The discussion of sexual desire as sexual ‘identity’ in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) intellectual and activist circles is something that is argued with rather than argued about. For example, the neo-colonial implications of imposing Western terminology (gay, lesbian, etc) have long been discussed in multiple forums. The same is true for the tension created by articulating purportedly historical Hindu versions of same-sex identities. But in the midst of all of this, to what extent has there been any true engagement with the broader question of whether sexual identity, per se, is socially understandable in Southasia? Is the wider population really thinking about sexual identities, its own or that of others? If not, this would inevitably have far-reaching implications for advancing rights for same-sex relationships within a framework of ‘identity’. This line of questioning is well worth pursuing in the current context, when even the act of men and women dancing together can be perceived all over the region as ‘breaking down’ the moral fabric of society.
For the unassuming woman or man attracted to her or his own sex, to come suddenly into contact with ‘the community’ and the obtuse pantheon that makes up ‘LGBT speak’, albeit in English, is rather like learning a new alphabet. Abruptly and unquestioningly, the old human emotion of desire is being discussed as ‘types’ of people. Sexual behaviours are being elevated to ‘lifestyles’, and phrases such as ‘coming out’, ‘in the closet’ and ‘queer visibility’ begin to leap out from all directions. What do ‘same-sex-desiring’ people make of these concepts buzzing around them? More to the point, as these concepts slowly percolate into familiar parlance, what purpose does this terminology serve?
Last year, this writer began to think over some of these questions with the aim of discussing them with a group of same-sex-desiring women in Bangalore and Delhi. The aim of this study was to understand how this cross-section of women relates to the idea of a ‘lesbian identity’. During initial discussions, I was met with a series of blank looks. A gay activist friend told me that unless the LGBT community talks about sexual desire among people of the same sex, there would be no end to the injustices felt by people with same-sex desire. Naming of same-sex desire is the first step towards making things better for lesbians and gays in India, he said. ‘Visibility’, he emphasised, is needed in order for rights to be attained – at least, this is the claim. Indeed, visibility and rights seem to be the overarching framework for LGBT debates (see accompanying story, “Visibility versus privacy”).
I had always assumed the language of rights to be a powerful one, on which we could always hang our sorrows. But in the current context, this tool also began to seem as perhaps the least useful for dealing with what seemed to be the primary concern of women in same-sex relationships: how to minimise hurt to their families when confronted with “different” daughters. The rhetoric of rights is clearly a convenient and acceptable language, one that serves an important purpose for activists engaging with the state. Issues of lifestyle and ‘personhood’ are significantly more acceptable than are matters of sexual activity. But by what mandate do activists speak on behalf of a population of women who desire women, and who has consented to this? Perhaps the reality of the situation could be that women do not really feel marginalised, or at least to the extent that the activists are suggesting; perhaps, in fact, they prefer to be identified by something other than with respect to those with whom they have sex.
A survey of conference papers, support-group reports, scholarly papers and the like overwhelmingly demonstrates a view, almost completely taken for granted, that same-sex desire is certainly experienced as identity. Indeed, in the rhetoric of NGOs, the boundaries of an identity discourse are created in such a way that only certain things can ever be said. For example, it is legitimate to reiterate that silence and ‘invisibility’ – two terms widely bandied about in this context – are harmful to a woman’s self and the development of her relationships. Yet, these are clearly not black-and-white issues. Further, any notion that either of these elements could in some way enable women is readily dismissed, largely because it does not mesh with what is generally understood to be the central point: the empowerment of women.
One way or another, however, these diverse viewpoints have indeed been submitted by such notable scholars and feminist activists as Abha Bhaiya, Kanchana Natarajan and Maya Sharma. These activists emphasise experience over rhetoric, and are rich in explanation for the complex ways in which women move through their daily lives in relation to their sexuality, as well as with regards to the many layers of social space with which they deal.
Call yourself a lesbian?
Seeking to explore these questions, the sample for this study (the full version of which is available with the author) included individual interviews with 15 women in Bangalore and Delhi between the ages of 20 and 53, whose incomes ranged from INR 3000 to INR 100,000 per month. Some of the women had been part of sexuality-based support groups in the past, but the critical factor here was their same-sex desire. The sample further included a focus group with 15 additional women who are current members of a lesbian and bisexual women’s support group, as well as three key interviewees chosen for their connections with sexuality groups in the selected cities.
One significant finding had to do with the relationship, or lack thereof, between the individuals in this group and the term lesbian. Despite being familiar with the word, and despite the fact that most had been part of formal or informal support groups at some point, none of the women stated that a lesbian ‘identity’ was an intrinsic part of their selves. Nor did they use the word as a self-reference that formed part of what they considered their ‘meaning’ as a person.
According to one viewpoint (including this writer’s), identity is constructed rather than a given. For some in this group, the refusal of a lesbian identity had to do with the connotation of the word itself. Echoing the popular notion in India of a lesbian as a hyper-sexualised woman – one who sleeps around, rather than one who sleeps with women – the word was associated with the classical ‘characterless’ woman, a construct of female sexuality as ‘dirty’ and ‘immoral’. It also seemed to suggest segregation from the mainstream, or being treated as a person with a problem. In this regard, lesbian even turned out to be a word that made one woman feel “invisible”, in that its connotations inherently put up a wall between a woman and what was considered ‘normal’.
For others, the negation of a lesbian identity was not in the word, but rather in questioning that the sexual should constitute a large part of any identity in the first place. The expectations of an unchanging sexual identity were considered confining. The perspective that sex and sexuality are supposed to be relatively private issues only further solidified the argument in these women’s minds. Labelling oneself by sexual identity, it was felt, is an inherently public act. On the other hand, a few women (who were English-speaking) said that they were “more comfortable” with being called gay, as it sounded more “friendly”. Again, however, this was not articulated as an integral identity. (With the exception of one interviewee, an activist, the identity of ‘queer’ held no particular meaning.)
In contrast to subjective identity, women saw lesbian as a ‘deployable’ term, something that could be ‘put on’ for specific gains. In various places, the term could be used to gain entry; to receive group acceptance; to gain employment in sexuality-based organisations; or as a ‘handy’ term to facilitate meeting other women, for instance on the Internet. Some women said they called themselves lesbians to emphasise the issue in a political sense, but also noted that they did so only in ‘safe’ zones, not in situations where they might be harshly judged or risk losing emotional support, popularity or job security.
The veracity of this mindset played out right in the midst of our discussions. Those working in sexuality-based organisations appeared, on face value, to embrace a lesbian identity during our talks. As the session progressed, however, it became evident that this woman’s ‘performance’ of a lesbian identity was in confluence with the foregrounding of this identity by the NGO. Identifying as a lesbian was expected to introduce one’s sexual identity to the group or to outsiders, whereas outside of the organisation this ‘identity’ was perceived as dangerous.
The ‘NGO-ised’ portrayal of silence and invisibility has been remarkably unwavering in projecting these phenomena exclusively as denial, as refusal, as ignoring something important – and, ultimately, amounting to violence. These accounts of invisibility give the impression that lesbian women are oppressed by the social contexts in which they live, and try to legitimise the claim that little more than ‘visibility’ is necessary to redress the oppression. But not only does this perspective obscure actual needs, it prevents an understanding of what women actually do with silence and invisibility in their everyday lives – and how they often benefit from these elements.
An important finding of this study was that many women reported being happy with the silence and invisibility of their sexual relationships. Rather than silence being thought of as purely obstructive, women often described ‘knowing’ silences – for instance, the many occasions on which family members or friends indicate a tacit knowledge of their sexual relationships, without it being explicitly discussed. Through such knowing silences, a same-sex relationship can be quietly supported, and a greater understanding can potentially be achieved – a partner’s health can be enquired about, for instance. Gestures of affection can also be made, such as including a partner in family gatherings, or making her favourite food. As one woman noted about her extended family, “Love and friendship … for my partner is very clearly recognised. What is not recognised is the ‘bonking’ [sex]. So I don’t think it matters”.
Ultimately, women can capitalise upon knowing silences, thus enabling them access to privacy for intimacy even within their parents’ home. In our discussions, several women spoke of how partners could stay at home with them, and family members could develop fondness for their partners. Thus, it appears that the thoroughly conventional space of the family, so often thought of as a ‘danger zone’ in such situations, can actually allow women to draw support from it, and some women are able to act upon their sexual desire within this conventional situation.
Likewise, invisibility – or not being ‘seen’ as a lesbian – has long been considered a double predicament for lesbian women. According to this line of reasoning, invisibility compounds the notion that family and society conspire to negate lesbian relationships, and does not allow a public space for them. However, in this study the women talked about how elements of invisibility are significantly more complex. They articulated how, with family, neighbours and landlords, and in public situations, others perceive their relationships in the context of friendship, acknowledging that this offers considerable opportunity for relationships to flourish. As one woman in the support group said, a desexualised understanding of her relationship “is a nice thing because you have enough space to let this relationship grow stronger; whereas if there was a boy, [friends and family] would always be keeping an eye on you.”
In such a situation, the experience of invisibility is far from the ‘violence’ it is often purported to be. Rather, it is something to be welcomed, in certain situations at least, in the way that it works in tandem with the social constructs of sexuality. Unmarried women are problematic for a family, but in fact this ‘honour’ rests merely on the risk of bearing illegitimate children. As such, this social reality works to create favourable conditions for women to associate with other women more freely. For this reason, every one of the women in our discussions expressed delight in the desexualised understanding referred to above, one that offers a cover under which to express physical affection with their partners in public, without encountering any untoward reaction. Given a societal preoccupation with heterosexual marriage in a culture that strictly regulates and monitors women’s sexuality, invisibility often enables women to live together unfettered, unlike heterosexual couples who are not married.
Nonetheless, there does remain in place the longstanding contention that silence and invisibility constitute a type of violence, an idea that has inevitably led to the discussion of lesbians as victims. Indeed, in our group there were several women who readily placed themselves into this recognisable and familiar position. Thus, individual victim accounts are transformed into a notion of ‘truth’ by the LGBT movement, something that becomes emblematic of the status of things within the movement in general. These accounts have the effect of stereotyping lesbian women, ultimately leaving them with little or no room for emancipatory politics.
Given its small size, the intent of the study was not to generalise, but rather to emphasise the existence of multiple perspectives. Given that women themselves articulate coexisting – and at times directly competing – viewpoints, multiple perspectives become crucial in developing a greater understanding of inherently subjective topics such as sexuality and identity. First and foremost, the discussions that we held point to the absence of the ‘lesbian identity’ – not just among the women with whom we talked, but also with regards to the idea of sexual identity itself in the larger social imagination. In the end, it appears that it is the LGBT discourse, rather than society at large, that is responsible for bringing the ‘lesbian subject’ into being.
The lack of enthusiasm among the women in the study in embracing a lesbian identity has serious potential implications, for the LGBT movement and for women in general. For the latter, the politics of identity and visibility signify a closure of the current places in which women’s relationships have the opportunity to flourish. On the other hand, in order for LGBT activism to grow into a broad-based movement, rather than one that remains confined to conference halls and workshops, it will be necessary that a synergetic relationship be forged between the ‘movement’ and the women that supposedly make it up. At the moment, after all, not being recognisably ‘lesbian’ means having to put up with less violence in the workplace, on the street, by landlords and neighbours (though this is not, of course, to say that violence cannot happen). Despite the many women in this study who said that they felt no perceived need for special rights, it is likely that this is simply because their sexuality has never led to their being forced to deal with anything untoward.
In the end, perhaps these women would indeed express a need for rights, should harm of some sort be done. Currently, without the right to marry, there is no legal remedy available to a same-sex-loving woman whose partner is violent, or who denies her right to joint property in the event of a break-up. Clearly there is a place for rights-based work in this regard. The point to remember, however, is that it is unacceptable to uncritically accept the idea – currently widely disseminated – that visibility is the only route to rights, or that rights necessarily lead to happiness. One way or another, the results of this study show that the latter claim is clearly dubious.
With regards to the former, the following question needs to be asked: Why is visibility of the individual’s desire so crucial for accessing rights? While it is important for the issue to be named and visible, perhaps it is not necessary to link rights directly to identity in the first place. When issues are looked at under the rubric of non-discrimination, they become a responsibility of concerned members of society, rather than the mere agenda of a special-interest group. In the end, perhaps it is possible to map out a strategy for rights without necessarily making the body visible. This could certainly begin with the creation of more flexible spaces, in which to fully examine this idea of a ‘sexuality’ that places the concept of sexual identity above all else.
~ Cath Sluggett is a Goa-based researcher and illustrator specialising in issues of gender and sexuality.