Summary: In part II of this two-part series, the author delves into the question of how granting of sexuality rights is underlined by neoliberalism.
[Ed Note: This is the part II of the two part series on Subsuming Sexuality Rights within the Nation’s Progress. The Part I can be accessed here.]
It was argued in Part I that the granting of LGBT rights is now being subsumed in the overarching project of nation branding and ‘civilizing’. In this Part, I argue that in this overarching project of nation branding and ‘civilizing’, the role of privatization of neoliberal economies cannot be overlooked. Thereafter, I critique the global identity constructs that have formed around sexuality rights, and argue that such identity constructions have imperialistic underpinnings of their own.
Global Identity Constructs Under Neoliberalism
In the overarching project of nation branding and ‘civilizing’, the role of privatization of neoliberal economies cannot be overlooked. Puar writes that the neoliberal accomodationist economic structure promotes the marketing of minority groups, causing countries to shape tourism around the gay-friendly versus not-gay-friendly dichotomy. For instance, a major tourism strategy of Israel had been to portray Tel-Aviv as the most ‘gay-friendly’ city in the world. Working alongside is the “human rights industrial complex”, whereby there is a pervasiveness of Euro-American identity constructs. The proliferation of these identity constructs in India is starkly visible at queer pride parades, as shown in the cover image.
Image, taken from the last Awadh Pride Parade, shows how sexual and queer subjectivities are being encased within specific economic arrangements. Human rights advocacy has, for a long time, revolved around homogenizing and universalizing rights claims- it works on the premise that certain categories of sex and gender (like sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.) manifest in the same way everywhere. This has resulted in the formation of a ‘global gay’ identity, wherein identities ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are assumed to be universal and a component of all cultures (Pg. 70). The image reveals how the global identity construct ‘gay’ effortlessly mingles with the global fast-food brand ‘Subway’. The message seems to be how queers, unhappy before the reading down of Section 377, can be transformed into happy queers through legalistic interventions and market governance, leading to their overall well-being and inclusion.
However, in the articulation of sexuality rights around westernised and urban identities, as done in the image, the need for establishing a ‘cultural’ link is not foregone. The move to establish a cultural link can give rise to what Fernandes refers to as the ‘Sikhandi Manoeuvre’, which manifested in Navtej Johar. Sikhandi was a non-binary character in the epic Mahabharata and has now become a reference point for tracing the histories of trans* persons in religious texts. The manoeuvre allows the queer rights movement to adopt the image of the trans* Indian as the face of the movement, for the sake of the cultural link. This cultural link makes it possible to pin transphobia and homophobia to an imposition of Judeo-Christian morality. Yet the significance of trans* persons is reduced to this cultural rootedness because what is sought to be articulated through it is an upper-caste/ upper-class agenda.
A closer look at the image also shows the relationship between the sexual identity and love (“#LoveIsLove”). The suffusion of the “right to love” into the battle against Section 377 of IPC, which primarily pertained to sexual acts, strategically brought in the role of emotions in reckoning with the law. However, what this appeal to “right to love” inadvertently does, as was done in Navtej Johar, is that it tries to position homoeroticism within heterosexual norms. This substitution of the right to engage in a sexual act with the right to love leads to a fixed trajectory of the movement, culminating in marriage/partnership rights. And this trajectory can be limiting when marriage rights sit in tension with sex rights. They sit in tension because marriage is not about sexual liberty, but is rather the opposite of it. Aeyal Gross argues that marriage is, in a way, about regulation of sexuality within an institutional framework that posits itself as the only legitimate space for sex. Sex, outside of marriage, is considered inferior to the sex that happens between married couples. Marriage is an institution that sends across the message that it is the most fulfilling of all human relationships in a person’s life. It, once again, puts one on the path to normativity.
This identity construct, with its requirements of “coming out”, visibility, etc. entails imperialistic underpinnings as well. The human rights framework of sexuality rights is certainly important in the process of legal conceptualizations of entitlements, bodies and personhood. The framework, historically, entails a relationship between the body and the state, where the body is vested with certain inalienable entitlements. It imagines the world in terms of ‘subjects’ and individual experiences. Thus, we understand and address power without the necessary consideration of social, cultural, economic and political processes (see akshay khanna’s argument here, Pg. 96).
There is an important component of this emphasis on ‘subject’ rooted in India’s colonial history. The colonial administration undertook wide scale enumeration of everything. Indeed, many of the cherished categories known to us—originally starting with race, class, gender, now including sexuality, nation, religion, age, and disability—are an outcome of modernist colonial agendas, operative through a Western/Euro-American epistemological formation which led to the emergence of the concept of separate identity. The homonormative discourse aligns itself with the liberal parlance of human rights, which pigeonholes ‘new’, ‘overseas’ sexual and gender subjectivities into Euro-American models of ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’. It fails to make space for the asymmetries and incomprehensibility of the new subjectivities, and only emphasises on their assimilation within the ‘global’ order. An approach of binaries- ‘hetero’ versus ‘homo’, ‘male’ versus ‘female’, ‘East’ versus ‘West’ elide the messiness that comes with non-categorization.
The consequence of this persistent need for knowability and comprehension is that we are forced to imagine ourselves through the prism of categories- ‘straight’, ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, etc. as if they already exist. To historicise, these categories leads to the slippery slope of opening up the possibility that these categories are mere aberrations that can be altered. Thus, our essentialism becomes necessary for the assertion of our legitimacy. Hence, we are constrained to protect against violence only those of us who fit neatly into these categories, leading to the exclusion of those who do not identify.
However, this is not to mean that through the usage of the term “queer” (instead of ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’) or a culturally specific term, the pitfalls of this identity construct are avoided. The usage of the term “queer” still amounts to an assertion of one’s sexual orientation or gender, which are very much a part of one’s identity. Yet what about cases in which the constitution of the self may be conceived as entirely separate from one’s sexual activities? Akhil Katyal gives an example. The Hindi term loundebaaz refers to sex between men within an idiom of habit. This is not the same as the category ‘homosexual’. He adds:
“…you might have an addictive love of stamps, but no excessive coming-out stories were ever written about it. This love was never accounted for or traced back to the hoary rhythms of your childhood, never considered an attribute of your unconscious and, no etiology was ever consciously produced for it as it has been done by Freud for same-sex desire.”
Therefore, the vocabulary of human rights cannot encompass the entirety of sexual experiences.
Hence, we ought to perceive the success of LGBT rights advocacy in India with a more critical lens. While this success is laudable, its negative corollaries- homonationalism, fixed identity constructs, and its cloaked imperialism cannot be overlooked. However, one does not call for an abandonment of rights advocacy. Having rights, albeit with their negative implications, is always preferable to having no rights at all. If it is a choice between legitimacy and criminality, the former is always preferable. However, in these rigid binaries of progressive-regressive, success-failure, civilised-uncivilised, we must ask- whose progress, whose success, and whose metric? These strict boundaries of binaries always come with their own exclusions.
Arti Gupta is a final year student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore
Image Source – Times of India