“Homosexuality and All That”
by Ishan Mehandru
At a recent book launch, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)leader, Ram Madhav mentioned a “beautiful internal democracy” operating within the structure of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), something that has let them take a stand on a variety of issues — for instance, concerning farmers and tribals (issues of national interest), concerning Muslims and women (issues that “traditionally the Left has championed”), and “even Homosexuality and all that” (supposedly a problem for present-day liberals).
While in the past the RSS has been vocal in its express disapproval of homosexual relations, calling it an “immoral act” and a “psychological case” that needs proper treatment, Madhav seemed to suggest that they can reconsider the “criminalization aspect of Section 377”. In 2016, the RSS had said that sexual preferences are a “private and personal choice” — suggesting that as long as it does not affect “the lives of others in the society”, homosexuality can be decriminalized. Oddly enough, “privacy” is also the argument that many members of the LGBTQ+ community rely on, asserting that the ways in which people express their sexuality should not be privy to State regulation.
The flip side of relegating “homosexuality and all that” to the realm of individual preferences, however, is to view sexuality in isolation from our social locations. Arguing in her 1984 essay, “Thinking Sex: A Radical Theory in the Politics of Sexuality”, Gayle Rubin posited that at least in the western worldview, the organization of acceptable sexuality across the ages was the result of paradigmatic shifts in dominant political ideologies. Perhaps it is possible to look at the underlying politics of Ram Madhav’s statement in this light, asking what more can it tell us about the ruling party’s idea of social marginalisation?
Sexuality as a Social Position
Rubin argues that sexuality itself is not to be understood through biological essentialism — that is, it does not exist prior to our interaction with the rest of the world. Instead, it comes into formation through the simultaneous acceptance and rejection of the structures of social power that go into our making. Accepting one’s sexual orientation publicly, is not only a matter of knowing what one desires, but is also governed by one’s access to such a discourse (a certain language to accept one’s “queerness”), a collective perhaps, to encounter those who share this identity with you, a certain economic position that enables you to access these networks, or conversely, pushes you towards them.
The acceptance of such an identity is often automatically accompanied with a label of social aberration — even a pathological tendency to be clubbed together for your appearance, your speech, your mannerisms, your preferences and tastes. And because you opt for these (or are left with little else to turn to in any case), you are also simultaneously excluded from popular narratives of social existence. Often complaining about such a marginalisation aloud means suffering at the hands of those on whom all irony is lost — who say your problems belong to the “first world”. And if not scornful rejection, your objections are met with violent reactions, structural coercions, where you are made to submit for the greater good of the family, the community, or worse, the nation. If, on the other hand, you accept marginalization, you accept being categorized as the “miniscule minority” — and Rubin points out that this is much the same way in which racism or religious ethnocentrism operates.
A Moral Panic?
Political economy hence, is not restricted to matters of class; it also affects gender and sexuality, which in turn reinforce other forms of discrimination. And while challenging the law (as in the case of the petitions filed against Section 377) becomes an important means of challenging discrimination, it is naive to forget that social control is exerted through extra-legal forms of power. In the 60s and the 70s for instance, Rubin argues that the Western world entered into a zone of “moral panic”, persecuting communists and homosexuals alike.
What would it mean to define such a moral panic in our times and immediate political environment? The political rhetoric of Hindutva, or electoral rhetoric in general, is already steeped in a hyper-masculine register that requires us to be a certain kind of citizen. Even when the RSS says that they do not care for “personal preferences” in sex, they do legitimize certain sexualities. In some sense, when our leaders are not persecuting the Other, they are asking us to put their faith in a “56-inch chest” or be a man enough to protect the honour of our “motherland”. Thus, apart from literally treating homosexuality as a psychological aberration, we are also asked to privilege the hyper-masculine over and above all sexual selves in a bid to maintain our nationhood.
Sex as Political
This privileging is what should really alarm us and alert us to the political undercurrents of Ram Madhav’s statement. While Madhav feels that the “RSS has [also] taken over” the space for dialogue on homosexuality, he still places sexuality at the lower end of all political concerns, overlooking the discriminatory force that this discourse currently constitutes.
Social stratification works through the seemingly intimate ways in which we relate to other people, as well as express our own identities to the world at large. While our class positions, for instance, might also mitigate this other form of stratification that the RSS has so reluctantly come to talk about, it doesn’t exactly make oppression disappear. Instead, it forces us to conform to a status quo that aids us in a tenuous cycle of self-hate.
Sexuality too is “political” in as much that it places us in a pecking order of social preference. Whether or not we get access to easy housing, a cooperative space to study or are simply comfortable enough in walking down the street — things that are limited and bound by our social markers — are all very much a part of our sexual selves as well. Our existence as social citizens is, hence, also measured in all that our sexual choices forbid us from doing. Sadly enough, the failure to recognize this is not restricted to the RSS, but resonates across the mainstream political spectrum.