Queer folks are perhaps misunderstood in many aspects. One among those is that every queer person is either progressive and/or liberal. In reality though, given my context and political experience as a cis-gendered queer man, I have observed that LGBTQ communities are not entirely homogeneous. We are as diverse as mainstream society; and so labelling the entire LGBTQ community as either progressive and/or liberal, by default, is by and large a huge mistake. Apart from this being untrue, it also prevents any kind of introspection to take place within the community. I strongly believe that we need critical voices both from the outside and the inside, in order to become movements that drive social change.
In India, close to all queer spaces that label themselves ‘safe’ portray as being egalitarian. My question is, ‘How inclusive are these “safe” spaces really?’ ‘Do these spaces have plural representation?’ ‘And most importantly, do these spaces not alienate those who do not fit the celebrated profile of a brahmin gay man?’
Speaking Inclusive, Acting Exclusive
In my experience, the existing oppressive social structure transcends into queer safe spaces as well. I have observed that, invariably, non Dalit-Bahujan individuals dominate these spaces. And while a small section of cis-gendered queer savarna men acknowledge the importance of intersectionality and understand the detrimental role caste plays in these safe spaces; it almost never transforms into action.
What does happen is the ‘talking’ – various discussions on intersectionality in these spaces, which is only just ornamental, helps queer savarna men to flaunt their ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ labels while not demanding that the language be translated into actual real-life dismantling of power and dominance. People repeatedly fail to acknowledge their caste and class privilege, and refuse to tear down the collective power of dominant caste individuals so as to make queer spaces truly safe and inclusive. Declaring the space inclusive is one thing but how one makes people ‘feel’ is completely another matter.
Not a Space for Dissent
Not surprisingly, in my experience, it has been supremely difficult to start an honest conversation about caste in so-called ‘safe’ queer spaces. The voices of Dalit-Bahujans are barely visible and any such conversation is maneuvered into one that calls for being ‘casteless’ and ‘caste-blind’. After a certain point, it gets difficult to establish the fact that becoming casteless is also a privilege enjoyed primarily by savarnas.
One must note that the lack of Dalit-Bahujan voices in Indian queer spaces is not due to a lack of representation. It is, to put it bluntly and simply, an undeniable reluctance to not acknowledge one’s privilege lest that it demands the letting go of power and its benefits. So much so that it has now become an offence to talk about caste privilege in Indian queer spaces. It has also become increasingly difficult for Dalit-Bahujan queer individuals to navigate these spaces personally, professionally and politically. We are demanded that we leave a part of ourselves outside when we enter these spaces. If one brings up caste, they are blamed as the one seeding caste inside an otherwise ‘egalitarian’ setup.
Indian Queer Spaces are Savarna-dominated
While some openly display prejudice some act without understanding the implications of their prejudice. And although unconscious bias is a big point of discussion among the LGBTQ community; it is ignored when it comes to caste. People think it is OK to be insensitive when discussing caste based discrimination. Stepping over others’ toes is part of learning, but when it comes to learning about caste, I’ve noticed that it is always one sided. The Dalit-Bahujan community gets in the stampede when savarna queer people ‘discuss’ caste. Since queer spaces are mostly savarna-dominated, it is always they who decide what is offensive and what is not.
Quite a few call themselves ‘equal-rights’ activists. How can one be an equal-rights activist when they are caste blind? If we take a quick look on NGOs and collectives that work for queer rights in India, it becomes obvious that most of them only have savarna dominance and leadership. Refusing to acknowledge this state of affairs is the primary indicator of how non-inclusive India queer spaces really are. Many of the initiatives by these organisations fail to recognise or acknowledge that their decisions tend to only lean towards upper-caste notions of liberation and equality.
Clarion Call for Change
I strongly believe that it is of great importance for the queer community in India to take responsibility of what we learn from other movements. Given that a few of our pride marches in some cities are known as self-respect (suyamariyathai) parades it is only right that we begin to ask ourselves if we are truly being honest. It is critical for queer individuals in India to understand what liberation and inclusiveness means to queer Dalit-Bahujans. A savarna cis-gendered gay man shouting for freedom is different from the cry for freedom of a Dalit-Bahujan gay man. The inclusiveness that an upper-caste lesbian woman demands is not the same as the inclusiveness a Dalit-Bahujan lesbian woman dreams of.
The mere notion of solidarity with other social movements is not enough. The queer community comprises of different people from different backgrounds and cannot be, must not be, represented by a handful of savarna gay men. It is time that the queer community in India understands and reflects upon all oppressed voices, and in so doing, refrain from being tokenist. Different voices must be acknowledged and allowed to stand on their own. Appropriation has to go.
Let us be honest when we raise our voices for freedom. Let us be honest when we callout people for not being inclusive. Let us rethink what inclusiveness means to the queer movement before we brag about suyamariyathai marches. If we don’t, we face failure by letting queer communities fight only against heteropatriarchy and keeping structures of caste hegemony intact.
moulee is a Chennai based queer activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org