As I wait in front of the train that has just pulled into the Metro station, I see my reflection in the glass before the doors open. In a dinner jacket and bow-tie, short cropped hair and violently red lipstick, I must make an unusual sight. Not that I set much stock by appearances, but there must be something about me that screams “queer”. An older woman wrapped in a shawl gives me a sideways glance before moving away. Sometimes the staring persists. But this time I can’t care less. I’ve got my best shoes on, and I’m going to meet my partner for that horribly cliched Valentine’s Day dinner.
An uninterrupted meal, smiling waiters, and then the usual ride back home. Both of us know that even something as simple as this isn’t what every queer couple has the privilege to do.
“Love” is something both universal and intimate, something that makes us human, regardless of our class, race, caste, faith, gender, or ability. But when it comes to sexual orientation – about being queer in a cisheteronormative culture – love tends to lose its footing.
What images of queerness do we consume on a regular basis? Colourful scenes from Pride marches and poetry readings are the few positive ones. The other more omnipresent images are of pain. Many of us first learn about queerness through one of two thing: reports of violent crimes against LGBTQ people; or the human rights campaigns launched in response to the same. We quote Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, the right to equality, and how Section 377 strips queer people of that right. And all our energies are directed into fighting for non-discrimination policies in our schools, colleges, and workplaces.
And while our fight must necessarily highlight the marginalisation of queer people, we also risk permanently ‘othering’ the community, defining queerness within a narrative of suffering. Look at any of those cult queer films. “Brokeback Mountain”, a story of guilt and separation; “Blue is the Warmest Colour”, a story of heartbreak. This is true of even the more ‘sensitive’ depictions in (the otherwise queerphobic) Indian cinema. “Kapoor and Sons” has a queer subplot of not being accepted by family; Kannada film “Naanu Avanalla Avalu” depicts transphobia; The very controversial “Fire”, where lesbian love is guilt-stricken and secretive . When will we finally replace images of queer people being excluded, abused and murdered?
What we desperately need are more positive images of queer people. Two women in love, watching TV in the living room, while a grandmother potters around complaining about the weather, and a father sits reading a newspaper on the couch. Two dads at a parent-teacher-meeting, sharing a joke with their kid’s favourite teacher. A trans mother helping her daughter pick out her first bra. A queer couple cooking an elaborate dinner for a family gathering. You know, those simple, almost mundane everyday moments that we all take for granted. When we deny these moments to queer people, we deny them their humanity. Society at large points accusing fingers at LGBTQ people, saying they are incapable of having families, of being parents, of sharing love, of being faithful. This is nothing more than a way to deflect attention from the fact that our laws, our kinship systems, and our prejudices ensure queer people don’t have the opportunity to love openly.
Occasions like Valentine’s Day could shift the focus to queer love as a radical and transformational force. Roll your eyes all you want and tell me February 14 is just a capitalist wet dream. I don’t disagree. But take a moment to think about the impact it has on our outlook.
The day vociferously reinforces the idea that heterosexual love is the only true form of love. Greeting cards, store fronts, advertisements for chocolate, WhatsApp forwards – everything defines “love” as the relationship between one man and one woman. Never mind that same-sex attracted and polyamorous people exist! What if, instead, we saw an equal number of queer couples represented in Valentine’s Day promotions? Wouldn’t that normalise queer love for everyone in society?
At this point, it’s probably worth noting the origin of Valentine’s Day. Saint Valentinus, a priest during Roman times, married consenting lovers within the Christian church, even though society prohibited these. Honouring his actions by recognising queer love in the face of heteronormative bigotry might be the best way to celebrate February 14!
Perhaps images of queer love will build more empathy than queer suffering ever can. Perhaps many of you will see yourselves in the image of two men holding hands, or two women having a candlelight dinner. Perhaps the sight of a trans mom waiting with her kid for the school bus will remind you of your own experiences. And perhaps when we put all these images together, the lines that divide us will slowly melt away, and love with overpower the hate.