Given the nature of the Supreme Court’s verdict against same-sex marriages in India, could an LGBTQ+ History Month help?
In a conversation with Lounge just days before the Supreme Court decided it could not legalise gay marriages, Kannada writer Vasudhendra, 54, who has been open about his homosexuality over the last decade especially, recalled that growing up he did not even know the word “gay”.
“A village-born boy” who was “only taught Kannada properly”, he says that even as recently as 30 years ago, there was an alarming lack of resources for, or representation of, queer people in contemporary literature and culture. “It was only in college (in the late 1980s) that I came across a vulgar and insensitive joke about homosexual behaviour in an adult magazine in Kannada—and felt thrilled,” Vasudhendra recalls. “Thrilled because I thought Finally! Finally, someone has finally spoken about me.”
It has taken decades of sociocultural interventions in art, literature and cinema to build awareness on queerness; in parallel, legal appeals to decriminalise homosexual relationships, by individual petitioners as well as the likes of the Naz Foundation, an NGO, brought the conversation in India to the point it reached last week—on the cusp of marriage equality for people of all genders and sexualities. The country’s highest court of appeal had begun hearing petitions that sought legal recognition of same-sex marriage in April-May.
While the court stated that it would be beyond the scope of legal interpretation to go through with the verdict, passing the matter to the executive, Aishwarya Ayushmaan, a Delhi-based human rights lawyer who moonlights as the drag queen Lush Monsoon, says that if there was a stronger understanding of queer history within, and of, the subcontinent, the court might not have been hesitant.
“According to how I read law, if the courts want to do something, they will do it…. There could have been a way, even while respecting the separation of powers,” she says. “The hesitance comes from the fact that while the judges are aware of LGBTQ+ history to a certain extent, the public isn’t. When a majority of people aren’t aware of Indian LGBTQ+ history, they can’t partake in a judgement like this. Therefore, the judges will feel less confident in saying so strongly…something which is against popular morality,” she adds.
The sense is that apart from the huge legal victory in 2018 to strike down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which could have sent a gay person to jail for up to 10 years), and a few conversations in metro-city salons, panels, and the celebratory photo-ops that Pride parades across the country lend themselves to, not much has changed in terms of the citizenry’s general understanding of love, desire and relationships outside the assumed norms of heterosexuality.
Just as with Vasudhendra, Ayushmaan, now 31, too had no way or context by which to live authentically or express her inherent femininity when she was growing up. This was in Ranchi, “a small town” where many people would, and continue to, dismiss the idea of queerness as a trend or fad. “Therefore, stringing together the terms ‘LGBTQ+’ and ‘history’ itself is a very, very important thing to do…it gives much needed background and context to something that is actually so deeply rooted in our history,” she says.
The late translator, gay rights activist and historian Saleem Kidwai had once said that “(f)or a long time, the history of us queer people has been erased from records and thus from our collective memory, a crucial act for the queer phobia project. Without a history and therefore without a memory, we as a community are rootless, alienated and disempowered.”
Recalling this, Sharif D. Rangnekar, author of Queersapien (2022) and Straight To Normal: My Life As A Gay Man (2019), says that to reclaim this space, the idea of a concerted effort at a History Month will help “create more platforms where these lives can be shared”. Rangnekar is also the director of the four-year-old Rainbow Literature Festival, held annually in December with the aim of spotlighting queer stories and authors.
Sharif Rangnekar at the Supreme Court premises on the day of the verdict.
“Even if the verdict was in our favour, a celebration of Indian queer history is something we should be looking into,” says Sakshi Juneja, founder of Gaysi Family, a media platform for desi queer folks. “It’s always good to remind ourselves where we come from, of both the hindrances and joys of the past. This is even more relevant now: It not only shows the resilience and strength of community, it also aligns older queer people with younger ones,” she adds.
Many countries mark an LGBTQ+ History Month, separate from a Pride Month, to commemorate queer icons, provide a sense of confidence and belonging to the community, and build awareness. History Month is currently on in countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, Romania, Armenia, Australia and Uganda. England marks it in February, Hungary and the Netherlands in March, Italy in April, Cuba and Germany in May, France in June and Finland in November.
Juneja says that while there need not be a hard-and-fast rule for India, perhaps a dedicated month for online campaigns, with offline engagements folded into Pride celebrations across cities at different times of the year, may be a good way to go. “It’s good to have continuous reminders,” she notes.
Similarly, Vasudhendra notes that any occasion to discuss queer lives and rights is a good excuse, whether the month or date was originally regarded more as an “American or Chinese” one. For Rangnekar, regardless of the choice of month or its original context, “if we can leverage (a History Month) for the (Indian queer) community, for them to know their history and for others also to know the history of queerness that the subcontinent has had, it will be extremely significant”.
In India, Pride marches—they started with the Friendship Walk in Kolkata in 1999—have established their significance in visibilising queer folks. Similar to the American Pride that was rooted in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, Pride marches here also became a display of self-acceptance in the face of systemic oppression, gay- and trans-phobia. Now, a History Month can perhaps serve another important, even if less attractive end at the present moment of disappointment: of unearthing and establishing the past, to pave the way for a stronger future. “It’s now more important to re-establish what LGBTQ+ people have endured through history, and the fact that they have actually even existed in the first place,” says Ayushmaan.
Rangnekar adds that while History Month is as much part of human rights expression as Pride Month, and that you cannot remove one from the other, “a History Month gives more strength to Pride. It gives us a reference, a past. It validates you in a way and it can become part of an argument to further strengthen your case for dignity and self-actualisation.” This seems to be the need of the hour.