Countering A Respectable Queer Public: Refusals to Assimilate
“Each time we address a public, as I am doing now with these words, we draw on what seems like simple common sense. If we did not have a practical sense of what publics are, if we could not unself-consciously take them for granted as really existing and addressable social entities, we could not produce most of the books or films or broadcasts or journals that make up so much of our culture; we could not conduct elections or indeed imagine ourselves as members of nations or movements. Yet publics exist only by virtue of their imagination. They are a kind of fiction that has taken on life, and very potent life at that.”
-Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics
In 2021, petitions to recognize same-sex marriages under the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) and Special Marriage Act (SMA) are being heard by the Delhi High Court, almost two and a half years after the scrapping of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by the Supreme Court, which prohibited homosexual conduct between adults. Pride parades are now relatively unopposed occurrences in several Indian cities, and active homegrown and international brands pay homage to queer identities during Pride Month and beyond, and mainstream cinema and television have begun to make a case for inclusion. Yet, just like the law, accepted cultures practise exclusion through purported inclusion and the now socially endorsed, functionally intelligible identity of a queer person mostly boils down to the same heteronormative denominators of respectability- love, monogamy, privilege, conformity, and assimilation. The now-celebrated queer public, whose rights are consistently spoken of, is imagined from the same axes that the upheld public order is structured on.
Stonewall Riots of 1969/Image Credits: Gaysi
While there is a visible fight for legalising same-sex marriages, a lot of queer self-expression remains outside the ambit of legalisability and acceptability. Drag artists such as S.A.S (one amongst the several other immensely politicized drag queens, who perform acts to incriminate the establishment and force difficult conversations about right-wing extremism, job losses, and gender stereotypes) are never considered a part of the respectable, acceptable, and legalisable gay norm. As we brew a conversation about gay rights, the question that needs to be asked is— what are we excluding at the expense of a putative inclusion? At its most capacious, what is the law supposed to protect? If married queer people are supposed to enjoy rights, shouldn’t the same protections be granted to people in undefined, unconventional relationships? Shouldn’t people be free to practise sexual and intimate agencies in all ways that allow liberated self-expressions?
These questions point us in the direction of the exact problem inherent to imagining an acceptable LGBT+ public. The imagined public in question allows generalisability, and pins down queerness to a set of defined features that are worthy of being publicly upheld. Two observations might be worth considering in this regard. One, queerness does not ossify and congeal into a set of recognisable features and resists normalisation. While identities are necessary for political mobilization, a mere identitarian iteration involves “a narrowing down of the internal complexities of a subject for the sake of social convention.” (Braidotti 2006). Two, to use Nancy Fraser’s terminology, queer existences animate what could be called counterpublics, or “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs”. Queer counterpublics are fundamentally in tension with the hegemonic public sphere as they challenge dominant discourses of gender and sexuality, and of ‘being’ itself.
Thus, the imagination of a respectable queer public is a project of normativising queerness, gentrification, and assimilation. If the first Pride was a riot, the establishment has found ways to manipulate the insurrectionary dimension of queerness into a pacification that does not simply deny it the radicalness it holds but also denies it, ‘difference’, or in the words of V.A. Conley, its “continual differing of difference” through reductionist identity politics. When a film like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhaan promotes itself as the first mainstream portrayal of men loving men, it positions itself on a very decorous scaffolding of socially accepted ideas of love. However, if love of a certain kind is to be celebrated and accepted, are ‘deviant’ sexual agencies not worth fighting for? What about rights for non-conventional partnerships, polyamorous bonds, and the less ‘virtuous’ ideas around promoscuity and recreation?
The respectable queer subject is a product of the establishment’s normalising impulses. As Stonewall completes over five decades, it is necessary to remember that queerness is rooted in non-belonging, in non-fixity, and any inclusion of that stagnates its radicalness is an instrument of oppression. Instead of seeking inclusion into heteronormative structures, it is perhaps worthy to think of queering them, to let there be capaciousness when it comes to ushering freedom in for ever-becoming selfhoods.