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Worlds Within Queer Worlds: Presence, Politics and Diversity

At the Kolkata Pride Walk last year (2018), a historic year for queer activism in India, I witnessed the coming together of diverse queer identities, bodies, expressions and subjectivities in celebration of queerness as also the reading down of Sec 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The turnout seemed to be far greater than what the Kolkata Pride Walk had seen over the two decades through which it has evolved, since the very first walk of fifteen odd people in the summer of 1999. A long wait had ended, numerous diverse queer struggles had culminated in the scrapping of a colonial era legislation,the warmth of victory was palpable despite the cold nip in the air, and it was unmistakable that the crowd had come to celebrate. I was wearing my plaid flannel shirt with a black corduroy jacket, looking exactly like I had wanted to look in my late teens before realising my femininity would always betray my masculinity. But it was a day of provoking possibilities and we had taken to the streets with our desires unbound. We were what we wanted to be, and also what we could not be on all other days that we kept–or were expected to keep–parts of ourselves hidden to brave the world. I saw transwomen, Hijras, transfeminine individuals at their unapologetic and resplendent best–wearing feathers, embellishments, stunning jewellery–their imposing aesthetics befitting their panache while challenging norms of acceptable appearance. As one of the most marginalised sections of the city’s population, their dissidence, their flamboyant presence, their boisterous taking up of space, was exactly what I imagined justice looked like. As a queer “femme” woman, it was heartening to see femininity being diversified,acknowledged, honoured, cherished and embodied with pride.It was demonstration of strength through softness, celebration of differences as well as similarities, and the extension of subversive solidarities beyond class, caste, and religious boundaries. But there is more to this story.

As I was returning from the Walk after living a kind of utopia through several moments that passed me by too fast,I noticed a group of Hijras begging at the nearest traffic signal. While a part of the city’s queer and trans population and our allies celebrated non-normative desires and identities, and people individually and collectively envisaged radical queer futures, that very December afternoon many could not afford to lose a day’s income to partake in its resistance and revelry. At least once a year we reclaim the streets because of Pride.We walk, raise slogans, share hugs and laughter, break into impromptu gigs, all the while carrying our traumas, fears, memories of violence, injustice, insecurities, exhilaration, privileges, hopes, aspirations–all or some of which co-exist variously in each one of us– and imagine that our reality is somehow universal in those fleeting moments. Do we assume that every queer and trans person is able to, or wants to, resist dominant power structures in similar ways? Do we think about the political economy of sexual and gendered subalternity when visibility politics of Pride Walks seem to cut across socio-economic hierarchies? How inclusive is very inclusive?

Each of us experiences the cities and spaces we inhabit according to our individual socio-economic locations. Queer and trans communities are diverse, so we experience our relationships with our cities, communities, partners, families very differently from one another. When some of us refuse to being photographed and/or interviewed, wear masks at Pride, join as allies, are unusually quiet, the myth of the city as quintessentially liberated is shattered, or at least threatened. Some of us are incredibly privileged here, while some have remained historically dispossessed. Queer people in the city are not homogenous and cannot be pitted against small town/rural/semi-rural homogenised queers and be declared as unequivocally more privileged than them as recipients of the benefits of freedom and progress unilaterally. Our sense of belonging is not inherently secure here. There is a miasma of violence and fear that follows queer lives around even in the city, despite the circulation of queer rights discourses in protests, college and university campuses, community spaces, discussion forums, queer festivals etc. While us city queers walk together at Pride,we go back to living very different realities at the end of it.Some of us are able to blend into a heteronormative crowd with some effort immediately after Pride, whereas some go back to violent worlds where  our very existence is derided and/or invalidated, and this is especially true for trans folks. Some of us appear at Pride, many of us do not or are not able to. For those of us who do, we stare back when stared at by onlookers.When met with the heteropatriarchal, disapproving but desirous, gazes of men who shoot us glances from moving buses, autos, taxis, cars, rickshaws, we respond by shouting slogans more loudly and more assertively. But then we go back to passing, or failing at it,and living with the fear of being catcalled, stalked, raped or killed. Many among us are called names, are greeted with aggressive taunts and jeers on the very streets we boldly occupy at least once every year,so we go on living docilely until the next Pride, when performative reclamation of spaces becomes possible.And then there are queer people who have been so invisibilised that they are rendered unrecognisable by queer individuals or communities. Our quotidian realities are hence different from each other, and also differ from one moment to another in the spaces we variously navigate,depending on how our everyday negotiations play out within them.

Some of us understand pleasure but are not invested in politics.Some of us want a queer revolution, whereas some of us are only looking for love. Some of us theorise intersectionality, while some are struggling to survive. Some of us disown labels, whereas some of us hold on to them for dear life. Some of us are able to write our truths, so many of us cannot even begin to accept it ourselves. There is no singular way of being queer or performing queerness. We are all products of converging and diverging histories and our queerness is shaped by forces tangible and intangible in the everyday. Community-making, solidarity building, reimagining of alternatives are sustained by our diversities. Queerness is largely about existing with the knowledge that living, imagining, loving, articulating, pleasuring, agitating, contesting, emoting are queer when they are unafraid of evolving queernesses, so that queer freedom is not circumscribed by queerness itself and is capable of meeting challenges from within and outside of queer communities. Queerness is a radical instability that is also its political imperative. To imagine coherence, universality, homogeneity,singularity of voice and performance, is disservice to queerness and all its useful, provocative anxieties. Queerness is returning to oneself again and again, differently each time, to recognise diversity without disquiet, within oneself and among those we know and those we do not. So that when our outrage looks representative of the most marginalised voices, we ask ourselves how our politics can address the concerns of even the most depoliticised and unrepresented.

Cover Image: Feminism in India

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Sohini Chatterjee identifies as a queer feminist and writes primarily on gender, culture and politics. She holds an MA in International Relations.

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