By Alice Robson
During the 2013-14 academic year, the Gender Studies Group organised two events on the theme of sexual minorities in DU. The first, in October 2013, was a panel discussion, which saw six students from the university speak about their experiences of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) in the university and beyond. This was followed by a workshop for LGBTQ students in February 2014, consisting of small group discussions for each sexual ‘identity’, which was followed by report backs from the various groups.
The initial panel discussion and the feedback from the workshops were very well attended, with lively discussion following the speakers. The small group discussions were attended by far fewer people, raising the question of how best to provide safe space for LGBTQ students at DU to meet and discuss – something no other group in the university is doing at present. It is also important to look beyond the numbers and to see significance beyond this- for some of the lesbians attending, the small group discussion was the first time they had met someone else defined themselves as lesbian, highlighting how important it is that the Gender Studies Group provides such a space.
The issue of representation ran through both sessions: who speaks, for whom, and what control can LGBTQ people have around their representation when the fact of their sexuality is so often sensationalised? One speaker talked about how the only way LGBTQ voices are heard in mainstream spaces are when their stories are traumatic ones – stories of violence, of sadness, of pain and suffering. The question of representation was particularly pertinent because of the way that the first event was reported in the mainstream media, variously sensationalising and trivialising what was said (an example of the latter being The Times of India’s reporting of the sartorial choices of one of the speakers).
What follows is a combined report of both the events, based on what was said by panellists and those nominated to feedback from the small group discussions, which picks out some of the threads that made up the discussion.
The sound of silence
Several panellists spoke on the silence around LGBTQ issues in the university. As one of the panellists said, ‘DU does not want to talk about sexual minorities’. There is no such thing as an LGBTQ community in the university, and ‘the student union never takes up the issue’.
So-called ‘progressive’ spaces, such as the university Gender Forums, operate within a very heterosexual framework, with ‘gender’ simply standing for ‘women’. A lesbian on the panel said that her (women’s) college is seen as feminist and progressive, but that the feminist agenda is overwhelmingly focused on violence against women, with little discussion of sexuality: ‘People go to the lecture on Judith Butler but then just go home.’ When it was announced in a lecture that she was speaking on a panel on sexual minorities in the university, she could see the confusion on people’s faces as it struck them that she might be something other than heterosexual. Another panellist spoke of the danger caused by the assumption that in assumed ‘progressive’ spaces like universities issues of sexuality and the rights of LGBTQ students did not need to be talked about.
For a female bisexual speaker, currently in a relationship with a woman, there was recognition that the very possibility of her relationship with her girlfriend came from the fact that it is not recognised as such by the vast majority of the society around her. But the converse point to this was raised at the second event: the difficulty of ‘coding’ yourself as a lesbian when you do want to be recognised as such in a context where it is so invisible. Adopting a more ‘butch’ aesthetic is one way, ‘but what if you don’t want to cut your hair?’ one speaker asked. The asexuality of many university spaces, particularly women’s colleges and hostels, was mentioned during the feedback from the lesbian grouping at the second discussion. How can lesbian desire even begin to be talked about, when there is no expression of desire at all in these spaces?
Definition, discipline and control
Two panellists spoke of how they were frequently given labels that they themselves had not chosen to describe their sexuality. These were often assumed, and imposed upon them, rather than them being asked to define their own sexuality. A panellist who described himself as transgender, spoke of how he is often ‘assumed to be a flamboyant gay man’, therefore erasing his transgender identity.
The transgender panellist talked about the repeated attempts by people, including those close to them, to ‘dress straight’. This included people from within the LGBTQ community. They had also been told by another transgender person to learn to ‘cross dress “properly”.’The disciplining that goes on within the LGBTQ community itself was also raised by a gay panellist who spoke of how ‘straight-acting’ gay men actively seek to discipline more ‘feminine’ gay men, who fear the attention that the latter may bring to them.
Speakers also talked about attempts by parents to ‘change’ the sexuality of their LGBTQ children, for example sending their children to psychologists. This may not be the Electric Shock Therapy used a ‘treatment’ in the 1960s, but it similarly shows the pathologising of non-hetrosexual identities, and the turn to medicine as ‘cure’.
The issue of safety was raised by two of the panellists. One spoke on the possible danger of online dating, where harassment is a potential risk for users. The threat of state violence was also raised. A transgender panellist spoke of harassment from the police, narrating an incident whereby they were questioned by police while waiting for an auto one evening. It was only after the event that they realised that the police must have assumed they were a sex worker.
A further pertinent point related to the state was raised by the panellist identifying as queer, who spoke of the tensions and contradictions within his political views in terms of state-sponsored security measures. He has to sometimes fight to be frisked by the male guard on the Delhi Metro – itself a practice of surveillance and control that they are totally opposed to.
The February session came after the Supreme Court effectively re-criminalised homosexual sex in India, and so the issue of the potential threat caused by this judgement was discussed. It was proposed that information be made available to students about the law.
Though not discussed deeply, issues of class were touched on by several of the panellists during the October event. This took different forms. The exclusivity of Delhi’s gay party scene was commented on by a young gay student on the panel, who said that though there are parties for gay men held at the weekends, at Rs.1000 a time, these are an exclusive space for the well-off, and inaccessible to the vast majority of students.
Another panellist, who defined himself as queer, spoke of the role that class privilege plays in reducing harassment in certain contexts. For example, it is possible for a man to wear ‘feminine’ clothes in the upper-class space of the shopping mall and be read as ‘stylish’ rather than face harassment.
‘The closet keeps growing’ – the many forms of homophobia
Panellists spoke of the various forms homophobia can take: it appears in much more insidious ways than harassment or overt abusive comments. Speakers talked about the scrutiny they were put under by others in the university about their sexuality. Lesbian and bisexual panellists in particular had experienced being challenged about whether they were ‘really’ the sexual identity they identified as (one female bisexual panellist being asked if she had had a test to determine her sexual identity) which they largely attributed to an obsession with sex as penetration. A lesbian panellist said that she had been told that lesbianism isn’t a ‘real’ sexual identity, as lesbian sex is not ‘real’ sex. A male bisexual speaker similarly reported being asked to say whether he had been penetrated by a man as a way of ‘proving’ his bisexual identity. He talked about the pressing need to build a new, more nuanced, language and framework to talk about relationships.
This need was reinforced by a queer panellist said that within the queer community itself there is limited discussion of queer politics beyond the realm of sex and relationships, for example being single rarely being seen as a part of the terrain of queer politics.
These events don’t represent the first and last word on minority sexualities in DU. They must necessarily be part of an ongoing conversation about sexuality in the university and outside it – one that starts with a recognition of the importance of talking about desire, and about sex, but which refuses to allow sexuality to be reduced solely to the act of sex itself. With these two events, the Gender Studies Group has built a foundation, which needs to be built on in the following academic year. In a institutional setting where ‘minority’ sexualities are rendered so invisible, the Gender Studies Group must continue to think creatively about how to further develop space for sharing, discussion, debate and questioning.