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Is the LGBTQ+ movement an elitist club?

Where are the missing colours in the rainbow, asks Yogesh Pawar

Is the LGBTQ+ movement an elitist club?

Bharati Torne is 20. This Dalit resident of the Pant Nagar neighbourhood of Mumbai's Ghatkopar suburb pursues BCom in a college across the railway tracks was attracted to women from Class VIII but felt conflicted and confused till she finally got intimate with an older woman for four years. After this neighbour moved to Hyderabad, she began “going steady” with another partner she met on social media.

“Though I can't have an open relationship because my conventional family won't accept, I understand being lesbian is normal after attending the Kashish film festival for two years with my partner where they screened several lesbian-themed films.”

She attended the Pride march last year but is unsure she will this year. The recent violence at Bhima-Koregaon, off Pune, on January 1 and the protest shutdown in its aftermath have left Dalit families like hers angry and vulnerable. After all among those picked up is Bharati's elder brother Ramesh, the family's main breadwinner. “Like my late father, he too is a conservancy worker. He's in jail. We worry he'll lose his municipal job.”

Accused of “voluntarily causing grievous harm to a public servant on duty” - a charge that can attract a 10-year jail term, Bharati's family has only meet Ramesh twice at Arthur Road jail. “My sister-in-law who works as a maid in a few houses to supplement the family income is a Class X drop-out and my mother can't read or write. Jail cops or lawyer I accompany them everywhere and haven't been attending college,” she says clearly overwhelmed with the crisis and points out how “attending the Pride will not be possible.”

When asked about her partner of two years, the tears she was fighting back, flow freely. “We met over tea at Wadala this week. When I told her everything she just became aloof and quiet. Now she's not even responding to calls and texted me to sort my problems out and not bother her,” she weeps and adds, “I'm only asking her to be there for me. After all my education and even being able to speak a smattering of English, I now realise I'll never be fully acceptable to someone like her once they know of my caste and circumstance.” After trying her best to fit it in what she calls, “the English speaking, westernised, largely upper caste milieu,” she says she is now uncomfortable about going to LGBTQIA events any more.

Bharati is not alone. Many in the LGBTQIA community which celebrates sexual diversity and gender variance and fights sexual orientation-based discrimination itself, question its own often not-so-subtle discrimination on the basis of caste, class, region and language. At a time when the community sees a ray of hope in the Supreme Court's relook at its criminalising consensual gay sex (to rid the community of fear, harassment and blackmail under IPC Section 377), polarisations on caste, class, gender, language, region, religion and food habits given the current socio-political climate of the country, have made intersectionalities sharper.

Kolkatan sociologist and cultural historian Meghna Kashyap (herself openly bisexual) says, “The rainbow community should develop a sociological framework to locate gendered power relations and oppression within structures of caste and class domination, inequality and social stratification,” and adds, “Critical sociological understanding of social relations and structural differences need to be built. Such a framework grounded in theories of socio-cultural subordination could explore complex and dynamic interconnections between caste, class and patriarchy.”

Others like Dr Shaileshkumar Darokar Associate Professor Centre for Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policies, TISS say the root of the problem is the deeply embedded sense of domination–subordination that Indians as a society are socialised into from early childhood. “So while we believe and talk of equality as a norm, we create convenient inconsistencies to continue our behaviour. The extent to which discrimination is graded and broken down in India is unique to this land. The LGBTQIA community is no stranger to such thought.”

Like him, intersex and gender-queer equal rights activist Gopi Shankar Madurai who is on the executive board of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Asia feels, “The elitist stranglehold on the movement is doing it much harm. Very often in the interest of a united front these elitist groups misguidedly subsume diversities and seek to make them invisible by manufacturing a homogeneity. This goes against the principle of individual integrity that the Constitution promises us under Article 21.”

This view is at variance with that of Bindumadhav Khire the Pune-based gay rights and AIDS activist whose organisation Samapathik Trust has been working with sexual minorities for over a decade. “I think it is too early to bring up intersectionality for the LGBTQIA movement. The fledgling movement will splinter further and won't be able to put up a united front which is the bigger need of the hour,” he cautions.

Deepa(k) Garudi a transgender sex worker from the Maharashtra-Karnataka border town of Nippani has an interesting take on this. This 27-year-old member of the Mang community says, “I am sure the nationalists who oppose the celebration of Bhima-Koregaon which let reins of India slip into British hands feel the same way. But what if the discriminatory injustice we face and our fight against it go beyond the concept of a nation-state?”

It seems the jury will be out on that question for a long, long time.