Sigmund Freud: brilliant, flawed, and a misogynist, postulated the theory of ‘projection’– the mental process by which we attribute to others that which is in our own minds. I’ve found it a useful concept, working in mental health, to understand why we sometimes think, feel, and act the way we do. India has, however, in making sense of COVID-19, taken projection to a whole new level. We have projected our fears, anxieties, biases, and prejudices onto a pandemic. I wish it weren’t so.
A potent example is how we’ve used social distancing to justify the ‘namaste‘ and rationalized ingrained discriminatory practices (such as untouchability) as having a basis in hygiene: a hoary, old chestnut if there ever was one. And of course, migrants, Muslims, and the poor were postulated as the problem and source of contamination– they lend themselves so well to being the ‘other’.
It shouldn’t come have come as a surprise that a moral lens was used to examine the social interactions and movements of young adults, particularly those that live, however transiently, outside heteronormative families and marriage.
Students were turned out of hostels at blindingly short notice and asked to go home; never mind that home may be far away, non-existent, or not a safe space for the person concerned.
Restrictions on movement and interaction also meant that people were cut away from their families of choice– the third alternative to families of origin and procreation that Indian sociology is yet to fully embrace. Cafes, theatre, art festivals, libraries, street corners– spaces existing outside of work, academics, and home were cut off too.
This is not a critique of the public health measures that were implemented in response to the pandemic.
That is a topic (or thesis, even) for another day. However, it is important to realize that safe spaces, and particularly queer safe spaces were cut off for many. The axe on socialization fell everywhere, but it fell heaviest on spaces frequented by young people: students, and among them, queer folk. Places where young people could be themselves and meet others- in relative freedom from stigma and judgement- have been taken away.
Print media abounds with advice about the inadvisability of dating and non-committed sexual relationships. Advisories are placed on meeting anyone outside one’s household. The moral overtones of these are that it’s alright to be with your parents, spouse, children, and in-laws, but not anyone outside these circumscribed heteronormative relationships. One would think the infection is sexually transmitted rather than airborne.
Anyone can infect just about anybody else. Husbands can infect wives, and parents can infect children. So why are the curbs then being placed on non-heteronormative relationships alone? Humans may discriminate, but surely the coronavirus sees no difference between straight and queer, cis and trans, monogamous or polyamorous?
However, this isn’t merely abstract theorizing. India has adopted the moral policing overtones of the restrictions with alacrity and used them to deploy casual misogyny and slut-shaming. Young, unmarried people in any residential are viewed with suspicion and the neighbourhood laps up the opportunity to keep an eye on who’s coming in and who’s leaving our houses– our supposed personal and private spaces.
Gatekeepers of the community knock on our doors at periodic intervals to inform us that parties or using substances or dating are forbidden. Never mind that young adults and queer folk are just as likely, if not more, to comply with healthcare regulations than the community at large. The support here is often far, few, and fleeting, and one must be one’s own caregiver.
The coded messages that are being delivered now are eerily similar to those delivered before the pandemic. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t party, don’t go out late at night, don’t date, don’t come out of the closet, don’t have sex before marriage, and so on. Disease control, therefore, seems to depend on doing what our ancestors preached all along– adopting Indian, heteronormative, Hindu, upper-caste sanskaar. And the good Lord knows, society abounds in kangaroo courts and keepers of the law.
The voyeuristic interest in the lives of young folk, and speculation on their sexuality and possible queerness isn’t new. Society has always been interested in what transpires in our boudoirs. These are the same coded messages that have been delivered to most of us, all our lives. Confirm, don’t question, don’t deviate from the norms. It’s just that COVID-19 has provided them with a convenient excuse to regulate identity and sexuality. And in doing so, India has quite successfully projected its cultural neuroses onto the pandemic. The infection sweeping the world has proven that the traditionalists and conformists were right all along.
I’ve had two female friends being shamed for having a handful of people over for birthday dinners this past year after regulations were eased between the first and second waves. Never mind that the guests were from the same residential community or that they wore masks and did not cause exposure to the neighbours. Never mind that this isn’t any different from married couples who have had relatives come over for their housewarming in similar conditions and precautions taken.
What I suspect drove public outrage was the fact that these were women, living alone, who decided to have other men and women over to share a meal with on their birthday. Speculation ran strife about the kind of immoral going on that may have perpetuated and at the possible debaucheries. It was a meal. The problem wasn’t the pandemic, then. It was the possible inability to regulate their sociality and sexuality. The slut-shaming epithets that they had to face would, I suspect, not have been delivered to men in their place.
Of course, pandemic morality isn’t new. We’ve seen this kind of moral policing, slut-shaming, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia during the Syphilis and AIDS pandemic as well. Those, at least, are sexually transmitted diseases. What’s our excuse this time around? All humans breathe. Even queer humans.