New Internationalist

The indivisible I

Issue 400

Indian queer activist Gautam Bhan on why sexuality rights need to be viewed in a different light.

Vijaya is a hijra (a member of India’s traditional transgendered communities) who lives in an urban slum on the outskirts of New Delhi. She can’t get a public ration card that would entitle her to subsidized food because all her documents identify her as male.

Faisal lives in a working class Muslim neighbourhood, is married to a woman, does not speak English or use the word ‘gay’, though he sleeps with men.

I am a Hindu, a privileged, gay man who calls himself queer.

Three different people; three ways of looking at sexuality. But what are gay rights, queer rights, sexuality rights, or sexual rights? Are they simply the right to express and not be criminalized for same-sex desire; or are they the rights of same-sex desiring people, rights that seek to describe and understand all parts of their lives and not just their sexual preference?

In parts of newly emerging sexuality movements in India there is today a shift in ways of articulating the politics of sexuality. This shift recognizes that the way sexuality is experienced by queer people cannot be understood if it is separated from gender, religion, language, region, caste and class.

Vijaya, Faisal and I are on a spectrum of the diversity of queer lives in India. Vijaya’s experience of her gender identity and sexuality is critically shaped by her class, her struggle for survival and vice versa. To her, gender and sexuality are about the public distribution of food and labour rights. To Faisal, sexuality rights include the protection of religious minorities. Gay rights as they have been traditionally understood in the West – as self-identified LGBT communities demanding the right to individual self-expression and non-discrimination – will only go so far in India. It is imperative that we understand how the multiple identities that all Indians possess are connected to each other, and that any politics that seeks to see one in isolation – or to see one struggle as somehow more important than another – will fail.

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