The Failed Radical Possibilities of Queerness in India

Walking down the street the other day, a memory overcame me. It is of my father shouting at me that I am nothing, worth nothing and who did I think I was refusing a marriage proposal. It was unthinkable and a dangerous sign that I imagined my worth to be higher than appropriate. It’s a painful memory and it occasionally arises now, nearly a decade later, reminding me why I don’t talk very easily to my loving, kind and affectionate father.

But actually. It wasn’t that – my worth, I mean. My refusal to marry the perfectly caste-matched NRI cis man had less to do with my self-appraisal and more with the hard knot of panic inside me. My father’s news of a marriage inquiry might as well have been a gentle request to allow him to take me out back and ritually stab me to death. No. The only word I could think to say was no. No. Less a refusal, more a plea.

Queerness saved my life.

I say this not as a romantic burst of affection for my community, but as a piece of fact about my life. It’s queerness that taught me what it means to scratch together a family that did not rely on blood, caste, geography or language. It’s queerness that showed me love whose poetry doesn’t work on hallmark greeting cards. It’s queerness finally that let me love fiercely my community, many individuals and most wantonly – myself.

Perhaps it’s my gratitude for this gift, or maybe I assume that everyone arrives at queerness by escaping heteropatriarchy. Whatever the reason, it never fails to hurt when I witness queerness align itself with caste, capitalism, supremacy. That despite the queer directive to leave behind what we know, to love radically, to build community outside of the one in which we are born and told to love – that this queerness fails so often and so enormously – always hurts.

The queer movement in India is a Dalitbahujan movement. And I do not mean that in the “let’s be intersectional and include everyone” narrative that has become so popular now in queer India. (Intersectionality is code for caste in India. Savarnas have even managed to make talking about caste, caste neutral.) As if the default is Savarna, which now in its generous “intersectionality” will look towards Dalitbahujans. No. What I mean is far more literal. The queer movement in India is a Dalitbahujan movement.

Before HIV funding oiled and co-opted “queer”, before it re-created and held in place caste hierarchies – Indian collective queer spaces were found in hamams, and bastis, and parks. It was found in villages where the only visible queer was the local (Dalitbahujan) transfemme community. She was the one that poor, Dalitbahujan queer femmes and trans men sought out and befriended and asked for help. Before the globalized repeal IPC-377 campaign cemented the meaning of what queer caste neutrality looks like – it was queer Dalitbahujans who were being beaten, tortured, raped and killed by the police, by the public and the state. While the sexuality rights consultancies and speaking engagements went to Savarna queers, it was Dalitbahujans who arrived in masses and protested police stations and courtrooms, and were lathi-charged, beaten and arrested. It’s hard to tell from the images that come out of India, celebrating its queer moments – it’s hard to tell from the rainbow flagged, pride marching exuberance, and the Savarna stamp of approval on the HIV prevention project – but the queer movement in India is a Dalitbahujan movement.

It is not possible for me to separate my entry into queer Indian spaces (into queerness) from my introduction to Dalitbahujan spaces. For me, they have always been one and the same. I will be spending a lifetime figuring out what this has meant for me. But in the meantime, let me tell you another story.

Several years after I had built community with a queer Dalitbahujan collective, I heard of a new lesbian group across town in the large Indian city I lived in at the time. The spaces available for us were so small and scattered, that news of a queer femme space was thrilling.

I arrived early that day and watched with some excitement as the room quickly filled. Polished femme queers – cis women – rumored to be lesbians, all. I was nervous. Petrified, actually. There was something un-nerving about how I fit into this space – or more precisely, how I didn’t. My queerness on display somehow in ways I wasn’t prepared for and felt like I had no control over. But I was excited for the group to start, and my own discomfort with it was after all a familiar reaction to arty chic desi spaces.

The meeting started as these things do, with introductions, say some words about how you fit in this room. Most people talked about their sexuality and expressed joy at seeing so many of us. Things were changing and for the better – this was the theme of the evening. Someone was organizing a “girls only” club party with subtle, but clear sexy overtones. A color-themed dress code was involved and it was clever. I was impressed.

I don’t remember exactly how it came up anymore. But at some point, it was brought to everyone’s attention that the group should contact the (older, more established, gender diverse) Dalitbahujan collective, invite them to join meetings, come to parties. An awkward, waiting pause. There was a white girl in the room that day – a queer woman doing “research”. She told us that she had met the people from the “other group” and she didn’t think we would “get along.” There was an uncomfortable silence, but no one protested her explanation.

“It’s okay to be exclusive,” someone finally said – a Brahmin, as it happens. She was known for being an ardent believer in bringing up caste whenever possible. A passionate and vocal supporter. In this particular occasion, however, caste didn’t come up, it was never mentioned. She had an explanation for why it was okay to be exclusive – why it was okay to leave out other queerfolks. It didn’t require anyone to think about caste.

What can I say about my own role? Yes, I was angry. Yes, I muttered something finally that I no longer remember. But I also didn’t mention that my lover and partner – the person who I lived with and who I could not imagine life without – was Dalit. The sting I was feeling was more personal, newer, a more complicated shame that I didn’t understand. What can I say about my role? Except, I kept attending meetings faithfully for a long time, and throughout that time my partner refused to come with me. It has taken me nearly ten years to begin to understand why.

Some of us reach for Audre Lorde’s Litany for Survival like the bible, like the only thing that makes sense.

a litany for survival:: audre lorde

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

– Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn




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Surya Written by:

I am desi, savarna, queer. Femme.

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