#PrideMonth | History, Identity, and Marginality: Revisiting LGBTQIA+ Sociology from Indian perspective

By Kanav N Sahgal

Western scholars of collective memory have for a long time written about the significance of the Stonewall Riots of 28th June 1969 as the starting point for the gay liberation movement in the US, and eventually, the rest of the world. In the early hours of 28th June 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn located in Greenwich Village, New York City. And even though soliciting same-sex relations was legalized in New York City in 1966, expressing same-sex affection in public (such as holding hands and kissing) was still not allowed, which is why police raids on gay bars such as Stonewall were still common at that time. 

These police raids spurred a series of violent confrontations with law enforcement that lasted six days. Eventually, on the first anniversary of the riots (28th June 1970), New York witnessed what was possibly the country’s first pride parade. And at that time, it was called “Christopher Street Liberation Day” and the parade’s official chant was: “Say it loud, gay is proud”.

The Stonewall Riots Didn't Start the Gay Rights Movement | JSTOR Daily
Stonewall Pride Parade remains a landmark event in the history of global queer rights. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Even though LGBTQIA+ Pride marches started in India much later, they also emerged out of resistance against police authoritarianism. As queer studies scholar, Shraddha Chatterjee points out in her 2018 book‘Queer Politics in India: Towards Sexual Subaltern Subjects’the first recorded LGBTQIA+ protest in India took place in Delhi in 1992 and was organized by the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), founded in 1989. While this was a protest against police harassment of gay men, the lesbian movement in India took off much later in the late 1990s as a response to the Shiv Sena’s attack on the screening of Deepa Mehta’s lesbian romance film, Fire. 

Even though these two movements (the gay rightsand the lesbian rights movement) had seemingly different historical beginnings, they eventually coalesced to fight collectively against Indian Penal Code’s Section 377 which talked about criminalization of homosexuality in India. Overall, the exact genesis of the LGBTQIA+ movement in India is still difficult to pinpoint because while we do have historical records of certain significant events, we still don’t have detailed accounts of incidents that may have happened, but were perhaps not properly documented. 

The historical evolution of the LGBTQIA+ movement in the United States also faces similar problems of temporal traceability. While the Stonewall Riots are often seen as the logical starting point for the gay liberation movement, some historical sociologists like Elizabeth Armstrong and Suzanna Crage argue that the New Years’ Ball Raid of 1965, Compton’s Cafeteria disturbance of 1966, Black Cat Raid of 1967, Snake Pit Bar Raid of 1970 are also worthy progenitors.

But let’s take a step back- what does the acronym LGBTQIA+ even mean?

Also called an alphabet soup, the full form of this acronym is still evolving. An incomplete expansion of this acronym is as follows: LGBTTTQQIAA+, and the letters represent the following:

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, 2/Two Spirit, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Intersex, Asexual, Ally +

Other identities not included in this definition include (but are not limited to): Pansexual, Agender, Gender Queer, Bigender, Gender Variant, and Pangender. And in the South Asian region- particularly in India- even more identities exist, such as HijraKothi, and Panthi. Because all of these terminologies are vast, protean, and fluid, an easier alternative to LGBTQIA+ is the word “queer”- which is now more widely accepted as an umbrella term to encapsulate all LGBTQIA+ identities. 

It should be noted, however, that “queer” was once a homophobic slur, which in recent times has been reclaimed by LGBTQIA+ activists to positively denote the diverse coalition of culturally, socially and politically marginalized sexual and gendered identities. All of these terminologies are changing so rapidly that even the United Nations (UN) rephrased LGBTIQIA+ to SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) some years ago. Executive Director Bruce Knotts hosted the UN’s first-ever SOGI workshop in September 2008 at the 61st Annual United Nations DPI-NGO conference in Paris. This conference celebrated the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and rekindled conversations about human rights advocacy by including SOGI populations’ issues on the agenda. Indeed, there are no hard and fast rules applicable to using these terminologies. Some people prefer using the word queer, others, LGBTQIA+, and others still, SOGI.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) and Development | World Bank  Group
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Pic: Pinterest

In the midst of listing acronyms and revisiting history, what often gets lost are the meanings behind these words, and even more often, the lived experiences of the people who carry the weight of these identities on their shoulders every single day. 

In a bid to better understand what some of these terminologies mean, various scientific studies have been conducted over the years. And according to one such study on sexual orientation, it was found that those who were sexually attracted to people of the same sex indeed represented a minority. Moreover, male and female sexual orientations played out differently. Women are more likely to report a bisexual orientation than a same-sex orientation, while men were more likely to report the opposite (one must remember that these studies were conducted on western subjects). 

Men’s sexual attraction was predominantly linked to patterns of sexual arousal, while women’s sexual attraction towards the same sex was often observed in the context of close affectionate relationships. In most cases of non-heterosexuality, a pattern of childhood gender nonconformity was observed in subjects prior to them “coming out” as non-heterosexual. 

While very few studies of this type have been done in India, some scholars such as Nivedita Menon argue that gender socialization also plays an important role in sexual identification even among Indian adults. It should be noted, however, that while scholars like Menon use feminist theory as their primary methodological tool to understand gender/sex differences, the six researchers in the 2016 study cited above were mostly western psychologists who used psychology to arrive at their conclusions.

Apart from sexual orientation, the other SOGI dimension is that of gender identity. Psychologists Alice Eagly and Wendy Wood  define  gender identity as “masculine and feminine self-definitions” of socio-cultural categories that are distinct from biological sex (or sex assigned at birth). These categories of masculinity and femininity lie on a spectrum. 

One’s performance of gender (or gender performativity, as Judith Butler calls it) is intimately linked to the roles that society expects people to play (these roles are also called ‘social roles’). For example, those who are assigned female at birth are expected to play with dolls, play with the color pink, and spend most of their time in the kitchen, while those assigned male at birth are expected to play with cars, play with the color blue, and spend most of their time outdoors. 

Children are socialized from a young age- both inside the home and outside of it (in school, by the media, etc.) – to conform to these gendered social roles. And those who stray are often formally or informally labeled as “deviants” and face approbation from society as punishment for straying. 

It is for this reason that transgender people, intersex people, gender-queer people, and non-binary people continue to face consternation from society even today because they refuse to conform to these binary gender norms. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, and others also face challenges, albeit through the lens of heteronormativity. It gets even more complicated for people who identify as, say, both homosexual and transgender, for they challenge cisnormativity and heteronormativity together (and thus, risk facing greater violence). 

Taken together, SOGI populations collectively challenge hegemonic gender and sexual norms, which is why they continue to experience marginality and resistance from people in almost all parts of the world, including India.

While no official data on the precise number of LGBTQIA+ people in India exist, 11 surveys from the United States and 4 other countries (Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Norway) found that anywhere from 1.2% to 5.6% of the national population identifies as gay, lesbian and bisexual. Even if we assume that 1.2% of the Indian population were gay, lesbian, and/or bisexual, this would entail a whopping fourteen million people! (taking the 2011 census data as reference)

Indeed, it is appalling to think that until recently, this many Indians were probably living under an archaic law like IPC Section 377 that criminalized their very existence.

The road to equality is complicated, so much so that the very idea of queer liberation and queer emancipation mean different things for different people. For some, queer liberation is the right to self-determine one’s gender. For others, it is the ability to obtain equal marriage rights from the State. But for the large majority of LGBTQIA+ Indians, it is about something more fundamental, the ability to live a life of dignity, respect, and autonomy. 

Even today LGBTQIA+ Indians are persecuted by their own families for possessing “non-normative” sexual orientations and gender identities. And, although the 2018 Supreme Court of India’s verdict in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India was hailed as “progressive”  but one must remember that very little has changed on the ground. 

Public perception towards the LGBTQIA+ community is still fairly negative in India and it gets worse for those residing in small towns and rural/tribal belts with little to no access to LGBTQIA+ safe spaces. 

From the Stonewall Riots in the streets of New York in 1969 to the recent debates surrounding same-sex marriage in India, we certainly have come a long way. And yet the road ahead remains long and arduous – for it will require a lot of collective energy, zeal, and optimism to traverse.

(Kanav N Sahgal (Pronouns: He/Him) is, pursing his Masters in Development from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He identifies as queer for personal and political reasons and is interested in researching about issues surrounding social exclusion and marginality. For any questions or queries, reach out to him on LinkedIn)

The Analysis (TA) is a research and communication group | Analyzing India’s legal, policy and political affairs. Write to us at contact@theanalysis.org.in

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