vulnerable to state violence and repression. Despite being in the law books for 150 years, no one had really heard of IPC-377 before 2001, when the Naz Foundation filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court. There is comfort in knowing that IPC-377 is very difficult to prosecute successfully as it demands proof of the poorly defined act of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” But it is hard to tell how lower courts and the police will wield this newly validated piece of legislation. As we grapple with how the Indian Supreme Court decision ripples out into the community, much of India’s sexuality and gender minorities continue to struggle within the politics of visibility, irrespective of section 377.

Sonia Joseph is a writer and an activist currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She can be reached at mailcellardoorblog@gmail.com


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