One of the many misconceptions that people have about LGBTQ people is that we are part of one unified movement. I just don’t find that to be the case whatsoever. It is really important to understand that each of the letters in the acronym actually have very different political histories, agendas, and priorities. In particular, I think the transgender movement really complicates, and in fact, contradicts many of the core assumptions, ideas and strategies of the gay movement.
The term ‘gay’ is a term used to describe men who are sexually attracted to men; the term ‘lesbian’ is used to describe women who are sexually attracted to women. But inherent in both those identities and political imaginations, is that unquestioned idea of what a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’ is to begin with. What does it mean to be a man or a woman, and why are we pretending there is only such a thing as a man and woman? Especially in India, where there’s a long history of people who have always existed outside of this category of ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ And when you ask gay men, “Are you attracted to trans-men?” many times, they’ll say “no,” and if you ask lesbian women, “Are you attracted to trans-women?” many times they’ll say “no.”
So actually, what’s happening is that the gay movement is relying on a cis-normative idea of what it means to be a man. What cis-normativity is, is the social power system and assumption that every person is cis-gender, which is just not true! That is just a social assumption. Two, it affirms that everyone’s gender aligns with what they were assigned at birth. And three, that everyone’s body matches up with their gender representation. None of this is true.
I would say, not just for the minority of people, but a majority of people because what I believe is so sophisticated and incredible about trans-politics is that we’re not just talking about trans-people. We’re saying that actually taking half of the world and dividing it into man and woman is kind of an oversimplification for everyone. Last time I checked, when I meet two women, they are way more different than they are alike and to assume that they have a universal experience, in fact, acts as a type of erasure against them. I believe that actually all of us are our own genders because who we are is the accumulation of all the memories, histories, ideas, people, the places that we’ve been… no two genders can ever be the same.
The way you understand womanhood might be different than someone else and that’s our strength and our power… and so to say “I’m attracted to women”or “I’m attracted to men”, is to already assume that there is such a thing as a man or a woman and when you actually begin to critique that category you’ll find that most straight people are not attracted to every single woman. That’s not what is actually going on and it can’t, in fact, capture the incredible nuance and complicatedness that desire is.
When we’re attracted to someone, usually we’re not like “I am attracted to your genitalia”, and if that is what you’re doing, I think there are a lot of other things that you need to work out. We are attracted to the composite of their being, and I think what transpolitics really interrupts is, “Why are the only ways we are expected to identify sexually anchored to the perception of someone else’s genitalia?”That’s really messed up! I’d actually prefer to be desired for my personality, my intellect, my art, my imagination. I actually find it a type of violence to only matter only as far as my genitalia is concerned. I think that’s actually kind of creepy and weird.
And so, for me, what I’m trying to do as a trans-activist, is to actually say gender is way more complicated than the binary. I don’t know what a world would look like without the gender binary, but what I think it would look like is kind of like a constellation of everyone just doing their own thing and that would be really cool. And people get really nervous because they’re like, “Oh, but I identify really strongly as a woman, where is the future for me in a non-binary world?” and I think there would still be that category ‘woman’, but what’ll be important to understand is that ‘woman’ won’t exist in opposition to ‘man’ and ‘man’ wouldn’t exist in opposition to ‘woman’. ‘Woman’ would just be one of many and ‘man’ would just be one of many. But right now, the way the gender system is set up, is that not only are we given only two options, those options always have to be in an antagonistic oppositional relationship, which is stressful for all parties involved because every bit of behaviour that deviates away from that gender norm is read as you trying to be like a man or you trying to be like a woman, and not you trying to be like a human being. If you’re assertive, it should not be seen as you trying to be like a man or if you’re vulnerable, it shouldn’t be seen as you trying to be like a woman. That’s such a weird way of thinking about the world.
I think the movement in India, just like the movement everywhere is extremely patriarchal and I think that is revealed mostly in the prioritisation of homophobia over sexism and misogyny. Because when you listen to the experiences of queer women and trans people, when we describe what their personal experience, we very rarely use the word homophobia. We’re usually saying this has to do with patriarchy and we understand that the controlling of women’s sexuality has always been a tool (a major problem), so for queer women and for trans people, we understand that the only way we’re gonna be free is by actually ending male supremacy and the patriarchy because that would mean that we actually have ownership of our own bodies and our desires, rather than our families owning it, our parents owning it, our religions owning it because patriarchy means that women cannot own their own sexualities, they have to belong to something else and by extension, the feminine people across all genders cannot own our own sexualities because they have to belong to masculine people.
When you listen to most gay male activists, they’re not actually even talking about gender, they are just talking about desire and sex. That doesn’t actually challenge the same patriarchal system; in fact, what happens is that gay men are often just trying to get access to the same power that straight men have. And this is a huge issue in the gay movement in India, the tonnes of misogyny within gay males spaces. I know so many women and trans-people who do not feel safe going to gay parties. In fact, many gay parties actually explicitly say ‘no cross-dressers’ allowed. So people like me would be barred entry because we’re seen as “too visible” and what happens is that the only gay people that are allowed to be accepted are people who can be more discrete and live sort of dual lives - like the straight life, and the gay, private life. But I think that the dilemma of being a woman or a trans-person is that you can’t be closeted in your visibility as easily. You leave a club, and you’re still a woman, you’re still a trans. And that has everything to do with patriarchy. What I am talking about is that after a performance, I can have a hundred people clapping for me but the minute I leave, and I am outside on the street, I’m under attack. I don’t have the ability to come out, to be private, and I am constantly visible. Which means that if anyone feels angry, even at gay people, they take it out on us. And so women and trans-people get the brunt of the violence. Especially when it comes to our own families and our romantic partners because it is also important contextualize this that within India, there is such a huge gender divide that it’s very difficult for women, if cis-gender, heterosexual women to earn enough money to actually support themselves, to get their own apartment let alone sign their own lease, right?
So what ends up happening is that the only people who are able to live this private, queer, cosmopolitan lives tend to be men and women and trans-people tend to be much more broke and struggling, not being able to access privacy or live outside their homes. It’s about the prioritization of desire over gender, but I think it’s also a lot about class. I wish that we could talk a lot more about class. In the gay movement, if you have two women in a relationship, that means you have two subordinative incomes together, which means that actually queer women find it very challenging to live economically viable lives. If you have a trans-person, you are fired from almost every single job because people think that you’re not professional looking, you’re often relegated to underground economies and entertainment cultures. We’re not actually getting….. stable healthcare and so, what happens is that we’re unable largely to access these sorts of cosmopolitan gay spaces and cities like Bombay. And for me, that has everything to do with gender and class. I mean, I always think about my own privilege in this regard, is that I’m one of the only trans-people I know like me, who has access to the spaces that I have. That the majority of trans-people, especially in India are terribly poor and that’s not because they are not hard workers, it’s because they are trans.
We gave women and trans-people visibility, but we don’t give them money. And this is what I always say, is we don’t need another woman or a trans-person on the cover of a magazine, what does that do for our lives? Nothing. That’s how paycheck is always done. It’s like, “Oh, look, we have this woman engineer, we have done the work.” And there is thousands of other women who are struggling. So you prop up one person and you make them visible, and then you expect everyone to be able to achieve that without actually looking at the real situations. And so, I really tried to push back against the symbolic politics, like putting a rainbow flag on your laptop, changing your profile pictures, like “I support the LGBT people.” That’s nice, but it doesn’t actually help protect us. What I’m interested in really, is what are you doing to improve the lives of LGBT people and especially, by LGBT people, I mean bisexual men, lesbian women, trans-people, because actually we’re experiencing some of the most brutal and intense violence, with little to no acknowledgment of it. Some real and specific ways people can actually do that work is thinking through whether we actually have homeless shelters that are able to house LGBT people safely, where they can actually present to themselves, with all the problems that they do, because there are many situation where many of us get kicked out of our families if we discuss who we are, and we have no support system.
Now, you want us to come out, but you don’t actually have the infrastructure to support us when we do. We shouldn’t be surprised when families, school and businesses kick out people, we should be ready! And that’s where I think that we are too busy posting rainbow stickers to actually think about finding that stuff - do we have domestic violence shelters that are equipped to deal with intimate partner violence for trans-people and queer men? Still, in India to this day, the only concept of domestic violence is man against woman. That’s just not true! Because there is domestic violence in queer relationships, but that conversation is completely not talked about. So what happens is that when a transwoman comes to the domestic violence shelter, they tend to blame her; why are you dating this guy?
When you actually look onground as to who is being punished under Section 377, it’s the same people who have always been punished; poor people, sex workers, people living in underground economies and trans people. The face of the Section 377 movement has only been the urban upper middle class gay man who has not actually been experiencing all the types of brutality that other trans communities are facing. So what I hear a lot, is this narrative of “Oh we have this amazing trans–for trans-people but sexuality is still criminalized, now we need to focus on gay people.” And that is such a wrong – because trans-people can also be gay. People keep pretending that all trans-people are straight and that’s not true either! I know so many translesbians, I know so many trans-gay people. So they experience a double backlash of both homophobia and transphobia. So to say that we’ve made progress for trans-people and not for gay people is just wrong and incorrect.
For me, I look at all of my politics as crisis management because the reality of the situation is that most queer women and trans-people are in crisis in India and everywhere. Unless we have a movement that is actually there when you are attacked, we don’t have a movement. We don’t have that now. And in most countries in the world, even in my country, the U.S., there has been an escalation of violence against the LGBT because of the rise of Trump and the right-wing, and what a lot of gay people are realizing is “Crap! I don’t even know where to go when I get beaten up on the street. I don’t even know what to do, I don’t even know who to call.” I guess they could like make a Facebook video and we share it, but what does that do? It’s not actually protecting you and instead all of us are asking this question, “How did we mess up?”, “How’d we think that we have victory?” And I think this is where I am very sceptical of policy shifts and I am much more interested in building movement infrastructure. To me, that looks like every company making it a priority to hire and employ LGBT people. Every single school having scholarships and accommodations for LGBT people. It means moving beyond that symbolic recognition; we have to support people with money and not just work.
Feature image credit: Alok Vaid-Menon photographed by CastorxPollux
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