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Representing same-sex politics and positions in the media

by Ashley Tellis, 20 September 2008

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Source: Magazine Section / The Hindu, 21 September 2008


Representations of homosexuality

Ashley Tellis, a gay rights activist, responds to last week’s column, “Gay but not carefree”.

Dr. Vijay Nagaswami’s article “Gay, but not carefree” (Magazine, September 14), while ostensibly offering a balanced and dispassionate view of homosexuality, actually perpetuates some rather old misconceptions and misinformation abo ut homosexuals,

The article opens with a binary opposition between conservative and gay rights activist positions, more true of the United States and parts of Europe than India. The fact is that in India there is no conservative anti-gay lobby active in any realm. The only anti-gay force is the State, which refuses to repeal Section 377.

Abstractly worded

Section 377 does not actively name gay sex; nor is it only about gayness. It is an abstractly worded section speaking about “acts against the order of nature”, (which can also cover oral sex between heterosexual partners, for example) and, in practice, is used in all sorts of cases, including child-sex abuse. Child sexual abuse clearly deserves its own law, mainly to distinguish paedophilia from homosexuality. The two phenomena are totally different, but are conflated in the popular imagination as well as the illiterate Indian State’s imagination, seen recently in the official response to Health Minister Ramadoss’ recent call for the repeal of Section 377, which was met with alarmist references to “sick” practices like child sexual abuse going unpunished if 377 was removed. Homosexuality is alive and well as a sickness in the popular imagination.

From stating that we should think about homosexuality simply because there are so many people claiming to be marginalised (implying that numerically small minorities of any kind do not matter) to citing evolutionary biology to argue that homosexuality controls population and, therefore, can be seen as part of the natural selection process, it is not clear what position Dr. Nagaswami is advocating. The point is that no sexuality is “natural”; the very category “natural” (or “normal” and “abnormal” which Dr. Nagaswami uses without problematising at all) has to be, and for long now been, interrogated and so the whole desire to fit homosexuals into the “natural” or “normal” is unnecessary.

Throughout the article, Dr. Nagaswami vacillates between arguing that homosexuality is inherent (“inner dictates”) and a choice (“homosexuals are just a group of people who have made a conscious choice to practise (sic) a different form of life (sic)”) he lists various positions, from the popular to the absurd, yet one is not clear what the point of this laundry list is, but he ends by telling us it is all a matter of choice.

Dr. Nagaswami, in between, feels the need to placate heterosexual civilisation by reassuring them that homosexuals do not just want sex, they want relationships too and that some (“the lucky few”) actually do marry and settle down with “like-minded partners”. The conservatism behind this position is glaringly obvious: homosexuals are acceptable only when they follow heterosexual norms. If they only want sex, that’s bad; if they do not marry, they are wrong. Without even going into the questions of a critique of monogamy and marriage, the fact is that the Indian State does not allow same-sex couples to marry or create cultural spaces for recognition and respect to same-sex relationships, preferring to mark, as Nagaswami himself points out, them as damaged freaks in cinema, for example.

Happy as we are

Nevertheless, I want to assure him, that many of us (this writer included) are not lonely, frustrated or prostituting ourselves because we are single. We are single, incredibly happy and lead very fulfilling lives. Do all single heterosexual men and women become prostitutes? Are all single heterosexuals, men and women who choose not to marry, lonely and frustrated?

There are very serious violences that gay men, lesbians, hijras, and same-sex identified men and women who do not choose these labels, face in this country, from the family, the community and the State, forcing them to depression, trauma, injury and suicide (the pandemic of women suicides in Kerala is testimony to this). We need to be careful in representing same-sex politics and positions in the media.