By Shivani Makkar:
A ‘heterosexual matrix’; that is how Judith Butler, a post-modern feminist scholar, describes the grid that is produced through the institutionalised practices and discourses in the society that affix human beings into a two-sex model, with each sex experiencing desire only for the opposite one. Breaking out of this grid, one can see that the human body and sexuality is fluid, and does not confine itself to one fixed sexual identity or orientation. This explains the language of bio-medical science that along with the larger society, undertakes constant ‘normalization’ of the human body through various treatments, paving the way for years of cultural ‘gender’ conditioning.
In fact, as pointed out by Nivedita Menon, the strictly bipolar model of a man and a woman is characteristic only of modern Western civilization; even in Europe, till the Middle Ages, people’s sex was not necessarily fixed into a two-sex model. Sex, in the words of Anne Fausto-Sterling, is ‘a vast, infinitely malleable continuum’, and goes beyond all attempts to limit it into categories. Menon also highlights the pre-modern Indian culture that was much more accommodative of multiple sexual identities; the socially acknowledged position of eunuchs, and the rejection of the two-sex model by the Bhakti and Sufi traditions, is a good example of it.
The pioneer that is Nepal
A fledgling democracy sill finding its feet in the country since the end of the monarchical rule in 2006, Nepal has set the bar high when it comes to granting to all its citizens equal rights, regardless of their sexual orientation. It is not just ‘the rights of gays, but the right to be gay’. Recent reports suggest that a government committee in Nepal’s law ministry is working on a Bill to legalise homosexuality and allow same-sex marriage under the new Constitution, overturning the 2011 proposal against this step. The initiative in this direction was taken in 2007, when a Supreme Court judgement declared homosexuals as ‘natural persons’, and ordered the government to ensure that their rights are protected. It thereby became the only country in South Asia to recognise the legal rights of gays. Riding on the liberal wave that had swept the nation, Sunil Babu Pant, the founder of the Blue Diamond Society, became Nepal’s first openly gay Member of Parliament in 2008.
Moreover, in the 2011 Nepal census, the Central Bureau of Statistics officially recognized a third gender in addition to male and female. Recently, on the 11th of August, the Hindu festival of Gaijarta, the only occasion where it is socially acceptable to cross-dress without facing harassment, became a rally for same sex marriage. There is reason to hope among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) community, that their life will be easier and protection will be provided for all sexual minorities.
It must be kept in mind however, that changes in the law do not necessarily translate into acceptance by the society, although it is a much needed beginning. The age old traditions and the religious aspect that dictates the country’s social life, makes it difficult for the people to live their lives as themselves. The fear of social boycott and ostracism are much heavier incentives for the people to conform, and they continue to find it hard to come out to their families.
Where India went wrong: time for some self-reflection
“Women are to be respected, not to be used.”Â These are the emphatic words of the vivacious Vishita, an independent, working woman, who is all of 25, and has seen it all. Proudly calling herself a lesbian, she was in a loving relationship with a woman for 7 long years, and describes it as a delicate, gentle, and deeply emotional period of her life. “My parents are supportive of my life choices. Beyond that, I don’t think I should have to justify anything to anybody else.”
A country that prides itself on being the largest democracy, of having an ancient culture that boasts of acceptance and accommodation of diversity and, which itself has many recorded accounts of harbouring multiple sexualities, India proved to be a big disappointment to a large section of its population; namely the LGBT community. The 2013 Supreme Court judgement that overruled the 2009 High Court decision, and recriminalized homosexuality for being ‘against the order of the nature’, reinstating the archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, is a badge of shame on the country’s history and its ‘forward looking’, progressive judiciary, and puts tens of millions of Indians under dire threat of persecution and terrorization. We have, in truth, simply brushed aside the cornerstone of our Constitution, which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty, and equality, and which prohibits discrimination on any grounds.
So where did we go wrong?
…”I love this country. But I don’t like the mentality of the Indian people. I am just like anybody else, is it too much to ask to let me be who I am?’’ The question is left hanging in the air, and Vishita and I both pause to reflect. She then eagerly goes on with her story, starving to share things that people never took seriously enough. “The Indian government is only concerned about the societal values, but what about us individuals? We are not asking to create our own society; all I want is to be able to decide the course of my own life without harassment or becoming a laughing stock for the people”.
What it ultimately comes down to, I believe, are our prejudices, which must die. Criminalizing an act of love and a way of life, through engorged standards of morality, and safeguarding some vague idea of culture, chips away at basic human dignity. We are all precious human beings and nothing justifies the scarring and wounding and bruising and traumatising and stigmatising. Of anyone, on any grounds. What we have internalised through our socialization is reflected in our law books, our institutions and our structures of authority, and it must be challenged. There is nothing called ‘unnatural’, except maybe our regressive attitudes to love between free, consenting individuals, and denying them respect and opportunities based on their free choices.
We recently brought in a landmark change by recognising the third sex and the rights of hijras; legalising homosexuality, however, is another matter altogether. Our psyche does not permit it. A relationship without the deep rooted gender hierarchy and power relations is not acceptable to us. It cannot, conceptually, constitute a family. Because eunuchs have, sadly, been a community in themselves, it is easy to erase their existence from our minds. They do not interfere with our world; shifting and open sexuality, on the other hand, does.
It is only with a change in the mindset of the people that any fundamental transformation of the society can occur, and people like Vishita, and thousands of others, would not have to face blame and shame, or a life sentence in prison for making love to another human being. Maybe one day we will be able to look beyond the genitals as defining a person; to break down the categories of gender and its conditioning; to unshackle the norms that suffocate us; and march forward, with love in our hearts. With pride in our eyes.