(De)constructing Pride in Presidency University

“Stone by stone I pile
this cairn of my intention
with the noon’s weight on my back,
exposed and vulnerable
across the slanting fields
which I love but cannot save
from floods that are to come;
can only fasten down
with this work of my hands,
these painfully assembled
stones, in the shape of nothing
that has ever existed before.
A pile of stones: an assertion
that this piece of country matters
for large and simple reasons.
A mark of resistance, a sign.”

Adrienne Rich, The Mark of Resistance

I take certain risk in writing this – not typically of exposing myself and my vulnerabilities to the oppression because that is precisely what a daily queer existence is mostly made of, but more primarily of a self-engagement that is highly conspicuous in its causal relationship with unsettling fragility. At this juncture in the risk, and how I handle risk in my political loci, I would also like to clarify that I write this in my own capacities, stemming from my own disturbances, my own political positions, ideologies, privileges and oppressions. I do not represent anyone beyond all I stand for myself (in fact, a chunk of this writing questions the politics of representation), and do not intend to do so. All hatred that therefore should be directed, is towards me and my identities, but like Audre Lorde had once said, I choose to walk away from the performance of it. The more important question here, as I write this, becomes the story of selling trauma, political gains, and like is always associated with, the erasure of voices with subject positions and political loci. To end (read: begin) the discussion on risk, the risk I mention here is the historical risk that queer, women, dalit, disabled and other oppressed identities face – one of being marginalized more than they already are. I write this looking at the already overpopulated and overoccupied social margin, with my own space more constricted than my throat is with silent sobs that have never been shed.

At the background of this piece lies the general political rage, moments frozen in heat, surrounding the developments that concern the overwhelming capitalistic, neo-liberalistic engagement of the non-queer population with the politics of the queer, and queer politics; one, the fact that the Transgender Person’s Bill 2016 is going to be tabled soon in the winter session of the parliament, and two, Presidency University, Kolkata, is going to witness its own version of the Pride as a part of its annual ‘fest’, Milieu 2018, both of which disturb me in their own ways. I have written and still writing about the former, but in this article, shall be concerned more about the later news, given that it is neither a stray incident nor a question of social construction – it is, more vehemently, a question of execution of identities at the stake of an unnuanced allyship. I also write this with the backdrop of the 16th Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk in mind, and Transgender Day of Rage (10th December), which remind me of the resistance that Rich captures in her poem.

In a very provocative article titled ‘Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex’ published in Indigenous Action Media, the author points out,

They build organizational or individual capacity and power, establishing themselves comfortably among the top ranks in their hierarchy of oppression as they strive to become the ally “champions” of the most oppressed. While the exploitation of solidarity and support is nothing new, the commodification and exploitation of allyship is a growing trend in the activism industry.”

In this notion of being an ally, the hypocrisy of political ineffectiveness is evident in the fact that allyship, becoming an identity in itself, is now, as the author points out, disembodied from any form of mutual support. This ally wants to hijack, wants to create a vacuum that begins with it, and wants to escape from the anxieties of losing its privileges in the face of collective mobilization and reclamation. This ally has also learnt to disempower the notion of support because that is an effective way of proclaiming the centre-stage in the movement(s), and this ally is a result of capitalist, neo-liberalist disfigurative deridement of historical efforts behind its own abolishment. This ‘rescuer’ syndrome, something more commonly observed in the privileged – white, straight, cisgender, upper caste, Brahmin, savarna, upper and middle class, able-bodied, men, is what results into the stinging slap on the face of collectivization that historically has been dependent on the oppressed identities. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment here is also the similar participant in such audacious politics – the Bill is formulated to exclude the ones it claims to ‘rescue’ from its current situation, which ironically, is shoved down by the positions of privileges in the society on our backs. In this, the organizers (and certainly the non-queers, non-LGBT+ who wish to participate) are equally guilty, although not in just this unidirectional narrative.

I do not intend to make this a revision class on the history of Pride and the history of the Rainbow (which forms the stingy background of the poster being circulated by students of Presidency University), but it might be important to note how did we reach a situation where all accomplishments have suddenly been attributed to the privileged allies (or the suspicious accomplices), or the more privileged within the communities, whereas it is more often than not the persons coming from the lowest rungs of this oppressive social structuring who make movements passionate. I am quite certain that the study of histories has evaded those who claim to be allies, and therefore it is easy for them to pass of their ignorance as their contribution to the movement. All of this culminates into the movie Pride showing the Stonewall Riot to be led by a white gay man, and we need Ellen to soften the anxieties around the L-word. Again, in this historiographic engagement, these moves are neither simple nor understandable – the deconstruction here can be persuasively dismissed, and engagements to understand such moves need to be done from multitudes of loci.

University spaces are extremely disempowering for queer-trans persons, and breed a lot of social oppressions. And sadly, elite spaces like Presidency even more. My own experiences of being a transfeminine queer gender non-conforming person in that space has been expectedly traumatic. This paragraph comes with a trigger warning, albeit to something that queer-trans persons face all the while in their lives. This space has seen me being the subject of mockery more than once, both for my idiosyncratic mannerisms and strong opinions. While I was publicly harassed and humiliated by one of the most politically active cishet men student leaders of Presidency (this person was also later hailed as a person who invited transwomen to speak in various forums) on my choice to write a poster on same-sex love during my Fresher year, it was a common occurrence for people to come up to me, stare at me, and discuss the recent rumour they had heard about me. A particular group of very popular (and equally nasty and horrible) student leaders had spread rumors about me supporting their opposition group because I apparently had slept with the student leader of the opposition and this was my way of ‘paying back’. Now, notice how this would be the same crowd that would put on rainbow bands, and walk the ‘Pride’, while at the same time this one action is effectively a representation of my everyday – one, being the subject of discussion for the two traits that oppress me, my gender and my sexuality, two, for incriminating a discriminatory, hatred oriented dialogue (although politically polished) about sex work, and three, the general disservice that is done to all queer persons by taking away their right to privacy and making their personal choices about partners the unwanted weapon of voyeuristic politics. Vikramaditya Sahai, in his passionate and powerful article in The Wire had written,

“…I do not believe that a politics around pride can work without a politics of shame. In order for someone to be proud, someone has to be ashamed. I believe that pride parades challenge the shame around certain bodies by shifting the burden of shame on to others. Shame, like a ghost, cannot be wished away even as you walk away. Anyone who has seen queer cultures from within, especially ones dominated by masculinity, know that shaming is central to community formation, whether in the ‘No fats! No femmes!’ groupings commonly found on popular dating apps and websites, or the many restrictions imposed through the common ‘right to refuse service’ in LGBTQ clubs and spaces.”

I wonder how shall this Pride function when the queer-trans person themselves is the body that is the victim of shame (again, regularly and expectedly). How do we transact our politics in these for and, why should we?

These are not stray incidents. These have happened more than once, and in many other forms. None of these sudden queer revolutionaries were a part of the ‘queer events’ that were organized by queer persons on campus, myself included. Presidency, like other elite universities, defends its oppressive tendencies by hijacking voices. On another important point, it would be an important nuance to add to my understanding if I ever understand how the Pride can become a part of the annual Fest. Here, I primarily have two problems, one, that non-queer persons do not get the right to ‘celebrate’ the blood on their hands, and two, the fest is a funded event, funded by many companies that play major roles in capitalism, and the related oppression. If only it was within my powers, I would have tagged such neoliberal politics the best accomplice of capitalism. This funded Pride, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, is something that I with my loci in queer feminist politics strongly reject, and ask the question that is notoriously provocative even for me – who’s Pride is it? In raging against the Bill and rejecting its oppressive positions, I also rage against this patronization.

Judith Butler, while refusing an award from the Berlin Pride, had noted in her statement, We all have noticed that gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans and queer people can be instrumentalized by those who want to wage wars, i.e. cultural wars against migrants by means of forced islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In these times and by these means, we are recruited for nationalism and militarism. Currently, many European governments claim that our gay, lesbian, queer rights must be protected and we are made to believe that the new hatred of immigrants is necessary to protect us. Therefore we must say no to such a deal. To be able to say no under these circumstances is what I call courage. But who says no? And who experiences this racism? Who are the queers who really fight against such politics?” In the unexceptionality of my narrative, I pray that there is a necessary intervention by those whose stakes are more in the politics of Pride and Shame, and the courage of being queer in a world that strictly aims to normativise us. Being queer is also carrying the mountain of stones on my chest that builds my revolution – the stones that have been thrown at me in an attempt to test the color of my blood. I can only inhabit the spaces that I have reclaimed, but transgression demands better deconstruction of systemic facades.


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Sayantan Written by:

Sayantan is a queer feminist activist and poet.

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