(This book review was first published in Business Standard.)
On 6th September 2018, the Supreme Court of India read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which had been used until then to criminalize sexual intimacy between same-sex partners, discriminate against people who identify as LGBTQIA+, and expose them to domestic violence as well as police brutality. The first anniversary of that judgement has just passed, so there is tremendous excitement about Hoshang Merchant and Akshaya K. Rath’s book Gay Icons of India.
This book honours the memory of India’s gay icons who did not live long enough to bask in the joy of that landmark court ruling, and to celebrate the icons who live amidst us. Dancer Ram Gopal, writer Sultan Padamsee, artist Bhupen Khakhar, poet Agha Shahid Ali, filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh are among the ones who have passed on. The authors say, “We need to drag these forgotten names back into the limelight so as to remind Indians who and what they have forgotten. That all these names here are gay and it is of utmost importance to recount the erased history of India’s gays from the cultural life of the nation, in spite of their immense contribution to it.”
Among the ones who are here to be feted in life and blood, most are authors: Giti Thadani, Ashok Row Kavi, Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, Vikram Seth, R. Raj Rao, Suniti Namjoshi, Mahesh Dattani, and Amruta Patil. The book also profiles filmmaker Onir, artist Sunil Gupta, fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, dancer Navtej Johar, teacher Ashley Tellis, and activist Manvendra Singh Gohil. Why are there no names from the worlds of politics, business, public service and sports? This is the reasoning that Merchant and Rath offer: “The persons with a stigma grave enough to mark them out but not grave enough to cast them out of the pack to face scarcity…act on their innermost sexual desires and express themselves in their fields of activity. She or he may then act, paint, dance, make new scientific discoveries.”
Echoes of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory can be heard in this argument. He had identified a defense mechanism called sublimation using which individuals channelize socially unacceptable urges into behaviours that find approval. Merchant and Rath make a point that seems convincing but simplistic. Gay people might explore multiple avenues to sublimate desire but they are not necessarily inclined towards being artists, inventors or visionaries. Such generalizations are best avoided because they contribute to stereotyping, and encourage heterosexual people to spot symptoms of ‘gayness’ as if it were an affliction.
This book is a huge disappointment. One of the icons is taunted for “the charade of being straight,” and of surviving through “professional tact (the secret)” before readers are told that he accomplished a lot despite alcoholism and enforced silence, and could have done more if India had accepted its gay artists. A filmmaker is labelled as someone who “refuses to come out.” It is problematic to ‘out’ someone, or disclose their sexual orientation publicly without their consent, especially when Merchant and Rath themselves note, “Though India has repealed Section 377 in 2018, harassment and police blackmail because of this law is a daily routine for India’s gay population even today.”
Coming out is the prerogative of the person who identifies as gay. A denial of that moral right could be an infringement of their privacy, and a threat to their physical safety and mental health. Merchant and Rath believe in what they call the epistemology of the closet, “where active homosexuals in hiding ridicule their obvious partners publicly, from which the general public takes its cue.” According to this construct, people who enjoy intimacy with same-sex partners ought to identify publicly as gay; if they do not, they are living dishonest and inauthentic lives. Readers are told that Patil’s graphic novel Kari never mentions the word ‘lesbian’, and prefers the language of ‘friendship’ and ‘sisterhood’ but Merchant and Rath insist that ‘fluid sexuality’ be read as ‘lesbianism’.
Ketki Ranade, the author of Growing Up Gay in Urban India: A Critical Psychosocial Perspective (2018), has challenged Western psychological models of gay identity development that place a premium on the idea of coming out as desirable and even inevitable if an individual wants to truly take pride in their identity. Ranade’s research reveals that many gay people lead thriving lives without coming out to family or friends. They are not necessarily lacking in self-awareness, unhappy or depressed. They might define their identity in terms of their religion, caste, clan, and not in terms of their sexual orientation, because these structures offer them the kind of social support they are unlikely to get outside a patriarchal, heteronormative framework. This is a negotiated choice, and these individuals might not experience it as a loss of agency.
While Patil is described as a person “who never hid her queer status” and “does not do so even now when she is in a heterosexual marriage,” Merchant and Rath do participate in bi-erasure in when they write, “Rich gay men have the luxury of calling themsleves bisexual when they are followed by female groupies for their fame or wealth. While many gay men seek heterosexual relationships or marriages to prevent speculation about their ‘masculinity’, bisexuality is a sexual orientation by itself. Bisexuals are marginalized within the wider LGBTQIA+ community because they unsettle binary definitions of sexual orientation. They are labelled as non-committal, promiscuous, and untrustworthy.
The most disturbing part of this book, however, is the depiction of transgender individuals. Gender affirmation surgery, earlier known as sex-reassignment surgery, is described as “an answer of the materialistic, scientific and artificial world to the man/woman conundrum in men.” The chapter on Ghosh has a graphic description of a surgical procedure, after which readers are asked, “Would you do it? No? Would you, then, call someone who submits to it ‘heroic’?” It goes on to say, “Rituparno died from the life-threatening operations he underwent to become a woman (though a massive heart-attack felled him). He had a personal collection of Ardhanareshwar murtis. What did Ardhanareshwar mean? Does it mean to go for a sex-change in our modern India?” Earlier in this book, there is a chapter on Merchant himself, where he is described as having “spent years creating an androgynous persona by the dint of his learning and his charisma without cross-dressing or invasive surgery.”
These statements are irresponsible and offensive. They reveal deep-seated prejudice against trans people, especially at a time when they have been rendered more vulnerable as a result of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019. The reading down of Section 377 has not ensured equal rights for everyone under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Trans people have to fight for space in a media discourse monopolized by cisgender gay men who tend to speak on behalf of the community but represent only their own concerns. Gay Icons of India uses ‘gay’ as an inclusive term for homosexual women and men. Out of the 22 icons featured here, over a dozen are men. Patriarchy is alive and kicking in the queer world.