By Edwin Thomas:
I was all decked up and ready to go. It was the first time that I was going to attend an event organised in the name of Queer Pride. Sure, it was a talent show, not a march, but I was happy nevertheless. For someone who grew up in Dubai, Pride-themed events were not exactly an annual thing. So when I came to Bengaluru, India, I was actually thrilled to be able to attend something of this kind.
I was due to perform with a friend and I had a cheerleading squad of close friends and classmates. When we finally got there, it was nice and… different. But there was something odd. The area was clearly divided into two: on my left were people who seemed to look more like me, most of them having a drink in one hand and a smoke in the other, engaging in casual conversations and some harmless flirting. On my right seemed to be members of Bengaluru’s thriving trans community adorned in their local attire. The latter seemed to have been left to their own wits, many of them bored and some of them even clueless.
What unfolded thereafter was a clear example of how hierarchy creeps into queer spaces.
With a performance ahead of me, I needed to get some warm-up done, so I go right into the host building, where there was a sale of goodies, sweets (Indian and foreign), drinks, artwork, fancy attire, masks and all things gay. The pricing started at around Rs. 200 and only went up from there. It was way out of our college budget. But I noticed that not a single trans person from the above mentioned category were anywhere to be found in the vicinity.
“To exercise sexuality in India is still a matter of your class privilege,” said my Cultural Studies professor in college. Her explanation was not limited to theory. From being able to choose a safe neighbourhood to live in and picking the right kind of clothes, to choosing the best pub in town to party the following weekend, your class privilege dictates whether you will be able to afford that 500 rupee jar of jam at a fundraiser, or attending fabulous Pride events like the one we were at.
Your caste privilege is not too different. My Indian Literatures professor will tell you that in India, your caste will more or less determine your class even to this day. The Indian LGBTQ movement is sadly not immune to the plague of caste and it drives our notions of the ‘movement’ as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with pondering over queer struggles at your neighbourhood Starbucks but at the same time we should be able to check the privilege that enables us to do so. To think that the queer community, in its entirety, faces systemic oppression on the same plane is fanciful thinking at its best. If we can get straight allies to think about heterosexual privilege, there are those among us who need to understand our inherent caste privilege too.
It is not an accident when the mother of prominent gay activist Harish Iyer had put out a ‘grooms wanted’ advertisement like this:
“Seeking 25-40, well placed, animal loving, vegetarian groom for my son 36, 5 11′ who works with an NGO caste no bar (though Iyer preferred).”
Those last three words seem to overshadow the progressive nature of such a step. Sure, Iyer later said that the reason he did that was because he wanted someone from ‘familiar territory’ but in a country like ours, our relationship with caste has never been that easy. For generations now, our rocky relationship with caste has taken on multiple deep-rooted layers of sanitation, which is reflected in the discomfort that we show. This has been easily carried forward to the queer movement too.
The idea that it takes a Brahmin, who is dressed ‘appropriately’, looks presentable and speaks fluent English, to represent queer people as a whole and articulate our problems because of the knowledge that person possesses is again not a coincidence. The relationship between Brahmins and knowledge is something that has sustained itself in ways that are more subtle in modern times. Who is able to possess this kind of knowledge matters a great deal.
Note the kind of language many of us use to talk about queerness and so on. If we are citing theory, it can’t be brushed off simply as the result of attending college classes. If you can take up admission in an arts school and sit in a class on queer theory, that is privilege. If you are able to to cite Judith Butler’s theory on gender performativity and Michel Foucault’s work on social constructivism, that is privilege.
It’s important to note, also, that our ‘movement’ has borrowed quite a bit of its structure from its Western counterparts (which explains a lot about its whole ‘civil rights’ discourse); and the people who have access to that kind of knowledge end up being people who are privileged enough to learn English and follow Lady Gaga’s passionate speeches. It’s not a matter about “not all upper-caste…” or other arguments of that kind but an inherent place of excess that one is advantaged to speak from.
Recently, I had spoken to an activist named Felix who works for Orinam, an LGBT support group in Chennai, about the build-up towards the recently concluded Chennai International Queer Film Festival. When I had asked him about how the cultural domain of film festivals are not inclusive, he commented on how something as simple as subtitles can make so much difference and he admitted that while those were baby steps, he is still “very open to making it more inclusive.”
Once again, that panel discussion following a film screening will consist of prominent thinkers dissecting the film to its very bits. It takes an audience who understands that type of a discourse to be able to engage in those types of discussions. Ask yourself, who attends film festivals, frequently takes up leadership positions at NGOs, appears on social and mainstream media circles as ‘activists’ and is able to climb up these organisational ladders to speak on our behalf. What will their priorities and sensibilities be like?
All of these privileges affect the way we organise, what resources we have at our disposal and how we ultimately put those resources to task.
The Bangalore Pride event got me thinking. Who was the audience that they had in mind while planning and organising an event of this sort? Because if it was only aimed at people like me, rich and privileged queer people, then they did a good job. But was it good enough? Think about it this way: there is an organising committee who decides these details; if it’s underrepresented due to lack of means to power, only certain sensibilities will end up being taken care of. It was not an accident; it was a conscious effort to reflect the wider ethos and culture of the LGBTQ community as having a kind of privileged lifestyle.
The evening progressed with beautiful songs, performance poetry and what not. We all seemed to be having a great time excepting a lull on the other side of the venue filled with bored audience members. Billy Joel and Lady Gaga were clearly not on their playlists and they seemed to be tuning out of what was happening. But soon enough, the really popular “Chammak Challo” started blaring from the speakers and that got the entire venue on its feet. It shook up the upper-class music sensibilities and managed to cater to an audience that seemed to be excluded from the whole thing. Hell, it was the best part of the evening. Something as simple as choosing a playlist comes from placing a certain sensibility over the other, and not from a place of inclusivity.
Queer theory emerged from feminist theory, and both questioned the humanistic view that sexuality and gender was inherent and not subject to flux.
Today, if we have anything to learn from the feminist movement, it is that we must be more inclusive in our thought about how oppression – in its layered and complicated form – affects people occupying different subject positions, differently. Queerness is not the only way through which a person may have to face oppression. This is why we have to incorporate intersectionality in our discourse.
“The queer movement is not an exception to class however it is necessary that we stand together and try to understand each other and exploring intersectionality. This is because it is easier to fight for a cause when we stand together as a community rather than individually. It is useful for the marginalised to come together,” added Felix when asked on the issue of classism in the Indian queer movement.
How we can ‘come together’ and on whose terms, is yet to be seen but it is absolutely necessary at this point to to look at the larger picture, and the intersection of issues to understand how we make sense of our sexuality.
It is of utmost importance to remember that ‘privilege’ inherently is not a thing to be ashamed about. Our subject positions in society are not our doing. But if we want our movement to be truly inclusive, our way of thinking must be more inclusive. This starts by recognising one’s place of privilege.