Content warning: This article touches upon subjects of homophobia, transphobia and sexual assault in a non-graphic manner.
LGBTQIA+ rights in India are in an interesting place. Though homosexuality was decriminalised in September 2018- less than three years ago- queerness has not truly gained visibility in the public. Save for a handful of movies and shows, and maybe one or two celebrities- the dominant culture is still cisnormative and heteronormative. Queer activism has always struggled to make space for the community within this culture. With the recent growing scope for queer activism in India is also the simultaneously growing right-wing. But are these two contradictory or can LGBTQIA+ activism coexist with right-wing ideology?
Many LGBTQIA+ activists in India certainly seems to think the latter. Not only do they respect the right, but they actually embrace right-wing ideas and figures. But before we look at these activists, let us first examine what is the track record of the Indian right-wing on LGBTQIA+ rights.
Partially revoking Section 377 to decriminalised homosexuality is the undoubtedly most important advancement of queer rights of late. While most political parties welcomed the judgement, BJP made no statement about it. BJP’s ideological counterpart the RSS, however, did make its position clear by saying
“Like Supreme Court, we also do not consider it to be a crime. (However), Same-sex marriages are not compatible with norms of nature, so we do not support such relations. Human beings generally learn from experiences, that is why this issue needs to be taken care of at the social and psychological level.”
Stills from Pride Parade, India
Now, lest we conclude that taking a stand on gay rights was too risky a move for a major political party, we must consider that Congress and its senior leaders had already taken a stance against Section 377 back in 2013 when the Supreme Court upheld the law. Congress President Sonia Gandhi had released a statement in 2013 saying, " The [Delhi] high court had wisely removed an archaic, repressive and unjust law that infringed on the basic human rights enshrined in our Constitution [...] The Supreme Court suggested another course. I hope that Parliament would address this issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those directly affected by this judgement.”
The RSS did evolve its stance somewhat in 2019 to say that sexual preferences are a personal matter and society needs to “accommodate” everyone. However, they maintained that same-sex marriage should not be legalised “for it will institutionalise homosexuality”. BJP is also currently the only major political party with sitting MPs who have made queerphobic statements according to https://www.pinklistindia.com/pinksabha. Still, let us give BJP the benefit of doubt and assume that queer rights just aren’t a part of their agenda so they prefer to remain neutral. However, there are two glaring gaps in this assumption- the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 and the recent response from the Central Government to petitions in the Delhi High Court to legalise same-sex marriage.
Stills from Pride Parade, India
The former is a law that claims to give transgender people protection but was met with widespread criticism from the transgender community, lawyers and activists. The law, among many other things, stipulates that crimes like sexual assault against a transgender person carry a sentence ranging from
six months to two years in duration- in comparison to the punishment of seven years to life term for sexual assault on cisgender women. It violates the NALSA judgement of the Supreme Court by denying transgender people the right to self-identify by making people apply to the district magistrate for a transgender person certificate which will give them the right to change the name on their birth certificate and have all documents updated accordingly, but only after the person has undergone gender-affirming surgery (popularly and incorrectly called “sex change”). The law also mandates that transgender children must live with their birth family, ignoring the fact that in most cases family is the first place of transphobic harassment and abuse and transgender people have historically lived in communities that provide shelter to younger transgender people. The law also ignored the Supreme Court’s guidelines to provide reservation in employment and education to the transgender community in order to fight against the widespread discrimination they face. Adding to this issue is also the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) that seeks to check who is and isn’t an Indian citizen based on certain documents that prove Indian ancestry. When this exercise was carried out in Assam, many from the transgender community were left out of the list as they were not in contact with their birth families. During the 2020 Mumbai Pride, the organisers Queer Azadi Mumbai aided the police in arresting 51 attendees who raised anti-CAA NRC slogans, later claiming such sloganeering did not belong at pride.
As for the case with same-sex marriage, the Central Government has filed a response in the Delhi High Court saying that, “Living together as partners and having a sexual relationship by same-sex individuals is not comparable with the Indian family unit concept of a husband, a wife and children, which necessarily presuppose a biological man as a ‘husband’, a biological woman as a ‘wife’ and the children born out of the union between the two.”
The government’s affidavit also stressed that same-sex marriage cannot be claimed as a fundamental right as in spite of decriminalisation of homosexuality as "[Section 377] applies to aspects which would be covered within the personal private domain of individuals [akin to the right to privacy] and cannot include the public right in the nature of recognition of same-sex marriage and thereby legitimizing a particular human conduct".
Stills from Pride Parade, India
Recently, the Centre urged the Delhi High Court for adjournment of petitions for recognition of same-sex marriages under existing law as the government needed to focus
on handling the pandemic, insisting that “nobody is dying because of the lack of marriage registration.” Even though many same-sex couples are unable to make medical decisions for their partners in the middle of the new wave of Covid-19. The court adjourned till July 6.
But guess who professed his admiration for the BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi? One of India’s oldest gay activist and founder of Humsafar Trust- Ashok Row Kavi. Not only that, Kavi has also expressed disdain for Muslim and Dalit queer collectives, claiming that they are diluting the movement. He has also been accused of leading a smear campaign against Labia- a Mumbai-based lesbian and bisexual women and transperson collective. After Pallav Patankar was removed from a panel at the Kashish film festival following backlash due to his role in aiding Mumbai police to carry out arrest at the 2020 Mumbai Pride, Kavi directed blame to “the Lesbian mafia” who had “infiltrated” the film festival. Kavi has also detested attempts at ‘politicising’ pride. Another prominent figure that favours the right-wing is transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. She is one of the most visible faces of the transgender community. She led the Kinnar Akhara in Kumbh Mela celebrations in 2019 and even appeared on national television from there. She had fallen into controversy for flouting covid
norms and attending the Kumbh this year. She also voiced support for the 2020 Akshay Kumar film Laxmii which was heavily criticised for being insensitive and transphobic. Tripathi has also publicly supported the construction of Ram Mandir- a long-held and dear goal of the BJP. Remember the organisers of Mumbai Pride? Following Queer Azadi Mumbai’s footsteps, the organisers of pride in Pune planned to draw up a list of “troublemakers” and submit it to cops in advance, alongside the thought of calling bouncers to maintain decorum in the parade and avoid politics.
The Humsafar Trust.
At best, these instances can be viewed as attempts at self-preservation. Queer people already exist in the margins of society. If the only way to advance in such a society is through co-opting the mainstream message, then who is to say they shouldn’t? Who is say that pandering to the right-wing, who currently holds political power, isn’t a tactic to soften their stance on queer rights? But it can also not be ignored that this also harms the community itself. If nothing else, these instances reek of selective activism. Even if Ashok Row Kavi is able to get BJP to accept gay people, will things really improve for all gay people? What happens if you are Muslim and gay? How can someone fight for the rights of queer people if they don’t fight for the rights of all queer people? Queer identity is not monolithic, different people have different experiences. What good is queer activism if it fails to bring liberation from oppression? Oppression of a Dalit gay man doesn’t end with the end of homophobia if casteism still exists, oppression of transgender women doesn’t end with the end of transphobia if misogyny still exists. By seeking to exclude issues of caste, misogyny or religious extremism from the quest for queer liberation, activists are not fighting for liberation and freedom from oppression. They are fighting to occupy the oppressive role that currently harms them, over someone else.
Transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripath