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On Being a Gay Activist in India

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 will join the Jindal Global Law School at the O.P Jindal Global University as Associate Professor in English on July 1, 2013. He obtained his doctorate in Irish women’s poetry at Cambridge University, England.]

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Darknite #

    I think it goes both ways. Yes, other movements can be homophobic, but I also think the gay rights movement can be extremely racist, sexist, transphobic, class-based, elitist, and unaware of other movements.

    June 27, 2013
    • Pankhuri #

      That’s exactly what he’s saying. Read the last paragraph again.

      June 28, 2013
      • Darknite #

        Thanks for the condescending remark. My evaluation is based on having read the piece in the entirety. The two sentence tokenistic inclusion about Dalits and intersectionality is completely undone by everything that precedes those comments.

        June 28, 2013
  2. Ashley — Superbly written and thought-through article. I feel for you. I am sorry for the pain,. hurt and even harm that has come your way because of being rendered invisible. I suspect by now you and other activists are finding ways, including writing this article, that are helping you render your own visibility. So, my rather lengthy comment (Sorry) is written not for you, but for others who may need it to help take control of their own visibility.

    As an American I am not able to even pretend that I know what it means to be a GLBT activist in India. Some of the people groups and causes you identify I am not even sure I know what they all are. Also, our politics in the USA and our history of democracy is very different.

    Still. so much of what your wrote is much like how I felt when I first started to come out and be an activist about 35 years ago. In fact, I was an activist for gay and lesbian rights long before I came out. How many times. in those days, did I bite my tongue in front of family, groups or at meetings out of one kind of fear or another. But, it was not always out of fear of being invisible. Sometimes it was because of the fear of being personally invisible — even when the message itself was rendered invisible. That personal visibility brought fear of ostracization, shunning and mockery. Of losing a job, or housing, or family connections. Or, as was the case 35 years ago, of being a criminal who was kept from the military, from government jobs or even put in prison. It often got one sent to a mental health facility because it was considered a mental illness around the time I started to come out.

    Those threats to our person were repeatedly used as a method to keep us invisible to the public and to our family. The public and our families/friends themselves learned how to keep us rendered invisible. Much of that was done through a whole system of secrets and shame. Families acculturated from their past, or learned anew, how to keep secrets and shamed the rest of the family into keeping those secrets as well. Families and broader social groups held a tight hold on secrets — such as an unwanted pregnancy, a mental health illness, change in family finances, or a gay or lesbian person in the family.

    It was all based on the perception that these particular secrets brought a negative image to the family and group. And if the secret were made public. the feelings often were that it brought shame and thus damage to the family or group. So, the outside image/perception of the family or group becomes much more important than the individual. Thus the gays, or at least their status/secret, is forced to become invisible.

    The trick I think in helping change all that is to stop being keepers of secrets and shame. Own your own homosexuality for what it is for you — not what others want to define it for themselves. How is that done? Here are a few key ways to help make those changes.

    1) Familiarize others with the fact that homosexuality does indeed exist in their own cultural context

    2) Educate yourself and others on the facts of what homosexuality is and is not. Use the most recent medical and scientific studies to help underpin your facts.

    3) Remind people of the long positive history of gays and lesbians in Indian society — often long before the colonialization of India by the West at which time the West brought a Victorian-style acculturalization of being keepers of secrets and shame.

    4) This is the hard but necessary part for many. Be out — even if on a limited basis. Encourage others to be out. We have learned in the USA that people who personally know someone who is gay or lesbian are the most likely to then become supporters of gay rights and gay marriage.

    Tell your own story. No story or narrative is more important to the people you know than your own story. Even if you feel the invisibility factor kicks in at that point, it is the first step for those who initially deny you to eventually become your supporters.

    5) Encourage people in positions of power and who already have a position of visibility to be out. Prince Manvendra is a great example (and one of my heroes) of the positive impact one such person can have on society at large. Yet. he took great personal risks in order to be out.

    6) Educate yourself so you know what the obstacles are to being out and being visible as an activist. Ashley gave you a great list of what the obstacles are. Now research to find ways to help overcome those obstacles

    7). Partner with others. And be a true partner. An example would be to make coalitions with the women’s groups and individual activists in the International Women’s Day parade with whom you were denied access to march with. Invite them and groups supporting other causes to march with you in your own parades and join and even help plan your own conferences. Find ways to jointly work together on issues that affect lesbians (and GBT folks) and their families. Then genuinely partner with them on their issues. In turn, the ways they render you invisible will fade away.

    But, don’t just sit back and allow the organizers of the women’s parade to, at will, render you moot and invisible. Get to know some of the other organizers in leadership. Then seek to set up some means of arbitrating the denial of your presence at their parade. Show them ways in which having you in their parade is mutually beneficial to both of you. Barring that, use legal means if you have to and if available to you. For instance, learn what their official policies and procedures are in regards to such matters and hold them accountable for any areas that went against their own policies.

    Also, check your broader legal rights. How do the changes brought on by rulings on Section 377 affect and help protect you from this kind of discrimination. If there is no such protections, use this as one of many examples of how you are discriminated against as a group. Rendering other groups invisible and exposing them is a harsh but often necessary two-way street. Sometimes you have to publically expose it in others to help render yourself free of invisibility and break the cycle of secrets and shame.

    The safest way to expose it is often in situations where you have previously agreed upon laws or constitutional factors on your side. That is a key component to how gays and lesbians in the USA have gained much of their legal rights. In turn, those legal rights help give you value and visibility in smaller social units like families.

    8) You alone are responsible for the invisibility you let others impose on you as individuals and as a group. That is not to deny the facts of how others render you invisible. But, for any of that to change you have to learn not to be victims. Instead become a champion of your own visibility, integrity, rights and dignity. It is like pixels on a computer image. One pixel is pretty much invisible. 50 pixels start to bring visibility. 200 pixels and you have a pretty good image. 640 pixels and you dominate the screen with bold colors and intensity. So, do your part to help make a more visible image. That means speaking out and telling your story time and time again. Look at each time as adding more pixels to help change you from being invisible to visible. Or better yet, save your own time, emotions and energy by partnering with others one pixel at a time until the image becomes more and more visible.

    9) As a marginalized gay Christian all my life, I can only speak to the Christian aspect of religion. Work with your own church and denomination from within. Know exactly what the Bible says and does not say on homosexuality. Remember to factor in the context of when a particular Bible verse was written and the meanings of the actual words used in reference to homosexuality. (Hint — there is nothing in the Bible that condemns loving, responsible and consensual gay and lesbian relationships as we know them today. I know. I am a theologian by training).

    Even if you left your church because of gay related issues, it goes back to what I stated before. Remember you do not need to have all the answers. It is still important to tell your own story. No story or narrative is more important to the people you know from church than your own story. Even if you feel the invisibility factor kicks in at that point, it is the first step for those who initially deny you to eventually become your supporters. And even if there are great risks involved, it is important not just for you, but moreso for others who are gay or lesbian who may be in your church or denomination and feel they too are invisible. Just knowing, or knowing of, someone in their church or denomination helps take away the invisibility factor for them.

    The bottom line is this. Long story short. Come out. Come out wherever you are. There is great risk. But, also great rewards. Joining others who also come out is key to helping create your own visibility. The control is in your hands — not the hands of others.

    June 27, 2013
  3. equalist #

    Even if it goes both ways…the point he is making is of invisibility….the biggest challenge of India is accepting the “grayness” of human life. With colonial patriarchy, the dominant way of being aka male- heterosexual, nuclear/joint family, urban middle class is the ONLY way to exist! No other way of life is significant! The result is all aspects of society are struggling – add to it corrupt society, lack of ethics and we have a lethal mix of psychopathy (a brewing and underlying problem of India)= murder/rape and non-existence from society! Life is not good (saying politely) and becomes even more hellish when invisibility cannot even be “erased” (the irony)!

    June 27, 2013
    • Darknite #

      You lost me by at “Even if.”

      June 28, 2013
  4. Taranga #

    Hi Ashley,

    Beautifully, powerfully, movingly written…
    Don’t know if you remember me..we had met a few times in Delhi University when I was a student at the extremely misogynist and homophobic (amongst so many other hateful things) St. Stephen’s College.. you were the judge at a debate in another college where my friend had spoken in Hindi and won…
    How are you? I keep hearing of you and reading your work since then..and this piece today is most resonant in its frank urgency, as always.. continue to admire you 🙂

    June 28, 2013
  5. Hi Ashley,

    Beautifully, powerfully, movingly written..

    Don’t know if you remember me..we had met a few times in Delhi University many years ago…I was a student then at the homophobic and misogynist (amongst many other hateful things) St. Stephen’s College.. you had judged a debate competition at another college at which my friend had spoken in Hindi and won..
    Have been hearing of you and reading your work since then…today’s piece is most resonant of all to me..and i continue to admire the frank urgency of your voice as always 🙂

    June 28, 2013
  6. Jerome #

    All our movements in India play a game called My scars are more traumatic than your scars… so we don’t end up sharing pain to lessen it…

    June 28, 2013
  7. This is such dreadful, judgemental and boring writing. Is the write disliked for his orientation or tone? Inequality exists, therefore the activism. I would empathise if this weren’t a pity party speech.

    June 28, 2013
  8. subzeroricha #

    Wow! Simply wow 🙂 often I wonder how does it feel to be discriminated and then I go further and imagine how often it feels to be discriminated and not even recognised for being that. Ashley I feel that what you have written here is not something that can spark revolutions but something that can remind people that there is another cause left alone in our country and needs to be adopted…

    Thank you for such a beautiful write up…


    June 28, 2013
  9. Reblogged this on The Blank Page and commented:
    One blog post that is worth reading again and again.

    July 9, 2013
  10. Brilliant. Wonder how many of us could even think of this issue in the ways you have lived and experienced.

    July 15, 2013

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