A map to truly claim queer pride

We make much of LGBTQIA 'pride', especially in Anglo-American contexts. But when we transpose 'pride' to Indian queer sites, we ought to realize that this 'pride', which is yet to be won, stems from a history of shame. In 1861, Thomas Macaulay laid the foundation of Section 377. It was an adaptation of The Offences Against the Person Act 1828, which reduced the penalty for those indulging in sodomy from capital punishment to 10 years of imprisonment. His infamous evaluation of Bengali men - "feeble even to effeminacy" - became, as Sikata Banerjee rightly deems, the "most potent symbol of general Hindu effeminacy".

By Rohit Chakraborty
  • Published 1.08.18
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We make much of LGBTQIA 'pride', especially in Anglo-American contexts. But when we transpose 'pride' to Indian queer sites, we ought to realize that this 'pride', which is yet to be won, stems from a history of shame. In 1861, Thomas Macaulay laid the foundation of Section 377. It was an adaptation of The Offences Against the Person Act 1828, which reduced the penalty for those indulging in sodomy from capital punishment to 10 years of imprisonment. His infamous evaluation of Bengali men - "feeble even to effeminacy" - became, as Sikata Banerjee rightly deems, the "most potent symbol of general Hindu effeminacy".

Effeminacy of the colonized men bolstered the colonial project. It allowed a machinery to be set up that would establish and sustain a binary of difference - the Christian manliness on the one hand and the effeminate Hindu on the other - whilst simultaneously mimicking the institutionalized homophobia of the Empire to police 'deviant', pluralistic sexual desires of the colonized. This is why when people usually talk of Section 377, they conflate it with the criminality of homosexuality only, and the homosexuality which is often in question is that of the Indian man.

But Macaulay's insidious amalgamation of the diverse idioms in which the myriad sexual desires of precolonial India were seen, written about, portrayed, and performed unified all queer acts and identities into a singular criminal queer identity. One's sexuality became one's shameful personhood. In their seminal 2000 project, Same-Sex Love in India, Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have excavated a wealth of evidence wherein precolonial Indian cultures see non-heterosexual desires as acts and as identities, as alternative sexual inclinations which were tolerable and as deviations which had to be nixed. Babur presents his bisexuality in the Baburnama in a small section where he depicts his attraction towards a market boy in Khodzhent; his grandson, Akbar, finds same-sex desire to be 'the wicked ways of Transoxiana'.

Same-sex desire is not something India has acquired from the West. The colonial project did not create homophobes or imported homophobia. Homophobes might have had other names to call themselves with and were surely present in precolonial India. Like queer desires, the desire to deride queerness appeared in spurts in written and oral cultures before colonialism. What the Western import has really been is the enablement of a State-sanctioned queer shame. It allowed an endorsement for the homophobes to turn into vigilantes so that the sensation of shame could streamline the 'ideal' heteronormative society by excising the deviants.

Shame is inextricably tied to ideals of masculinity and a fear of effeminacy. After the colonial perception of Indian effeminacy, when it came to reconstructing the nation, what other fear could fuel Section 377's sustained presence? Leela Gandhi talks of Hindutva's sexual exclusivism and accords a 'fear of a return to effeminacy' to the homophobia of some of its proponents. To return to precolonial 'glory' and rid itself of the scars of effeminate depictions by the colonizers, it is reinvigorating the monolithic approach of the colonizers themselves. But in an attempt to distance themselves from the image of the totalitarian colonizer, the upholders of Section 377 are mimicking the overlords by indulging in amnesia and claiming that homosexuality has never been an Indian phenomenon.

Writing of Rekhti poetry and the explicit lesbian connotations, Vanita versifies "Chaptinamas" by Shaik Qalandar Baksh Jur'at where Sukkho and Mukkho play at 'doubled clinging'. Despite the literal reference to a sexual position, 'doubled clinging' becomes a fantastic metaphor for how we can perceive 'alternative' sexual desires in India today. The idiom of sexuality as personhood is not a colonial import but specific sexualities as shameful personhood is. Even before Macaulay, certain cultures in India identified 'alternative' sexualities by naming them - dogana, laundebaaz, busn parast et al. But shame had never been nationally imposed until Macaulay raided the private spheres and the private idioms of perceiving and performing queerness.

Our responsibility today would be towards a 'doubled clinging'. We cannot undo the import of queer shame or Western identifiers. But we can extricate shame from queer bodies by repealing Section 377. 'Doubled clinging' becomes a choice at an amalgamation of the precolonial and the colonial rather than privileging one over the other. We must have the freedom to adopt the colonial import of identifying ourselves in those imported, alien terms, but simultaneously aspire for a return to sexuality as a shame- less act or identity.

English law and the English language may have interrupted the diversity of our perceptions by encouraging a monolithic tendency of shame. But the issue of queer 'pride' is not which idiom we choose to perceive our sexualities in but to unanimously agree on detaching shame and criminality, colonial imports that have divided the nation into a contrived sexual binary.