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May 2, 1998


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Stand up and be counted gay!

That, pretty much, summed up the message poet and writer R Raj Rao delivered at a tumultous workshop on 'Whither the homosexual movement in India' at the Humsafar Centre in Bombay last week.

Professor Rao, openly homosexual himself, argued that "homosexuals should come out and become politicised to fight for their rights in India."

"Only when your homosexuality becomes a passionate identity can a gay movement become a success in this country," was pretty much the underlying tenor of Professor Rao's speech.

"India," said the writer, "is saddled with its civilisation. We have to reject the whole package of culture and politics if we are to get our rights and freedom."

Having said that, he went on to advocate that gays in India not only unite openly, but also enter into coalitions with Dalits, feminist and other minority groups, thus forming a broad-based alliance.

India's leading gay activist and editor of Bombay Dost, Ashok Rao Kavi, however, failed to see the need for confrontations with the mainstream, which he labelled "Marxist dictated". Rather uncharacteristically advocating a low profile, Kavi said the politics of confrontation "won't lead us anywhere."

Kavi's argument was that the gay movements in Asia were qualitatively different from the European and American gay movements, that a gay political identity was just emerging in Asia, and that Asian (especially Indian) gays did not think that sexual identity was as important as the other identities based on gender, ethnicity, language, caste and religion.

Pressing his argument for a lower profile for Asian gays, Kavi pointed out that whereas European and American gay youth moved out of family homes to create their own gay tradition and sub-culture, their counterparts in Asia were 'left behind' as their heterosexual siblings moved out. Thus, argued Kavi, Asian gay youth were 'inheritors' of traditions and culture -- a situation brought about by the denial of space to single people in Asia.

All this, argued Kavi, meant that gays in Asia would be less reluctant to come out in the open.

Professor Rao disagreed. "This is ultimately cowardice, as a political gay identity meant leaving behind the baggage of tradition, family. One has to rid oneself of the brainwashing by heterosexual society," he added.

This in turn provoked angry ripostes from members of the audience. "We have many priorities," said Vivek, a street-level out-reach volunteer, "including earning a living. When Dalits, Muslims, women or other disgruntled minority groups march in the streets, they don't run the risk of losing their jobs or bringing shame on their families. This can and often does happen to gay men and women."

Kavi suggested an alternate gameplan. "The first priority being to create safer spaces and network with interest groups supporting our rights -- like sensitive feminists, advocates and even religious leaders." While reiterating his arguments against in-your-face confrontation, he suggested the alternative of calculated subversion with the theatre, media and other means being used to propagate gay issues.

Arguing against the openly subversive tactics advocated in Marxist theory and recommended, on this platform, by Professor Rao, Kavi said even before such a struggle could be launched, the objective material conditions should be favourable. Quoting French philosopher Michel Foucault, Kavi said the five prerequisites were

  • The breakdown of large family systems;

  • The predominance of nuclear family norms;

  • The industrialisation of the economy;

  • The urbanisation of the country;

  • The empowerment and economic independence of women.

    Kavi's argument was that without these five factors being in place, there was no possibility of a separate gay political identity. And these factors, he said, would come about in time, due to the economic process.

    Sridhar R, a trustee at the Humsafar Centre, supported Kavi's arguments and, in turn, said "There is too much at stake to go into confrontation straight away, and needless aggression. Our struggle has just begun, but so many other issues were at stake. Economic independence alone is difficult in India, staying away from the family more so for the single youth."

    The one thing seminarists -- approximately 50 gay men from the metrop attended -- appeared to agree about was the need for safer spaces for gays, and a slow but painful climb to towards visible freedom and gay liberation.

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