Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Top Article: It's About Choice, The Times of India – Opinion, 23 September 2009

What could cause the Darul Uloom Deoband and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind to join forces with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad? Answer: homosexuality, which according to all of the above should be severely punished by the law. Sikh and Christian bodies are also negative about repealing the parts of Section 377 which criminalise homosexuality. Joining them is a motley group of godmen, astrologers, politicians and now even a child rights group, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Such a grand alliance is bound to make any move to decriminalise homosexuality a political hot potato, even if that is what the Indian Constitution's guarantee of equal rights to all citizens demands. Not surprisingly the Union cabinet played safe and lobbed the ball back to the Supreme Court, when asked for the government's position on whether gay sex ought to be legalised or not, following landmark legislation by the Delhi high court which declared much of Section 377 unconstitutional. When India, in general, is keen to protect minorities of all sorts, what is it about this particular minority the homosexual community that presents seemingly intractable problems? It's that homosexuals snap the bond between sex and procreation, invoking the spectre of individual pleasure that exceeds any collective, utilitarian ethic. The interesting thing about Section 377 is that it outlaws not just homosexual behaviour, but most forms of heterosexual activity that even lawfully married couples engage in. The only kind the law permits is that with direct procreative potential. Canute-like, Section 377 attempts to lock sex into a utilitarian grid. Historically, most societies have sought utilitarian control over sex. Religions, especially proselytising ones, would like to multiply their numbers. Thus the biblical injunction to go forth and multiply. Socialism enforces an all-embracing altruism. According to its calculus individual pleasure can open the floodgates to selfish bourgeois vices. That's why most communist countries brutally suppressed homosexuality. Ditto for fascist states. Authoritarian societies, in general, tend to see homosexuality as disruptive of social order and cohesion, a quality they prize above anything else. Early industrial capitalism, too, would like to expand the labour force to multiply production and profits. That gives it an interest in encouraging procreative heterosexual behaviour and driving homosexuality underground. It's only in late 20th century, post-industrial capitalism predicated on consumption as much as it is on production that the equation begins to shift. With the modern consumer, individual pleasure matters and choice comes into play. Procreation and perpetuation of race/religion/society/nation aren't everything. Add to that the green imperatives of the early 21st century, and growing populations with expanding ecological footprints even begin to look menacing. The principle of choice can also extend to sexual lifestyles. Homosexual activity has been around for ages. But the notion of 'lifestyle', a peg on which one hangs one's very identity, emerges only under modern consumer capitalism. One can 'consume' alternate sexualities. In that context the emergence of sexual minorities is a marker of ongoing globalisation. It's no accident that with liberalising and globalising tendencies washing up on Indian shores, the question of gay rights has come to the fore as well. Take the gay pride parades which are being held in more and more Indian cities, reaching Bhubaneswar and Chennai this year. The annual parades are held in sync with similar events in cities across the world, and commemorate the Stonewall riots that took place in New York's Greenwich village in 1969. On June 27 of that year police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in the area. While such raids had been routine, on that occasion the crowds fought back and the neighbourhood erupted in riots and protests for the next few days. That event sparked the worldwide gay liberation movement. No wonder that Bhim Singh of the Jammu and Kashmir Panthers' Party describes the movement to legalise homosexuality as an "American invasion". It's the 1960s that mark the shift to post-industrial capitalism, spurred by the global communications revolution which began that decade (causing Marshall McLuhan to quip, famously, that electronic technology was contracting the world into a "global village"). According to social thinker Anthony Giddens the communications revolution dating from the 1960s ushered in a more radical and thoroughgoing modernity than that of the Enlightenment, touching the core of private life and incorporating what he calls 'emotional democracy'. This is associated with the rise of new social movements that emphasise life politics (to do with private life) rather than emancipatory politics (to do only with public institutions). When Vikram Seth and others wrote an open letter addressing the government and judiciary, urging the overturning of Section 377 which "punitively criminalises romantic love and private, consensual sexual acts", quite apart from the utilitarian value of combating HIV/AIDS, it's also the private rights of the citizen that they are concerned to defend. It's time for the state to treat Indian citizens as adults, moving away from the patron-client relationship preferred by our political and bureaucratic elites.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

ARQ: Archive and Resources for Queer Culture & Practices:: The Concept: Shivaji K Panikkar

Background: The ongoing queer activism in India is over two decades old. The earliest mobilization of community action began in Bombay in 1989-90 with the publication of the newsletter Bombay Dost. However, from the period prior to this, scattered textual references and oral narratives are found in connection with informal circles of friends of varied queer denominations. In the 1990s and through the present decade, significant formal or informal gay, lesbian and transgender groups and at instances of political formations or/and reach-out-publications had emerged in the major Indian cities and several small towns. Significant also are similar developments from other Asian, and South-Asian Diaspora in the West. Of these, some of which are still functional and some either disbanded or dormant, have pursued several lines of action - in the areas of mental and physical health, jurisprudence, community identity and artistry; running help lines to creating common platforms for queer people to discuss common problems. At the top of their agendas, most organizations also sought to actively define the political, social and legal issue of queer rights, particularly the battle against IPC 377.

Concurrent with the above is the trajectory of queer cultural activity by visual artists, writers, theatre activists, performers and film makers. Some literary activity has reclaimed the histories of homosexuality and homoeroticism through publications, and certain other have focused on contemporary texts and thus have provided a major fillip to the movement. Arguably, prominent writers and artists gather their strength from the liberation movement, providing significant intervention in the cultural field. The central principle in all these is the belief that queer is a true minority and that the fact of gender and sexuality inevitably is a personal matter which has political implications since sexual fulfillment and gender disposition have to be often realized through social contract and acceptance. It is also to be conceded that the present queer culture is diverse and the scenario is of much incoherence and inchoateness.

Coinciding with the above is the expansion of queer theory and critical studies, which grew out of the broader area of Cultural Studies. This has been enabled by the writings of theoreticians such as Michael Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler. While this has developed as a specialized area of expertise in the West, in India too theoretical interventions have emerged though publications and a couple of university departments offer courses in queer studies, primarily in relation to literature. Arguably, Queer Cultural Studies was shaped in critical dialogue with existing disciplines such as philosophy (in France), sociology and film theory (in the UK), history, literature and political theory (in India), political theory and sociology (in Japan and Korea), jurisprudence and anthropology (in the USA). In India, these have found enthusiastic support across a number of disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. These initiatives not only expanded the scope of Queer studies and activism but also had posed crucial challenges to the existing theoretical/conceptual paradigm of gender and sexuality. More than many ways these initiatives has also exposed the fact that most of the radical ideologies and theoretical apparatuses are constituted by and constitutive of the heterosexual norms.

Scope: Making an area for research and documentation by itself, the relevance and value of the above outlined history is to locate the appropriate context for proposed futuristic national nodal center – ARQ: Archive and Resources for Queer Culture and Practices.[*] The ARQ will be a concerted effort in archiving histories that includes varied queer practices, identities and categories; of gay, lesbian, kothi, bisexual, hijda, transgender, intersexes etc. This inclusive approach will under-grid archiving and inform research. The ARQ will also promote and instill critical thinking and creative skills among the queer communities.

It is a fairly apparent fact that currently there is no single organization or agency in the country that link queer culture, sexuality and health. The proposition for a nodal centre is however not to reduce the multiplicities of practices and modes of functioning of the communities under a singular privileged norm or agenda. The proposal for an integrated national center should be understood in terms of democratic principles. Since queer experiences are varied and specific in different subject locations and positions; the question of regional, religious, class and caste differences and identities would be a necessary framework that will underwrite the mode of documentation and interpretation. Such micro histories not only enable the Queer communities to challenge the grand history which exclude them from its ambit of enquiries but also enable ARQ to uphold the spirit of multiplicities and to establish a critical relationship with the local, regional, national and/or the international models. This will have to be so in a country like India, and in that sense the proposition for a nodal national centre is based on certain pragmatic concerns. The ARQ is primarily envisaged as having two major focuses as follows:

(1) To create an international level platform for historians, theoreticians and cultural practitioners to undertake the production of historical and critical knowledge with regard to queer communities and cultures and to present such works. (2) To promote creativity among the queer population in general as well as in relation to community health (mainly around the medical discourse on HIV, STI) and mental and physical wellbeing; in promoting artistic/creative involvement as a therapeutic means towards psychological integration and a measure of instilling the concept of beauty, self-esteem and self-worth.

In practice, focus one would concentrate on the work of academics and artists and there would be an extremely conscious effort to break down the barriers produced by the elitist nature of high art and also between vernacular, metropolitan and international academia. Focus two would draw people from diverse backgrounds and effectively work against class, caste and other boundaries which foreclose the possibilities of a communitarian consciousness and also prevent access and usage of resources and methods according to the hierarchical systems.

Aims: (1) The ARQ aims at archiving queer histories and build-up a visual and print archive in the form of books, journals, photographs, films, videos, private documents etc. The following will be the focuses of the Documentation Center:

Documenting and archiving queer biographies in India and elsewhere
Documenting and archiving the history of queer activism in India and elsewhere.
Documenting and archiving the visual and textual historical evidences and data (including oral histories) in relation to queer life and cultural expressions in different historical periods in India and elsewhere.
Building up a resource library equipped with books, journals and ephemeral documents like reviews, brochures etc.

(2) ARQ envisages making varied queer experiences as a source of institutionalizing debates on activism, to propel it into a mature arena of learning sharing and creating a culture of positive affirmation. It aims at undertaking cultural initiatives and interventions in the area of queer life, health and art. It will function as a platform for the queer community to view, interact and engage in cultural production, and will offer possibilities of critical engagement as following:

To hold workshops in artistic media like literary, visual and performance art, including video and film.
To hold regular seminars and conferences in the area of queer studies, health and creative expressions.
To conduct special therapeutic cultural, creative and recreational programs for the health affected queer population.
To hold exhibitions, exposures and festivals of art, performances and films.

Objectives: To enable understanding of specific conditions in which certain kinds of queer cultures are produced within specific internal dynamics and polemics.
To create resources and space for documentation and research of queer histories and practices in India and elsewhere.
To promote, frame and socially and publicly make available the cultural initiatives and creativity of queer persons/organizations.
To inculcate and nurture creative skills to enable queer self-expression.
To promote critical thinking among queer people.
To enable exchange of knowledge through international collaboration and exchanges in the fields of culture, sexuality and health.

Work Plan: At the outset, contacts will be made with various queer/LGBT organizations/individuals and creative organizations and persons so as to research on their work, past and present projects and to seek support and collaboration, and to seek thinking together in the direction pursued by ARQ. This and the rest of the plan will be subject to the availability of funds.

Prof. Shivaji K Panikkar

[*] Note: ARQ will be pronounced as Arc, which means (1) part of the circumference of a circle or the other curve (2) Electric, luminous discharge between two electrodes.