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Issue in Focus: Performance and Sexuality

Picture of a classical dance performer, face painted in yellow and black

A few years ago, during ethnographic fieldwork at a women’s hostel in Chennai, I watched as nineteen-year-old Ranjana rolled up her sleeves, put one foot on a bed and slapped her thigh, as she catcalled one of her roommates. She was being “a rowdy”; the others laughed. She liked to call herself the “tomboy of the room” and sometimes “the lesbian in the room”. Was she actually sexually attracted to women? “Being” a lesbian in the hostel room was a matter of performing – simultaneously – youth and transgressive gender and sexuality: it was a form of play that allowed for non-playful explorations of desire. It had very little to do with stable categories of sexual identity.

I begin with this vignette because it suggests the ways in which we perform gender and sexuality in everyday life: self-consciously and un-self-consciously, playfully and seriously: creating meaning in the milieus in which we live. We also perform other kinds of selfhood: in being “a rowdy”, Ranjana was play-acting a lower-middle-class and lower-caste self that the young women in the hostel thought particularly sexually desirable. Upper-caste boys, my roommates at the hostel told me, were “tayirsaadam”: yoghurt and rice, the least spicy dish imaginable. Gender, sexuality, caste and class it would seem are all intimately intertwined, co-constituting each other. To be ‘gay’ or a ‘woman’ is to simultaneously embody class, caste and race. This is an idea that is widely developed in post-structuralist thinking on gender and sexuality. Michel Foucault’s volumes on the History of Sexuality for instance, posit that ideas about desire and its bodily location as well as expression are not naturalised or universal but constructed within specific social milieus. Rather, they are learned in the institutions of modern life: at home, in school, at juvenile correctional centres and in prisons. Hostels, such as the ones where hundreds of Indian women spend a few years of their youth, were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by colonial educators and social reformers precisely for the purpose of teaching girls how to be modern middle-class women.

Indeed, the psychoanalytic scholar, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick shows that the idea of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ – homo- and heterosexual – being the two major forms of sexual orientation itself comes from  specific historical and socio-legal conjecture in the late 19th century. A spate of social legislation from the 1850s onward had sought to regulate social life in Britain and its colonies, regulating prostitution, homosexuality and the age of sexual consent. In this context, Sedgwick argues, the same-sex desiring subject was articulated as a distinct identity-bearing figure posited in stark opposition to the heterosexual. This imperial context in which categories of sexual identity as we now know them came to be articulated has been taken up widely by scholars. Afsaneh Najmabadi shows that in regions like Iran during the Qajar years (1794 – 1925), ideas about gender and sexual desire were fluid: accommodating, as the title of her iconic book suggests, ‘women with moustaches and men without beards’, as well as a range of desires outside of married heterosexual love. Focusing on a more contemporary context, Jasbir Puarfurther shows that geopolitical concerns remain intimately intertwined with the performance of sexuality in her writing on ‘homonationalism’: the use of LGBT rights as a means through which to advance nationalist goals. Puar’s work draws out the demonisation of Middle-Eastern cultures as ‘anti-gay’ within liberal rhetoric in the US, often justifying military intervention in these regions. This stultification of same-sex desire within the LGBT rubric further also makes invisible forms of desire that cannot fit within that paradigm. In the South Asian context, Akhil Katyal writes about laundebaazi– a “habit for men” – among men who might otherwise be straight-identified, and about kothi and panthi relationships that signify preferences for particular roles in sex acts rather than stable structures of identity. Performance – how we inhabit our bodies in everyday life – is thus integral to living our sexual lives.

Performance also veers between conscious and unselfconscious, between artistic expression and lived inhabitation of the body: Ranjana’s play-acting is similar to camp and drag performances that suggest the exaggerated adoption of a gender-transgressive role. Even where they don’t result in substantive transformations, performance in this mode unsettles the naturalisation of gender roles and of heterosexual desire. Ranjana herself was a “girly girl” in circumstances other than her playful time in the hostel. One day, as she dressed up, taking care to line her eyes with kohl and braid her hair in a flattering loose plait, one of our roommates commented,“Today, the little boy has the beauty of a bride”. The bride is an aspirational ideal here: in this “real self” as much as in her camp play, Ranjana was performing womanhood. In the 1990s, Judith Butler’s work made the radical argument that gender is itself performative. Butler argued that gender and sexuality do not exist as pre-discursive categories: i.e. there is no ‘man’ and ‘woman’ before socially-mediated language. Rather, we learn to perform appropriate and binary gendered subjectivities in our everyday lives: for instance, in little girls being told to sit with their knees together; in boys being taught not to cry. Queer communities and theatre artistes have used camp and drag performances to signal dissent to stable and naturalised categories of gender and sexuality. By “putting on” gender, these performances suggest the fragility of normative identity constructions. Ranjana’s camp performance, however, arguably reinforced the normative ideal of heterosexual womanhood she otherwise inhabits: in laughing in that context, her roommates were not so much laughing at heterosexuality but at the freakishness of Ranjana’s ‘lesbian’ performance. Even as it allowed for playful touching and flirtation in the room, the games had a clearly-marked boundary. To actually live out such desires, my roommates made clear to me, would be a step too far. Performance, as I learned and as many scholars have shown us, is not always liberating: the forms of agency it allows for are complicated and interstitial, functioning in the gaps of power-structures.

A few years after my ethnographic stint in the hostel, I stood among a group of queer people in Chennai as we watched one of our friends marry his girlfriend. The bridegroom was a fastidious, well-groomed young man who had chosen, for the occasion, a bright magenta shirt. One of the gay men in the group said,“I honestly can’t believe he’s straight after all…I mean we all thought he was gay”. Another retorted,“He is gay… he’s gay but not homosexual.” In ending on this vignette, I want to emphasise the significance of performance as an embodied and contingent mode of being in the world. To think of sexuality as performative disrupts the need for stable categories and identities, instead suggesting that we all reinforce and disrupt normative formations as we attempt to inhabit the world in messy ways.

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