June came and has almost gone again, and with it came Pride Month in all its queer, multifaceted and vibrant glory—celebrating life and diversity. The theme for 2021 was “The fight continues” and indeed it does, in immutable ways and forms.
With the world still in the throes of the novel coronavirus pandemic, parts of the world that have been fortunate enough to achieve better infection control and vaccine coverage have opened up, partly at least, allowing marches and events in the near future. Jerusalem, while still grappling with the problematic dispossession of Arabs and allegations of ethnocide, went ahead with their annual march and celebrations. London and Zurich have pushed their annual Pride marches to September in the interests of public health and safety. India—just cresting the second wave of Covid-19 and staring down the barrel of the gun at a looming third wave, with economic problems exacerbated by the all-too-necessary lockdowns and vaccine inequity—appears fated to have to celebrate a socially distanced, virtual Pride month, as with last year.
Queer identity and its celebration is more visible than ever before, perhaps the most visible it has ever been since gay protestors took to the streets in June 1969 to protest police brutality. There are more allies now, more representation on screens of all sizes. While this is heartening, greater visibility also brings with it fresh problems.
The commercialisation and corporate appropriation of the Pride movement is one. Funding from commercial enterprises makes events possible on a larger scale, allowing more people to be reached. This is particularly important now, when the pandemic means that queer identity is confined to the four walls of homes for now—a pushing back into the closet, in some ways. But large corporates also take over Pride to establish the “wokeness” of their brands. The LGBTQIA+ community becomes the cultural capital to score brownie points with.
Vans has launched a new collection of rainbow sneakers. They’re lovely to look at and wear, yes, but it’s a form of celebration that increases the company’s profits. The Microsoft-owned social media app for professionals, LinkedIn, has added a rainbow to its logo this year around, too. But this comes as William Henry Gates III (yes, Bill Gates) deals with divorce, infidelity, allegations of predatory behaviour with junior women colleagues at work and reported association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The takeover of the queer public space by murky corporates does not always bode well for a movement that advocates against stigma and discrimination, and for equal rights and legal representation. Corporate allies are big and powerful, yes, but not necessarily always healthy or benevolent.
Closer to home in India, Bollywood actors such as Sonam Kapoor Ahuja and Ayushmann Khurrana have played lesbian and gay characters in mainstream Hindi cinema, which is lovely—in some ways. However, these are cisgender, heterosexual people taking over queer public space again, for a “woke” movie and to build reputations as young actors. Apart from representation and equal rights, a movie or series made by a group of cis-het people tends to portray an over-simplified love story—where the photogenic heterosexual love interest is simply replaced by the photogenic homosexual love interest. Queer lives are much more diverse and complex than that. People aspire to do more than come out to their Hindi heartland parents and then fall into Bollywood love.
Similarly, within the ambits of our legal system, advocates (and queer couple) Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy are arguing a case to legalise same-sex marriage in India. Again, this is lovely, in some ways. Marriage is a civil right, enshrined in the Constitution. The petition however, stops with same-sex two-partner unions—not recognising that gender non-confirming or non-binary people are left out of its ambit, while transpersons are still struggling for recognition of their gender under the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. Families of choice—the place of safety for most queer people—have no legal recognition (outside pop culture references and academic citations) while families of origin (parents and siblings) and families of procreation (spouses and children) do. This deprives not just queer people but also society in multiple ways. The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, whose current amendment (in 2019) has been approved by the Cabinet and is tabled in the Lok Sabha, for example, has extended its ambit from children and grandchildren to sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. Adding queer partners of children and grandchildren to the act would widen the scope of support for older persons. Similarly, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 addresses what is implied to be heterosexual harassment. Queer harassment and abuse must be recognised as a penal offence as well.
In mental health, too, psychiatrists such as ourselves tend to sometimes take over queer discourse. This is perhaps in contrition for our previous offences of having declared sodomy, sapphism, hysteria, homosexuality and other problematic concepts illnesses in the past. Countries and professional associations are only now delegitimising conversion therapy as a form of psychotherapy. The problem with apologies and expressions of contrition, of course, are that they require ongoing efforts by the queer community to accept and forgive psychiatry. They shouldn’t have to take on that additional emotional work while establishing their evolving queer identity and navigating the very real challenges that life carries with it.
Why is this important? Why are we talking about what might appear to be first-world problems at first glance, enshrined in privilege? Because, contrary to popular culture, queer identify isn’t for the urban elite or for developed societies alone. All rights are civil rights and while, as the Supreme Court of India noted, civil rights are not absolute, all rights are equal and the right to equality is a fundamental one. Injustice to some parts of society imperil all of society.
As Periyar E V Ramasamy notes, “If a larger country oppresses a smaller country, I’ll stand with the smaller country. If the smaller country has a majoritarian religion that oppresses minority religions, I’ll stand with minority religions. If the minority religion has caste and one caste oppresses another caste, I’ll stand with the caste being oppressed. In the oppressed caste, if an employer oppresses his employee, I’ll stand with the employee. If the employee goes home and oppresses his wife, I’ll stand with that woman. Overall, oppression is my enemy”
The fight thus continues!
(Views expressed are personal)
Dr Migita D’Cruz & Dr Debanjan Banerjee
Psychiatrists at National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences, Bengaluru