Caste fault lines in the queer community

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer community, henceforth referred to as the LGBTQ community, is divided into several fault lines. One of the key fault lines that will be delved into in this article is caste. This article seeks to explore how caste divides the queer community and the movement for queer liberation.

The queer movement is naturally not homogenous and the politics of those involved in it will consequently not be homogenous either. These heterodox narratives within the queer community shape the idea of queer liberation which is very different across the spectrum. Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi individuals will be interviewed for their thoughts on the intersection of multiple oppressive frameworks.

A movement is primarily a struggle for certain rights to be granted and power being sought from the oppressor to the oppressed. The narrative for the queer rights movement, in this case, will fit into this standard definition of a struggle. Gender and sexual minorities are naturally oppressed and stripped of their human rights across the world in different forms and the queer movement aims for liberation from these stifling, oppressive norms. However, the concept of intersectionality complicates this definition in a much more complex fashion.

Kimberle Crenshaw, an American Black legal scholar, coined the term ‘intersectionality’ in her groundbreaking essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” (1989) She used this term to show black women were victims of multiple systems of oppression such as racism and sexism. Thus, the marginalized often face double or maybe even triple oppression, depending on their race, sex, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on.

Crenshaw might have coined the term that has now gained widespread currency across queer feminist movements which have adopted it to articulate their own vision of social justice. However, the concept of interlocking oppressions and other such terms has been used by black feminists previously to describe their plight.

The application of the concept of intersectionality to the Indian context has several implications. First, queer individuals can no longer be looked at just on the basis of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. The constellation of their identities also has to be acknowledged. Second, this acknowledgment of different identities leads to the fact that some identities inherently come with certain privileges and marginalizations. For instance, an individual belonging to the dominant caste of a particular region might enjoy certain privileges that are naturally inversely proportional to the oppression and marginalization that those belonging to the backward castes face. Hence, a Dalit or Bahujan queer individual would thus be a victim of multiple oppressive frameworks such as homophobia/transphobia as well as casteism.

Casteism is well documented in India with the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data showing that crimes against Dalits, especially Dalit women have been increasing since the year 2010 - 2011 and 2014-2015. This confirms Crenshaw’s thesis of people being victims of multiple oppressive systems and its applicability to the Indian context wherein Dalit women are victimized on the basis of their gender, caste, and class.

Feminist Uma Chakravarti labels this as the triple oppression of Dalit women. It follows that given the heteronormative and largely homophobic structure of Indian society, it is natural then that queer/trans - Dalit women would be the ones at the bottom of the social ladder. The queer community comprises individuals belonging to different social locations affecting their access to resources, which often proves vital in living a safe existence in this queerphobic country. There is no official data as such which could capture the multiple oppressions at play. Hence, it is vital that the voices of these people are heard.

X, a trans* individual coming from a Bahujan background stated that there was a definite elitism in the queer movement. They stated that there definitely were caste and subsequently class faultlines in the queer community. They reasoned that the queer community is a part of Indian society and if Indian society still grappled with the specter of caste after so many years of independence, it was only natural that it would reflect in the queer community. They said that most of the leaders of the queer movement are extremely privileged, naturally reflecting their caste and class privilege.

The ordinary Dalit Bahujan individual did not have the time to attend these elite events such as queer film festivals and gay parties where the average cost of entry is 500 rupees. These are exclusive enclaves of privilege that most do not have access to. They also felt that cruising spots that are frequented by gay men and transwomen are mostly visited by those who do not have the caste and class privilege to use dating apps such as Grindr and PlanetRomeo. They also made the point that most of the leaders of the queer movement were upper-caste, upper-class people with very few Dalit Bahujan Adivasi leaders, whereas it is this segment of the population which is much more in number, reflecting the lopsided reality.

Y, a cisgender homosexual man who did not wish to disclose his social location told me how he would be asked his caste on Grindr, a popular gay dating app. He was so frustrated by this that he had to put it on his profile that he would block anyone who approached him on the app and asked for his caste location. 

Christopher, a genderqueer individual who is Adivasi opined that caste faultlines definitely existed within the queer community. They (their preferred pronoun) stated that a mere look at the literacy rates of the SC/ST population is enough to confirm the level of backwardness that these communities suffer and hence, access to resources and the requisite knowledge to understand the nuances of gender and sexuality becomes difficult.

They drew an interesting link between having the privilege of knowing English and articulation. Only those who were educated in private English medium schools and had a command over the language could read more about gender and sexuality and subsequently, articulate their gender identity and sexual orientation. They asked who could afford to attend such schools? It was only those with economic privilege that stemmed from caste inequities. They also said that they are not just queer. They are also Adivasi among various other identities that they simultaneously cohabit. 

F, a Brahmin, middle-class queer individual hailing from a small town had a different take on the issue. He felt that it was not so simplistic to reduce the issue to caste and class. He stated that the events held to celebrate queerness was open to all irrespective of caste and class. 

It is essential to remember that individuals possess a multiplicity of identities that they inhabit at the same time and it is futile to look at one identity without the other. Academic Ashley Tellis, who has written extensively on the queer movement in India stated in his paper “Disrupting the Dinner Table: Re-thinking the ‘Queer Movement’ in Contemporary India’’ states that the queer movement is “classist, casteist, sexist and complicit with power structures of the most oppressive kind”. He alleges that the movement is highly elitist. He states that it is not inclusive and has a strong urban bias. 

Academic Pushpesh Kumar in his paper “Queering Indian Sociology” states that it is vital that the queer movement be more inclusive of factors such as caste and class so that people from a lower caste, lower-class backgrounds who do not have access to the resources that their better-off counterparts possess also are able to be effective participants in the queer movement and queer community. He gives the example of an unnamed Dalit individual who faces discrimination and violence on account of being both Dalit and queer.

He states that “The upper-caste queer in rural and semi-urban spaces are invisiblized. Gay, lesbian and bisexual identities are mostly articulated in metropolitan spaces”. Through his study, he reveals how queer offline - online networking in metropolitan areas comprise mostly of Brahmin and upper caste persons. Thus, through the academic literature that exists, it becomes clear that caste fault lines in the queer community exist. 

It is clear that the queer community needs to introspect and understand what is going wrong. In a movement that fights for equality, it is important that it is not divided in this space and there are safe spaces for people from all social locations to come forward and celebrate their queerness, which is a universal trait and is present across all social locations.

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