There is no one way of being queer: On straight-passing, queer labour and stigma management strategies in India

Chintan Girish Modi
10 min readOct 20, 2019

(This interview was first published on the Prajnya Trust’s Peace Blog.)

This is the second part of my interview with Dr. Ketki Ranade, Assistant Professor and Chairperson at the Centre for Health and Mental Health at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. They prefer to be addressed as KP, and use the pronoun ‘they’. If you are in the process of unlearning conventional pronoun usage, and embracing a new lexicon that offers dignity and agency to queer persons, you are in the right place. Your solidarity is seen and valued.

The first part of the interview can be accessed here. It engages primarily with the idea of ‘coming out’ that seems central to the way queer lives are narrated, and made meaning of. KP’s insights are grounded in a solid body of work, which includes various roles such as mental health service provider, researcher, activist and teacher. This interview takes off from a chapter titled ‘Exploring Identity Development and the Symbolic Meaning/s of ‘Coming Out’ in the Process of Identity Work’ in their recent book Growing Up Gay in Urban India: A Critical Psychosocial Perspective (2018).

Question: How would you deconstruct the phenomenon of straight-passing? Apart from being a survival strategy in a heteronormative world, it seems like there are significant benefits to not coming out, for gay and bisexual men, in social contexts wherein maintaining a heterosexual identity ensures continued access to women’s unpaid labour, apart from respectability and inheritance.

KP: As I said in the first part of this interview, coming out is a complex process in the Indian context. For some people, getting out of the family fold has serious material consequences. Apart from inheritance, the family of origin also provides a strong social support network. It can be difficult for individuals to exist, survive and thrive outside that. Therefore, some may negotiate compulsory marriage, and the expectations associated with cis-het masculinity. It is not a safe place to be in but you do reap benefits from colluding with heteropatriarchy. Men married to women may continue a clandestine gay life but their situation is always precarious. There is a fear of being found out, and of being at the receiving end of violence. Other social locations of the gay man, of course, remain significant in protecting or rendering the person more vulnerable to violence and humiliation.

There are certain benefits of being a cis-man in India even if you are gay or bisexual. There is usually greater mobility than cis-women in navigating everyday life as well as specific situations such as outstation work-related travel. This does not mean that relationships are easier for gay and bisexual men. They face troubles from around them, and have their own internal barriers to cross. Men who present as macho may find it easier to pass as straight than men who do not conform to masculine ideals.

We also need to talk about what happens to the cis-het woman in the family structure when a gay or bisexual man marries her. How does she navigate her sexuality and relationships within a heteropatriarchal institution such as marriage and family, wherein her sexuality is restricted to the reproductive function? In my work, I have come across a few instances of cis-women bringing their husbands to court, and filing for divorce on the grounds that these men are unwilling to consummate the marriage and alleging that they are gay. Not only does this amount to outing gay men but also shaming a gay man by implying that he is impotent and not masculine enough. This would be an instance of a cis-het woman shaming and humiliating a closeted gay man.

Question: Would it be accurate to assume that, by and large, the situation is worse for lesbian women because they have to encounter misogyny in addition to homonegativity?

KP: From what I found in my study, the biggest difficulty for lesbian women in India is to negotiate compulsory heterosexual marriage. The way out of the family fold and resisting marriage is often through higher education or a job that can be used as an excuse to live in another place, usually a city. When lesbian women move out, especially against the will of their parents, they are not able to access the resources of their family. Finding housing and negotiating public space in their chosen city is also a challenge, especially for lesbian women whose gender expression does not conform to the feminine standards; they are then likely to be read as single but unavailable to men and threatening their masculinity.

Question: I like the fact that you have challenged the construct of a healthy, well-adjusted, successful gay or lesbian person who has resolved their internal conflict and subsequently come out to family, friends and colleagues. Isn’t the decision to avoid self-disclosure often about ‘protecting’ significant others who are deeply committed to their fears about what people might say, and may not have the skills, knowledge or vocabulary to accept difference? Please share your thoughts on this.

KP: You are right. There is an undue burden on queer people to nurture and care for others. They are expected to take on the responsibility to educate and sensitize others, and to contain their own confusion and anger. This is what we call ‘queer labour’. It is perhaps most pronounced when the parents are from a generation that is not exposed to queer identities. The queer person has to find local language material for them to read, and that can be a challenge because a lot of advocacy material is in English. The queer person has to figure out how much to tell, what will be palatable, etc. If they are in an open relationship, that becomes even more difficult to explain to parents who understand the world through cis-het frameworks.

Queer labour is performed not only for parents but also siblings, friends and colleagues. First, you are already taking on the responsibility of coming out, and then there is this extra psychic energy that has to be invested in educating, assuring, helping people deal with their own internalised homonegativity. This gets heightened in queer-erasing spaces, where you give examples from your own lived realities.

Not coming out is not only about protecting yourself. It can be frustrating to not bring your whole self to a family conversation, to be seen only for 50 per cent of who you are. There is a big role for allies here. Cis-het people who say they want to help but do not know how to help can take on some of the responsibility of educating and sensitizing.

Question: In India, young people in schools do not have access to gay-straight alliances or support groups of the kind that are found in countries like Canada and the United States. What can schools or individual teachers and counselors in India do to create an environment that is more supportive of students who might want to explore their lesbian, gay or bisexual identities? Should they focus on enabling students to come out, or is their energy better spent in teaching what you call ‘stigma management strategies’ to cope with prejudice and the threat of violence?

KP: Teachers should focus on creating an enabling environment, which is not the same as enabling students to come out. Every individual has to do their own risk assessment based on their context and challenges. The teacher’s goal should not be something like, “Let’s have five people come out by the end of this year.” There is absolutely no need for an ally to push queer people to be out and proud. Coming out may not be safe or even relevant in that person’s context. I think teachers should communicate that there are multiple ways of loving and living, and different kinds of relationships and families. All of these are worthy of respect. There are children’s storybooks, novels and films to support these kinds of classroom conversations.

Schools should actively think about how stigma affects their hiring practices. There is definitely a whole lot of prejudice associated with queer people being around children. They are assumed to be sexual abusers and predators just because of their sexual orientation, which has nothing to do with being a predictor of violence. Schools should combat this kind of homonegativity, and declare that they are equal opportunity employers. There is already talk within the corporate sector about diversity and inclusion but even private schools still seem to be caught up in the mindset that queer people are a corrupting influence.

Having a queer presence among the teaching or non-teaching staff is not meant to be a strategy for getting queer students to come out. It may happen, or it may not happen. What is of utmost importance here is that every student should feel safe in the school premises. Multiple aspects of safety should be talked about because every individual has their own sense of what feeling safe means to them. When people’s identities are discredited in society, they feel unsafe. If the environment explicitly shows that it cherishes diversity, they feel safe.

Questions: What are the mental health implications for individuals who are not interested in taking on a gay, lesbian or bisexual identity but wish to continue exploring same-sex desire in homosocial spaces such as boarding schools, sports teams and friendly sleepovers?

KP: If not taking on a gay, lesbian or bisexual identity is linked to fear, guilt or shame, there will be mental health implications. However, there are people who do not want to take on such an identity for other reasons. For example, they might think of their sexuality as a private matter. They are comfortable with their desire, and are not at all ashamed of being in a same-sex relationship. Multiple worlds exist in a person’s life, and they do not want to be public about all these aspects. This does not mean that they are leading an incomplete life.

Coming out is not always about individual choice. In queer relationships, there are times when one individual wants to come out, and the other one does not. This can be a source of distress for either or both of them. The person who is out and proud might feel pulled back into the closet, and pushed into straight-passing behaviours that make the couple look like best friends. The situation gets even more complicated when one of the partners is in a heterosexual marriage, and the queer relationship is hidden from family and friends.

Question: What are the relationship dynamics that you observe between gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals and their heterosexual parents who have made transgressive choices such as inter-religious or inter-caste marriages? Does ‘openness’ in one area of life translate into others?

KP: This is an interesting question, and there is no definitive answer. I was involved in a research study focused on families of lesbian women and gay men, and one of our research questions was around what helps families better understand and accept their adult gay/lesbian child. We did find that in a few instances, parents did dip into their own ‘non-conformity’ to try and accept their children who do not conform to cis-het expectations. The parents might have broken rules around caste endogamy that were important to their elders or chosen to marry outside their religion, so they can empathize to some extent with the struggles their children might have to go through in terms of paying a price for love.

A woman who got divorced found her daughter to be her strongest source of support. When this daughter came out, the mother realized that it was now her turn to be the supportive one. People who have been marginalized and excluded can understand what it feels like to be cast aside but not all of them are open to embracing queerness. The idea of heteronormativity is so entrenched in our society that even people who think of themselves as progressive are unable to shake it off.

Question: I am going to conclude with something that might be provocative but it is certainly on my mind. Does the discourse around ‘coming out’ assume that sexual orientation is something that people are born with? Some say that it is a helpful assumption only because conversion therapy has ruined the lives of countless people whose families want to change their orientation. When the idea of gender or sex as inherent, natural and unchanging is being challenged, are we far from a time when sexual orientation as essence is also challenged? Should it really matter whether someone thinks of their sexuality as defined by orientation or preference when the right to life should automatically include the right to consensual sexual expression?

KP: Activists have used biological determinism or the language of naturalness to make queerness acceptable and normal. Saying “I was born this way” is another way of saying “I too am a product of nature. This was God’s will. I do not need to be changed.” There are also some scientific studies about the supposed gay gene, which try to dispel the idea that people become gay if they have a cold and distant father or an overprotecting mother — an idea associated with causes of male homosexuality in traditional psychoanalysis. I would take this kind of research, if it can be called that, with a pinch of salt. If you discover the gay gene, what stops you from eliminating it? If you are fundamentally opposed to the right of queer people to exist, why would you let them be born?

There is a raging debate between biological determinism on one side, and social constructionism — including queer feminism — on the other side. The idea of gender or sex or orientation as an unchanging essence is already being challenged. There are individuals who ‘knew’ they were gay at the age of five, and there are those who ‘discovered’ it only after 30 or 40 years of age. Being queer encourages you to give up the idea of purity, of one uncontaminated truth. It makes you question the hegemonic power-knowledge structures. Bisexual and pansexual individuals are making us increasingly aware of the need to guard against our dogma about how sexual orientation works. There is no one way of being queer.