On 18th August, 2023, the Department of English, the University of Hyderabad, hosted a National Seminar titled Queer Spaces in Indian Milieu. The seminar was organized by Dr. Bhaskar Lama and Dr. Sireesha Telugu as a part of their project Queer Spaces in Sports, under the auspices of the Institution of Eminence (IoE), University of Hyderabad. The seminar was inaugurated by Prof. Ghanashyam Krishna, Director, IoE, and Prof. D. Murali Manohar, Head of the Department of English, both of whom addressed the audience and stressed the requirement of niche research projects affecting the Indian society in higher education institutions. The inaugural session was followed by in person and online lectures delivered by Prof. R. Raj Rao, author of acclaimed works like The Boyfriend, and visiting Faculty, Nalanda University, Dr Kathryn Hummel, School of Liberal Arts, MIT-WPU, Pune, Prof Niladri R Chatterjee, Department of English, University of Kalyani, Prof Pushpesh Kumar, Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad, Anil Kumar/Savithri, President and Founder, Mobbera Foundation and Kruthika N.S., Lawyer and Artist.
In his lecture titled “Dialectics of Non-Normative Male Single Sex Spaces in India”, Prof. Rao provided a provisional definition for Non-Normative Male Single Sex spaces, addressing its language, non-verbal cues, and mood. As examples, the speaker cited male-exclusive sites like nukkads (street corners), second-class train compartments, and men’s public urinals, while also drawing an overlap between filth and pleasure. He then discussed how such places aid males in expressing their homoerotic impulses. The audience raised questions on the future of same-sex marriage rights in India. Prof. Rao outlined twin approaches to deal with same sex marriage issue- moderate and radical. Dr. Hummel, in her lecture titled “Queer-in(g) the workplace: politics, roles and kinship impacting LGBTQ+ folks”, emphasized the necessity for policies that are tolerant to LGBTQ people in largely heteronormative Indian workplaces, which sometimes even reinforce caste, class, and other inequalities. Providing a thorough historical review of queer spaces in both precolonial and postcolonial India, she challenged conventional iterations of the public and private binary, and criticized tokenism and rainbow capitalism. She articulated the need for alliances between LGBT activists and other major movements. In the question answer session, the differential perception of queerness across the globe due to institutional and cultural disparities was discussed. Dr. Chatterjee, in his lecture “Queering the City: Krishnagopal Mallick and Kolkata”, defined queerness as the politics of being subversive or a “thwart’ as opposed to directly oppositional (like Feminism). He argued that there are only different spatial practices, not permanently queer spaces, through which any space can be designated heteronormative or queer. He read Krishnagopal Mallick’s text to demonstrate how the author presents conventionally heteronormative spaces (College Square, public buses, jewellery shops) as queer spaces based on the queer practices of the people in them. He extended the discussion by speaking on the political ramifications of Article 377, which decriminalized homosexual activities only in largely inaccessible private places.
In the post-lunch session, Prof Pushpesh Kumar presented his paper, “Distributing Pleasure in Sexoscape: Stories from Trans-sex-work”, and focused on how trans sex work is mainly about pleasure built into care. Through various testimonials, he pointed out that for most trans sex workers sex work is an ambivalent process with mixed emotions of desire and coercion, danger and pleasure, stigma and fulfillment, vulnerability and non-vulnerability, violence and empowerment and authentic and performative intimacy. He explained the terminology “Sexoscape” with the example of the “Addas”, where transgender sex workers stay, exert agency and enjoy acceptance despite their spatial characteristics of sensorial and corporeal darkness. He then explained the lack of demarcation between sex and care by narrating the experiences of the transgender sex workers interactions with clients and family. The question-and-answer session raised issues like the psychological dilemma faced by the trans sex workers, the upbringing of children by homosexual parents, caste and gender, and on cruel optimism related to trans sex work. Anil Kumar/Savithri, in their lecture “Queer Identities in Indian Setting”, spoke on the idea of queer families and parenting, and talked about the demonisation of transgender people by families, medical institutions, workplaces and hostile law enforcement officers. They explained how introducing more shelter homes is important for their survival. They then talked about apparently queer-friendly legal measures including the Transgender Act, (which they opposed for its inhuman treatment of trans individuals) and the NALSA judgement. They called for holistic sensitization programmes in educational institutions, workplaces and other institutions. In the question-and-answer session, issues like horizontal reservation for transgender people, the importance of discussions of caste within these communities, the commodification and appropriation of symbols significant to the LGBTQ community by capitalist institutions, and the possible allyship of educational institutions were raised. Kruthika N.S., in her lecture “How Inclusive Has Sport Been for Queer Athletes”, questioned the presence of a safe space in sports for the queer community, citing the examples of Dutee Chand, Lilly Thomas, and Caster Semenya as having faced scrutiny and obstacles that have prevented them from participating in sports by authorities. Citing deeply contentious, intrusive tests for higher testosterone levels like the Hormone test, she put forth the question of participation for non-binary and other gender non-conforming people. She revealed the lack of inclusivity in the language of these policy documents, inadequate infrastructural support, such as separate changing rooms, bathrooms, etc. and widespread bullying within sporting communities and team sports. She also questioned whether alternate sports such as Ultimate Frisbee are the way to a more equitable playing field for people across diverse genders. She concluded that sporting culture simply reflected what society prioritizes in general.
The Seminar ended with concluding remarks and a vote of thanks by a research scholar, who underlined how all the speakers dismantled conventional narratives through assertions like the differentiation of “men having sex with men” with homosexuality as an identity, the definition of queerness as being a subversive politic rather than an actual presence, and the detachment of ideas of trafficking from agential sex work. She underlined how all speakers discussed and played with definitions of queerness and space, and dismantled binaries like public-private, care-eroticism, homosexuality-heterosexuality, performative and agential pleasure. Eroticism and violence etc. She then spoke on how political and social ramifications of workplace policies, legislation like article 377 etc. and the intersection of class and caste with sexuality were discussed over the various sessions. She thanked all stakeholders in the Seminar on behalf of the organizers.
- Compiled by Laboni Mukherjee with inputs from Kashish, Kali Charan Dhara, Prakarsh Rai, Liya Abi, Mahima Varma, Morri Sushma and Moumita Debnath.