The recent Orlando shooting carried out by a gunman, claiming allegiance to ISIS, in a gay club, has shaken everyone who supports LGBTQ+ rights to the core. It has raised some very serious questions about us, where we, as humans, are regressing. It’s a battle which isn’t against any militant group or a religious one, it’s against that age-old rotten belief that treats the community as an abomination.
Love isn’t the monopoly of a few people. It’s futile to say that we stand by them when it means nothing. For many, it’s just another post in their news feed or an opportunity to post a status condemning the attacks all the while suffering from denial or internalised homophobia.
While thinking, I was struck by how the stereotypes regarding LGBTQ+ people are increasing their complications. With the ongoing Pride Month, we see our social media profiles swarmed with colours: pride marches and people celebrating their lives, which is all great. It’s their right. However, their stereotypical portrayal by non-queer people is often wrong. In popular media, gays, lesbians and trans people are specifically stereotyped. What it does is that it puts them in a category that is somewhat foreign. It beats the whole purpose of wanting to be accepted as they are, especially in India, where, often, people claim to be flexible in accepting diverse people, but then discriminate between them.
I am fervently against the image that shows the LGBTQ+ community as over the top, flamboyant, effeminate people (specifically in the case of gay men) who just prefer fashion, partying with/as drag queens or are perverted satyromaniacs (males with uncontrollable sexual desires) who never have a happy ending. They are portrayed as having an obnoxious voice, a limp wrist, and people associate gay men, unfairly, with excessive PDA . These are, perhaps, some of the most visible signs presented to us. But everyone should get to choose how they want to present themselves. The recent Jabong ad is a proof of that. What one is, shouldn’t be hidden. But representing a whole community on this basis is wrong. It’s like saying all Brahmins are vegetarians.
When we create an ‘approved’ image of them as effeminate, we are treating them as something that is ‘not okay’. In reality, they are as diverse as any other group. We’ve been taught to think of gay men as ‘twinks’ or ‘daddies’ while we tend to forget that they are in all sorts of professions and are part of all sorts of families. You might not be able to even ‘identify’ them unless they have ‘come out of the closet’, and why should you?
Everyone needs a safe and secure place to belong. But when people try to gain acceptance, they feel that they need to meet the parameters of being gay in their own community. It leads to an additional pressure to be someone they don’t want to be. They start getting insecure in a place where they were supposed to feel liberated. It leads to a situation where they are already pressured and humiliated not only for being queer but also for not being queer enough. When forced to mould themselves according to the norm, the fear that comes with non-conformity leads to may remaining in their ‘closets’. It is an even bigger problem in India where people use derogatory terms for them. People refuse to believe them just because they lack certain stereotypical ‘traits’. They shouldn’t be customised to fit in.
Coming to lesbian women, this is a concept that is even more stereotyped. In India, where patriarchy and the subjugation of women is rampant, a situation where a woman is sexually involved with someone of the same gender is considered worse than infidelity, rape etc. We just love oppressing our women whose sole job is to apparently procreate and fit into the roles assigned to them by males. Pigeon-holing them is something men and other women alike, enjoy when they feel threatened. Lesbians are shunned and declared ‘promiscuous’, ‘unholy’ and even ‘witches’ while being subjected to brutal killings and sometimes forced to commit suicide.
Movies that depict same-sex love between women, hardly live to see the light of day. ‘Fire’, a Deepa Mehta movie, consisted stellar performances by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das as two women in love with each other. But, as usual, many a sanctimonious people of our country felt offended. Their degree of getting offended seems to vary when men get violent with women or when they brag of their philandering ways. But it seems women and freedom can’t coexist.
I remember reading about Ismat Chughtai’s ‘Lihaaf’, a masterpiece about two women having a sexual relationship to which a young girl was a witness. A woman herself, Chughtai was ostracised by her own society for attempting to write about natural but which was, and is considered, taboo things. The story’s boldness made many of my friends uncomfortable, possibly because from childhood, we believe in a stereotype that reinforces that ‘sane’ women who love men should act in ways complementary to masculine traits. Like passiveness to aggressiveness, submissiveness to assertiveness, soft to hard demeanour etc.
Lesbianism is considered as the direct opposition of that. A counter-image of sorts. Therefore, a stereotype is created that shows lesbians to be having ‘masculine’ characteristics. Like dressing as tomboys, walking in a certain way, having short hair, smoking and drinking. Yes, there are women who choose to be that way but for all you and I, they may be of any sexual orientation.
Lesbian couples are not mentally ill or ‘possessed’. They can be career and family oriented. They too can make excellent parents and nurturers. They can be responsible citizens of the country. Society should not dictate how they must live, or who they show their affections to.
Coming to trans people. It is basically an umbrella term for people who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. Since trans people were given legal status as the ‘third gender‘, our society is showing signs of becoming more tolerant toward them. But even as trans people have made their foray into politics, I don’t think much has actually changed in their portrayal and hence their treatment. People want their blessings on auspicious occasions but they seem to be distanced from mainstream society. Usually ostracised, they are treated poorly and exploited by society and authorities alike.
The negative stereotypes about trans people are worrisome. They are always shown as cross-dressing males, when they identify as women, or intersex, or non-binary. They are shown decked in heavy ornaments, moving around in groups, talking in a certain manner while clapping their hands loudly. In our country, people who don’t actually know of gender variations, take this to be a universal image. For them, the community is represented by the people they call ‘hijras’ and ‘kinnars’. Because people can be easily unaware or confused, gender demarcations were created for easy identification, which does not represent the complex gender and sexuality spectrum.
I will try to explain each of these terms as well as I possibly can.
Intersex: A term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy and genetics that doesn’t fit the standard definitions of male and female. Many such people are forcefully made to undergo correction surgeries at birth if their conditions are identified as such. Their existence shows that our structure of gender is socially constructed
FTM (Female-to-male): Trans people who were assigned the female gender at birth but live and identify as males. Also known as trans men.
MTF (Male-to-female): Trans people who were assigned the male gender at birth but live and identify as females. Also known as trans women.
Cross-dressing: Most people associate this with trans people in the country when in reality, it is a universal practice irrespective of sex and gender roles. Cross-dressers can be of any sexual orientation. It is a form of gender where a person dons the clothes and accessories of a gender opposite to theirs. Typically associated with men who dress up ‘like women’, it is generally not permanent and doesn’t always mean a person desires to change his or her gender.
There are many other groups within the LGBTQIA+ community about whom not much is discussed or known, even though they aren’t uncommon. There are genderqueer and gender-fluid people who don’t confine themselves within any gender category or societal label. There are bisexual people who are attracted to two genders. Asexual people don’t feel sexually attracted to anyone of any gender. And there are pansexuals and many others.
Sexuality, being a multi-dimensional topic that varies individually, should be dealt with in a sensitive manner. Stereotypes perpetuate hostility, bigotry and fuel stigma because others expect these people not to be ‘normal’, something that needs societal approval in order to exist. We express our sexuality, why can’t they? What makes heterosexuality normal and everything else an anomaly? If LGBTQ+ people are portrayed as ordinary individuals then hopefully people will learn to accept them as they are, not as a threat.
In India, gender roles are usually referenced in a pejorative sense. Gender as an institution restricts freedom of behaviour and expression, or is used as a basis for discrimination. Even straight people struggle every day with respect to breaking the norms, so we have to understand what kind of struggle the gender variant people have to face in India where people don’t even know the difference between sex and gender. While ignorance doesn’t excuse the behaviour meted out to them, it certainly is a reason why it becomes all the more important to support the LGBTQ+ community and give them their rights. People stigmatise every topic that is uncomfortable and hide under the garb of morals, culture and religion to justify it. A general consensus through education and other means needs to be created for them in order to be accepted as humans and given their rights for being what they are. Gender divisions should be arbitrary. Just like the universe doesn’t discriminate and embraces all objects, so should we. That would be a true form of progress.