What does the marriage equality law becoming a reality in the US mean for the Indian gay community? Do the wedding celebrations have the power to silence the voices of thousands of those outside the privilege axis of the white, Western middle-class?
By Dhrubo Jyoti
There is a park in the heart of Delhi that magically transforms itself every evening from an otherwise drab gentrified place to one bursting with activity as queer people from all walks of life land up on the grass—to catch up, meet friends, shed their staid workplace manners or to find a date.
A day after the so-called historic US Supreme Court verdict legalizing same-sex marriage, I strolled down from work into this oasis of queer liveliness but found no extraordinary cheer—a few of the regulars, visiting once the sun went down seemed disinterested in the happenings of a culture and a nation far removed from ours.
But away from my little park, social media was cheering on the “historic” ruling; millions changed their Facebook profile photos to tinge them in the rainbow hue and took to Twitter to express their solidarity with #lovewins, saying the decision was the ultimate victory for equality.
THE PRICE OF EQUALITY
Therein lies the rub and the danger of making a middle-class issue the focal point of an equality struggle. There is no doubt the marriage ruling is important—especially for a community that has been marginalized for centuries—but the celebration of the weddings threatens to silence the voices of thousands of transpeople, queer persons of colour, poor, young and many outside the privilege axis of white, middle-class, cisgendered and urban.
America’s queer rights landmarks in the past decade – the repeal of US military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell and the same-sex marriage win – has come at a cost. More than at any point in history, more LGBTQ youth are homeless, cases of HIV infections are rising among black young people, transmen and women face unmeasurable violence at home, on the streets and at their workplaces but their sufferings are swept under the carpet laid out at a gay marriage hall.
The lessons are manifold for queer movements in the subcontinent, especially India, which has done well in having a vocal and visible Hijra community demanding their rights—something developed western countries (think Ireland)—often lack.
But to think the American verdict will have immediate impact in India is an illusion. Our Supreme Court has definitely spoken on the issue and while a curative petition is pending before it, most activists have resigned to the fact that judicial remedy remains a slender hope. Moreover, in its 2013 verdict that recriminalized homosexuality, the top court showed a strain of disdain in borrowing from foreign jurisprudence, even chided the Delhi high court for it, so only a very optimistic man will be confident of the US court’s judgment having a bearing on ours.
But this is to not say that the same-sex marriage landmark has no fallout at all. The cues of globalization often flows from the West and the widespread acceptance garnered by same-sex couples is already making its impact felt in urban India, whose lifestyle choices are a mirror of their Western counterparts.
A WELCOME CULTURAL SHIFT
Being gay or a lesbian is cool in the West and a vast section of urban middle-class youth no longer care enough to discriminate against people for their sexuality. Whether their acceptance comes from pop culture conformation or genuine empathy is hard to gauge but undeniable is the shift in perceptions.
We often pick up our social attitudes from structures around us such as ads, book, movies, serials, all of whom have started to feature less violent homo and trans phobia and moving towards a more sensitive portrayal of queer characters, though mostly hemmed in by boundaries of caste and class.
Take for example, the recent Myntra ad featuring two women in a relationship that generated such warm appreciation in young urban circles that for an evening, I forgot it was New Delhi, not New York.
Such cultural shifts are pivotal for a movement’s success. The marriage equality victory in the US was preceded by decades of painstaking work by activists to popularize and normalize homosexuality by featuring them on TV, movies, books, etc. Think how important Brokeback Mountain or Will and Grace was to your understanding of homosexuality.
The Indian movement is on that cusp now, with enough media attention and a booming queer literature scene; the US victory is simply a reminder that queer rights are already on the right side of history.
What it is also a reminder of, however, is that the lure of making history often compels people to leave their own behind. Think about how the Human Rights Campaign, the foundation doing most of the behind-the-scenes work, has been repeatedly criticized for invisibilising people of color and transgenders.
The danger for India is in assuming the American model of liberation is the best and stop asking critical questions about who gets marriage benefits, why state benefits should go to couples, why shouldn’t one fight for healthcare and education and who really benefits from same-sex marriage.
More prudent would be the course that Indian movements are, albeit precariously, already charting. Many of the Indian queer leaders have strong connections to the women’s rights movements and feminists are indeed some of the biggest allies of the queer cause. But moreover, there is a genuine effort to talk about the intersectionalities of caste, class, gender and sexuality and how the powers that oppress a Dalit man aren’t much different from the powers that subjugate a queer one.
My friends in the park often lead dual lives, spending their day in the heteronormative world and then a few hours of freedom where they can assume whatever gender or sex or sexuality they want, unflustered by society’s glare.
It is these people that our movements need to look at—at the poor, the homeless, the out-of-school, unemployed queer people who will benefit from a transgender welfare board set up in several states than from an abstract marriage equality law.
We often love to romanticize notions of equality and this is why Facebook’s rainbow campaign was such a hit. But being queer also means daily threats of unimaginable violence, harassment by police and very real subjugation far removed from the glossy same-sex wedding photos on buzzfeed. We have to learn from the US victory but make sure we walk alongside other grassroots movements and don’t leave anyone behind. Equality in India, whenever it dawns, has to be for everyone.
(Dhrubo Jyoti is a journalist.)