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Exclusionary Masculinities: Exploring caste, class, and gender bias in urban Indian gay men

By Vishal Tondon

In this essay, I discuss how upper and middle class urban gay masculinities in India are constructed on a model of homonormativity (modelling of gay masculinities on traditionally accepted male gender expressions), thus consolidating a certain hegemonic idea of masculinity, which suppresses masculinities and gender non-conforming identities from lower castes. I base my observations on my position as an insider to the queer community as well as on interviews with queer activists. In identifying the tangible links between gender and caste in the context of urban queer identities, I also discuss how urban gay men discriminate against the feminine cultural practices of trans women, in order to recuperate for themselves normative expressions of masculinity.

It is important to clarify here that when I speak of urban gay men’s caste, class, and gender biases, I refer specifically to that section of gay men who are part of the queer movement, but whose caste, class, and/or male privilege keeps them from realizing the importance of intersectional politics. These ‘depoliticised’ gay men do participate in Prides, film festivals, and queer carnivals. So in the Foucauldian sense, the ‘depoliticised’ gay men are not completely devoid of political power or intent; however, many urban gay men tend to align more closely with a corporate funded activism that has been accused of its depoliticising effects on queer politics.[1]

One of the many instances of urban gay men’s apathy to the cause of intersectional politics was illustrated recently in the annual Telangana Trans Queer Tribunal, hosted in Hyderabad. It was a much-publicised event, well attended by transgender groups, feminist women’s organizations, Dalit activists, media persons, lawyers, and academics. The one community that was glaring in its absence was gay men. Rachana Mudraboyina, founding member of the Telangana Hijra, Intersex and Transgender Samiti, underlined gay men’s class elitism and transphobia/hijraphobia as a major reason for their absence. She clarified, “I suggested calling the tribunal merely ‘Telangana Queer Tribunal’ so as not to alienate the English speaking gays and lesbians. But others from the trans community insisted we add the word ‘Trans’ to the title. Many gay members from our WhatsApp group specifically told us not to include the word ‘Trans’ in the title. Since most organizers felt they should include the word, we did so, but it did not go down well with the gay community. So they did not turn up.” This explicit distancing of itself from a more inclusively named banner is clearly suggestive of the gay community’s transphobia.

Further elaborating upon her experience of hijraphobia in urban gay men, Rachana clarified, “While they may be comfortable with English-speaking trans persons, they continue to be uncomfortable with hijras’ social and cultural practices such as doing badhai work, begging, blessing others for money, etc. Many gay men at the helm of queer related NGOs are English speaking and Savarna, and the vernacular and lower socio-economic class trans persons and hijras face discrimination from them too.” She narrated an incident revolving around a screening of the film, ‘Walking the Walk’ at Lamakaan in March 2017, in which the hijra community had invited one of their nayaks (leaders within the hijra community) to speak about her experiences as a hijra. Rachana said that most gay men avoided her at the event, which was extremely insulting for her. “But I guess gay men behave so because of their own insecurities, too. Even while many gay men realize their own strong feminine side, they have to suppress it, as there is lot of societal pressure on them to act masculine. That is why they avoid the company and influence of hijras and trans women,” she added.

This was also confirmed through my Facebook chats with JC, a 39-year-old gay lecturer from Mumbai. According to JC, “Young gay men who have just started to come to terms with their own queer sexuality and gender see hijras as a threat; the social stigma that hijras carry makes young gay men want to dissociate themselves from that identity category.” In the Indian context, where the common form of abuse to deprecate any man (especially homosexual), who falls short of ‘ideal masculine’ standards, is ‘hijra’, gay men often internalise this fear of being labelled as one and end up discriminating against the hijra community. In order to fit in with the heteronormative societal expectations, they subscribe to a homonormative expression of gay masculinity. It is not surprising to find gay men requesting messages from ‘straight acting men’ on gay dating sites such as Planet Romeo and Grindr.

Explaining how class, gender, and caste biases are inseparable, Rachana referred to her own experience, “I formally changed my name from Rambabu to Rachana. Yet one of the queer activists at Hyderabad insisted on repeatedly calling me by my ‘dead name’ Rambabu. He is an English speaking upper caste and upper class corporate employee. He is Savarna, I am Bahujan. We knew each other from before I changed my name. I told him several times, especially when he called out to me by my old name in public meetings, that he call me by my rightful name, which is ‘Rachana’. But he would not listen to me. I started finding this very oppressive. It was like he is suggesting to me, ‘You may have changed your name and gender, but you will be the same person to me.’ Clearly he felt that he could get away with this form of gender discrimination because of our caste and class difference.”

Hijraphobia in gay men became a point of discussion in Hyderabad earlier at the December 2013 screening of Vinayak Kalletla’s gay love story, Walking in Wilderness. The film was screened as part of a series of pre-Pride events for 2013-14.  The film depicts a gay couple in the initial phase of their romance, meeting furtively in the Public Gardens, a well-known hotspot for gay cruising and sex work in Hyderabad. The gay couple encounter there, to their horror, hijra sex workers. One of the hijras lifts her sari to expose her private parts, to scare one of the protagonists away. The background score also worked to highlight this moment as one of abject horror. This stereotyping of hijras and showing them in such poor light did not go down well with the hijra and trans community. Some from the gay community too showed solidarity with the hijras and questioned the filmmaker about the hijraphobic representation in the film. Many viewers, including I, commented that the film tries to recuperate gay love for a certain kind of homonormativity, by creating an opposition with other ‘threatening’ and ‘pathological’ identities such as those of the hijras.

Earlier in 2013, an article which appeared in Postnoon magazine from Hyderabad caused a huge outrage in decrying the alleged disservice the transgendered community was doing to the gay men’s cause.[2] The article followed in the footsteps of Hyderabad’s first major Queer Pride Parade held that year, wherein the gay community felt resentful that transgendered persons had stolen limelight in the Pride Parade and in the post-Pride cultural events. Moreover, the article in Postnoon went on to say that an alliance with the trans communities tarnished the image of gay men who needed to be represented as ‘progressive’ and ‘modern’. The post has since been taken down from Postnoon’s website owing to outrage over its opinions and strong denunciations of its transphobic and classist sentiments. What is important to understand about this article is the ‘normativity’ it seeks to recuperate for gay men in terms of gender. By distancing themselves from trans persons, the gay community attempts to secure for itself a place in the hegemonic masculine order, where homonormativity is enmeshed in complex ways with being ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’.

Further, when this article appeared, queer visibility in public spaces in Hyderabad was in a nascent stage and clearly the gay community wanted to dissociate themselves from the trans community before ‘the damage to its image was done’. As it turned out, after the NALSA Judgment when the corporates were pushed out and the reins of the Hyderabad Pride were handed over to Telangana Hijra, Intersex and Transgender Samiti and CBOs, the visibility of trans people, sex workers, and Dalits increased. The Pride event was, in keeping with the local thrust that the trans community desired, even renamed ‘Telangana Queer Swabhimana Yatra’. Similar to the case of the Telangana Trans Queer Tribunal, this thrust on the vernacular also did not go down well with those whom I term as the urban elitist ‘gay dandy’ segments.

In her groundbreaking book on hijras, Gayatri Reddy has discussed how certain feminine gender practices in the hijra community are caste-based.[3] Some of these ‘feminine’ practices include singing, clapping, and dancing for badhai work; aravani practices of marrying Aravan, the male warrior hero from Mahabharata; the jogins’ practices related to their marriage to the goddess ‘Yellamma’; and celebrating the yearly anniversary of nirvan (emasculation). Among the reasons many gay men cringe from letting the trans women and hijras represent them are these subversive and subaltern (Dalit-Bahujan) religious and cultural practices that are part of trans women’s lifestyle. Many cisgendered (straight acting) gay men look at the feminine cultural practices of the hijras, kothis (effeminate gay men) and jogins (trans women from the Goddess cult) as ‘emasculating’ and threatening to their own image both as ‘forward’ and as ‘men’. Dean William’s Postnoon article where he calls the transgendered community “so far behind in their quest for equality” too reeks of a classist and casteist rationale for hijraphobia under the garb of values of being ‘progressive’ and ‘egalitarian’.

The casteist undertone of progressive gays could not have been clearer in the case of ‘India’s first gay matrimonial’[4] appearing in Mumbai’s leading newspaper, Mid-Day, in May 2015. A Brahmin Tamil Iyengar mother placed the advertisement seeking a groom for her son (‘bride’) from the same caste. Activists within the Queer movement as well as from mainstream society decried the ad as regressive. The prospective ‘bride’ Harrish Iyer – a self-professed urban queer activist himself – displayed a caste blindness, which stemmed from a naturalized sense of privilege of caste and class. But what was missed out in the critiques of this ad was its insistence on a naturalized and homonormative male sexuality now brought under the fold of the mainstream urban family system through a legitimizing ad. The ‘modern and inclusive’ family was now expanding, but through an unequivocal exclusion of the lower castes.

The rift between upper class gay men and subaltern groups from the Dalit-Bahujan castes becomes ever more so conspicuous in an urban landscape dotted with Pride parades and community meets. Even where the upper caste gay men are zealously involved in Pride activities, differences are hard to iron out. In 2016, some Dalit participants from the Chennai queer community complained that savarna queer men do not acknowledge the latters’ caste privilege.[5] There was discontent that Dalit voices and opinions were being muffled and that the choice of meeting places was often according to the liking and convenience only of savarna members (for instance, the selection of vegetarian restaurants).

Transphobia/hijraphobia and casteism thus become tools for upper caste and class gay men in urban areas to reclaim a hegemonic masculinity that aligns itself with patriarchal expectations of the masculine gender. This sense of a masculine identity essentially mentioned here is contingent upon the exclusion of other queer/Dalit masculinities and of trans/hijra identities. The refusal of elite urban gay men to engage with intersectional politics and continual aligning with a homonormative and patriarchal social structure will undermine the expectations of diversity and a radical equality that the queer movement set out to achieve in the first place.

I would like to thank Dr Deepa Sreenivas and Dr Pushpesh Kumar at University of Hyderabad for their guidance. Thanks to Rachana Mudraboyina for her friendship and for the interviews.  

[1] Edwin Thomas. “Is it okay for queer pride events to take corporate money?” Youth Ki Aawaz, November 18, 2016. Accessed March 30, 2017.
[2] Dean Williams. “Time to Drop B and T from LGBT.” Postnoon, February 4, 2013. Web page removed.
[3] Gayatri Reddy. With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. The University of Chicago Press, 2005.
[4] Rituparna Chatterjee. “Caste Preference Nearly Ruins India’s First Gay ‘Groom Wanted’ Ad.” HuffPost India, May 19, 2015.
[5] Moulee. “Dear Savarna Queer Men, Let’s Talk About Casteism within Our Movement.” The News Minute, June 16, 2016.

Bio:
Vishal Tondon is an artist, writer, and curator based in Hyderabad. He did his MFA in History of Art from Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, and is presently a Ph.D. scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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