An observer would be forgiven for looking at the current proliferation and variety of conversations on same-sex politics in Southasia, and making some assumptions: that sexuality has finally arrived in the region as a mainstream issue of debate; and that the challenges posed by same-sex-based politics have truly shaken up the region’s societies. But nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike the women’s movements in our countries – or various other struggles, whether against dams or for tribal rights – the same-sex ‘movements’ in this region have never been grounded, autonomous movements. While the women’s movement and other causes may have eventually been co-opted by NGOs and the institutionalised mindsets that surround them, those dealing with same-sex sexuality have been NGO-based from the very beginning.
Same-sex politics in Southasia originally piggybacked on the brigade of civil-society organisations that were focusing on HIV and AIDS during the 1990s. Indeed, funding for HIV-related issues in India alone increased exponentially, from INR 1.4 billion in the early 1990s to nearly INR 7.1 billion in 2007. With this influx of funding, from a plethora of international agencies, it comes as no surprise that NGOs have clambered for a share of the pie. In particular, same-sex-focused groups attached themselves to this funding wave, and thus defined themselves through these NGOs. First and foremost, this tendency has been deleterious for those impacted by AIDS who have most needed this funding. Same-sex-identified populations, after all, are not the worst affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Southasia; the primary categories with the disease are instead made up of economically poor mothers and their children, patients receiving infected blood in hospitals, and injectable-drug users.
The conflation of same-sex issues with those of HIV and AIDS has also led to a cottage industry of sexuality-focused NGOs, often run by middle-class ‘entrepreneurs’. Such organisations base their operations on funding, and have thus involved themselves in the full-time manufacturing of new target populations and identities – such as the absurd kothi, an ‘identity’ that refers to cross-dressing, largely working-class men who are not hijras (the third gender in Southasia) but who have sex with men. As a term, ‘kothi’ suddenly emerged during the 1990s, and is now taken as a given. All the while, these groups continue to increase the vast alphabet soup of identities (for instance, LGBTHKQ … the letters could really go on), even as they maintain a primary eye on keeping their NGOs in business. How can any change be expected if the fire that comes from self-identifying as ‘gay’ – a term with a long history – has been replaced by suddenly grafting a new word onto populations, largely without their knowledge or input?
In recent years, queer has become bandied about as the new popular term. This is a word with a very specific history, mainly in US academia, but suddenly whole groups of people are being referred to as ‘queer’ in India and elsewhere. But in fact, queer, an English-language and remarkably vague word, is one that only has resonance in the middle and upper classes, among folks who do PhDs in the US and write to US-based funding agencies for money to carry out their ‘queer’ studies in Southasia. NGO activists in the region now utilise this word – currently in favour with donor agencies – and set about purporting to selflessly garner funds on behalf of beleaguered populations. These populations, inasmuch as they see themselves as groups, do not have a fixed language for how they describe themselves, but rather complex forms of self-identification and community that need to be studied carefully.
Not only are these groups audacious enough to speak on behalf of other people; they do not even bother to pay attention to how the ‘target populations’ might want to speak about themselves. It is evident that the ‘lesbian’ women who marry each other across India certainly do not always identify as women (with one often taking on a ‘male’ identity); likewise, hijras or aravanis (the term used in Tamil Nadu) do not generally define themselves as ‘transgendered’, the term currently prevalent in human-rights circles. While the challenge is to pay attention to these personal references, NGOs instead dole out names that they think such groups should have, and promise them some shade under the ‘queer’ umbrella. Had this shade been useful, the whole process might have been worthwhile, at least in retrospect. But NGOs, in order to validate their own existence (as well as the requirements of funding), quickly append all local struggles onto an international human-rights language that may have nothing to do with ground realities.
This righteous aura marks both the Southasian NGOs and international funding organisations such as USAID (the US Agency for International Development), the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. One way or another, the internationalisation of ‘queer’ (or whatever) identities inevitably determine the very language in which international organisations and donor groups – and, consequently, Southasian NGOs – construct their work. Thus emerges a homogenous construction of identities and strategies, patterned on the language of international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
There is widespread evidence showing the NGO sector in developing countries to be far less accountable than is often projected, often trampling upon local sentiments while simultaneously increasing the vulnerability of already marginalised sections of society, such as the HIV-positive. It is now incumbent on critical observers to disabuse NGOs of any superior aura, and instead to subject them to the same analysis as would be received by corporations and other bodies organised around profit. Indeed, this may be a well-placed approach anyway, as NGOs around the world are becoming increasingly corporate in their modes of self-organisation and operation.
The next step is to examine the problems that arise when same-sex-focused movements are run by such organisations. As the University of London researcher Rob Jenkins, among others, has pointed out, the problem with most donor agencies such as USAID and DFID (which has pumped more than INR 6 billion into India over the last eight years for sexuality-related work) is twofold. First, they portray civil society as sacred, moral and apolitical. Second, they portray themselves as, likewise, little more than impartial guides. In fact, neither of these characterisations holds much water.
Let us take each of these ideas in turn. First, while most sexuality-based NGOs and funders claim to be apolitical, they share a very particular conception of how to define ‘civil society’. They want, for example, ‘accountability,’ ‘individual rights and liberties’ and ‘autonomous centres of social and economic power’. In other words, they want social independence that leads to economic competitiveness, better performance and ‘good governance’ in the various sectors of Southasian countries – all of which is cumulatively seen as the pathway to democratic development.
Versions of each of these goals are brought up in various guises by sexuality-based NGOs in the region, as well. They aim to democratise sexual space in favour of marginalised and neglected groups, for whom they promise to fight for rights; and to create autonomous and self-sufficient spaces for their members. In addition, two other ideas have been heavily relied upon by such NGOs – health and human rights. As mentioned previously, the former gained its importance due to the fact that most sexuality-based NGOs originally legitimised their existence through work they claimed to be doing under the auspices of HIV/AIDS prevention. ‘Human rights’, meanwhile, has become of increasing importance due to the fact that there was already in place an active international human-rights conversation dealing with sexuality and sexual orientation, to which Southasian NGOs were able to append their struggles with the goal of gaining global legitimacy.
With regards to the second idea, that donors want to project themselves as free of their own motives or agendas, it is important to understand the dynamic at play when funders give money to various groups, particularly in developing countries. Is there scope for NGOs to question the ways in which donors want them to strategise, or are these the very frameworks with which NGOs have no qualms about following? If the former is the reality, then what is the real ‘autonomy’ of these NGOs, and what repercussions does this have, in this instance, on the business of same-sex politics in Southasia? But if the truth is closer to the latter, then the levels of neglect in the engineering of social change must be considered alarming. Thus, if NGOs unquestioningly follow a prescribed framework and language, this is completely irresponsible vis-à-vis the constituency they are claiming to represent.
NGOs in the West should likewise not be thought of as particularly selfless with regards to their missions in developing countries. Ann Hudock, a US technical specialist in governance, has shown how Western NGOs conceive of and exploit their counterparts in the developing world – patronisingly seeing them, for example, as unable to lead development and lacking the capacity to plan project activities. Hudock has also shown how the new process of ‘capacity-building’ has been a way for NGOs from developed countries to disengage from direct involvement in development activities, and has failed to address the politics of the implications of this kind of funding. In the field of sexuality, this is compounded by a lack of perspective on the often messy ways in which sexuality intersects with cultural anxieties in many Southasian societies. Many governments in the region, including various progressive elements, have already conceived of same-sex sexuality – sometimes even of sexuality itself – as being somehow foreign.
Not taking the necessary care with regards to how sexuality is approached in terms of intervention can have disastrous effects on a social space. The fact that international funding agencies have an agenda, timeframe and goals to reach – to which NGOs in Southasia are inevitably tied – and a certain packaged set of messages to get across means that they often do not bother to listen to what local social contexts demand. Nor do they pay any more than scant attention to the relationship between the NGO and the society in which it is working.
A case in point is the 2001 arrest of workers from Bharosa, an NGO in Lucknow linked to the Naz Foundation (a British NGO with offices across India), working on HIV/AIDS-related awareness. Safe-sex educational materials were considered pornography, an office was mistaken for a sex hotel, and Bharosa’s HIV-related outreach work was seen by the police to be a gay racket. Significantly, charges, including under the notorious Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, were ultimately brought against the employees and not the NGO itself. In another case, there was a similar absence of support on the part of an international donor agency to Sahayog, an NGO in Almora, in Uttarakhand, that was shut down by the district administration for allegedly hurting ‘local sentiments’ in a report about sexual practices. When dissonance with local cultural mores gets policed as ‘criminal’, to what extent does the donor community remain accountable? In the evidence thus far, the answer seems to be ‘minimal’.
A new language
It is important to recognise the ideology of funders when it comes to issues of sexuality, for it is one that inevitably leads to many subsequent problems at the local level. Sexuality-based NGOs, as with most other NGOs, construct themselves as the superior educators vis-à-vis the community in which they are working – often with no engagement whatsoever on how the community arranges its own education on such matters, as happened in the Almora case mentioned above. While donors have little to do with these NGOs after handing over the funds and overseeing the fact that the language of the work they do mirrors the language of their intentions, the actual effects of this language on civil society is generally of little concern to them.
Since employees at NGOs dealing with issues of sexuality are generally urban and metropolitan in perspective and location, they often fail to understand how lives are led on the urban periphery, let alone in the rural hinterland. They certainly do not engage with everyday life in these areas in any sustained way. Nonetheless, they take it upon themselves, on a daily basis, to speak for these groups. At the same time, they generally do not help to organise these groups in any self-sustaining way, but only in terms of dependence – after all, they are the NGOs’ bread and butter. This is accomplished by constructing these groups as social categories, which are then mistakenly represented as political categories that the people in question have adopted for themselves.
All of this would be rather comical were it not for the serious effects that it has on people’s lives by the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Sexuality is naturally a fraught arena, and such unthinking practices increase difficulties rather than making conditions better for marginalised groups. Indeed, this can not only lead to serious disruptions of people’s lives, but also to the neglect of those who really need help – women who marry each other across the country and are forced to commit suicide, for example.
Often, these women understand themselves and their relationships differently from the term ‘lesbian’. But because they are not easily assimilated into a lesbian politics or a fundable group does not mean that the critique they offer of heterosexual patriarchy is not revolutionary, even if the language in which they choose to construct their relationships may draw on the available framework of heterosexual marriage.
It is crucial to stop fooling ourselves that just by uttering the words sexuality or queer or same-sex desire we are automatically involved in a revolution. This revolution, if it does come, will not be carried out from NGO offices. Southasians must forge a language and a politics closer to our own contexts, a locally grounded politics that respects sociological particularities and our own languages. This would mean eschewing the identity politics that have led to widespread impasses, even in Western Europe and the US where they were born. Only when we learn to speak our own language, not simply parrot an identity-laden, alienating language from the West, and only when we are able to forgo dependence on Western support structures, will we finally have a same-sex politics that can begin to make a real difference.
~ Ashley Tellis is a same-sex-rights activist in the Southasian context, and currently lecturer in English at Miranda House, Delhi University