“Njan Sanjo“ (“I’m Sanjo” in Malayalam) is a first-person account of a young Malayali trans man called Sanjo Steve. The documentary has been directed by Dr. Jijo Kuriakose, founder member of Queerala, a “registered organisation for Malayali LGBTIQ people” which “aim[s] for a society free of discrimination against gender nonconforming individuals and sexual minorities“. The film is a collage of anecdotes, ideas, and opinions weaved together into a narrative—an autobiography of sorts.
In the 15-minute video, Sanjo speaks about his love for sports, mathematics, flora, fauna, food, travel, and then the darker warrens of his life in transphobic Kerala. One of these anecdotes is of his encounter with a pastor in social work who gave him sleepless nights by telling him he had a mental disorder because he was cross-dressing. Another was how government officials humiliated him, asking him intrusive and irrelevant questions despite Sanjo having submitting all relevant documents. And yet another is about the constant calumniation and misgendering of trans people by the media.
All through the monologue he maintains a cheerfully positive disposition. He isn’t one to cling to a sense of victimhood. Instead he articulates his dreams, his aspirations, his desire to be represented and to be accepted, his wonderful metaphors on diversity, and the trials and tribulations of his “Trans Brothers”. The obstacles to living freely exist in the real world, coming from a heteronormative society that largely dislikes freedom being given to those who deviate from the norm. But in his mind, Sanjo is already free.
“Njan Sanjo“ highlights the social contradictions of Kerala. It was the first Indian state to legislate civil rights for transgender people in 2015, following the landmark 2014 Supreme Court judgment that recognized the community as the “third gender”. Yet in Kerala, attitudes towards transgender people remain similar to those in parts of India that are seen as less socially developed.
As Vihaan Peethambar points out in his review, the importance of “Njan Sanjo” lies in the fact that a trans man is speaking directly to the audience, without filters or intermediaries. In a country where transgender people and bodies are ridiculed, violated, marginalized, and their voices ignored, the significance of this particular aspect cannot be overstated. “Njan Sanjo” is about visibility. About pride. In being who you are.
After the Supreme Court struck down the part of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that was construed as criminalizing homosexual activity last year, there were special celebrations at the Delhi Pride Parade that November. It was seen as freedom from a colonial-era law that had been shaped by uptight, Victorian-era Christian morality. The Supreme Court wrote in its majority judgment:
“The first step on the long path to acceptance of the diversity and variegated hues that nature has created has to be taken now by vanquishing the enemies of prejudice and injustice and undoing the wrongs done so as to make way for a progressive and inclusive realisation of social and economic rights embracing all and to begin a dialogue for ensuring equal rights and opportunities for the “less than equal” sections of the society. We have to bid adieu to the perceptions, stereotypes and prejudices deeply ingrained in the societal mindset so as to usher in inclusivity in all spheres and empower all citizens alike without any kind of alienation and discrimination.”
This was quite an impressive reversal—complete with philosophical musings—of its own judgment in 2013 that reinstated Section 377 to its full glory, superseding the Delhi High Court’s 2009 judgment that read it down as partially unconstitutional. In that judgment, the Supreme Court claimed that:
“Legislature has chosen not to amend the law or revisit it. This shows that Parliament, which is undisputedly the representative body of the people of India has not thought it proper to delete the provision….. It is, therefore, apposite to say that unless a clear constitutional violation is proved, this Court is not empowered to strike down a law merely by virtue of its falling into disuse or the perception of the society having changed as regards the legitimacy of its purpose and its need.”
In an era where PILs and Special Leave Petitions abound, and the Supreme Court gives policy advice to the Union government, this kind of simpering deference to “the Legislature” from the highest court in the land was a source of much consternation to many legal experts and rights activists; more so because the doctrine of “due process” had already had a precedent in the Maneka Gandhi case of 1978. Regardless, it is significant that the Indian judicial fraternity, or at least the highest Indian judiciary, has finally warmed to the idea of civil rights and right to life, liberty and dignity for people with alternative sexuality and non-conforming gender identities. Perhaps it’s the zeitgeist, given other countries which were previously under British/European colonial misrule, like Angola, Botswana and Lesotho, have also excised Victorian-era homophobia from their respective legal and/or constitutional corpus. Ireland, in 2015, voted in a referendum to amend its Constitution to allow same-sex marriage and equal civil rights for gay couples. There is still some distance to go, though.
Non-heterosexual identities remained mostly repressed in colonial India. The notorious Section 377 was drafted into the original Indian Penal Code, which came into force in 1860, by Thomas (“Lord”) Macaulay, head of the First Law Commission. Although it didn’t directly criminalize homosexual identity, it did criminalize homosexual activity, forcing gay and lesbian people to go underground, both with their sexuality and their identity. In a country where sex education is limited by the overbearing influence of hypocritical “morality” (marital rape is still legal and if one were to go by arguments forwarded by certain traditionalists in its defence, “moral” as well), and in a heteropatriarchal society where sex is a taboo subject, it becomes doubly difficult for people with alternative sexual identities to express themselves.
Gender-based and sexual violence, already written into the social code by dominant heteropatriarchy, browbeats those who are perceived as lesser and/or deviant beings into silence and submission. This is not to say that homosexuality was entirely invisible. Art has always been used as a medium to portray the inner lives of gay people in India. Kole (2007) finds that although the practice of “coming out” has been prevalent in India only since the 1990s, writers and poets of the colonial period—like Firaq Gorakhpuri and Michael Madhusudan Dutt—frequently expressed their homosexuality through their literature and poetry. Ishmat Chughtai’s “Lihaaf” (1942) was based on homoerotic themes and raised much controversy. In giving homosexuality visibility, however, they perhaps paradoxically concealed their own sexuality. None of these writers ever identified themselves as homosexual.
This trend continued in postcolonial India. Alongside attempts to portray the “foreignness” of homosexuality, like that made by Rajkamal Chaudhury in his 1965 Hindi novel “Machhli Mari Hui“, there would be more explicit autobiographical accounts, like that by the iconoclastic feminist writer Kamala Surayya in “My Story” (1976), but without the authors labelling themselves as gay or lesbian. The first academic work on homosexuality in India was The World of Homosexuals by India’s “human computer” Shakuntala Devi, which reviewed the legal and sociopolitical situation of homosexuals in India vis-à-vis that in countries like the US, where the civil rights movement for LGBT people had by then taken on a life of its own, after being triggered by the 1968 Stonewall riots. The late Ms. Devi’s work was inspired by her then-husband’s ambiguous sexuality, and the book portrays homosexuality in a favourable light.
Helping family members or close friends understand the non-conforming sexual identities of their loved ones was a feature of the “coming out” process, and thereby of the gay rights movement that gained traction in the US in the ’70s. One of its key proponents was Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man in the history of California to hold public office. Within this global trend—albeit mostly restricted to developed countries—diasporic South Asian communities also saw individuals coming out through their literature and art through the ’80s (Kole, 2007). This spread to the mostly Anglophone echelons of Indian society, which had access to knowledge and literature on queer theory and gay rights movements. Homosexual Indians from these groups started asserting their identities and forming support groups and NGOs. This was also the period when the Indian economy started to open itself up to the outside world, reaching its procedural climax in 1991, when conditional acceptance of IMF’s Structural Adjustment stick provided India with the urgently needed carrot of loans and funds. That “coming out” started being transformed into an act of political conviction from one of mere catharsis in the ’90s is no coincidence.
Kole argues that over time, as the concept of “homosexuals” as a social group crystallized in the West due to gay liberation and rights movements, sexual and gender plurality, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and “coming out” became important indicators of a so-called “developed” society. Agitations by Western gay rights groups forced companies, large and small, to hire queer people and even to sensitize other staff. All this came to be seen as signs of definite progress. Traditional societies and societies with their own concepts of alternative sexual identities that could not capture these modern notions of sexual identity categories were considered “inferior,” “sexually repressed”, and hence needing to be “developed” and “freed”, necessitating an intervention from outside.
With the opening up of economies like India’s, foreign direct investments and foreign funding for NGOs looked to establish Western cultural and economic narratives to the exclusion of indigenous alternatives. This dovetailed perfectly with the neo-imperialist agenda of the West, pushing its cultural-economic model by trying to justify its superiority over others in the “Third World”. Indigenous identities like the hijras, kothis, kinnars and others, as well as their unique issues, were sought to be subsumed as subjects within a singular, “global” discourse. A unifying, supposedly universal label was sought to represent sexual minorities—”LGBT”—and Western donors of NGOs devoted to “liberating” such people focussed a lot on spreading awareness about HIV infection and seeking to prevent further spread. However, they grossly, and perhaps deliberately, overestimated disease risks and burden using dubious data collection methods, presumably in order to show “Third World” societies as riddled with disease-carrying irresponsible savages who would spread the virus if not checked by “enlightened” Western intervention.
Men having sex with men (MSM) were deemed a high-risk group in this story and therefore they provided the entry point for these NGOs to ‘fight’ for ‘gay rights’. The number of such NGOs proliferated over the decades since the 1991 reforms, and most of them paid an inordinate amount of attention to the ‘HIV problem’. Kole addresses sexual and gender minorities as ‘queer’, a reclaimed term that is used as an alternative to ‘LGBT’ by those who don’t identify with the broad, global identity that term connotes.
Ghosh (2019), however, lays out how the idea of sexual identity in India has been influenced by “transnationalism” of LGBT rights movements. Transnationalism is seen as challenging local-global binaries in sexuality, and which deems it as constructed as a simultaneous outcome of localization and globalization. Transnational processes, such as diasporic movements, job flows, the accessing global mass media, and the flow of capital across states and organizations, connect people and cultures all across the world. Importantly, these processes also help lesbians and gay men learn about different sexual cultures and modify their own sexual behaviors in pursuit of a greater coherence between their sexuality and their lives.
The use of Swedish funding for litigation against Section 377 in 2009 was an example of transnational LGBT activism. Ghosh rejects the idea that influence from outside has a destructive effect on local identities, and related issues. He argues that India’s LGBT population has either been misunderstood through critical perspectives as “consumption-oriented queers that play by the rules of the neoliberal economy” or has been less well represented in sexuality studies that have focussed more on socio-economically marginalized sexual communities such as Hijras and Khwaja Sarais. In other words, focus on extremes has prevented a comprehensive study of sexual and gender minorities in India, and is not very helpful. Ghosh instead focuses on how urban, middle-class gay and lesbian people have adapted to the conflict between identities, between cultures, and between global and individual issues through a variety of strategies, and by accommodating mental schemas of lived differences, through “differential congruence”, whereby they openly assert their identity in certain private and public spaces, while engaging with it differently in others. The transnational nature of their interaction with their identity is the only way they can maintain this differential congruence.
Indeed, Mitra and Doctor (2016) find that LGBT people tend to use various strategies, such as “distanciation, concealment, reframing via non-stigmatic attributes, appropriating lesser stigmas, and partitioning” to “pass” as straight and cisgender in their workplaces. They mention how “passing” can be a source of stress for such people, especially when they have to encounter people who are bigoted and homophobic. One of the many ways they deal with such stressful situations is by choosing to engage with more “acceptable” forms of push-back against bigotry, such as Islamophobia in a cosmopolitan work environment, and using such engagements as opportunities to emphasize that all kinds of bigotry and violence are unacceptable. Others use the transnational ecosystem for LGBT activism to give voice to their issues while staying mum on their identity in the workplace. With their families, many tend to assume that “they know” and that they have their tacit support. This kind of assumption is not limited to Indian society, however.
I have spoken to a South African gay man, now in 40s, who does the same. Gay people like him assume that they have their family’s tacit support while also being fearful that they might lose it if they actually reveal their identity to them. This is an extremely stressful situation to be in. There might be a plethora of laws and rules against homophobic practices in several countries and LGBT people might be becoming more visible, but a majority of families are still not comfortable with the idea that one of their loved ones might be gay. Or at least that’s the perception.
The practice of continuing with oppressive laws like Section 377 on statute books even after political independence from colonial rule is itself a legacy of colonial violence. Baudh (2006) observes that a law like Section 377 “imposes compulsory heterosexuality… It takes away the erotic and sexual self-determination of every person.” He further notes that:
This carries special significance in the context of laws that emerged in or are based on colonial regimes. Claiming Bahamian women’s erotic and sexual autonomy, Jacqui Alexander (1997) argues that heteropatriarchy is used to continue and perpetuate a colonial inheritance and to enable the political and economic processes of re-colonisation. She defines re-colonisation as ‘the attempts by the state, and the global economic interests it represents, to achieve a psychic, sexual and material usurpation of the self-determination of the Bahamian people’ (Alexander 1997: 63–100). In a similar vein, an instrument of heteropatriarchal oppression, Section 377 enables the state to stigmatise, persecute and place under constant surveillance and control those who have sex in ways other than penile–vaginal penetration.”
Also, Baudh cogitates on the potential issues that the ways the notion of LGBT rights is framed might have. He argues that such “arguments have done well in creating a language of sexual rights, but not without some generic limitations. There is a precondition of placing people into neat categories – heterosexual or homosexual, lesbian, gay or straight. In the privacy argument it is implicit that most people are heterosexual, there are a few who are not but they should be allowed their private space. The human dignity argument is founded on their seemingly cohesive minority status. It implies heterosexuals are the majority, and that there is a neat and clearly identifiable minority with a shared collective history. The equality argument places a homosexual on the same footing as a heterosexual, but the necessary comparator being the heterosexual. The underlying premise being that if the heterosexual does something, so can the homosexual. It is the heterosexual who sets the frame. The homosexual may borrow it, but is not allowed a new one.”
Heteronormativity itself doesn’t get challenged in such a discursive environment. Without radical change, there can be no real change. But now that India’s mighty judiciary has forced the the long-due retirement of Section 377, have things changed much on the ground? A recent report published by the International Commission of Jurists, titled “Living with Dignity: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Based Human Rights Violations in Housing, Work, and Public Spaces in India”, suggests not.
Rampant discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community continues unabated, even as the government has remained non-committal towards the electorally ‘unsexy’ prospect of civil rights for gender and sexual minorities. The report says that LGBTQ people face a wide range of violations and abuses of their rights in the context of housing, work, and public spaces. Discrimination in housing include restriction of access to rental accommodation, harassment and violence at the hands of landlords and families, and arbitrary evictions. At work, they face discrimination in both formal and informal sectors at all stages of employment. The report also “documents obstacles faced by LGBTQ persons seeking access to public spaces, including discriminatory policing, gendered toilets and transport, harassment and abuse by State officials, and discriminatory targeting through the application of public nuisance, sex work and anti-beggary laws.”
In effect, then, LGBTQ people remain marginalized and criminalized. And that’s just because of their identity, not because they engaged in “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” that the now extinct species of Section 377 once used to frown upon.
LGBTQ people in India also live in fear of being judged by healthcare professionals, which is why they tend to hide their sexuality from them. It is not difficult to see that all this has an impact on their psychological health. It is, therefore, important to pay special attention to the mental health dimension of LGBT rights. The stress that the inability to express one’s queerness imposes on an individual is in itself immense. A case in point is Dutee Chand, India’s fastest woman athlete, who also became the first Indian athlete to come out as lesbian recently. She revealed how much “mental pressure” she had been kept under by her elder sister, who, Chand said, used to threaten her after coming to know of her sexuality. The backlash and rejection she has been subjected to by her family after coming out must have traumatized her further.
Little reliable data exists in India to take account of the levels to which psychological harm has been done to LGBTQ people in India. It is possible to borrow ideas from studies done elsewhere, however.
King et al (2008) have demonstrated that “LGB people are at higher risk of mental disorder, suicidal ideation, substance misuse, and deliberate self harm than heterosexual people.” In particular, studies have revealed a two-fold excess in suicide attempts in lesbian, gay and bisexual people. The risks for depression and anxiety disorders are at least 1.5 times higher in lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Alcohol and other substance dependence is also 1.5 times higher than the general population. Lesbian and bisexual women are particularly at risk of substance dependence, while lifetime prevalence of suicide attempt was especially high in gay and bisexual men.
Another study by Plöderl and Tremblay observes that while all sexual minority groups are at elevated risks for depression, anxiety, suicide attempts or suicides, and substance related problems, it is bisexual individuals who were at the highest risk among them all. Some estimates suggest that there might be around 45 million LGBTQ people in India, per 2011 census. If that’s the case, then the mental health issues of a significantly large number of people are literally being ignored, and that’s a frightening thought. Activists have in recent times brought visibility to this aspect of LGBT rights, but a lot needs to be done yet.
The backdrop of all the struggles for LGBTQ rights in India, as academics (regardless of the flaws and biases in their arguments) cited in this article have pointed out, is a complex picture of sometimes parallel, sometimes conflicting and sometimes intersectional global and local campaigns for rights of the queer/LGBT/LGBTQIA+ community.
Money has come to play an important role in directing movements, seeking to influence culture, economics and laws that govern societies; and money, as we all well know, is the currency of politics more than anything else. The political class has, needless to say, done very little in this regard, given it took the country’s judiciary more than 70 years after Independence to get rid of the abomination that was Section 377. The legislature nor the executive could be bothered to do anything. The real fight lies outside the Parliament and the courtrooms, however. It always has.
People with power and privilege don’t soil their clothes in street-fights. Nor does their “pride” have anything to do with anything that matters to humanity at large. The struggle for India’s pride did not begin with the Stonewall riots of 1969, but in absence of much support and understanding at home, everything that emerged from Stonewall happens to contribute in complex ways to that struggle. So while it’s impossible to ignore the transnational environment within which gay rights (and indeed, all rights) movements are evolving, it is also important to understand the socio-economic impact of a rapidly changing world on the lives of traditional non-conforming gender and sexual communities, who may or may not choose to align themselves with global support networks.
India’s first queer litfest was held in Chennai in November last year. “Two Men in Benares”, a painting by India’s first openly gay painter Bhupen Khakhar was sold at a UK auction for a record £2.54 million a few days ago. And in between the two, the WHO last month removed gender non-conformity as a “mental disorder” from the ICD-11, a diagnosis manual that is widely followed by psychiatrists in India.
That last one would probably make Sanjo happy. His case has been strengthened now, and next time someone tells him he has a “mental disorder”, he can, instead of having to endure sleepless nights, proudly point out to them how much WHO cares for their (un)enlightened opinion.
Victories big and small.
Something that the thousands of Sanjos all over India want.
Since the majority of humanity is still essentially driven by its base instincts, any positive movement towards attaining equality always has to be baby steps. But true pride can only come from marching for those very baby steps. It doesn’t have to be a literal march. Every single forward march taken by our attitudes and every retreat taken by our prejudices can only complement the efforts of those who do march and more. True pride, after all, can only come from living together in a realm of true justice.
The author would like to personally thank Vihaan Peethambar for introducing him (and all other readers of his article) to “Njan Sanjo”. He would also like to congratulate him on his contributions to the project.