Representation for Me, Not for Thee?

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In DU and in India, LGBTQ representation has been improving, if at a snail’s pace. But does it go far enough? We spoke to queer people around the university, who have found no place in this emerging space, to understand why a certain demographic still dominates LGBTQ representation.

LGBTQ representation in DU, as in the rest of India,  is still measly. The University administration does not acknowledge the existence of the community, let alone take any steps to uplift or prevent discrimination against its members. In most colleges and spheres of university life, anyone who is not perfectly straight and cisgender must conceal their identity for fear of being socially ostracised, harassed, or just looked at as strange and deviant.

But slowly, this is changing. Queer collectives have been created in a few colleges, to provide spaces for LGBTQ students to express themselves freely and find a place for themselves in the community. More and more students are able to come out to their friends without fear of judgement or exclusion, and some have even found safe spaces in the classrooms of progressive teachers. Moreover, every June, both LGBTQ students and their straight allies come out to the streets of North Campus and other parts of the university in a celebration of queerness and love.

Yet, there’s something a little strange about this representation. When you think of an openly queer student from any of India’s large universities, who do you picture? For most of us, the answer will be a young bisexual woman, likely with a name that betrays her upper-caste origins and a healthy dose of socioeconomic privilege to go along with it. But why, in this group of lakhs of students from across the country, is this the one demographic that appears to be so dominant. Is it a simple chance, or is there something more sinister at play?

“I think being gay or especially bisexual has become “mainstream” in certain circles in a way that being trans has just not. It’s also much easier to hide not being straight than it is to hide being cisgender. You can choose to hide the fact that you date the same sex when you go to an interview or doctor’s appointment. But if I were to come out and transition, especially with meds or even surgical procedures, there would be no way to turn my trans-ness off if I’m not in the right setting,” a closeted trans man from Miranda House told us.  As a student in a women’s college, he feels a sense of otherness from his classmates all the more acutely, but does not feel comfortable coming out to anyone but his closest friends for the same reason. 

A trans woman we spoke to told us that being transgender in India is still associated with the third gender community, even if the trans individual in question does not identify with them. Since this community, by virtue of its socio-economic position, is as far as can be from the woke metro-dweller, transgender individuals are excluded from queer discourse in these circles as well.

Yet, bisexuality is also one of the identities that is most frequently erased by society and the media, simply because it isn’t as visible as many other queer identities. “I think one of the main reasons behind people feeling that bisexual women are “over-represented” is because our identity isn’t taken seriously. Everyone thinks we’re just straight girls who sometimes kiss other girls when we’re drunk or to entertain guys,” said a bisexual woman from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. 

This superficial view of female bisexuality means that the consequences of being out and visibly bisexual are often not as severe as they are for being visibly transgender or gay. Even so, it perpetuates an incredibly harmful stereotype and leads to bisexuality being dismissed as an adventurous phase, at most, which bisexual women will get over. Many bisexual women also report lesbians refusing to enter into serious relationships with them, as a result of the perception that they will choose a more socially acceptable male partner when they eventually have to make a serious, long-term commitment. 

And when bisexual women do flout this stereotype and choose to spend their lives with female partners, they face just as much, if not more, backlash than gay persons. As one bisexual woman who has been with a woman for nearly a decade now told us, “My family and many others think I’m even worse than a gay person because at least I have a “choice to be normal”, whatever that implies.”

Some think the class divide in queer representation has a simple origin. “I honestly don’t think it’s anything too deep. If your family’s rich and you’ve grown up with a so-called “international” education, you’re more likely to be accepted by your friends and family if you come out. So you can paint pride flags on your face for Pride and put up infographics about gay representation in movies without constantly worrying about the wrong person seeing it or spreading a rumour.” says a lesbian woman from Hindu College.

Openly queer public figures in India, whether they’re the two lesbian lawyers Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy who fought to overturn Section 377, or iconic author and novelist Vikram Seth, are nearly always sophisticated, wealthy and endlessly eloquent (in English, of course). As one gay man said on an anonymous online forum, this image has become the only remotely socially-acceptable way to be queer in modern India.

“It’s not really a shock that Dalit queers aren’t represented in mainstream queer discourse in India. We’ve been excluded from all of these other supposedly progressive movements, whether it’s mainstream Indian socialism or feminism,” a student of Kirori Mal College told us.

In a society where upper-caste activism narratives are dominant, the identities and significance of transgender Dalits are sidelined completely. This is especially true when it comes to transgender and third-gender Dalit women, who, despite being some of India’s oldest and most important LGBTQ activists, are brushed aside for figures that are more palatable to dominant groups.

Some of these factors are beyond the control of the queer community, but many of them are not. So, it is the responsibility of the most vocal and visible of India’s LGBTQ community to pass on the mic. If we don’t, there is no hope of India as a whole ever accepting those who stray from the straight, cisgender norm. We may create islands of pro-queer wokeness and get a colonial-era law or two repealed, but real, large-scale change can never come when the vast majority of us are still invisible and unheard.

Read Also: The Need for Queer Collectives in Colleges

Featured Image Credits: Deccan Herald

Shriya Ganguly                                                                                                                                                [email protected]

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