A New Language That Spoke of Change
An essay on Because I Have a Voice, an anthology edited by Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan
November 22, 2017
First published by Yoda Press in 2005, Because I Have a Voice was one of the first anthologies of its kind, written by queer people, for queer people, in “words chosen by [them] to be part of a new language that speaks of change just as it steps towards it” (Narrain and Bhan 1). By “queer”(and, by extension, “queer politics”), they mean the plethora of desires and identities that fall outside of and question the “naturalness” and “legitimacy” of the heteronormative and patriarchal social order. For them, qeer politics isn’t limited to talking about the issues faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. It also questions the structures of gender and sexuality that govern our society. Calling this queer politics is also a conscious attempt to appropriate a word that has, historically, been used derogatorily in order to shame and insult anyone who “deviates” from the heteronormative order.
The most important aspect of the politics that the book advocates is its inclusionary nature. They acknowledge more than once the importance of being allies of other movements. Movements against caste and class discrimination; against communalism; for child rights and human rights; the feminist movement: all of this falls within its ambit. Moreover, they admit that the queer movement is not without its faults. For instance, they acknowledge that “…the movement is rightly criticised for still being largely urban-based” (Narrain and Bhan 18).
Another thing that makes this book different from the ones that came before it is that the editors have consciously tried to include multiple aspects in the anthology. Most of books that came before either focussed on instances of violence and discrimination faced by the queer community at the macro level (mostly pioneered by groups like ABVA, Sangam, CALERI, and PUCL-K), or they dealt with the everyday lives of queer people (such as the anthologies on gay and lesbian writiting that were edited by Hoshang Merchant and Ashwini Sukthankar). “While one sketches the larger conceptual frameworks of the politics of sexuality, the other documents the reality of queer lives that must live and negotiate these very frameworks. Neither has, as yet, fed into the other, understanding how the everyday lives of queer people are politics in themselves, or how the politics of sexuality must emerge from the realities of queer lives” (Narrain and Bhan 19).
This book, on the other hand, has tried to be as comprehensive as possible. This is evident from the way it is structured. The first section has essays that deal with the theoretical frameworks that inform their understanding of sexuality and gender, as well as laying out the key principles and perspectives of queer politics. The second section comprises of accounts by various activists who have been working with queer communities in various ways and in different spaces. This section serves to “…document the victories, the setbacks, and the challenges ahead for the movement, [while] also serve as [a] space of self-reflection, as the writers/activists reflect on how the complex field of sexuality constantly forces them to rethink their own foundational assumptions” (Narrain and Bhan 19). This is followed by the final section, which is a collection of personal stories of how those who identify as queer negotiate their different “identities, desires, loves, faiths, and politics” in their everyday lives.
For me, one of the most eye-opening essays in the book was from the first section, “It’s Not My Job To Tell You That It’s Okay To Be Gay”, written by Arvind Narrain and Vinay Chandran. The essay is an exploration, and also an exposition, on the pathologisation of homosexuality within the medical discourse. They begin by briefly outlining how homosexuality has been understood in Western medicine before moving on to the Indian context, specifically, Bangalore. One of the most fascinating moments was when they describe how the Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) arrived at the decision of deleting homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. After the APA took the decision, its opponents asked for a referendum on the decision by all the members of the APA, which resulted in 58% voting in favour of its deletion. This is when it really hit home that the “the inclusion of homosexuality was as political a position as its deletion.” (Narrain and Chandran 61). They go on to talk about how the Indian medical establishment follows the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) classification of mental and behavioural disorders, which specifically lists that ego-dystonic homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality as mental disorders. It is considered ego-dystonic when the person wishes that their sexual orientation were different and seeks treatment for it. As pointed out by one of the doctors that Narrain and Chandra interviewed, the problem with this category is that there is no way to determine whether a person’s discomfort stems from their homosexuality/bisexuality itself, or from its social consequences. Besides, once the category exists, and a person is diagnosed with it, then there is no choice with the doctor but to “treat” it. It were insights like these—into how the medical community pathologises certain sexual orientations— that made this essay a compelling read.
Ten years later, in 2015, the ideas explored in this essay were expanded upon and published as a full-fledged academic book, called Nothing to Fix: Medicalisation of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, edited by the same duo and published by Yoda Press, in collaboration with Sage Publishing (India).
Image Courtesy: Little Black Book
Since the twelve years of Because I Have a Voice’s publication, the queer movement has certainly gained more visibility. At the time of publication, Kolkata was the only city which had a Pride Walk. Now, Pride Marches are held in about 20 cities across the country. However, from a legal standpoint, there hasn’t been much progress. Amidst much celebration, Section 377, which criminalises sex with a person of the same gender, was overturned by the Delhi High Court, on 2 July 2009. However, the Supreme Court overturned the judgement on 11 December 2011. On 2 February 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to reconsider its 2013 judgement. Most recently, on 24 August 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the right to privacy as a fundamental right, noting that “sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy." Despite this, Section 377 remains in effect.
When all is said and done, Because I Have a Voice remains a crucial read for anyone willing to explore queer politics because the theoretical frameworks that they explore remain relevant even now.
For instance, reading the recent Mental Health Care Bill and the essay by Narrain and Chandran offers a fresh insight. The Mental Health Care Bill offered some relief when it stated that there should be no discrimination, in access to mental health care and treatment, on the basis of “sexual orientation.” However, the same bill then goes on to state that mental illness shall be determined in accordance with, among other things, the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organisation (ICD). According to the latest ICD, ego-dystonic sexual orientation is still listed under mental disorders, although there has been a proposal for its declassification.
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