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Lesbian existence and marginalization in India

India’s first ‘lesbian ad’ went viral at the start of June this year. The advert featuring a young lesbian couple awaiting the arrival of one set of parents to their joint home is uncompromisingly ‘out’ even as it sets this exceptional moment in the everyday intimacy and domesticity that most relationships share. The ad is actually part of a new digital campaign launched by the brand Myntra for its range of ‘contemporary ethnic apparel’ called Anouk. The campaign titled ‘Bold Is Beautiful’ comprises of two other ads on single women and single mothers respectively. The three beautifully shot, styled, and smartly narrativised ads on the predicaments of ‘modern Indian women’ are equally provocative even as it is the ‘lesbian’ ad that has garnered most attention. All three scripts focus on women who lie outside of, and thus fundamentally threaten, the hetero-patriarchal foundation of any – not just Indian – society. This comes out most poignantly, I think, in the advert featuring a single mother and her child who deeply disrupts patriarchal power by responding to one of the many prying neighbours by asserting that her daughter has her and does not need a ‘papa’. A society which does not need men – in the family, in romance and sex, or for consumption – heralds the end of patriarchy as we know it.

The ‘lesbian ad’ received overwhelmingly positive responses on social media and the blogsphere, suggesting how far India had traveled from the days when cinema halls were burnt for screening a film on female lovers. Others found evidence for this popular acceptance of homosexuality – at least amongst middle class Indians – in the fact that this was not even the first advert of its kind. Local brands of watches and jewelry like Fastrack and Tanishq had already used progressive slogans and images around homosexuality to sell their products. And this in the context of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to uphold the criminalisation of homosexuality in section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

But we should be wary of assuming that the ‘mainstreaming’ of such progressive ideas around same-sex relationships is a product of the media and the market. On the contrary, I would argue – drawing on my ongoing research into queer especially lesbian politics in India today – that the changed context and common sensibility that we are currently witnessing is a product, if anything, of the sustained mobilisation and activism of groups, organisations and campaigns for sexual rights since the 1990s.

Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire, is generally recognized as transforming the public debate on sexuality in India by pushing lesbian issues on the agenda for the first time in the late nineties. Declaring that they were part of the nation-state in their responses to right-wing attempts to censor and ban the film, lesbians asserted their existence and disrupted dominant sexual and cultural norms that relied on rendering them invisible. While the controversy around the film saw lesbian centered public protest for the first time, lesbian groups were in operation in metropolises like Delhi from the mid-eighties. Likewise, campaigns for legal rights by gays and lesbians (to overturn section 377) open up an unprecedented space, not merely for rendering such marginalized subjects visible but for questioning the existing heteronormative order.

Image: “A group of Hijra in Bangladesh” by USAID. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A prominent Kolkata-based lesbian organization and the only one of its kind in eastern India, Sappho was started by six middle-class Bengali women on 20 June 1999 as an ‘emotional support group’ for sexual minority women. While Sappho continues to provide a ‘safe space’ for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women, Sappho for Equality or SFE was started in 2003 as a registered NGO that functions as a locus of the organization’s activism and outreach. SFE fulfills the founder members’ belief in the need for the support of the wider (heterosexual) community in its struggle for sexual citizenship, and represents a shift from service provision to issue-based activism. It is the public face of the organization, and through its public awareness-raising programmes, such as running a queer film festival and being a part of one of Kolkata’s most prominent cultural activities, the annual Book Fair, it has become part of the weave of the cultural-political life of the city.

Members of Sappho are automatically members of SFE, but not the other way round. Sappho embodies, in this way, two common strands of the queer movement in India—one that links sexuality to identity (the support group) and one that attempts to break this very association (the activist platform). Yet the fluidity of identities persists in the everyday life of queer activism, observable in the manner in which some members of SFE later become members of Sappho. This ‘flow’ from one organizational form to another based on identity and belonging complicates common ways of thinking about sexual identity and sexuality itself as something fixed by birth, nature, or God.

Sappho members are best described as middle or lower middle class; many come from surrounding suburban areas, and the majority are more comfortable speaking Bengali than English. They inhabit an economically liberalized India, and owe their visibility and activism to the political configurations that this made possible, whether through the international funding ‘boom’ or the globalizing of the media. Important generational differences are already on display even though the organization has a recent history. The first post-Fire generation of activists often distinguish their struggles – in the face of violence, above all, from the family, and internalized homophobia – from the generation of young women who are today entering the organization, well informed of their sexual orientation and who seek pleasure and friendship.

In being compromised of largely educated and middle class women (features that characterize lesbian activism in India as such), does such a form of organizing marginalize non-urban and working-class lesbians? We know that a wider context of socio-economic disparities renders economically marginalized and socially stigmatized sexual minorities (such as kothis, dhuranis, and hijras) more vulnerable to institutionalized forms of violence and abuse than class and caste privileged groups. While it is important to pay attention to such internal differences within sexual minorities, it is also important not to pit categories of marginalization or vulnerability against one another (such as class and sexuality). In other words, we need a conceptual framework that enables us to understand that a woman can be working class and lesbian.

We also need to appreciate that whether elite, middle class, or non-elite, lesbian existence in India is marked not just by marginalization but also by invisibility. To go back to the ‘lesbian advert’ I began with, to dismiss the ad for showcasing only privileged ‘modern’ women with high consumer potentials, as some were suggesting in conversations it prompted, is politically counterproductive and analytically facile. Identities are not products of one ‘thing’ but several complex and shifting components. It is by recognizing these kinds of complexities born out of neoliberalism and the intersectionality of class, caste, religion, and gender that we move towards a genuinely relational and expansive understanding of identity in relation to and mobilizations around sexuality.

Featured image credit: “Bangalore Gay Pride Parade”, by Nick Johnson. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] me illustrate these three attributes of subalternity by drawing on my own contribution to the volume – a critical reading of lesbian politics in contemporary India. Subalternity here does not simply […]

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