Sexual Identity in India - Session 2, Part 2

Session 1, Part 1
Session 1, Part 2
Session 2, Part 1
Session 2, Part 2

Srivastava: True and I think we have in some ways moved on from earlier discussions, much more earnest discussions about obscenity and its impact on human beings too, as you were saying William discussions about pleasure, that at a certain level people are able to have enough, are able to both use things for pleasure but also able to do other things, and I think that’s important. And I think, I wanted to get back, I think the network is really interesting in this particular context because apart from the internet what is happening, for example especially in India and South Asia, is you have people from really different class backgrounds who are involved in this kind of work. And what NGO work has done is to bring into interaction and bring into a sort of networking activity, people of really different class backgrounds. So people who are, for example in a workshop I’ve been there was someone from Pakistan who is a trans person, man to women, who’s obviously from very specific background, and she deals with rest of us people who are from very different backgrounds, and the understanding is, there is an understanding among us about how we address these issues, I that think in the world of the sexual, the networking thing is particularly important, because of common understanding around this term “sexual”. And I think this has been really productive in South Asia at least, how through NGO activity, despite all our criticism and different kinds of attitudes we may have towards it, what it is done is made available across class a series of networks because of a political understanding over the term “sexual”, which I think is shared across classes, irrespective of the fact they may not have same educational background as me or others around this table. I don’t know, Philip, that sort of matches with you, you must meet people who are from dramatically different background from you and they talk to you on equal terms.

Schneider: I was going to say there is also an interesting, I mean, within some of the work and the drop-in centers, you know we do have college gays kind of coming in and out of these venues, not necessarily into the drop-in centers because there’s still that sense of “That’s lower class that’s not for me”, but we are seeing little, I mean obviously cell phones have revolutionized way people communicate, we don’t, we haven’t seen as much of, you know, chatting, internet sort of engagement per say, although its growing, and I think that will be something very interesting to watch over the next years. Now you know there’s this thing, this kind of fits in theme of, you know, West going to East, if you will, but you know you brought up the thing about even the judges were borrowing some of the things from the Western decisions, you know, when are we going to, is there going to be a kind of reversal of sorts, I mean is gay white culture, I mean is there any influence from places like India or China, places where there’s just so much activity, so much life, you know, stimulus are we seeing any semblances of that. I mean for example this whole roundtable is based upon the idea that the University Of Chicago is now going to New Delhi, and is going to set up a physical structure there. So there is some interest you know in you know that part of the world from the leadership, and are we going to be adopting other things, we’re going to be sending our students there, you know, more and more physicians from India come and train here but they’re all going back to India, so are we going to see some of these also with sex identity?

Arondekar: Well I think in terms of academic discipline what we in U.S. call queer studies or sexual studies, the biggest challenge and provocation has come from the turn to geopolitics, meaning how do other geopolitical formations challenge our ability to understand what a stable category is, what is sexuality, what is a sex act. So I think within, you know, strictly academic disciplines, and this is where the division would make sense, normally wouldn’t as much that has galvanized the field. But it has also created a different challenge which is that the celebration of geopolitics has also led to a fetishization of the geopolitical, meaning anything, and the berdosh, the transgendered figure has become the repository of that fetishization more than anything else. So some of the challenges that people who work in sexuality studies is seeing is how do you study what is not you, the other, understanding its complexity but not rarefying it, not using it as a place to, you know, which could be a colonial model, right, you move from savage to salvage, right, so how do you avoid that kind of ethnocartography so to speak. So that, and I think that you see that very much, it’s at the center of the debate in sexual studies right now, whether you call it transnational, etc. and I think it’s become “The Heart of Darkness”, to use an old colonial metaphor, in some ways. But Stuart you might be able to address the more…

Michaels: Yeah, I mean it’s a fascinating question to me. I mean one of the things is that, how do you think about this and study it in terms of, you need to make these distinctions, but at the same time they are so interpenetrated. So, like when I’m thinking about this case, I mean, first of all who’s which and who, I mean is a person who grows up here in the West with Indian ancestry operating, you know, those sorts of identity, I don’t know what to call them, but basically there’s an algebra or game of using and at any given moment those identities come forward and back, I mean you mentioned, and I think I was already aware, of that organizations that grow up here, Triconas, especially, have been influential but and then I guess what I was thinking about as we were having this discussion along those lines, is really to bring back the question little bit about the issues of generation and fluidity. The experience of the internet it seems to me quite global in a certain way because when one thinks usually about the construction of gay identity you’re thinking about you know some process of discovery, and you know and the way the historians in the West have talked about it a lot I mean the importance of policing to making people aware. I mean there’s a very famous and sort of modern history of gay movements and identity in the U.S. is talking about like a Life magazine article about San Francisco’s gay hell or paradise, depending, but it was presented of course as a very negative, but of course it also brought to people’s attention that there was this incredible flowering of a public commercial culture, that, you know, we’re in a different world today. I mean, and this also relates back to the question of regional variation but also the metropolitan versus, the urban versus the rural and the metropolitan. So, it’s got to be quite different the way that having these connections and knowledge through the internet, I guess I would, I have a sort of crazy hypothesis that some of the fluidities about identities are emphasized and amplified by that, because one can be there in the chat room, one can be having these interactions, but there’s somehow, seemingly, less investment having to go to a place and live there or be in the confines of that physical environment, and then either choose to leave or stay or whatever, versus the kind of visiting that can go on...

Cohen: We’ve been talking a lot about fluid subjects, and at least three kinds of fluid subjects have been offered in different ways. And, I mean I’m coming with a kind of instinctive caution about the presumptions of fluidity as liberatory, as opening, as producing the kinds of real cross class commensuration or possibility, and I think Sanjay is absolutely is right that in many ways the NGO is one of several sites where at certain moments and not others, certain forms of both collaboration and also confrontation can happen in ways that couldn’t happen otherwise, as well as many moments in which, as Philip was eluding when someone said “he is a gay he won’t fit within the network”, it becomes a site where over time that differentiation happens and you get multiple networks, and it’s not either or. But the 3 fluidities, so the first is Niranjan earlier I think had eluded to people, younger people using internet and refusing an identity, saying “I’m a fluid subject ,I don’t want to play this gay-straight etc. , and don’t give me your categories”. Second, John started us out with this question of is the double-decker, or doparatha etc. becoming a certain kind of, a new more fluid versatility. And the third when Anjali raised the question of bisexuality, and here I’m thinking very specifically, I mean, I’m thinking in part of sexuality in terms of Marathi newspapers, but I think specifically of the internet. And a student of mine worked on Craigslist, and there’s lot of for example straight identified men who are on the “Casual Encounters” and “Men looking for Men” sections of Craigslist in many certain cities and towns across this country, in the U.S., to the point where some have argued that in fact you know, a goodly plurality of the men in Craigslist, in fact, and one can make, again, a crazy hypothesis that because of the commesurating possibilities of pornography, that a larger variety of men may be encountering the pleasurable possibilities of gay porn not exclusively or primarily but as portmanteau of pleasures, and may or may not find themselves in an identitarian crisis, or may in fact produce a new kind of identity which is fluid, but in fact may produce a new form of heterosexuality. And within a world heterosexual-homosexual binary has not disappeared, in which you have a new kind of fluid heterosexuality in some senses, the effects of which for various forms of queer people may not be so happy. And this goes back to the questioner who said “I was very happy with Dostana”, because you can argue that what Dostana does, you can say Dostana this film is about straight men pretending to be gay in a fantasy world where the U.S. immigration apparatus loves homosexuality. But in fact you can argue that its new kind of male heterosexuality which stages its relationship or figures it to homosexuality, not simply through homosexual panic, but a different kind of homosexual panic, and that’s interesting. That’s jargon, sorry [laughter].

Srivastava: The idea, for example, of what can the University Of Chicago Center, what can it bring back as it were, one of the biggest problems I think historically has been for example in NGO work, looking for something called Indian sexuality. So whenever people would do something, I remember reading stuff, people would say these people don’t know their own history of sexuality because they haven’t, you know. And one of the biggest problem has been in fact that there’s been this a gloss that NGOs have had to establish or do, saying, well, what is culturally specific about Indian sexuality, and there may not have been anything culturally specific. So it’s always kind of risk, its always that risk in where do you stand on that, because I’ve come across bizarre anthropological works, so anthropologists have been asked to say, “Well tell us…” if you want to actually have good anti-AIDS policy you really need to know what is Indian about this sexual behavior. And it seems to me to be more significant to say that there may not be any authentic Indian sexuality, but simultaneously we keep in mind the historical context through which so called Indian sexuality has passed through and that some of that has to do with, for God sake, 300 years of interaction with the West, I mean, and so how do you, what do you, even the Kama sutra has been produced through an interaction with the West, and then to say “Yes, this is our genuine sexuality”, and Michele Foucault said “Yes of course, you know, this is how Eastern sexuality differs from western sexuality, they have the arts erotica”. So I think that we really need to take seriously that there may not be something called authentic Indian sexuality that you bring back, but nevertheless, what is historically specific, so that at any point in time what is Indian is different from what is Western, but not in any essential sense but because of reasons of economy and culture and class, which keeps changing.

Mazzarella: One of the questions that keeps coming in from the great internet, since we are speaking about internet, while we’ve been talking, which I thought actually was quite interesting, and I’m sure some of you will know something about this, of course there have been lots of controversies about the teaching of history in Indian schools, in Indian textbooks and so forth, but the question was really about sex education in Indian schools, and what’s happening with that, and whether within sex education in Indian schools there is any attempt to deal with questions of homosexuality, same sex relationships and if so how? Any one?

Kumar: Again from the HIV point of view, what we have done is in the school starting from class 8th or 9th, in different states, we have started these RRCs - Red Ribbon Clubs…

Mazzarella: Sorry could you say that again?

Kumar: Red Ribbon Clubs, right, and so the red ribbon is the AIDS ribbon, and as part of that curriculum, this is like once in a week class, you know, for a stipulated hour, you know, and the students are given subject on sex and sexuality, and in Tamil Naidu, which I’ve seen is a very progressive state, the RRCs have gone to the extent of actually inviting the sex worker and also MSM and you know, giving them small talk to the students and taking questions from them.

Mazzarella: And these are students of what age?

Philip: Class 8th is like about 13, yeah, 13, 14.

Mazzarella: And what kind of historical back ground are we talking about here in terms of sex education in Indian schools, I mean what existed before this, what has been the mode...

Arondekar: To go back to the India Today explosive, expose about how many teens were having sex, and this was I think last year or a year and half ago. So I think that’s already galvanized a lot of anxiety around the fact that something needs to be done, which has then not been about homosexuality in fact but has been about how many young boys and girls are having sex at an alarming early age. So I think it’s better in some ways if we enfold it into a larger spectrum of sexuality rather than, and I’m not sure because I don’t do that work and I actually don’t know very much about it but I know that scandal was all over everywhere because they interviewed kids between 14 and 16 and 80% of them have had sex, which is quite remarkable. Of course these were open places, one must note, that and they were largely middle class kids, which is also an important detail.

Srivastava: I think it varies, I know the private, it’s very ad hoc, I remember private schools have sometime invite another friend called Rahul Roy who makes films on masculinity, and me, and he is much better at it. Many of the private schools are doing it, but in a very ad hoc basis. But I can’t say, from with conversations with my daughters, what their friends say about non heterosexual behavior, there has been a great success in terms of a more liberal attitude towards… and the Government schools is almost none, there’s something called “Life Science” but it doesn’t really address sexuality. There was a much greater move in 1960s in fact, I remember reading Dharam Yog this old Hindi magazine where people were saying we must have sex education in schools, and I think that was a lined to the notion of population, and once that concern with population has fallen away to a much more consumption kind of thing, that concern with that government schools must also have this formula. I remember it certainly in 60s there were lots of articles in Hindi magazines saying sex education is important and school principals writing it and saying this is what we do, this how we do it, but specifically to do family planning. And the population was the category under which it was done. But right now it is at very ad hoc. Private schools will do it as Anjali was pointing out and suggesting, and they will call people not that there are trained sex educators, but they will call people who are randomly selected because you work on this, and those are not necessary the people who are good at it, you have to need people who are good at it, it’s very ad hoc right now.

Schneider: Because, and this may be not be just an issue for India, well first of all there is number of questions coming in from Hyderabad and there is kind of an MSM group watching us, so it’d be nice to engage them a little bit. Some of them there questions, one of them which I find really interesting, and is I think here as well, is this issue of, you know, gay is unable to be disentangled from sex and sexuality, such that, you know, someone asks after the after the age of 30 or 40 what is next for gay man in India, you know, what is there life look like, what do they do… a lot of our conversation has been about young people…

Michaels: On the assumption that they won’t have sex after the age of 40 [laughter]

Schneider: I’m not sure. But you know we could say the aging, I mean we’re talking about a population so far that are you know 30, youth, adolescents. But say the aging gay Indian man, what’s in store for him.

Arondekar: Yeah, don’t look at me [laughter]

Cohen: You know I think the questionnaires responding to a question that historically has emerged in India in various points in U.S. and many places at various points, which is it is hard to be homosexual because you have a lonely old age, and that takes on very specific resenence in India among other places because of the importance of how thinking about the family as a form of social security has been central to modern social relations and the state. And it’s, I mean, one thing I can say is that there are many experiments, I am thinking of groups in Bombay and elsewhere in Maharashtra and Delhi, of people talking about how do we care for each other over the life course, both informally through friendship networks, but also formally. I mean the, and raising from a somewhat famous Rajput Prince who is out to many other figures, there been lot of conversations about what kinds of communities might we create. Now again those tend to target middle class and even more elite men, but certainly theres, the gay group has been one site. But in many parts of world, and certainly in San Francisco where I live, in many parts of the city, the various kinds of queer communities people often disappear from those communities, it’s not they disappear in some cases in for example transgender communities and you know particularly in certain parts of the city there’s immense violence and there is disappearance by death or disease. But there’s also, they’re different there questions that people disappear from the research apparatus.

Arondekar: I think there is one other thing which I think Lawrence, I’m not sure you have written about it but I know you and I ‘ve talked about it many years ago which is that, and this has escalated now in the last five or six years particularly in Mumbai, is the murder of older gay men, right, and of course there’s a famous case of a professor, which is not a Maharashtra based case, but… So there’s been a remarkable escalation which is, you know, five murders a year is a lot, and who knows how many more but these are the one that are publicized, of older gay men who are generally affluent who have been murdered in their apartments either by servants or lovers, alleged lovers, who are usually working class. So there is that, which is already, as you know someone who has elderly parents who live in India, the senior Jyestha Nagrik Sangh are always very concerned about the rise of elderly crime. This is a middle class concern across the board, but then you latch on to the idea of, so I think there is a physical representation of it to be found, and of course with the horrible case of the professor that was, you know, that a lot of us are organized around, who was viciously, kind of mistreated by the institution, that makes it even a broader, you know, problem.

Sanjay: I think one of the interesting thing here is that I have always, not always, I’ve thought that for example homophobia in India is not only related to homosexuality, I think it’s rested between sexuality and asexuality. That elderly people especially, the notion that elderly, elderly could be above forty or whatever, that sexuality and aging, which Lawrence has worked upon, should be de-linked. So I think a great deal of homophobia right now of men who are, older men, is also to do with a historical understanding of the relation between sexuality and asexuality. And I think that’s significant in the Indian context. If I was to be asked what do you think is Indian about Indian sexuality, I would say one of the things is it’s not just the relation between heterosexuality and homosexuality, but sexuality and asexuality. I think these men are doubly damned, older men, because not only are they homosexual but they are older men, and that they should be, at this stage they should be moving to less and less sex rather than continue to be part. So that becomes kind of enmeshed, the two contexts, that’s one sense you get when you talk to people about it. He [Lawrence] is an aging man, he will tell you more about it [laughter].

Cohen: That theme, by the way, but it’s one theme that I read about a long time ago about a group of friends in Calcutta, who were young men at Jaitapur, at a university in Calcutta, who said that look, but it was about the theme of asexuality and sexuality, which is, we don’t get gay guys, because “this isn’t America, we don’t get access to girls, but you don’t see us going and having sex with guys”. And there’s a way in which there’s a certain kind of structuring of the self and a certain ability to not have sex, which is central to what it is to be a strong and ethical person. So the homosexuality becomes seen as that person who can’t wait. “We could all go and have sex with guys, I mean we wouldn’t mind it”… but you know, so is that kind of discourse.

Schneider: Another question that came up, was that, someone said discrimination begins at home, and sexual problems begin at home, and then they turn into non-sexual problems, how is India going to focus on non-sexual needs of gay men? So I would think of, what, mental health might be one of those non-sexual needs.

Mazzarella: I think this is an interesting question, partly also coming back to some of the things we were talking about before having to do with the, in a sense, the economy of attention in mass public, right, is that the “sex” of it becomes both sort of the condition of attention, the reason why people pay attention. But also the kind of unassimuable object, right, so it becomes the source of revulsion and antipathy as well. So those two things are playing out in a highly sort of emotional way, thus sort of bracketing in a way some of these other kinds of concerns that are not directly about the sexual act itself, such as it may be. So yeah, I think that’s a really interesting question.

Schneider: I mean, you know, there are debates whether the HIV movement, the attention to AIDS, the infrastructure, whether that has any other spillover effect onto other chronic conditions whether they be diabetes or mental health. And it’s an open debate, I mean it’s very specialize services, but they’ve been able to you know create this mass community mobilization of, you know, young gay men who may have other things treated perhaps or examined. Is there any sense of that? Do you see, you know, Bill & Melinda, NACO all these groups, these drop in centers, are there any other benefits beyond “sexual health”, the non-sexual needs?

Kumar: Yeah, in the NACO program I should honestly say that, you know, there have been a lot of efforts to mainstream the work of the female sex workers and the MSMs. So I think those efforts are happening, and there’s advocacy, yet another thing, which is very strong, you know.

Mazzarella: Can you say more of that the mainstreaming?

Kumar: So what is happening is, say for example in Guntur district where we were working, there was this bunch of hijras, TGs, who had, who never existed in the governments eyes. So when the interventions of, when Gates foundation or SAICS and NACO, when they have started, what we have done is we went to the government, we got the ration cards, you know, this is to get the public distribution system so that, you know, they get cheaper rice and other essentials, then we got their land patas, you know. So those kinds of things, and access to government hospitals because earlier, you know, it was a big issue for them, and then before the double stigma of being MSM or TG, and then being a positive, you know, you are just not allowed and you are not treated well in the government hospitals. So those kind of efforts have yielded results, and therefore probably they are coming in such large numbers as part of the mobilization of tribes.

Arondekar: I mean I think the other place, which Lawrence will be able to speak about, as, you know Ashok Kavi’s work on religious identities, which is part of the non-sexual. This hasn’t really taken off in India as much, in terms of the visible discourse around it, whereas in the U.S., you kno, you have you know entire communities of gay Christians, gay whatever. But I think in South Asia in particular, because of the immediate impulse to think of religious, or religious form of faith as inherently repressive, right, the instinctual concern that one has around those. But I think the work of Ashokra which has been very controversial but interesting nevertheless, is to where are the, to use a much clichéd word, spiritual needs of the community, you know, not just psychic, which in some ways would be the same. But there is that question too, because there’s a lot of, and I know that in the Catholic community there has been some discussion around that question but Ashok Kavi was one of the first people to speak of that, and obviously opened the flood gates to a lot criticism by doing so.

Karnik: I want to say I think that some of this goes to, I think, what can be made visible, in terms of this. I mean I think part of the reason why HIV/AIDS gets so much attention, right, has been the very successful activist movement to separate it from sort of moral questions, and say “Look this is about virus, this is about a virus, you know, that causes a disease, a disease that kills people”, right. And I think that that transformation in the Western discourse has been very successful and carries over, and resources flow along that line. And I think the issues around, sort of, spirituality, but also around psychology, mental health, are much more difficult, because they are, you know, they continue to be intrinsically linked to moral questions, like “You’re depressed and suffering because you aren’t trying harder enough”, right. I mean, you know, or the notion that, you know, was recently stated in Congress by, you know, a House member that “Oh children can’t be, get depressed”, you know, I mean there’s just this blanket notion that these things don’t exist because there’s no test for it, right. You can’t visualize it on a test and say “Oh yes here’s the blood test that indicates this” or, I mean now there are attempts to develop brain scans that can, but it still doesn’t result in that, and I think that that difference is there. So it’s almost like we lump all of that other stuff into that moral universe, right, where it’s up to the individual or the immediate family, and other things are allowed to be given resources. And I think in India it’s a very real issue as much as it is here in the U.S. that we that we don’t fund the mental health systems, you know, it’s not a priority, you know, in India if you have money and you have means you can get probably good mental health care, but, and that’s the same thing here in the U.S. We’re dealing with thinnest of coverage here. So I seem to ended the conversation with that today with exciting note. [laughter]

Srivastava: I think NIMHANs, for example I have met people from there who’ve certainly been, in Bangalore, who’ve been at workshops dealing with homosexuality, and have been discussing the topic in the way that we’ve discussing. But as Niranjan said of course, the more significant thing that, is one of money even, if there was another political will. But there are small scale efforts, nothing structural or systematic, but I know that people at NIMHANs have been working on this, and looking at… I mean the only kind of danger is to, and I think they recognize this, is to automatically link homosexual identity and mental health as two kind of linked things, that you need special kind of mental health treatment. That’s one of the things, and I think people are aware of it, as much of it is happening.

Cohen: There is a group of many men I’m thinking of in Banaras, who at a time, when we think about complicated care for men who have sex with men and the rise of sexology, and something that you’ve [Sanjay] written about at great length, and there’s a lot of films recently which make fun of or critic, for understandable reasons, the prescription by a variety of healers who are framed as quacks for, to get rid of homosexuality. But at least in the early mid-1990s in Banaras, there were fair amount of people, gurus and maulwis, who people I knew went to, not for their homosexuality but for all the kinds of family problems that one would want to go to. And because a number of these men were Tantrics, they were men, the healers, or if maulwis still brought in lot of non-orthodox practices into their treatments, conversations about sexual practices became very much part of those, those very important relationship. So my sense is there are a whole range of relationships which have been important for, for example mental health, which are not about curing homosexuality or treating the mental health problems that come with homosexuality, but rather come with treating people, who have sex with other people of same sex, and that enters into who they are and how they are responded to by a guru. And not to valorize that too easily but there are a whole host of healing relationships that have been worked through for quite a while.

Srivastava: One line? I think the rise of sexology is basically, even now, stretches across all kinds of sexual identities and behaviors, and I think in India there is a sense, as there has been in the West, that if you’re bad at cooking it’s possible to be bad at sex, it’s an existential crisis, right, if you’re bad cricketer or football player it’s okay. [laughter] and that kind of feeds into the broad sense about why it’s so important to be, to go to sexologists and get yourself treated in whatever way, because to be bad sex is am existential crisis, it’s terrible.

Schneider: Alright, on that note [laughter], thank you I’d like to thank the audience first and foremost through, for stimulating this discussion especially in the 2nd half, and also living through perhaps poor web feeds and bad internet connections. I also want to thank the camera crew and the technical crew for helping us out today and in the weeks and months before this. I would like to extend special thanks to all of the panelist members for joining us today and also people like Rachel who really kind of organized and galvanized this event. A lot of the students in India and in other places for also creating publicity, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed the U of C emblem or logo has been changed permanently to say “Sexual Health and Identity in India” [laughter] with a nice design by a student from UPenn. So again, thanks, thanks everyone and I hope this will be one of many conversations on this issue and others.

Everyone: Thank you John.

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