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On the Eve of Pride. Are We Going the Right Way: Akhil Katyal

June 23, 2009

This is a guest post by AKHIL KATYAL

Topicality is a homage one pays to the short-term memory that the new media both triggers and complains against in its customers. In the long-term of course, where trend is all important, the topical is only a category of the banal. But it is under the shelter of such a necessary topicality – the topical is always necessary – that I hope to sneak in a scandal.

Everyone is talking about the queer pride marches that are going to happen in four cities in India at the end of this month. Most liberal reportage is obviously supportive, if not triumphant. For these cities themselves, it is seen as a step into a liberal urban culture which tolerates, even enjoys difference. All the talk about the ‘gay community’ or ‘lgbt community’ that the Indian media – and the activists – have been dabbling in for at least a decade now, seems to be reaching its logical climax: the community is expressing itself. Every city seems to have its own pet lgbt community or at least aspires to.

The media is hungry for its reactions – was the gay community happy with a certain gay-themed film?, what are the community’s reactions to ongoing court case against section 377?, what does the community feel about this, about that? – as if the community was one big speaking animal. The pattern is repeated in the four metropolitans and it sets the model for smaller towns to replicate in a future – cities are all plotted onto this calendar of betterment – one behind the other, all with the same dream. In this liberal vision – which most of us repose our trust in – all cities potentially look alike – fed by a similar criteria. All cities will have a slot for sexual difference that it will yearly celebrate.

Now do not get me wrong. When I speak like this, at worst, I am conflicted and at best, self-conscious. And neither of these make for impressive persuasion. But I seriously want to see the underside of the liberal and calculate the stakes involved. When everyone reposes their trust in one dream, or when a large section of people becomes unanimous, there must be something necessarily wrong with it. Well not necessarily, but it almost always is. For instance, this entire trust in the language of rights, particularly rights for the sexual minorities. The liberal democrat in us supports ‘sexual rights as human rights’ unflinchingly. We fight in the courts for it, we write it out in our banners and slogans and we constantly raise awareness campaigns about ‘our own’ rights. The matter of sexuality has been framed wholesale as ‘the right to be who I am’. We are all equal, we are all different and we have the right to this difference. This is the miracle of identity politics. Of course to even minimally sustain this illusion of different identities, we have to necessarily supply them with a set of unique characteristics. You can not practically maintain distinction if you do not outline its features. So every time you hear – that the ‘gay community’ should not be stereotyped, or that the ‘lgbt community’ is facing an endless battle against the media which stereotypes it – you are not seeing something which identities fear and can avoid – you are rehearsing something which is inherent in identities. They sustain themselves through stereotypes – this is the theoretical truth that we better learn about identities.

The journalist who writes a stupid article about the homosexuals – perhaps even a homophobic one – shares his grounds with the sexuality rights activist – both believe in the existence of ‘homosexuals’, both are quite sure that they are, in some significant way, different from the ‘heterosexuals’, both join hands in making this first supposition. And the language of rights makes it difficult for us to think that it can be otherwise. The language of rights is by its very nature, universal and projected onto an always better and better future. It encompasses the all and the always. The biggest skepticism we must have amidst our investment in rights is to see what questions it has made us stop asking – that if nothing else, was the lesson of Zizek in his famous 1999 lecture on human rights and its discontents. For instance, the sexual minority is a given, we have stopped asking how it came to be, that is considered an irrelevant question, the gay and straight and bisexual are a given, we are even proud to be gay or straight or bisexual – that is the whole thrust of pride – but we have stopped asking how this gay and straight came to be, what are the long-term stakes involved in sustaining this distinction, or when did we become forever different? And Zizek goes so far as claiming identity politics to be a game of apartheid – a distinction set on false basis of people being distinguishable by one or other of their properties – ethnic, sexual orientation, or anything else. When I say false, I mean something specific. False, not to mean, that it does not unfold or does not have its material effects. False, here, instead, that which is not a given and can never be taken as such, that which is made up by some specific interests – always having both advantages and disadvantages. And that which should be ideally dumped when you understand the huge disadvantages it will cause in the long run.

But coming back to the activist and the ‘stupid’ journalist – who both share a supposition – they are both within the misguided legacy of late nineteenth century sexology and psychoanalysis in Europe that produced this homosexual – itself through pained processes of stereotyping – where the sexologists perversely listed the differences that a set of people have in relation to those who are ‘normal’. (I say ‘misguided’ because it often markets itself as the only way to understand same-sex desire – as being homosexual – it seems to function as the more credible, scientific, truthful term – underlying all other ways. Of course it does this by working almost as a term of science; for instance, the londebaz (the one who has a habit for boys), which uses the idiom of habit, is necessarily seen only as one of the ‘local’ ways of understanding the ‘homosexual’ – which is an all serving definition – and which, one can argue, itself uses the specific idiom of interiority, as against habit. Which is truer – the londebaz or the homosexual? Is that the right question to ask?) For Iwan Bloch who wrote The Sexual Life of Our Time (1908), the homosexual body was a body forever different from that of the heterosexual – look at what he writes: ‘More especially after removing any beard or moustache that be present, we sometimes see much more clearly the feminine expression of face in a male homosexual…Still more important for the determination of a feminine habitus are direct physical characteristics…’. He ridiculously perseveres in outlining this difference, speaking about a less developed muscular system (if only he could see what has become of the muscle-mary type among gay men), deposits of fat which make these men look like women, even fairer complexion et. al. He sounds stupid by the end of it. Of course he has no way of understanding femininity in men except this, or masculinity in women. And he is fully convinced that all homosexuals look like this. The stereotype is not the additional feature of identities; it is its structural makeup. It is what went into its creation.

It is a well rehearsed argument that what sexology only described, psychoanalysis irrevocably made into a matter of truth about one’s self. In that way, psychoanalysis was much more demoniac because it was more subtle. It always had something up its sleeve. Once Freud sat with his patients, and listened to them, making them revisit their childhoods and then coming to identify sexual truths about them through such sittings, the damage was forever done. I mean damage in a very particular way. When all stories begin to sound alike. Because once Freud made sexuality as something excavable – that going back into your childhood or earlier life, you narrativize episodes of the past – you make them mean something for the present – he already made all instances of desire only instrumental enough to mean something about the person’s sexuality – only important enough to name that person – homosexual or heterosexual. So for instance let us say there is this girl, young – she says that in her childhood, she had desired this woman who was her maid, wanted to be with her, wanted to sleep next to her, and then later, as she grew up, she desired her father, wanted all his favours, wanted to bear him a child, and then again later – note how a life is already being made into a chronological flatline, a prerequisite for narrative – she wanted to stay with an aunt, and win her favour. Freud would be at pains to make sense of this narrative. I think disparate instances of desire must have struck a bad chord with Freud because he always wanted to place them together, make them mean something in relation to each other, and by the end of it, have an answer, even if an unconvincing one, about what the person really is. So this girl would be interpreted as having an unconscious homosexual current of feelings – which, of course for her times, was expressed in particular ways – and that this undercurrent, is hidden beneath a more visible heterosexual side to her. He would place one type of sexuality (homosexuality) beneath another (heterosexuality) – one type of current of feelings buried under another – in a tiered schema. Of course the basis of all of this is the architecture of the secret – the real game of psychoanalysis. What you hide always seems to be truer than what you show – nothing else would have driven Freud more than this maxim. And of course desire for some one of the same sex had to be hidden in peculiar ways and expressed in some others – hence it came to be thought of as the truth par excellence of the person involved – her hidden grail. Now see, something peculiar has happened – in the way we understand desire and sexuality and their relation to each other – and I will tell you how. But before that you would have already noticed that Freudian psychoanalysis has set up a peculiar model of understanding life and those who live it – which is later rehearsed in the coming-out story, in the discussions of one’s past that a sexual minority support group meeting always triggers, in endless counseling sessions, in the way we so nonchalantly say, the first I knew I was gay when….The homosexual would become the foundational basis of the lesbian and gay rights movements. Her existence would become irrefutable. What was a product of peculiar forms of narrative making – Freud near his patient on the couch, or more generally of the Freudian – would now be a subject position – taken as a given. When an editorial call for contributions asks for gay and lesbian personal narratives, it does something very peculiar. It not only recruits those stories, but also triggers the story tellers to make gay or lesbian the driving force of the way they remember, to strike up a certain mood, and connect all those instances of desire, which till now lay fallow. The result is not simply the gay story but the instance of the becoming gay of the story teller – a formalization of this way of arranging lives and desires.

At this instance, and amidst all the euphoria of the pride marches, we have to make a decision – as activists or any of those invested in the liberal democratic ideal of imagining a small percent of homosexuals in any given society and then giving them rights to live and love (ending up producing a huge percent of untheorized, unthought of heterosexuals who are doomed to their problems and power, of necessarily being the violators) – we have to make a decision of what we are going to make the pivotal front line concept of our activism. I am not raising this question for the first time. It has been raised before, and by stronger voices. It seems that we have played the game with sexuality – understood here as sexual orientation, lesbian or straight – for way too long, and in some ways we might continue to, despite our wishes, but perhaps hopefully not. These four city marches will make identities based on a sexual orientation a matter of unflinching pride. There will be banners saying for instance, Proud to be Lesbian. The language in the courts is that of sexual minority – always framing sexual orientation as so integral to a person, that it becomes a matter of self-respect, a criterion of her minimal dignity. But have identities delivered their radical promise? Have we not thrown in our lot with them without understanding all the stakes – or why do we, knowing that there are many disadvantageous stakes involved, persevere in backing them up? It is a question that strikes at our very abilities and hopes of making a radical break, or at least shifting from one significant way of thinking and acting, to another. It is well known that in places where sexual rights of lgbt people have been recognized – instances of homophobic violence has not decreased but instead escalated. We should not flinch away from asking the question: how is it that identities choreograph interaction between people, who are on its basis, considered forever different from each other? Is the pact of difference that identities make us sign, always already a violent pact? Where does this pact of difference lead us to – what do the major evident examples of apoliticization of sexual identities and their community ghettoization teach us? Becoming exactly the things that they first sough to disturb – even right-wingers, conservative republican, family-oriented gay men or women – normalized beyond repair – now scorning at another set of people, considering another set as abnormal.

We should not celebrate identities without thinking where they tend. A certain branded group which organizes parties for gay men in Delhi does not allow people in drag or people who do not meet certain dress codes. A Gay Bombay group picnic event had this to say in talking about the space they are trying to create: ‘GB, as a support group, has created this comfort/safe space for gays. Many people at the event may be “newbies” (those still coming to terms with their sexuality and/or those who have mustered the courage to come to such an event for the first time). We request you to be sensitive to the comfort levels of others and to behave and dress accordingly.’ It further lists indulging in hanky panky in its things-not-to-do list. Who is this newbie who should be safely led into a community, offered a smooth entry into a system of codes determined by an exclusion of such and such things, such and such people or acts? Is it really about the newbie or the ones paving an ideal way for this imagined kid? Another friend in his research noted that the thikri – the loud clap of the hijras – was banned in the Kolkata pride because it was not considered suitable, or serious enough, or too attention grabbing for a march calling for human rights of a community – now on a threshold of a fuller citizenship – what with the verdict of Delhi high court case against section 377 of the IPC already being framed as panacea par excellence by some. Can we consider all our usages of the language of sexual identity independent of these misusages – are we not always, already complicit by using the same idiom? What will we leave behind when we win this identitarian game? What will the gay and lesbian people – now, though not yet, but we speculate – full citizens of the State – fashion themselves like to become the bearers of the gifts of the state – gifts, which are huge – progressively as we go on, shared insurance, sharing of property, adopting children, marrying even etc. Already the signs are underway of what this citizenship entails. A participant on the Delhi pride organizing committee e-list called for standardization on how we should behave, and another person I know, was annoyed that the hijras spoiled the first Delhi gay pride march. These are not disparate instances. They form somewhat of the tendency inherent in identitarian movements. We cannot be blind to them and several of us have not been and have thought of solutions. I must say that the solution does not lie within identities. It does not lie in defining people on the basis of their desires.

I come to the end but perhaps the most important part. We must change the pivotal front line concepts of our activism. We must have this urgent debate on whether we would not want to dump sexual orientation altogether – slowly or rapidly – from our banners and slogans. We can strategically fight one sort of fight in the courts but do we have to carry on using that language outside as well. Sexual orientation – gay or straight – poses as the condition of the person. A condition is a primal basis for definitions to accrue, for stereotypes to form, for normalization to occur. It is the theoretical and practical imaginary of prejudice. Desire, on the other hand, erupts in a certain moment and then subsides. It can not be pinned down as a condition. It is synchronic, as opposed to this diachronic sexuality demon. Sexual orientation is less flexible than desire. If one calls oneself gay – it is an act projected into the past and future. One is gay often implies, that one was and will be. It is primarily on a model of temporal consistency that identities breed. Identities have a huge temporal province, unlike desire – that is why we can trace them all the way back. If a gay person were to experience desire for women, it would only be framed as an exception, or at best, another identity – which many have called an anti-identity, not a sexual identity at all, in fact beyond the pale of this game – bisexual. It is the baggage of all the narratives that Freud made us write in order to arrive at a truth about ourselves, where sexuality was the best and the deepest truth. Only in a retrospective narrative-making – and psychoanalysis is nothing else but this – that aims to link one instance of desire with another instance of desire, can one instance emerge as an exception if compared to a larger number of others.

Desire is not heterosexual or homosexual. If we politicize desire, if we put it more often on our banners and slogans – which we partially do, but I think not fully, and not to its maximum capacity – then we perform the best of tricks. We talk about all the issues related to same-sex desire, violence, love et. al. without defining the people on its basis. Because desire is structured differently from sexual orientation – it is not what we are, that which is always the beginning of ushering limits – but instead, that which we feel. This way, we do not hand out the same coming-out story to all – with its simple template of invisibility-silence-unfreedom to visibility-voice-freedom. So much so that all the limits that identities will usher, and they necessarily do, will be paradoxically experienced as freedom by that person coming out. For the record, I think coming out is a deplorable metaphor, one of giant compromises of sexuality-based movements. It is a kind of pinning-down experienced as flight. And I think the biggest misfortune of identities – that which it cannot escape because that is what makes it – is that all stories begin to sound similar. A theoretically limited set of characteristics and episodes become iconic of let’s say, the lesbian life, and then all the newbies would aim to toe this line to count as a lesbian. Same goes for gay. Desire might have iconic moments, especially in popular culture, but it does not have iconic characteristics or properties. It is experienced as unpredictable and varies with taste. It is situational as opposed to conditional. More over it is never a matter of defining one person because desire is always relational – always appearing amidst more than one. It does not discriminate between people as gay or straight – and offers a model beyond identities – where all the issues that identities hoped to engage are still engaged without its collateral damages. Its canvass is also huger and its impulse is not inherently minoritizing. You can talk of several provisional forms of stigmatized desires – same-sex desire, female desire, trans-desire – without christening the lives of people involved. You will notice that I want to retain the raw passion for what several think might to be the alternative. It should be a trigger for a big debate within activism, and this is not a thing only possible in some distant future, it is something we can start doing right now. Politicizing desire, not sexual orientation.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Sayam permalink
    June 23, 2009 2:59 PM

    Brilliantly argued, wonderfully written…thanks for posting this

  2. Maya permalink
    June 23, 2009 4:30 PM

    Enjoyed reading this, thank you Akhil. I think this is a great indication of a ‘movement’ (for want of a better word) that is not inert, has a critical and self-reflexive approach, and struggles with diversity within itself – some of the vital signs of democracy. I think this last part is one of the most complex and challenging aspects of the democratic ideal: on any road in India we have different speeds of traffic. There is something not right about superhighways that do not allow buses, scooters, autos etc. But it slows down the person in the SUV for sure (I try to remember that when I’m cursing the puttering Bombay taxicab). Basically, what you’re saying is critical for the IQ and EQ of sexual politics in this moment, but everyone has their own evolution and arrives (or aspires to) via different paths and at their own speed. So I agree with your discomfort with the limitations on displays of ‘expression’ in marches and events. At the same time, it is that very specific, often stereotyped ‘expression’ – the clapping, the dress, the language, the personal style – which is indicative of a highly specific identity and matters to a lot of people much more than it does for you. I think this struggle is a very real thing for many of us and I am glad you’ve articulated it. At some level, we are most efficient at being part of movements and working for rights when we essentialize. Feminist movements have struggled much with this too. I think this has a lot to do with the way in which this movement, these rights, have been articulated, and the legal efforts at repealing 377. Khair, that is past and present. The thing is, what is the future? How are we going to start talking about sexuality afresh, anew?

  3. Prashant Gupta permalink
    June 24, 2009 2:32 AM

    Come to think of it, even desire is socialised to a large degree. Also, there is a difference between ‘the potential of desire’ and ‘desire as experienced by subjects’. Indeed, if one is looking to free desire to become more ‘poetic’, so to speak with Foucault, one has to attack institutions which seek not just to restrict, regulate, and define desire, but also to punish transgression. And this punishment comes from the family, the neighbourhood, the state, strangers, eyes, darkness…… and the self… and ‘the legal’ is not just some language… in fact the ‘legal’ is like a consciousness… approximated by the law…

  4. Arjun permalink
    June 24, 2009 9:57 AM

    Good read. An almost convincing solution.
    “Identities have a huge temporal province, unlike desire”. Which is probably why some search for identities beyond instances of desire.
    As you say, “desire is not what we are, … – but instead, that which we feel”. But “what is it that I am?” appears as important a question as “what is it that i feel?”. The realisation of the futility of the first question takes a long time to come. Till the day the former question is erased from human consciousness, identities are likely to stay.

  5. David permalink
    June 24, 2009 1:56 PM

    Well-written article. Good show.

  6. Kartik permalink
    June 25, 2009 12:46 AM

    As always your incomparable lucidity, this time in parlaying some of the great debates around identity politics. Exhilarating to read, and yes, mercilessly ‘topical’.

  7. Ronnie permalink
    June 26, 2009 6:25 PM

    A very good article.

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