By Mridula Nath Chakraborty
Even as the country is in the grip of issues that seem to beset it from every angle, environmental concerns, racial discrimination, housing crisis, fluctuating dollar etc., the powers and parties that be are seeking to introduce yet another cog in the political machinery. Amidst the chilling winter in Australia this year, one issue seems to be giving many a heat-rash. As the ‘debate’ around same-sex marriage hots up and cries of religious alarm go up, there has been an unusual moment of ‘solidarity’ with Asia.
According to Senator Eric Abetz, Australia should not legalise gay marriage because no Asian country has adopted marriage equality. Adding fat to fire, Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce claimed that if Australia does pass same-sex marriage, Asian countries are likely to view us as decadent. This is a preposterous, if not presumptuous, demand of ‘sameness’ with our Asian neighbours that Australian political figures are seeking to harness to their own ends. The pronouncements of Abetz and Joyce effect a curious reversal of the business-as-usual moral hierarchy between the West and the Rest that measures democracy and progress in terms of a hegemonic conception of sexual freedom (among other things).
Let me elaborate upon what I mean. Even since the Enlightenment was appropriated by the West, notwithstanding the fact that ‘light’ came to Europe in the first place because of its interaction and exchange with the East, it has become almost customary for the West to espouse its superior values. In fact, ever since then, the West has taken upon itself to impose its own worldviews upon the Rest of the world. Two of the most insidious ways in which such civilizational superiority works are in the aspects of gender and sexuality: each time a pressure point occurs in these areas, the particular culture, community or country in question is measured for its “progressivism” against a presumed Western standard.
So let us examine the contention by some voices in Australia that it should emulate its Asian neighbours in their supposed anti-gay stance. Just a cursory glace at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) rights in our nearest neighbouring nations reveals that Hong Kong, Japan, Nepal, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, remain most open to LGBTIQ communities in Asia, while India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are notably opposed. While LGBTIQ individuals and communities face persecution and discrimination, particularly in rural areas, crowded Asian cities afford a modicum of protection for them, though even here class plays a critical role in affording them a safe and secure standard of living.
Many thoughtful LGBTIQ intellectuals have posed the question that though the freedom to be married, with its concomitant legal, social and cultural benefits (just like any old heterosexual couple), is not one that should be denied to homosexuals, we still need to ask if this is what freedom looks like. In Asian countries in particular, there might be many other ‘human’ rights that the LGBT community might need to access before the right to marriage equality assumes a culminating position. In fact, ‘marriage’ in its social and cultural forms might be something that is already more easily available to Asian LGBTIQ communities than the right to have a meaningful job, the right to own a house, the right to be a legally recognised LGBTIQ citizen of the nation.
A prime example is Vietnam, which in January 2015, passed a Law on Marriage and Family that allows gay weddings, but does not allow legal recognition or protection to same-sex unions. Same-sex marriage laws in Taiwan are pending, while some cases of same-sex marriage have been reported in Cambodia. Nepal, after legalising homosexuality in 2007, has been working for the inclusion of same-sex marriage and protection of sexual minorities in its new constitution. In fact, Nepal has set the standard really high with its legalisation of cross-dressing and a third-gender option that provides citizenship, passport, Ncell Sim card registration to the third gender, alongside male and female, though social acceptance does remain limited.
In India, none of the multiple codified Marriage Acts enacted by the Union of India, defines marriage as between only a man and a woman, neither do they explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage. Many same-sex individuals have been married in India with diverse socio-religious blessings. In 2000, Indian literary scholars, Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai documented the many practices of such togetherness in their book, Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/824235.Same_Sex_Love_in_India). Among other examples culled from Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim traditions, the book also discussed the practice of maitri karaar or ‘friendship declared’ which heterosexual men, mainly in Gujarat, utilised as a loophole to circumvent charges of bigamy, but which lesbian couples have used to legitimise their relationship.
I want to extend my point even further here. I want to explore if there are alternate ways of sexuality available, not only for LGBTIQ communities, but the wide human spectrum, that might not follow a rights-based script on marriage equality and a usurped discourse on freedom. I am thinking of the ways in which alternative sexualities and beings seem to find a space for themselves in myriad ways that escape the narrow binary between heteronormativity and homosexuality. The examples I have in mind are mostly from the subcontinent, where the legacies of multiple religions, rituals, faiths, beliefs and practices might provide a reprieve from the punishing religious persecution that Australian political figures conjure up when they imagine an anti-gay Asia.
The various religions of the subcontinent provide the most fertile examples of gender and sexual expression along the human continuum. To give just one such example, think of Kartikeya or Murugan, worshipped widely across southern India, who is the son of two male deities, Siva and Agni, and also named Senapati as he was ‘husband’ or lord to his army. Some would argue that troving the ancient Hindu scriptures for multiple examples of alternative sexualities does not necessarily mean that individuals who do not subscribe to compulsory heteronormativity in the present day and age are socially recognised and respected. They would be correct. At the same time, contemporary examples of alterity cannot be negated, nor the complexity of their struggles silenced under the loose statement that Asian nations are anti-gay.
More recently, many urban men of means in India have started subverting and expanding on the idea of what it means to inhabit a certain body or wear certain gendered clothes. The most famous example would be of the late auteur, Rituparno Ghosh, who explored the limits of middle-class life in many of his films, and also acted in Arekti Premer Galpo, where he essayed the role of Chapal Bhaduri, the cross-dressing jatra performer from 1950s Kolkata (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arekti_Premer_Golpo). Himanshu Verma, the Saree Man of India complicates the very idea of cross-dressing in his lush love-affair with the elegant garment (http://upasnakakroo.co/the-saree-man-india-himanshu-verma/). But such ‘indulgences’ are not confined to rich people only. Once a year, thousands of men, irrespective of their religious or class status, gather at the Kottankulangara Sree Devi temple dressed up as women (http://www.chamayavilakku.in). On the more political side, in 2010, Penguin India published The Truth About Me (translated from Tamil to English) by A Revathi, a transsexual activist, who writes poetry and prose on the condition of her people (http://eprints.manipal.edu/139765/1/WIC-Prabhu.pdf). In 2012, Anu C became the first transgender to be employed in the Group D category in the Karnataka High Court. (http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/my-life-my-way/article3978249.ece).
The above random list is a very limited enumeration of the ways in which human identity expresses itself: gender and sexuality are just two of them. While the fight for equal rights continue the world over for all kinds of minorities in terms of race, religion, class, caste, gender, sexuality, ability and access, let us not reduce the condition of humanity into just one stereotype. The struggle for human dignity is trying to reach much wider horizon. If Australia wishes to trace a legacy of sameness with Asia, it might have to grab the multiple diverse ends of the rainbow it wishes to be a part of and then soar from there.
Image Source: PTI INDIA