By Jatin Pawar
Every year, in pride marches across the country, the LGBTQIA+ community is seen at its best with rainbow props exhibited everywhere. From wearing lavish outfits to dancing, playing music, and protesting, the entire community celebrates love, acceptance, and pride of being who they are – special and lovable. The day also demonstrates the unity of the queer community, the togetherness that makes them strong and fierce. We often see people from diverse backgrounds represent different identities and their intersectionality with their sexuality on posters. Such posters sometimes state “Dalit, Queer, and Proud.”
But, how far has our queer movement arrived in terms of providing an inclusive space for Dalit and Adivasi queers?
How visible is the intersectionality between caste and sexuality in spaces like pride parades? How often are conversations around this intersectionality initiated? While liberating ourselves by accepting alternative sexualities and chanting slogans of equality, are we also acknowledging our caste privilege?
The manifestation of caste can be seen from subtle to blatant in several ways within queer spaces. Who leads queer events, organisations, and marches? Whose voice is heard by the government at the time of policymaking? Who gets the opportunities of representing the queer community and demanding rights? Who decides what the needs of the community are in the first place?
The answers to these are clear. When we think of queer leaders or queer celebrities, they are almost always upper-caste Hindus. The names we hear most often in the news—Laxmi Narayan Tripathi (the first transgender person to represent Asia Pacific in the United Nations in 2008), Harish Iyer (the first openly gay man to join politics in India), or Manvendra Singh Gohil (the first openly gay prince in the world)—they are all upper caste.
Googling ‘top LGBTQ activists in India’ will take you through many names, almost all of which are those of savarna-Hindus. So is the case with most LGBTQ writers, artists, or other public figures. Even when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is debated on media channels, the participants are usually savarna.
These instances are problematic because the experiences and socio-economic backgrounds of upper-caste queer persons are definitely different from those of historically marginalised caste queers. So are their demands and expectations in terms of needs and rights.
Many times, upper-caste queer people end up practising blatant casteism. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s remarks in a public talk were described as “appealing to Hindutva ideology and justifying the existence of the caste system in India,” according to a statement issued by an LGBTQIA+ group. The matrimonial advertisement issued by Harish Iyer’s mother stated that she was looking for a groom for her son, “caste no bar, but Iyer preferred“.
Queer dating apps are another platform where casteism is visible where some of the users only use their caste as their name, mention their preference for a certain upper caste, or sometimes ask about caste while messaging someone. Some users tend to give the impression that since they are from an upper-caste, they should be considered more ‘desirable’ than others.
In the occasion that someone does highlight their intersectionality between sexuality and caste, they are rarely taken seriously. A Dalit queer student shares a memory from a pride march, “It was my first pride parade, and I was holding a poster saying “I am Dalit, I am queer, and I am here”. I heard someone say, “Yaar yeh yahan bhi caste ghusa dete hain.”
Another Dalit queer rights activist says, “I felt the need to explicitly come out to my queer friends as Dalit and their response was along the lines of – “Dude, all of us had to suffer being a queer person in some way or the other. Doing this does not make you any different a victim of prejudice than us.”
Such responses leave us with the question of why we isolate caste and queerness. There is often silence or hostility when we talk about caste in queer spaces, despite the fact that caste is everywhere, from laughing about someone’s accent to ridiculing someone’s outfit. Caste and sexuality are not two different things but are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.
We cannot invalidate the struggle of Dalit queers by asking them not to bring out dialogues around caste in queer spaces. The irony is that most people belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community themselves fail to acknowledge their caste privilege. When one tries to have a conversation around caste and privilege within queer spaces, many people get annoyed and start competing about their struggles of being queer, without the added lens of caste.
Dalit queers are rejected from both spaces – they are neither fully accepted in anti-caste movements, nor in queer movements. Caste and sexuality are inseparable. Both are grounds for discrimination. Taking an intersectional approach broadens our lens to address the different struggles of Dalit LGBTQIA+ folks within the community. If a savarna queer person wants to talk about caste, the first step would be to acknowledge the privileges of belonging to an upper caste and to question why the queer community and queer organisations are majorly dominated by savarna queers.
An upper-caste person cannot justify “not believing in caste” and deem everyone equal while carrying the same caste privilege to organise community gatherings in expensive cafes which might not be affordable or accessible for Dalit queers. The focus of the queer movement is to amplify equality and stories of liberation for the larger society. Such a struggle cannot be separated from caste or other forms of identities such as class, gender, religion, and so on.
There are a number of ways through which we can make a more inclusive space for Dalits and Adivasis. This includes acknowledging our caste privilege, introspecting and reflecting, and creating a listening space.
It’s time that the stories of Dalit queers are heard both within and outside of the queer circle and that the dialogue around caste within the queer spaces is started. It’s time to stand against any form of discrimination and move towards a more inclusive and safe society.
The views expressed here are the author’s own.