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QUEER LITERATURE, OUT OF THE CLOSET

ILLUSTRATION: TAPAS RANJAN

The past decade has seen a lot of changes with respect to literature in India. And several Indian authors have tried to establish an identity with queer literature. City Express talks to a few writers who shed some light on the concept.

by Prabhu Mallikarjunan

It is so true that a woman may be in love with a woman and a man with a man. It is pleasant to be sure of it, because it is undoubtedly the same love that we shall feel when we are angels…,” Margaret Fuller (American feminist and literary critic).

Queer literature is finally coming out of the closet in India, and is not very difficult to access books in mainstream bookstores, even in smaller towns in India. Queer literature is more than sociological and mere academic interest in a queer aspect of cultural studies.

While the late eighties and early nineties witnessed the earliest of gay literature in India, it’s the past decade that saw a lot of hysterical activity and changed the need for queer literature. Perhaps, widespread writings during this time and its acceptance clubbed with activism may have led to the end of Section 377 of Indian Penal Code (The section was read down to decriminalise same-sex behaviour among consenting adults).

One of the pioneering anthologies, ‘Same-Sex Love In India: Readings From Literature and History’, the book co-authored by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai published in 2000 presents a collection of stories that defies both stereotypes of Indian culture and Foucault’s definition of homosexuality as a 19th century invention and an attempt to distinguish same-sex from cross-sex love.

And, some of the books with collections of gay and lesbian writings like ‘Yaraana’ edited by Hoshang Merchant (Published by Penguin), ‘Facing The Mirror’ edited by Ashwini Sukthankar (also Penguin), ‘Law Like Love’ (by Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta), and ‘Because I Have a Voice’ by Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan, has cleared the space for what could potentially have become a radical field in which same sex cultures might have been articulated.

Come a long way:

Today, Kidwai feels that though queer literature (though the term queer took prominence post 2000) has come way ahead, and it has become too easy for the writer to get their work published. However, he is wary about the quality of writing.

“The writers (on queer subject) today don’t have to take the additional task of convincing the publishers.I have seen many of the books stocked along with other new releases and it is no more a taboo subject. However, the quality of writing is not so high and publishers need to be cautious,” Kidwai said.

Colonialism brought us a deep-seated homophobia, of which Section 377 was an example. We have been distanced from our traditions that we just know the tailored stories, and have become convinced that homosexuality is a ‘western’ idea.

Limited readership:

Referring to the late nineties, Kidwai said, the readers were not too open about the subject and publishers were not ready to publish because of the limited readership.

He referred to the case of “Fire”, a queer Film Classic by Indian-born director Deepa Mehta released in 1996, which had an unprecedented lesbian theme that led to riots outside cinemas in India and necessitated police protection for the director for over a year.

Anita Roy of Zubaan, a publishing house which has published many books on alternate sexuality recently told IANS that after the repealing of Sec 377 of IPC, writers became more confident about articulating their views; hey felt liberated. The publishers are also becoming aware that there are readers out there who identify themselves as queer.

Gautam Bhan, an activist for queer and gender rights and the General Editor of the new sexualities series announced by Yoda Press, sees a major shift in the last decade not just in English but also in regional languages, particularly in Tamil.

“The access to the queer books is getting wider and the internet as a medium is expanding the reach. There is no ‘western’ tag attached to our books, and each new book in India has a different story to tell,” Bhan added.

Queer related themes:

Arvind Narrain, director of the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, one of the key lawyers in the Delhi case that overturned Section 377 has co-authored several books with Bhan.

He says that the efforts at writing on queer-related themes that have come before us have focused either on mapping the relentless violence inflicted by the state and civil society on queer people or on stories of queer people as they live their lives.

These books answer a lot of questions one has about gender and sexuality, and it also gives a good insight on issues that are hard to understand just by experience. “Being a homosexual myself, I am quite curious to know about it and how people handle their lives and situations.

“I am very interested in knowing the “journey” of homosexuality simply because it would help me in my life,” said a reader who wanted to maintain her anonymity. However, she completely disagrees with the term ‘queer’. “I don’t like the term “Queer” which means being at odds with the normal. I feel one’s sexuality is just a state of being which is very normal and natural,” she adds.

Narrain adds that the sheer depth of talent within the queer community and the eagerness of so many to write openly about their lives and beliefs excited and humbled him.

The internet, which offers a certain degree of anonymity, has increased people’s access to queer groups and resources, making it a bit easier for younger people to connect with others like themselves.

“Given a choice, getting the reader to consider reading queer literature as part of one’s regular reading is a difficult task, but the internet can bridge the gap,” Bhan said.

When questioned whether if the queer literature is likely to receive a backlash from the influence of increasing right-wing propaganda in India, he said he would not be surprised if that happens.

Tracing the global history:

In America, predominantly, the queer literature can be traced to pre and post Stonewall Roits in New York. On a Friday evening, June 27, 1969, the New York City Police force raided a popular Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn.

The raids were usual until 1969 and were said to have been conducted without much resistance. However, that particular night the street erupted into violent protest as the crowds in the bar fought back. The backlash and several nights of protest that followed have come to be known as the Stonewall Riots.

It is said that prior to Stonewall riots, the public expression of the lives and experiences of gays and lesbians was limited. Nevertheless, the Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement and led to many literary achievements.

These concepts are also explored in ‘Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination’ by Ruth Vanita. Using characters inspired by Percy Shelley, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf; Ruth Vanita uncovered love between women in a sophisticated and provocative manner in her book.

Vanita refutes the conventional theories of the invisibility of the ‘queer’ and shifts the focus from marginalisation of women to their empowerment as literary ancestors.

“…The love that dare not speak its name’, in this century, is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man…It is beautiful. It is fine. It is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual. And it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man when the elder has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts someone in the pillory for it…”

Transcript Excerpts from the First Criminal Trial (April 26 to May 1, 1895) 1 of Oscar Wilde, popular playwright who was imprisoned for alleged homosexuality. (1-published online by University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School)

Interview with Minal Hajratwala by Prajwala Hegde-India is warming up to queer quest

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(This article was published in TNIE city edition dated Aug 18, 2012)
 
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Posted by on August 20, 2012 in News and Views

 

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Changing facets of gender minorities

Wrapped up in the trimmings of a man was a phoenix waiting to be reborn. Twenty five-year-old Mahima (name changed) is among the many transgender women in the city waiting to give love and be treated with humanity and dignity.

Prabhu Mallikarjunan finds out more

Mahima is one of the lucky few among gender minorities to have a recognised job and earn a livelihood doing administrative work. This, by all means, has made her wear a smile and reduced dependency on sex work and begging.

But, the journey wasn’t easy for Mahima as she fought her way through years of struggle for personal freedom and choice of sexuality.

Mahima, who was born male biologically, was more comfortable being surrounded by women and girls since her childhood. A young boy saw himself as a girl and dreamt of being a girl.

Narrating her life story, Mahima take us through as to how there still exist misconceptions about the gender minorities, and how they are treated on a day-to-day basis.

“I always used to play with girls, preferred to wear girl’s clothes. Eventually, I admired their body and wanted to have female genitals. I wanted to be like them. Though, my mother and sister recognised my feelings, they never appreciated nor accepted. As I was having a feminine charm, I was being teased by friends and neighbours in the vicinity. I felt left out and I used to search for people who could understand my feeling.

“One fine day, I met a Hijra group and I went on a night out with them. After returning home, I was house-arrested for six months as my family members did not accept what I did. But after a couple of years, I had to run away from home, as I was not treated with dignity. The environment at college was no different. Guys used to grope me and teachers used to abuse me. I had to quit my studies due to social stigma that existed and it was a mental torture each day. I had to resort to begging and sex work, as no one was ready to give me job.

“It took me four years to save enough money for my treatment to remove my male genitals and have a breast implant. It seems like only yesterday. There was no one to stop me, not even my family, from pushing through, because it was my mindset that was important.

“After 6 six years, I visited my parents and started giving them money every month. But, I was made to wear a burka whenever I walked in and out of the house. The reason, it was considered a shame for my family members to explain my gender identity to neighbours as they felt that they would be disregarded in the ‘society’.

“And the horror continued from sexual abuse by drunken men (clients) to taunts from women and beatings from police…”

This is the story of an estimated two million people in India who, in the eyes of the society at large, have no real identity. The extreme stigmatisation surrounding transgressions around alternative sexuality as well as sex work makes it extremely difficult for families to accept their children.

Stigmatised by society and disowned by relatives, the majority of India’s transgender community is forced to live with restricted access to education, jobs and health care.

The Government is yet to take up a census of the people belonging to gender minorities in the state/ country. In spite of the reading down the anti-sodomy law, Section 377 of the IPC in 2009, members of these groups remain stigmatised and outside of the mainstream. While headway has been made, the journey to equality is not over.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the founding document of human rights law, “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state” (Article 16) Underlying this discourse on the family is the presumption that it is an essential structure for the protection of human rights, including the rights of liberty and dignity. However, for the gender minorities, the experience of the family is stark different.

Instead of protecting their child from the violence inflicted by the wider society, the family in fact provides an arena to act out the intolerance of the wider society.

People’s Union for Civil Liberties, an organisation working in defence of Civil Liberties and Human Rights, in its report on ‘Human rights violations against the transgender community’ has highlighted these issue and has noted that, given the enormous sense of isolation faced by gender minorities, particularly in the villages, the only solace or hope is when they get to know that there exist other people like them who live in the bigger cities. This in turn contributes to the formation of the Hijra community as a largely urban phenomenon.

Changing times

For the first time in the history of the Karnataka High Court, a transgender was appointed as an employee. C Anu has been appointed in the Group ‘D’ category. Interestingly, yet another transgender women Priyanka works as a radio jockey at Radio Active Radio, an urban community radio hosted by Jain Group of Institutions, as part of its social outreach program.

Akkai Padmashali of rights organisation Sangama in Bangalore, who has been fighting for the right of the gender minority community for the past two decades says that things have begun to alter in the traditional Indian mindset and notes there seems to be both subtle and appreciable changes taking place in terms of how this group are being treated and recognised by mainstream society.

But, she does not cast away the government ignorance towards them.

“Three years ago, a number of promises were made by the then chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, with regard to providing us ration cards, pension, etc and a Government order was passed in this regard. But the promises have just remained on papers and are yet to materialise,” she adds.

The Karnataka government identified The Department of women and Child Development to be the nodal agency to address the concerns of gender minorities recognised the Karnataka State Women Development Corporation as the nodal institution to extend necessary facilities to the Gender minorities members.

 Key points promised to gender minorities in GO NO. MaMaE 68 MaANi 2010 DATED 20-10-2010)

■ The Gender minorities group to be included in the Category-2A of the Backward Classes List as per the recommendations of the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission.

■ Inclusion in the voters’ list by the Revenue Department.

■ Providing 01% reservation in the admission to college courses.

■ To be provided with houses constructed by the Slum Clearance Board.

■ To be given BPL ration cards by the Food and Civil Supplies Dept.

■ To be given free medical assistance and implementing health insurance to these members under Yashashwini Health Insurance Scheme by the Health and Family Welfare Department.

■ Financial assistance and required training to a member of Gender minorities up to Rs 20,000/- or to a group of 5 members up to Rs 100,000/- by the Women Development Corporation.

However, of these nothing seem to have materialised in reality and the reservation in education which could uplift the society in a large way has not moved an inch forward.

“The gender minorities do not have an identity yet. We have reminded the Election Commission and other departments concerned to issue them ID cards. Once this is done, other benefits will follow easily. The problem with such groups is that most of them do not have a permanent address. This is an area of concern,” said Narayanaswamy, Managing Director of Karnataka State Women’s Development Corporation.

MYTHOLOGICAL REFERENCE

Reference in Mahabharatha:

Arjuna marries a lady by name Nagakanye. A son is born to her and he is named Aravana. He belongs to third sex (shikhandi). When he was asked to come to the battlefield to defeat Bhishma, he asks to get married before his death in the hands of Bhishma. As nobody was willing to marry him, Lord Krishna himself gets transformed into a lady (Mohini) and marries him.

The Hijras of Tamil Nadu and gays and lesbians consider this Aravana as their original man and they treat themselves as ‘Aravaniyars’.

The Hijras sing, danced and bless the children and couples during naming ceremonies and marriages. Sindhis, Punjabis, Marwaris, Gujratis etc. follow this tradition. They respectfully request the Hijras to grace the function. The hosts will even touch the feet of Hijras on such occasions. This custom is very much there even now.

Archaic laws:                                     

Contradicting the progressive efforts made by state government to extend benefits to gender minorities, last year, the Karnataka Legislative Assembly amended the Karnataka Police Act, 1963 , empowering the police to maintain a register of the names and the places of residence of all “eunuchs” who are “reasonably suspected of kidnapping boys, castrating them, or making them do unnatural crimes, or encouraging others to commit unnatural offences or any other offences.

Siddharth Narrain of Alternative Law Forum strongly condemns this and said the law is based on a colonial legislation called the Hyderabad Eunuchs Act. “It re-criminalises the hijra or transgender community by bringing back provisions which had been removed from Indian legislation long ago,” he said.

He also noted that the history behind legislation like this goes back to the Criminal Tribes Act – a colonial-era law under which the British government notified all members of certain tribes, castes, and social groups as criminal at birth. When City Express checked with a few police officers including the additional police commissioner, none were aware of the change in statute and also said that they were not using the provision yet.

The Hyderabad Eunuchs Act is directly derived from the colonial-era Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) passed by the British Government in 1871, the Act is a product of the British Administration’s repugnance toward certain tribes and communities that the State deemed as ‘addicted to the systematic commission of nonbailable offences. The

Criminal Tribes Act notified all eunuchs and members of about 150 tribes as criminal at birth.

International perspective:

Argentina has put in place some of the most liberal rules on changing gender, allowing people to alter their gender on official documents without first having to receive a psychiatric diagnosis or surgery.

Any adult there will be able to officially change his or her gender, image and birth name without having to get approval from doctors or judges — and without having to undergo physical changes beforehand, as many U.S. jurisdictions require.

In Nepal, the government has decided to issue special identity cards for the group with the third sex. The move was seen as an effort to eliminate gender discrimination. Australia and New Zealand both have “X” as an option in addition to ‘M’ or ‘F’ on passport applications. Bangladesh allows citizens to register to vote as “eunuchs.”

TERMS FOR REFERENCE

Sex: refers to the biological distinction between males and females

Gender: concerns the social differences between males and females. Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine.

Sexuality minorities: people discriminated against, due to their sexual identity/orientation or gender identity. This includes gays, lesbians, bisexuals, hijras, kothis, transgenders, etc.

Gender minorities: (Also referred to as Mangalamukhis) they include Hijras, Kothis, Jogappas, female to male transgenders

Transgender: Someone who is anatomically born in a certain sex, but is more comfortable with the gender/sexual identity of a different gender, and chooses to go in for a sex reassignment surgery or hormonal treatment.

Kothis are those who are born as male members but having female feelings. Generally, they won’t change their sex. They prefer to wear male dress.

Hijras are those born male members but would like to identify themselves as females. Hence they like to remove their genitals by operation.

F to M (Female to Male) are those who are born as female members but like to identify themselves as male members.

Henniga, Khoja, ombathu — considered as derogatory terms (advised not to use)

(With inputs from Alternative Law Forum and Sangama)

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………(This article was published in TNIE city edition dated Aug 11, 2012)

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2012 in News and Views

 

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