Queer is an umbrella term that is used to refer to those people who define themselves as not heterosexual or not cis-gender. This term may additionally be used to refer to collectives, movements and campaigns that identify themselves as queer.
The spectrum of non-heteronormative identities
Before beginning a discussion on the queer movement, it is vital to gain an understanding of who the movement encompasses. There are many gender and sexual identities in India such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, hijda, kothi, queer, intersex and asexual. These are discussed below.
Lesbians are women who are attracted to their own gender whereas the term gay refers to men who are attracted to their own gender. These two categories are not very controversial since they do not question the basic groups of men and women. Bisexual refers to men and women who are attracted to both their own gender and to the opposite gender. Transgender is the term used for those people whose self-identified gender does not match the gender assigned to them at birth. Hijda and kothi are terms unique to India. Hijda refers to trans women assigned male gender at birth whereas kothi refers to those who were assigned male gender at birth but exhibit effeminate characteristics. The term queer offers a space to anybody who feels that they are not a part of the heteronormative order. Intersex variations refer to congenital variations in sex characteristics of a person including reproductive organs, chromosomes and hormones. Finally, people who are asexual usually experience little or no attraction to others.
Major moments in the Indian queer movement
The queer movement in India began in the late 20th century. Certain events played a significant role in its evolution over the last few decades.
Bombay Dost is India’s leading ‘gay magazine’ which began as a newsletter in 1990 by Ashok Kavi Row. Two years later, on August 11, 1992, the first recorded gay protest occurred outside police headquarters in the ITO area of New Delhi. It was sparked by police picking up men from a park in Connaught Place under suspicion of homosexuality (Krishnan 2018).
Deepa Mehta’s film ‘Fire’ was the next milestone in the queer conversation. The film followed the forbidden sexual desires of protagonists Radha and Sita. When it was released in 1998, members of right-wing groups such as Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal stormed cinema halls across the country in an attempt to stop the audience from viewing it. Thus, the release of this movie sparked a national conversation on lesbian and gay rights. In its aftermath, a new lesbian rights group called Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI) was formed (Shambhavi 2016).
2nd July, 1999 saw the first Indian pride parade being held in Kolkata. While it was a small group with no more than 15 people, it was a significant achievement as it saw the arrival of a visible queer politics in the country (Shambhavi 2016).
Section 377 of the Indian constitution refers to ‘unnatural offences’ and this penal provision was held illegal in a Delhi High Court judgment in 2009. But in 2013, the Supreme Court once again criminalized homosexual relationships by overturning the high court judgment (Shambhavi 2016).
2014 saw a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of India in the case of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) versus the Union of India. The court declared transgender people as a third gender and affirmed their fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution. Moreover, it recognized the transgender people’s right to self-identify.
In 2018, the Supreme Court finally ruled that Section 377 was unconstitutional and hence decriminalized homosexuality within India.
This historic decision was followed the next year by the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019. This bill made many improvements to the 2016 version by decriminalizing begging and removal of a screening process. But the bill is yet to adhere to international standards of separation of medical and legal procedures. Transgender people are still required to acquire a certificate signed by a government doctor and district magistrate. Moreover, their identity is finalized by a panel of psychologists instead of being based on their self-declaration.
These shifts in popular perceptions and legal advancements indicate a constantly evolving queer politics of India. But while most of these are cause for celebration, there is still a long way to go (Shambhavi 2016).
Critique of the Indian queer movement
The foremost issue while dealing with the LGBTHKQIA+ community is that of violence against them. Up until now, queer groups and other activist groups have focused on freeing gender non-conforming groups from police harassment and different types of violence in the public sphere. But it is also important to address the issue of violence within the private sphere (Breaking the binary 2013).
The natal families of non-heteronormative individuals are usually either overtly violent or covertly negligent. Violence could be present in the form of sexual abuse of children or could be used to pressurize the individuals into heteronormative marriages. The family is a very crucial site for intervention because their support can go a long way in building an individual’s strength and economic independence. Thus, queer groups must collaborate with other agencies who can reach the familial constituency and roll out campaigns against issues like forced marriages (Breaking the binary 2013).
After family, the next crucial factor in a child’s life is formal education. Schools and colleges should be enabling and supportive environments but are unfortunately most often locations of stigma and reinforced patriarchal biases. There are three approaches that queer groups should undertake with regards to formal education. Firstly, homophobia and transphobia among both students and teachers should be approached with sensitization campaigns and strict rules against bullying and violent outings. Secondly, there should be a de-emphasis on gender with regards to the uniforms which students are required to wear and the sports they are allowed to play. Lastly, textbooks should be reworked to include diverse gender and sexuality issues along with representations of the family (Breaking the binary 2013).
The next issue that requires attention is of sports. Sports create avenues for many people belonging to the LGBTQHKIA+ community to express themselves and form a positive relationship with their bodies. Unfortunately, playing sports is plagued with many issues for these individuals. At the school level, issues of attire and choice of sports can be dealt with by school authorities. But competitive sports are also gender-segregated. Many professional athletes such as Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand have had to endure allegations of hyperandrogenism and were disqualified from competing in their respective sports. People with intersex variation should be allowed to compete on the basis of their lived gender rather than the gender determined by any biological tests.
Access to public spaces is an integral part of living in this world. Unfortunately, gender non-conforming individuals find it difficult to simply ‘pass by’ in public areas (Dalit camera 2014). They are required to question their gender and sexuality continuously while accessing basic services such as public restrooms. These toilets are mostly divided between males and females only, which exposes transgender people, especially to backlash and violence upon choosing either. Another example is that of security checks in spaces like shopping malls and airports. Solutions need to be suggested by the queer communities to tackle these issues. Unisex toilets may be constructed so that transgender people are not required to choose anymore. Moreover, when presented with security checks, people should be given the freedom to choose which line to stand in, regardless of how they present their gender.
The next problem regularly faced by the LGBTQHKIA+ community is that of acquiring medical help. Within the medical system, medical professionals need to recognize and respect non-normative gender and sexuality and their sexual health and reproductive rights. Many transgender people face a lot of judgment and violence for wanting to undergo sex reassignment surgeries (SRS). It is important to understand that these people regularly experience gender dysphoria that is the feeling of discomfort when a person’s biological sex does not match their gender identity. The surgery helps them get rid of this discomfort and lead normal lives. Moreover, after surgery, these people find it easier and safer to navigate public spaces (Dalit camera 2014). Gynecologists, endocrinologists and surgeons must educate themselves along with mental health practitioners so that they are sensitive to these issues of the queer community. This would help shift the emphasis from ‘treatment’ of those that do not fit social ideals to providing them knowledge and counselling. Additionally, no interventions should take place on infants born with intersex variations. Such procedures should only occur with a person’s informed consent (Breaking the binary 2013).
Earning a livelihood is the most crucial aspect of being independent. Unfortunately, many gender non-conforming people are caught in a circle of deprivation. Poverty, discrimination and violence make it harder for them to acquire and retain jobs. Queer support groups must make educational scholarships and vocational training available to these people. Economic independence would help this community escape violence and pressure in natal families and also give them the freedom to express themselves.
In the previously listed issues, it is clear that the LGBTQHKIA+ community requires support from activists and women’s movements more than ever. Unfortunately, many feminists especially Savarna feminists are transphobic. They feel threatened by trans men because they believe that trans men have gone over to the oppressor’s side. Their feelings towards trans men are of similar hatred because they think that trans men possess male privilege as they are born male (Dalit camera 2014). This ideology desperately needs to change because allies are crucial to the queer movement more than ever.
Within India, caste plays a crucial role in the lives of transgender people. This is exemplified by the fact that 80% of transgender people in India are Dalits. It is observed that caste practices of the mainstream are replicated within trans communities too. But this intersectionality of caste with other factors such as gender and sexuality has been ignored.Many savarnas or higher caste transgender people possess a lot of family property. This prevents them from leaving their homes and asserting their gender because they are afraid of losing their caste wealth. In comparison, Dalits are more fearless and ready to move away from their families since they are not at risk of losing any familial wealth (Dalit camera 2014). Hence, queer movements and support groups must pay heed to the background of transgender people since even their caste has an effect on their decision to express their true identity.
As Hindu is the dominant religious identity among Indians, the effect of religion on transgender people in India is also observed. The most significant example of this is the hijra community. Historically, the hijras lived under the patronage of the Nizams or the Mughals. But recently, the Brahmin community has named them aravanis from the Hindy myth of Aravan. This is an attempt to trace their lineage to Hindu mythology and is thus an example of Hinduization of the hijra community. Queer communities must stay alert to these changes made by majority groups because they erase the past of transgender populations. Such a rewrite of history makes it difficult for the present-day hijra community to relate to their ancestors and speak for themselves.
Lastly, there are many not for profit organizations and welfare boards that have been established to support transgender people. Unfortunately, transgender people themselves are not sitting on these boards that make decisions concerning their community. This needs to be corrected because unless the transgender people’s experiences are heard and insights taken into account, no trans welfare board would be able to effectively work for their upliftment.
This paper has outlined the evolution of the queer movement in India over the past few decades. There have been significant shifts in the attitudes and perceptions of people towards the LGBTQHKIA+ community. These have been supplemented by recent legal advancements. But as discussed beforehand, there are many issues such as those of violence in the private sphere, access to medical services and representation on welfare boards that are yet to be tackled. The queer movement is a promising approach towards combatting heteronormative, patriarchal and binary-gendered norms. Women’s movements and other allies must support it in order to become successful.
Breaking the binary: Understanding concerns and realities of queer persons assigned gender female at birth across a spectrum of lived gender identities. (2013). Retrieved from https://feministlawarchives.pldindia.org/wp-content/uploads/btbReport.pdf
Dalit Camera. (2014, October 1). The transgender struggle for freedom [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZesYnsJiee4
Krishnan, V. (2018). How the LGBTQ rights movement in India gained momentum. The Hindu. Retrieved from https://www.thehindu.com/society/its-been-a-long-long-time-for-the-lgbtq- rights-movement-in-India/article24408262.ece
Shambhavi, S. (2016). 9 Moments That Shaped The Queer Movement In India. Retrieved from https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2016/11/lgbtq-rights-movement-in-india/