Mapping Sexuality in India: Insights from the CSGS Project

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How do we make sense of the vast field of gender and sexuality studies in India? Do we look for it in the realm of academia or activism, institutions or associations, pedagogies or policies, publications or protests, movements or media? How can these categories enrich our understanding and make legible the politics of gender and sexuality?

Through a one-stop resource directory, Mapping Sexuality in India project by the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality brings together the complex, plural narratives that shape the field of gender and sexuality. The project maps these spaces, forms, and events as active markers of people’s engagements with gender and sexuality studies. It is an urgent resource to produce knowledge that can help researchers, activists and media outlets as they work on gender and sexuality in India.

While the resources presented are far from being exhaustive, the idea has been to bring together: i.) institutions and organisations including research and academic centres, non-governmental organisations, publishing houses, support groups and collectives; ii.) publications covering multiple genres focusing on literature, politics, development discourse, state and citizenship, law, art and popular culture, society, religion and customary practices; iii.) events including queer festivals, ‘pride’ walks, and conferences; iv) digital spaces that cover blogs, archives, media, photo projects, support groups; and v.) audio-visual material that include films, documentaries, dramas, animations, music videos, performances, plays and podcasts. The categorisation does not suggest that these entries are watertight compartments; however, this approach enables easy access to navigate the directory and the kind of resources listed therein.

In the data visualization, the project has clubbed organisations and institutions, since there are overlaps both in their work as well as their impact on the socio-cultural and political discourse of gender and sexuality. They have, more often than not, a ground presence that shapes, influences, produces, reproduces, contests and challenges popular understandings on questions of identity, rights, desire, fantasy, pleasure, personal, political. At the same time, organisations and institutions also have different modes of formation, approach, and outreach. While organisations may be formed due to people’s collective actions, most of the research centres as part of institutions are formed under the various programs of the University Grants Commission (UGC), and hence, have the State’s involvement. In addition, these institutions and organisations are not the sole determinants of shaping the discourse in the field of gender and sexuality studies. Very often, individual activism, collective political engagements, and/or disparate life incidents affect the progress and frictions created in the field; and in the process, each element works to shape the field in particular ways. In the course of the data collection process, it has also been interesting to see the ways — although not exclusive — through which gender and sexual identities primarily appear in the work of organisations and institutions. Issues and questions dealing with women, LGBTQ, Trans, sex workers are mostly approached through the human rights framework, that of Hijra, Kothi, Panthi, MSM through the HIV / AIDS discourse, men through the prevention of gender violence discourse, children and adolescents through the prevention of sexual abuse discourse. The engagement with issues concerning persons with disability is one of the few interventions that approaches sexuality in a sex-affirmative manner.

In the publication category, the data has been primarily sorted based on the recurring themes covered in modules being offered by academic departments and centres across the country. These themes reflect the trends in the field over the decades, even as the project restricted itself to a resource directory and has not quantitatively engaged with trending topics and citations within particular periods. It is also interesting to note that the discourse on development with its focus on economics, labour and livelihood, land ownership, is quite prominent in the field of gender and sexuality studies. This intensive engagement appears to be directly related to action research, community outreach, and other extension programs undertaken by institutions and organisations. There are also a variety of historical events and political movements that have pushed the engagement with certain topics within the gender and sexuality discourse. The pre-independence women’s movement and later as it became a catalyst for furthering feminist discourse with all its heterogeneities, the conversations around reservation, the LGBTQ movement and the collective political mobilisation of gender and sexual minorities, HIV/AIDS epidemic and influx of funds leading to a spurt in organisations engaged in targeted interventions, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and other legal interventions, are some debates that appear in the published work on the field.

The audio-visual materials and digital spaces include works and online spaces that explicitly deal with themes of gender and sexuality. Such archiving is especially difficult, considering that gender and sexuality are so central to our lives and in one way or the other, most films, documentaries, music videos do reflect the policing of bodies, genders, desires and queerness in certain ways, even if tangentially. This makes it challenging to gather the relevant material. The project also contains entries across categories that have historical relevance for the discourse; for example, Lihaaf by Ismat Chugtai, Prateeksha by Rajendra Yadav in publications, and Badnaam Basti by Prem Kapoor in audio-visual materials.

To be able to present this data in user-friendly and meaningful ways, one concern was the starting point of the project and the amount of information to be contained in such an expansive study. The project team constantly shared, reflected on, contested and reimagined the logics of inclusion and exclusion that form this project. As a result, there are limitations that such a process entails. For example, the publication category primarily lists works by people who are based in India. This is not with the claim that scholars, activists, and interventions based elsewhere do not impact the field but that the process of collecting such data has been initiated in a particular direction. The larger goal of this project is also for it to continue being a living, breathing directory that becomes more comprehensive over time as it is updated by seeking regular user inputs on the data. As for next steps, the project team is also working to add legal judgments to the directory that have been crucial in pushing certain debates on gender and sexuality. Additionally, the project also admits to being largely focused on resources in the English language and therefore, data collection has been limited. However, the project envisions the directory as an interactive space, one that would keep improving and expanding just as the field of gender and sexuality studies has over time.

The Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality presents this directory as a site to preserve, aggregate and consolidate people’s voices, and pull together multiple strands of intersections and contestations in the mosaic of gender and sexuality. It is an attempt to enrich the counter narratives that challenge dominant forms and sites of knowledge production. The intention of this compilation is also a challenge to the current political climate that seeks to kill the plurality of voices that one must strongly hold on to. Finally, this project leaves it for the users to make sense of the directory and its contents as they will, each with their own interpretations and insights.

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Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality

The official blog of the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Ashoka University.