Queerphobia Kills: An Indian Story of Love(lessness)

“Pride is a revolution, not a party.

You are invited to join us if you dare.”

June marks the most important time for the LGBTQIA+ community as it is celebrated as ‘Pride Month’. A lot of cishets[1] tend to come to pride, not in solidarity but as they consider it a party. The masses of outrageous outfits, the colourful parades, for them pride is a celebration. They aren’t wrong to think of pride as a celebration. Pride is a celebration of the long way the community has come since the first movement in Stonewall, but it is also a time to introspect. It is a time to think about how far the community has come, and how much further it has to go. The LGBTQIA+ people continue to live on the fringes of society, afraid of coming out of the closet. It provides security against society and its prejudices. In the closet, they are safe.

Queerphobia is rampant in society, managing to permeate into all aspects of social life. Dr. Sue assigns the term ‘micro-aggression’ to refer to “constant and continuing everyday reality of slights, insults, invalidations, and indignities visited upon marginalized groups by well-intentioned, moral, and decent… [people][2]”. He means that since citizens undergo a social conditioning process which they aren’t immune to, they imbue unconsciously within themselves prejudice, stereotypes and beliefs even though they may uphold egalitarian values consciously[3]. By this, Dr Sue implies that people themselves are not liable for their ‘anti-minority’ actions since they do not intend it that way. While the influence of societal structures on people is undeniable, it opens up a pandora’s box. While they may be influenced, is it fair of them to not sensitise themselves to unlearn prejudice? 

Prejudices shape many experiences of the queer community and how they identify shapes the perception of the people around them. If you are lesbian, you must be a man-hater. If you’re bisexual, you are greedy and can’t choose. If you are gay, you must like glitter and pink. If you are asexual, you must be lying. If you are aromantic, someone will change your mind. If you are a trans girl, do you still have your penis? These are only some of the stereotypes which queer people have to face every day.

People say that society is better, that the LGBTQ+ community is welcome. Yet mental health diagnosis indicates that 10% of adolescent queer youth demonstrate a mood disorder, 25% anxiety disorder and 8.3% show substance abuse. Moreover, suicide is the third leading cause of death for queers between 10 to 14 years and the second leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 (CDC 2012)[4] Thereby, it is abundantly clear that prejudices from society are not gone, and they lead to mental distress for queers which may often lead to suicide. Queerphobia kills, and this is not an American phenomenon alone.

In this regard, Russel and Fish raise an important question. They question why the mental health of queer youth is urgent if there has been a dramatic social change regarding the societal acceptance of the LGBTQIA+. To them, social changes have allowed contemporary queer youth to come out. However, this corresponds to a development period ‘characterised by potentially intense interpersonal and social regulation of gender and sexuality, including homophobia’[5].

To explain the mental health disparities in queers, Meyer’s (1995, 2003) minority stress theory serves as a foundational framework. It posits that sexual minorities experience distinct, chronic stressors related to their stigmatised identities, including victimisation, prejudice and discrimination. Meyer says in addition to every day (or universal stressors), these distinct experiences disproportionately compromise queer health and well-being[6].

Dr Sue may be cited to help explain these distinct experiences as posited by Meyer. He says that LGBTQIA sexual-orientation reality is different from the sexual-orientation reality of cishets. As a result, it is difficult for cishets to understand the differences in experiential realities under the coercive influence of societal and personal aversions. The heteronormative society not only lends trouble for cishets to understand the LGBTQIA+ community, but it also contributes to conflict for the community itself as a result of having to struggle between heteronomitivity and personal experience. This means that their sexual/gender identity often causes conflict when having to grow up under heteronormative norms, leading them to deny their ‘abhorrent feelings’ as they try to maintain the guise of heterosexuality. Often, this presents itself in the form of ‘internalised homophobia’, or “the internalisation and acceptance of negative societal attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes directed toward a devalued or marginalised group by the LGBT individual”.[7]

What Meyer and Dr Sue are trying to say is that the LGBTQIA+ experience is distinct in itself and the whole experience in itself. This way, it may be argued that the LGBTQIA+ is a society in itself distinct from the cishet world- in their reality, the norms and rules differ. This may be argued because the LGBTQIA+ community, despite coming from different societies world over, have a singular and universal experience; thereby being connected by being queer. As their ‘queerness’ plays a role in their identity politics, their experience of society is distinct from a cishet person. As an example, take marriage. For cishets, this is the bonding between a male and a female. However, for queers, this is not only bonding between two people, but the assertion of their identity by way of shattering heteronormative culture. Therefore, since the experience of real marriage for a queer and a cishet has such different meaning and implications, it means that their experience of reality is distinct.

Despite the growing activism to mainstream sexual minority groups in India by various NGOs and civil society institutions, contrary to the attempts to normalise recognition of acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ communities, a large section believe these efforts to be a threat to the social, cultural and moral fabric of the nation[8]. Queerphobia extends from the common person to the ministers of Parliament. When Shashi Tharoor tried to introduce a Private Members Bill to alter Section 377 in 2016, his PMB wasn’t even allowed to be introduced, which is arguably the highest form of parliamentary intolerance. Its introduction would not have even guaranteed a discussion, with legislative analyst Aparna remarking, “the chance of a bill coming up for discussion is harder a gamble than hitting a jackpot in a casino slot machine”[9]. This example exemplifies a sad truth about the Indian society- not only are they queerphobic, but their terror of the LGBTQIA+ also prevents them from even acknowledging this minority group.

This terror is even though people have practised every possible form of sexual gratification throughout history in every culture and society[10]. Kane argues that Hindu mythology displays elements of gender variance and non-heteronormative sexualities. She argues that LGBTQIA+ themes are documented through ancient literature, folk tales, art and performing arts alike while honouring the reproductive connection between man and woman. For example, Mohini is the female avatar of Vishnu who exhibits gender variability and even becomes pregnant. As an example of non-heteronormative relations, Agni is married both to the goddess Svaha and the male Moon-god Soma[11]. If Indians can accept their gods as LGBTQIA+, why can’t they accept people?

Kole postulates that this is because sexual/gender identity has never been a political struggle agenda until recently despite the existence of homosexuality in traditional societies. He further states that discourse around human sexuality, truth and power was produced in the postmodern, post industrialist capital societies of the west which after which coming out became an important indicator of a ‘developed’ society. As a result, traditional societies which did not adopt these modern notions became inferior and needed outside intervention[12].

Before this, keeping any group invisible was the most effective way of keeping them out of the discourse, thereby contributing to the contemporary LGBTQIA+ movement’s common theme to be visible and valid. Before 1970s, society kept a form of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy intact- the price of coming out to oneself was the deep closet[13]. In Indian society, people hesitate to come out till date. When they do come out, Indian queers are often kicked out of their homes, dragged to conversion therapy, made to visit religious leaders so that they may be purified or at the very least told ‘it’s a phase’/‘you are going to get married to (opposite sex) in the end so have your fun in your youth’.

In India, this policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is particularly popular. Indian culture is on inherently based on a patriarchal and hierarchical structure. What this means is that Indian society is stratified based on caste and gender. The power dynamics formed thus consider whether a person is a man or a woman first and then ask which caste they belong to. While intersectionality of identities may play a role, with factors like (economic) class, education etc contributing to identity and power politics, these are exemptions which are made on a strict case to case basis. The question of does caste and gender brings up the question of how it contributes to the LGBTQIA+ discourse in India?

Existing alongside caste are two concepts central to its survival- marriage and babies. In a traditional setting, it becomes most convenient for a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’ to make babies due to their biological compatibility. As a result, heteronormative couples are preferred over same-sex couples. This is because a baby is an heir for the continuation of the family name, the caste legacy. Indian society, especially dominant Upper-Class Hindus, is extremely aggressive in the continuation of their caste’s dominance- and without the possibility of an heir (preferably a male one), how is their caste to remain on top?

Especially applicable in the case of gay relations, comes the question of surnames. While seemingly a small matter, the implications of surnames, have enormous social credentials as the surname often depicts the caste of a person. In a male-female dynamic, this is easy to resolve. Since the female is inferior in the hierarchy, she will take the husband’s surname and be inducted into his caste. The question is slightly more complicated between two men- who is to take the whose name? And even if gay marriage is allowed, how should the question be decided?

Queerphobia dates back a long time in India history, though perhaps its loudest influence may be seen in the colonial period. Though imported by the British, Section 377 of the IPC is notorious for being queerphobic, with disgust and contempt overpowering its themes. Now overturned, s377 provides an incisive look at the nature of the Indian society, revealing it for its prejudiced outlook; after all this is an act about homosexuality conceived by the man who called homosexual sex ‘odious and revolting’. The path to its decriminalisation was a rocky road, having to face several obstacles. In 2003, the government was reluctant to decriminalisation s377 since it would ‘open the floodgates of delinquent behaviour’. A decade later in 2013, the Supreme Court held that LGBT people were a ‘minuscule minority bearing so-called rights’, though we’re finally overturned. Yet the fact that it continued to exist years after the departure of the British, with some opposing its abrogation, speaks volumes about the society[14].

The HIV/Aids epidemic arrived in India in the 1990s, from which homosexuality was linked to disease and contagion in the public mind; a philosophy which continues till date. In 1992, 18 men were arrested by the Delhi police on allegations that while they weren’t engaged in intercourse but “were about to indulge in homosexual acts”[15].

Queerphobia in Indian society may be seen in numerous actions, and the unfortunate reality for India, and the world over is, is that it often leads to suicide. Take the example of 2017 when a lesbian couple jumped to their death because “we have left this world to live with each other. The world did not allow us to stay together”[16] or that of Anjana Hareesh, a bisexual who committed suicide in 2020. Recently, she had spoken about her family who had prima facie tortured her due to her sexual orientation. Unfortunately, the story is not new- many die at the hands of the ways life is made unbearable for queer people[17].

Despite substantial progress, the contribution of queer youth to suicide death is only a matter of recent interest and controversy. 8 peer-reviewed studies have found high rates of suicide attempts involving samples of queer youth[18].  This implies that despite the prevalence and high risk of suicide attempts as well as hard death rates, the Indian society continues to ignore the issue. It remains satisfied in its veil of ignorance, after all, these are the people often overlooked in favour of arbitrary social norms. This not only speaks to queerphobia in Indian society but a mental health crisis for the queers in the nation.

Queerphobia has ravaging effects on Indian queers. They live in a society which does not accept them for who they are but instead judges them for who they are not. This results in a form of violence, whether in homophobic hate crimes or in subtle gestures, which is committed against them every day. This leads to depression, anxiety as well as suicidal ideation; for them to question their existence and to hate their reality. The society belittles them, it denies and the question it needs to ask itself is simple. Are we willing to overlook their prejudices to save innocent lives?

[1]‘Cishets’ is a way of referring to straight people within the LGBTQIA+ community and stands for ‘cis-gendered heteronormative’ 

[2]Dr. Derald Wing Sue. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. John Wiley & Sons, Inc: New Jersey, USA [2010]

[3] Id

[4]Stephen T. Russell, Jessica N. Fish. Mental Health in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Youth. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology (12) 465-487 [2016] https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-021815-093153

[5]Id at 4

[6] Id

[7] Id

[8]Subir K Kole. Globalizing queer? AIDS, homophobia and the politics of sexual identity in India. Global Health 3, 8 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1186/1744-8603-3-8

[9] https://www.huffingtonpost.in/nandan-sharalaya/a-lok-sabha-of-homophobic_b_9442244.html?utm_hp_ref=in-homophobia

[10] Id at 5

[11] https://indianexpress.com/article/parenting/blog/storytelling-lgbt-themes-in-hindu-mythology-5273332/

[12] Id at 5

[13]Dr. Derald Wing Sue. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. ‘Chapter 9: Sexual-Orientation Microaggressions and Heterosexism’. John Wiley & Sons, Inc: New Jersey, USA [2010]

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/06/india-lgbt-homophobia-section-377

[15] Id

[16] Id

[17] https://livewire.thewire.in/gender-and-sexuality/anjana-hareeshs-death-reveals-a-crisis-in-mental-healthcare-in-india/

[18] Story, PhD, MichaelD.Resnick, PhD, and Robert Blum, MD, PhD

Vallika Varshri from Jindal Global Law School (O.P. Jindal Global University).

You can find her here.

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