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The Rift in The Indian LGBTQ+ Movement

As the gavel falls on a September morning, hundreds of thousands of Indians flood the streets in joy. Section 377, the legal justification for violence and discrimination against people who identify with non-normative sexualities and genders has been scrapped by the supreme court. Some see the fall of section 377 as the light at the end of a long dark tunnel, but such optimism is not universal throughout the country. The world bank documents intense homophobia and transphobia present in India; people who identify with non-normative sexualities and genders are more likely to face harassment, discrimination, exclusion from the workforce, and health disparities (Badgett 48). Laws can change overnight, but systems of oppression are creative in their methods. LGBTQ rights have fast become a global issue, and the message is hard to ignore, but the transnationalization of the LGBTQ movement is informed through a western ethic that presents complications in the postcolonial era. The transnational movement operates in conjunction with western notions of progress and urbanization, which often leaves behind people who live in slums or rural areas in India (Shah 647–48).

Understanding and contextualizing the non-normative gender and sexuality struggle in India requires a framework that does not rely on western notions of gender. This framework is centered around Judith Butler’s definitions of gender as performance. “Naturalistic explanations of sex and sexuality” are denied by traditional feminists, but the idea of womanhood is readily accepted because it is “a construction that regularly conceals its genesis” (Butler 520–21). The traditional feminist might conclude that citizenship lies in the equality of men and women, but if gender itself is purely performative and distinct from sex, then the very idea of ‘woman’ or ‘man’ must be challenged. This motivates the claim that “‘woman’ is a historical idea and not a natural fact” (Butler 522). Gender is a historical construction that informs the performance associated with a particular sex. Breaking with expected performance has “clearly punitive consequences,” and this expectation is applied to all bodies based on sex (Butler 523). The historical and societal origins of gender must be analyzed to understand these performative expectations and how to break free of them. Understanding the struggle of non-normative genders and sexualities in India requires a careful analysis of the history of India. Gender norms are constructed through a “historical sedimentation” with layers built through colonialism, neocolonialism, and neoliberalism (Butler 524). These forces are not disjunctive, but rather a complicated intertwining of systems and influences that are everchanging. The long colonial history of India and its aftermath have direct historical through lines to political forces associated with Hindu Nationalism. These forces are complex but must be understood to motivate a new conception of radical performance unrooted from westernized identities and unified against the ruling neoliberal class.

Historical and Political Construction of Gender Norms

India’s colonial past seeps into every part of daily and political life. These effects can be understood in terms of the greater global cultural economy and the scapes that influence its flow (Appadurai). Arjun Appadurai theorized that the five disjunctive scapes can help us understand how normative conceptions of gender roles have sedimented. The five scapes are ethnoscapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, ideoscapes, and mediascapes. These scapes are intended as a model for understanding how transnational forces influence and change a nation. Appadurai’s framework can be used to understand the cultural flow of forces that have shaped India. This framework is an especially useful tool to understand India’s postcolonial politics and history: from Nehru to Modi, from British rule to the largest democracy in the world, and from the conception of Section 377 and its end. It is important to acknowledge and take into account India’s pre-colonial and colonial history, but the majority of effects that contribute to the current cultural flow are primarily postcolonial in nature.

Ethnoscapes are the basis for global cultural flow. An ethnoscape is described as “the landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live: tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guestworkers” (Appadurai 297). The Indian ethnoscape can be characterized by internal and external movements of people in search of social and economic mobility. The current political environment begins with the partition between India and Pakistan. The bloodiness of the partition has motivated the belief that India needs a form of national unity, the basis for this unity has been historically contested between secular nationalism and Hindu nationalism (Varshney 238–39). The Indian ethnoscape operates under a politics of anxiety and fear of cultural homogenization. The “landscape” of people and movement in India cannot be fully characterized without consideration of the Indian diaspora, who often move away for greater economic opportunity in what is a neoliberally driven ‘brain drain’. This neoliberal subtext reifies many different class inequalities present in India, and it is key to understanding the treatment and perception of people of non-normative sexualities and gender in India. This idea can be better understood once we examine the transnational finanscape and technoscape.

Technology is the fuel used by today’s increasingly complex global system, and the exponential nature of technological progress allows modern technoscapes to remain elusive. In the 30 years since Appadurai theorized the technoscape, the flows and interconnected nature of technology have only increased (297). The assertion that the technoscape is “not driven by any obvious economies of scales” and rather by “increasingly complex relationships between money flows, political possibilities, and the availability of both low and highly-skilled labor” recognizes the commodification of worker’s productivity (298). Ordinary people are the means of production in the modern technoscape. The lives of Indians have been constantly influenced by neocolonial forces driven by the profit motive seeking to exploit their productivity. Labor is the chief export as Indians leave to become “waiters and chauffeurs to Dubai” or “software engineers to the United States” (298). This trend has only accelerated driven by the rise in outsourcing. In its relatively short postcolonial history, industrialization and production have been the center of the Indian political ideoscape. The conception of modernity stretches back to Nehru, the first prime minister, who “sought a solution in modernity and economic development” (Dutta 239). Nehru’s brand of secular nationalism centered around modernity, but it gave way to the BJP and Prime Minister Modi. The city soon becomes a “site of consumption” complemented by the rural as the “site of extraction — of natural resources, and alas of migrant labor” (Shah 648). Modi himself has promised to build “100 ‘smart cities’ during his tenure” (Shah 648). The centering of the urban as modern and the rural as backward has greatly contributed to the phenomenon of homonormativity and the systemic oppression of intersectional minorities in rural India.

These economic trends underscore the perceptions of non-normative sexualities and genders throughout India in contradictory ways. Postcolonial states constantly seek the balance between reclaiming their history and power on the global stage. Poverty is associated with uncleanliness and lower social status, but the poor villages of India are seen as the core of its national identity. The dual nature of the village has given rise to homonormativity, a largely transnational transplant into the cities of India. In the city those who may identify with the transnational ‘LGBT’ movement have found commonality and success in the legal struggle for “state recognition and citizenship rights,” but there is a cost (Shah 637). The intersection of class, sexuality, and gender has created a divide among urban and rural movements for citizenship and equality. Urban activists cheer and march for their rights; in the same breath, they lecture the ‘unruly’ transgender activists about respect3 (Dutta 111). Homonormativity as a concept does not seek to invalidate the lived experiences and traumas of many Indians who strongly identify with the LGBT movement, but it recenters non-normative identities with critical attention to class. In the west, homonormativity has been characterized by “LGBT recognition and visibility” which is mostly centered around “relatively elite queers into nationality, citizenship, and socio-cultural respectability” (Dutta 113). In India, homonormativity takes a sinister form as hijras and kothis “are sought to be excluded or disciplined” for “any overtly assertive aggressive public display of gender non-conformity” (Dutta 112). Adverse reactions to non-normative gender performance can turn into violence or death for those who live in the margins of Indian society. When members of the LGBT movement themselves reify notions of ‘appropriate’ performance gendered violence is validated.

Citizenship is based on this exclusion, and homonormativity reifies stereotypes of transgender and nonbinary Indians as uncleanly, lacking respect, and lazy. This intersection of gender identity and class serves to divide the movement for equality. This divide is built upon a politics of individuality and precarity. There is a “widespread sense of existential insecurity” spurred by “the availability of quality jobs, reliability and stability of social standing, effective protection against social degradation, and immunity from denial dignity” (Bauman 29–31). For the postcolonial subject, this precarity is often heightened; lack of political stability, extreme poverty, and life in the slums are all visible realities. This fear is at the center of the Indian ideoscape, which has been so deeply molded by its colonial past that it can no longer effectively recenter. The deep gashes of colonialism will not heal so quickly.

The cultural trauma of colonialism complicates notions of what is and is not Indian. Every idea is seen as a western import or an archeologically discovery of pre-colonial India. The partition and modern forces of globalization created competing ethics of being Indian, secular nationalism, Hindu nationalism, and various ethnonationalist subgroups (Varshney 227). India, like many other postcolonial nations, is a cobbled-together state of hundreds of ethnicities and identities. In the years after the partition Nehru and the Congress Party attempted to unite India through a secular nationalism based on modernity and development, the last 30 decades have seen the basis of nationalism shift to Hinduism (Varshney 239). The line between Indian and non-Indian is increasingly blurred with the line between Hindu and other. Capitalizing on the precarity of the Indian people, the Bharatiya Janata Party has risen to power unifying India’s government with a political majority for the first time in history. Nehru’s secularism was rejected as a “western concept with foundations in Enlightenment and Reformation,” and Hinduism became synonymous with Indian (Varshney 245). The supposed universality of enlightenment has been replaced in the postcolonial era around the diaspora of ‘keywords’ (Appadurai 300). Historically rooted Hinduism is claimed to be the moral authority. Rural India becomes the false remnant of a static pre-colonial idea that was never real.

Gandhi himself is the foundation for this argument, and through the postcolonial frame, we see the rural and urban pitted against each other once again. “Villages were authentically Indian because of their adherence to normative sexuality,” demonstrated through, “adopted forms of dress seen as nationalist” (Shah 644–45). The rejection of garb seen as western, and the adoption of ‘traditional’ Hindu dress reifies class inequality and the gender binary. In the villages of India any display that is “non-normative or non-local” is seen as anti-Indian (Shah 645). Fears of cultural homogenization are seen as grave threats, and the preservation of the village is seen as equal to the preservation of Indian culture. These fears are based on a static construction of ‘Indian’ which does not take into account the basic needs of those who live on the margins, or the dynamic and diverse nature of the village. This reduction is also seen in constructions of pre-colonial history. Two thousand years of history are condensed into three digestible periods that inform the norms present today. First, there is pre-colonial India, then the Mughal empire, and finally the British Raj. The classification is simple: pre-colonial India is seen as rich and powerful, the height of India. The Mughals and British are seen as invaders whose ideas must now be cleansed to reach the height once again. This perception of History is false; its lies have justified Islamophobia, intense nationalism, and classism. Section 377 is the lie that wounded people of non-normative sexualities and genders for so long. Two years after its repeal scars are still visible, and for many rural Indians, blood is still being spilled.

Section 377

Section 377 was a remnant of the Indian penal code instituted during the British Raj. Its primary motivation was to criminalize homosexuality through illegalizing “‘carnal intercourse of nature with any man, woman or animal’ (Indian Penal Code 1860)” (Shah 639). Section 377 codified and legitimized state-sponsored violence and management of people who identify with non-normative genders and sexualities. The movement for citizenship rights has been historically centered around section 377 seemingly contradictory to Indian nationalist sentiment. The first challenge to section 377 was met with a successful appeal by “religious fundamentalist activists of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian faiths” (Shah 640). Since the beginning of the Indian political project, section 377 was used “as a form of social control in everyday life by the police” mirroring the forms of biopolitical control theorized by Achille Mbembé (Shah 640). The lives of non-conforming peoples are cast as “foreign peoples” which justifies the “sovereign right to kill” through racism (Mbembé 17). The terror induced by section 377 during its 158-year rule (1860–2018) was used as a mechanism for control by the state and biological families. The colonial roots of the law complicate its perception amongst the non-normative sexualities and genders. Many LGBT activists employ a “nostalgic idealization of a libertarian Hindu antiquity or the purported pre-colonial tolerance of different sexualities” (Dutta 120). Once again, a rift appears within non-normative communities in Indian politics, this time centered around Hinduism.

The intersection between Hindu-nationalism and people of non-normative sexualities and genders is not monolithic in nature, and oftentimes trends in directions of traditionalist rhetoric. The appeal to a pre-colonial Hindu ethic oftentimes “[attributes] the historical rise of homophobia to Muslim invasions, and thus mirroring a classic trope of Hindu-right nationalism” (Dutta 121). This Hindu-normative ethic fails to account for the intersections at the margins of society between non-normative sexualities and genders and minority religions and beliefs. The modern-day LGBT movement in India was built for the middle-class and middle-caste ‘global’ citizen. The most perverse of injustices lies in the treatment of transgender, hijra, and kothi Indians. Section 377 may have been repealed in 2018, but it was merely a justification for the management of impoverished hijra and kothi populations. Ascriptions of hijras as lacking shame and respect serve to naturalize gender/sexual and caste/class order (Dutta 126). Even as the transnational movement makes strides towards its goals of equity and equality, many are left out. Attempts to unify the movements have failed because of the shortcomings of the identities accounted for in the LGBT movement. The broad spectrums of intersectional and complex identities in conjunction with language barriers are “unable to adequately reference the various historical streams of each category” and have the power to erase “non-normative subjects who exist outside of any of these frames” (Shah 643). Fears associated with cultural homogenization are a traumatic reminder of India’s colonial history. The will to produce a modern Indian identity without succumbing to outside pressure is a hallmark of all Indian nationalist movements. The class and caste-based rifts present in the fight for equality are intentional rifts produced by neoliberal governance and Hindu nationalism. The colonizer finds it easier to control many small tribes than one large one.

The centering of the movement around section 377 led to a Hindu-normative middle-class ethic that fed off of the precarity of the neoliberal subject. The oppression of non-normative sexualities and genders in India is multifaceted with complex intersections. There are religious, classist, and transphobic rifts within the movement; all underscored by a history of colonialism. The postcolonial world is driven by neoliberalism. Community-based ethics have been replaced by individualism. A radical reimagination of the movement based on public and theatrical performance is necessary to overcome these shortcomings.

The Power of Performance

The need for a new national movement for non-normative sexualities and genders in India is heartbreakingly apparent. As long as the transnational LGBT movement centers on governmental policy and a libertarian ethic, those on the margins of Indian society will continue to be cast aside. Historical sedimentation of sex, gender, and heterosexuality are reified as natural over time; undermining this sedimentation requires understanding the mechanisms by “which these constructs are produced, reproduced, and maintained within the field of bodies” (Butler 524–25). Through a historical analysis of acceptable gender performance, roles become well-defined through governmental and cultural action. Changing the scope of acceptable performance is not a viable individualistic undertaking. The sociological conditions of oppression may be reinforced through individual action, but the simple erasure of that action can not change the condition of oppression (Butler 525). The fall of section 377 did not lead to a utopian vision of acceptance and understanding, and it certainly did not erase the centuries of trauma endured. Gender is a learned act which “originate[s] within the family and [is] enforced through certain familial modes of punishment,” thus gender is a Pavlovian response reinforced in an individualistic fashion (Butler 526). This act is legitimized and naturalized through repetition much like a script, but the actor has no choice in their voice. There may be room for interpretation, but it is within the confines of this script that the performance must take place. Any deviation will be disciplined. Actors are not born with “passively scripted cultural codes,” nor are bodies “lifeless recipients of wholly pre-given cultural relations.” (Butler 526). The same forces that sediment gendered norms can also be used to uproot them. Communal and repeated non-normative performance has the power to change the social laws that normative performance sediments. Acts are inherently individual, but they render the actor visible, and repeated action stands to change perceptions through empathy. The process of changing norms is the “transforming [of] hegemonic social conditions” (Butler 525). Butler urges caution on the overreliance on acts but acknowledges that acts have the power to modify conditions. Acts and conditions are then understood to be dialectic in nature; one cannot be modified without changing the other.


The movement for citizenship rights for all peoples of non-normative sexualities and genders in India is deeply fragmented and cannot adequately address the suffering of the vast diversity of identities in India. This fragmentation is based on a situation of precarity brought upon by modernity and a global system of neoliberalism. The current LGBT movement is based on a transnational ethic focused on individual rights, which reifies traditional gender norms and leaves behind people at the margins. Socioeconomic status and religion become a part of urban homonormativity as the rural is left behind. There can be no true movement for citizenship rights without challenging the underpinning systems of religious supremacy and commodification of labor. Division amongst the movement ensures limited progress, but performative action can begin to change these hegemonic norms. Shifting from a liberal individualistic focus to a community-based uplifting is key to undermining the power of capitalistic forces. A syncretic movement tolerant of religious and linguistic diversity is the only way to change public perception and de facto discrimination.


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