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On Being a Gay Activist in India

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[This piece was first published in Cafe Dissensus issue on Social Activism.]

By Ashley Tellis

Being a gay activist in India is like suddenly becoming invisible to the world around you and all its inhabitants. You are screaming to your friends and loved ones that they should listen to you, that you are here but they can’t see you or hear you. You turn to your enemies but they can’t see or hear you either. It is not just the state that does not recognize you, to whom you are an illegible subject, everyone around you, friend and enemy alike, erases you.

How many times in how many dharnas and meetings have you bitten your tongue and held your peace because somehow you convince yourself once again that this is not the right time, this is not the right place, women or Dalits or adivasis are more important and their issues are more important at the moment and sexuality’s time has not yet come? How many times have you reached home in a state of rage, blinded by your own tears because you are furious with yourself for having convinced yourself that way?

How does it feel to be insulted, marginalized, abused by your own ‘community’ because you are not joining their feel-good, neoliberal party, because not only can’t you be queer, you think queer is the most rightwing, complicit, oppressive, and elitist subject position to inhabit? How does one suffer the alienation from one’s own constituency because it is taken over by marauding upper class, upper caste twits who have been seeing too much US TV and think queer? How long does your laughter last when you are called the Baba Ramdev of the same-sex movement? When does it turn into tears at the irony of the situation?

How does one endure the stares, the barely tolerant gaze of the Dalit, the Kashmiri, the Muslim, the Christian, the feminist, the adivasi, the displaced, the submerged, the marginalized, the disenfranchised who find it in themselves through all their own suffering to hate you for your sexual orientation? What do you make of the Dalit magazine which refuses to publish your article where you speak of being Dalit as well as gay? How do you look your Left comrades in the eye when they have refused to stand by you as College Principals have denied you a job and smeared your name with the worst charges and then they refuse to come testify on your behalf? How do you continue to work with feminists who accuse you of being in love with and having an affair with the men they love even when you are not in love with those men? How do you deal with revolutionary straight men who presume you want to sleep with them and who do not think your politics is worth any more than your desire to suck their dicks? How might you continue to smile at the adivasi activist who asks you why you are not married and how will you die alone? How do you continue to speak to the Christian missionary fighting for Dalit rights with all the compassion of Christ but who spews homophobic bile after the High Court judgment reads down Section 377? What do you say to the beautiful Kashmiri man who wants azaadi but not for Kashmiri women from Kashmiri patriarchy and certainly not for you who he openly says does not exist even as you, weak with desire for him, are staring into his eyes? What do you say to the CPM lesbian but closeted academic who tells you officially that lesbians can’t march in the March 8, International Women’s Day, march because LGBT issues are ‘Western’ and disconnected and will derail the real issues at hand which include industrial labour and slum demolition.

Never mind that one of the women in the slums is the most fierce lesbian activist you’ve met in Delhi. Never mind that your life as a same-sex loving subject also has a political economy to it. Never mind that your research is on the sexual component of caste-based and class-based violence. Never mind that you are also marginalized as a Christian all your life and feel as strongly for Kandhamal as for a Professor in Aligarh who has to kill himself because of his sexual orientation. Never mind that you were spat at by jingoistic nationalist members of DUTA as you protested in Delhi University against the imprisonment and torture and framing of Prof SAR Geelani. Never mind that you never loved the man the feminist accuses you of poaching on and never mind that he’s actually gay. Never mind that you are not at all interested in these straight revolutionary men but have to have a scarring debate with them about gay desire and their need to deal with its existence and its right to existence. Never mind that in the same month that a woman was raped in Delhi, a Nepali gay man from North Bengal was brutally raped and murdered in Delhi and there was no protest and it is difficult to talk about him in the protest march you are at for the woman. Never mind that activists never ask you about your life, the people you love, the people who leave you, the people who you have lousy sex with or great sex with because your life does not matter to them and what you do is repulsive to them or, worse still, unimaginable to them. Never mind the other activists who think just because you are gay you must be progressive, must be beleaguered, must be supported no matter what and who see you as some negative freak if you offer a critique of the ‘queer movement.’

Being a gay activist in India over the last two decades – from the repressed and political runt of a lad in Bombay you were then to the thick-skinned whore you are today in Delhi – has been one hell of a ride. It has been most of all, salutary and educative. It has taught you that the business of being a minority means negotiating the sharp and abrasive asymmetries of the various struggles you are simultaneously part of because constituents of all those struggles form who you are. It has taught you that even if you are invisible you have to hold on to the idea that you are completely visible to yourself, that you feel every bone and muscle inside yourself and you feel your blood weakly flowing and sometimes flowing hard and that you have to continue fighting in all the struggles you are involved in because that’s what makes you visible to yourself.

This is not just a biographical account of an extraordinarily unfortunate person. This is a subject position that is fairly symptomatic and shares its feeling with various other such subject positions articulated here. An independent Dalit positionality may feel equally disenfranchised by other forms of activism, including the gay and, especially, the queer. What I am trying to highlight is the asymmetrical nature of the field of being Indian and activist and the necessarily relational and co-constitutive nature of identity in India. That these asymmetries must become visible to each other, speak to each other and be heard is the true challenge of Indian, or indeed any, activism in the current conjuncture and perhaps always.

[Ashley Tellis is a gay rights activist in India and an academic. He is teaching at Jindal Global Law School at the O.P Jindal Global University as Associate Professor in English. He obtained his doctorate in Irish women’s poetry at Cambridge University, England.]

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License. Once a piece is published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday, we will retain exclusive copyright for a period of 15 days, from the date of publication. Within this period, the piece cannot be re-published elsewhere even in an adapted and modified form.Thereafter, it must be acknowledged that the piece was first published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday. Failing to comply with this and any unauthorized republication/reproduction of the piece will invite legal measures and will be liable to prosecution.

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