Is legalization of gay marriage actually the right step ahead, one that will lead to queer liberation? Are there other more important aspects of being a member of the LGBTQ+ community that should be prioritized? What does marriage – a traditionally sexist, casteist and hyper-capitalist institution – mean for a subculture that has always opposed those ideals?
My friend, Srishti, has elaborate plans for her wedding. The minutiae of her big fat Pinterest wedding has already been chalked out – it will be a beachside affair with a pop-jangle soundtrack; a guest appearance by either Ariana Grande or Steven Wilson (who, she assures me, sings happier songs now); a ticker tape welcome for her guests, twinkle lights, funfetti cupcakes and lots of showy peonies. As most teenage girls do (or are socially led to), she grew up wanting her own Bollywood-esque ceremony. Ideologically, she recognizes the futility of martial union (sobered by later years of reading third-wave feminist theory), but a little wedding never harmed anyone, right?
In one of the many extended late-night phone calls that have come to characterize our friendship, she asked me about my dream wedding. Where would it be? What would I wear? What song would play as I walked down the aisle? Would she be my best man, or my other friend, Nate? She hushed up expectantly on the other end, as I mentally fidgeted for answers. I’m the type of person who usually knows everything about anything I want, but with this, I was bereft. What I then thought of, and what Srishti had choicely disregarded, was the preliminary question: who was I going to marry, and if I was legally and socially capable of marrying them at all (She too is bisexual and could very easily fall for a girl in which case all of her elaborate planning would be defaulted).
Today, there is more equality for LGBTQ+ in India than ever before, though – I should add – we’re still missing some very fundamental rights. There is, of course, increased acceptance for the community; more unbiased representation in popular media (Neeraj Ghaywan’s ‘Geeli Pucchi’, serialized in the Ajeeb Dastaans anthology on Netflix, surprised me with its intersectional depiction of sexuality and caste), as well as more legal, political and economic rights. The Indian judiciary has explicitly interpreted Article 15 of the Constitution to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, though this hasn’t been used in a court yet. A third gender is officially recognized under law – something that first-world countries, like USA-UK, are yet to achieve. Besides male and female, Indian passports are available with an “O” sex descriptor (for “Other”). What’s more, transgender people are allowed to change their legal gender after sex reassignment surgery under legislation passed in 2019. Same-sex marriage, however, still seems to be up for debate. There is clearly a flip-flopping approach to how much humanity we are permitted on a given day (Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), the ruling party who came out in support of the LGBTQ+ community after the partial repeal of Section 377, have been accused of pink-washing their undemocratic governance).
In ninth-grade Civics, I remember the class was assigned the task to come up with a fundamental right that we think should be legislated into effect. It was 2015. USA had just recently legalized same-sex marriage, so I already knew what my answer was going to be (although as someone who got picked on a lot for being gay, it took me a lot of mettle to say it out loud). You can imagine my disappointment when my teacher, always donned with a patronizing smirk, brushed it off as silly and unnecessary. The rest of the class chorused into prickly laughter. Moments later (because gay marriage or not, I needed to get a passing grade), I pitched, unsure, “right to potable water?” her plump little face lit up and she said, clapping her hands together, “Yes! That’s it!” With a life full of anecdotes like this, it isn’t difficult to imagine why, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, marriage was never a congealed reality for me. In fact, even dating with no early access to Grindr seemed wholly unviable. I had prefigured that I was destined for a life of romantic dispossession like a gay Bridget Jones. I didn’t know a single gay person in the relatively traditionalist neighbourhood where I came of age, nor anyone at the upper-end schools I kept changing because of my father’s job. So, you can imagine why I wasn’t exactly wool-gathering about my nuptial ceremony and why I skilfully skirt around the topic, out of habit, still today.
Several petitions to legalize same-sex marriage have been pending in courts since 2017. As early as 2011, a Haryana court granted legal recognition to a same-sex marriage involving two women. The lesbian couple, Beena and Savita, ultimately also won family approval. There are notably other cases like this too, where mostly two women share a live-in relationship that is locally recognized as something akin to actual marriage in rural areas. On June 12 last year, the Uttarakhand High Court acknowledged that, while same-sex marriage may not be legal, cohabitation and “live-in relationships” are protected by the law. Recently, a Madras High Court judge, when addressing the issue of same-sex marriage, humbly declared to not be “fully woke on this aspect”. This was one of the few good news stories that, defying the algorithm, went viral on social media.
Things seem to be looking up, at least statistically. But how much of this is a positive thing? Is the legalization of same sex marriage really the right step ahead, one that will lead us to queer liberation? Are there other more important aspects of being a member of the LGBTQ+ community that should be prioritized? What would marriage – a traditionally sexist, casteist and hyper-capitalist institution – mean for a subculture that has traditionally opposed those ideals? Is marriage not, as queer theorist Lisa Duggan suggested, a ‘political sedative’ that will make us into biddable suburbanites?
My past self couldn’t imagine marriage as a personal reality and improvised alternative ways of surviving that I ultimately became attached to, and in many ways, I feel like that describes what it has meant to be queer for a lot of people throughout history. I can easily understand why someone would want to get married. It is a symbolic avowal of romantic love as much as it is a security net in today’s capitalistic society (to the inarguable extent that it has become a form of state-sponsored discrimination for those who don’t choose to marry). But should it be necessitated to become either?
The traditional (‘straight’) idea of marriage reinforces heteronormativity which, as Amelia Abraham points out, isn’t just a matter of ‘being straight’, it means “having your shit together in the boring, traditional sense of the term”. It necessitates assuming complementary gender roles, practicing caste-related endogamy, monogamous commitment, having children, buying a house and most likely getting a nine-to-five job. In the traditional sense, marriage also enforces a mostly upper-caste, middle-class stereotype of ‘the family’ – the very institution against whose rejection queerness was hardened, and flourished into a subculture. Doesn’t marriage tell you that there is one proper way to live, which becomes nothing but antithetical to gay liberation’s principles of sexual freedom, equality, and nonconformity.
Penny Arcade, a New York performance artist, talking about the gentrification of the Lower East Side following the spread of AIDS, said: “There is a gentrification that happens to buildings and neighbourhoods, and there is a gentrification that happens to our ideas”. Would marriage be similarly domestication of queer culture?
The idea isn’t new. Gay Shame – a movement from within the queer communities described as a radical alternative to gay mainstreaming – had been in effect since 1998. It posited an alternative view of gay pride and embraced radical expression, counter-cultural ideologies and avant-garde thinkers. Starting in Brooklyn as an annual event, it addressed gentrification, welfare reform, prison abolition and the erosion of gayborhoods among other things. As Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, a leading figure of the group, said in a 2011 interview:
We would throw together these very elaborate events like the “Gay Shame Awards” where we awarded the most hypocritical gay people for their service to the community. We had categories like “helping right wingers cope,” “exploiting our youth,” an “award for celebrities who should never have come out in the first place,” etc. The award was a burning rainbow flag. What was really interesting about Gay Shame’s actions, was that we wanted to create a spectacle. We wanted to create something that used the militancy of Act Up, but fused it with spectacle, to focus on reclaiming the streets in an anti-capitalist, extravagant way, so that people would be drawn in.
It received support from queer public figures like Penny Arcade, the writer Eileen Myles, and the American drag cabaret duo, Kiki and Herb. As such, the supporters of the movement also opposed the legalization of gay marriage, stating that:
What we are calling for is an abolishment of State sanctioned coupling in either the hetero or homo incarnation. We are against any institution that perpetuates the further exploitation of some people for the benefit of others. Why do the fundamental necessities marriage may provide for some (like healthcare) have to be wedded to the State sanctioned ritual of terror known as marriage? […] Gay marriage and voting are symbolic gestures that reinforce structures while claiming to reconfigure them.
This movement slowly lost momentum by 2013 due to several organizational factors. But recently, I’ve seen some of its ideas re-emerge and become mainstream, such as the opposition to the commercialization of Pride and demilitarization of police. ‘QUEER LIBERATION, NOT RAINBOW CAPITALISM’ has become a common refrain and is no longer a radical proclamation, as it once was. Ever since Pride month began this year, I have seen more and more ideas once precluded for their radicalness slowly take foothold in the mainstream. This attitude change may also reflect in what role people assign to marriage in fighting for gay rights. Being queer is called an ‘alternative’ lifestyle for a reason; it goes against the middle-of-the-road way of living, much of what marriage has come to historically represent and presently reinforces.
In her book Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture, Amelia Abraham references two books, both written by the same transgender author Jack Halberstam, that she was given by a friend post-breakup to understand our idea of romance, and its success, is very heteronormative. The first book ‘In a Queer Time and Place’ introduces the concept of ‘heteronormative time and space’ which is often defined by marriage, kids and domesticity versus ‘queer’ time and space, which is a freer way of living on your own terms. The next book ‘The Queer Art of Failure’ asks us to ‘deconstruct conventional life markers, such as settling down and baby making, and consider a life ‘unscripted by family, inheritance and child rearing’: a queerer way of living.’ The world of queer dynamics – though never ideal – is still radically sexual, unpretentious, relatively egalitarian and characterised by fluidity. Traditionally, it has had little to do with caste, class or religion. (At most, it foolishly discounts those social markers, but doesn’t discriminate on them in the way a conventional, heteronormative society does). The urban phenomenon of ‘cruising’ – ‘walking or driving about a locality in search of a sex partner, usually of the anonymous, casual, one-time variety’ – exemplifies this behaviour the best: in its historical practice, there were upper-caste bankers and elite academics fooling around with Dalit labourers, trans sex workers, and Muslim rickshaw-pullers. This wasn’t necessarily utopian for many needless-to-say reasons, but it was definitely a blueprint for an alternative way of living. It seems important to ask: to maintain a critique of ‘normalcy’, shouldn’t the deviants not converge with it?
Last winter, I went to my cousin’s wedding in a small town near the Bihar-Nepal border. It was a noteworthy event, not in the typical measure of how much money was spent, but because it was significantly opposed by everyone in the family at first. My now-bride-to-be cousin, eight years older than me, had stood her ground and not married anyone except who she wanted for almost seven years. I spent almost half a month there, seeing all the myth and magic that often is blended into these regional ceremonies, unaffected by urban pretension and lofty consumerism. I met relatives I hadn’t seen in years and they were all so nice and warm and talked as if they weren’t just seeing you after five years. I got the opportunity to closely follow all the little ceremonials that the womenfolk performed with devotion, and understood their true depth maybe for the first time. It was all really beautiful. It was the first wedding where I seemed to understand what it all was for. I called Srishti from there, and after telling her about the memorable exploits that inevitably happen at any Indian wedding, I said, “This all seems so nice. I dunno. I’d like this for myself someday. Wonder if that’ll ever happen.” I couldn’t help but see the juxtaposition of these beautiful, old rituals and my sexuality and how they were superficially polarized by society and made to seem impossible to coexist, while I found them both beautiful and irreplaceable and wanted it all at the same time. The final day of the wedding was a nice little affair, sound-tracked by old Bollywood hits and a mismatched array of different Indian cuisines, with more than half the town in attendance. Next morning, it rained.
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I do want to have the right to marry the person I love – who doesn’t – but I don’t know if I want to avail it. I’m stuck between two seemingly mutually exclusive possibilities – a radical life that says fuck-you to the aegis of tradition that has spurned me and those akin to me since its inception, and an only slightly maladjusted conventional life with scriptural endorsement. A part of me does want to find some acceptability in the mainstream, some recognition in the prevalent cultural scripts, and also invest in a regrettably expensive wedding suit that I’ll never wear again just like everyone else has been doing. This makes me think of something Maggie Nelson wrote in her 2015 book The Argonauts, a memoir about her budding relationship with a gender-nonconforming photographer, “It’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.” That seems right.
Featured Image Credits: NPR