R. Raj Rao is a writer and academic at the University of Pune. Openly gay, he is one of India’s leading LGBT activists. He recently translated and contributed an afterword to the autobiography of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Me Hijra, Me Laxmi. Tank caught up with Rao following an overwhelmingly well-attended session that featured him in conversation with Tripathi and Jerry Pinto.
Tank Could you tell us what the situation is at the moment in India, particularly in the last few months, with regard to the LGBT community?
RR I don’t know if you saw the write up in the Times [of India] after my session here at the festival with Colm Tóibín and Armistead Maupin. It used what I said as a headline: “If you’re gay in India, don’t come out.” That seems fickle and pessimistic, but I am pessimistic. What I said has to be seen in that context of the present right-wing government. They are just playing the fool with us. What’s going on is that the Supreme Court is saying it’s for the government to change the law [concerning gay sex] and the government isn’t doing anything. Then government ministers have recently gone on record to say that it is for the Supreme Court to amend the law. So I see it as a conspiracy between them; they really don’t intend to change anything, because if they do that they’ll offend right-wing sensibilities and this is a very right-wing government. So they’re taking us for a ride, making fools of us. In the last session, Laxmi [Narayan Tripathi] was talking about transgender rights, she was saying and what I was trying to say, is that some transgender rights are given – to the extent that you will have separate toilets and a third category on government forms – but [Section 377 of the Indian penal code] says gay people can’t have sex. It criminalises sex. So I don’t feel any hope. In the last session of Parliament, only a month ago, [the Congress Party politician] Shashi Tharoor tried to introduce a bill to change the law – because that’s what the court said the parliament should do – but it had no takers from the majority right-wing government.So we’re back to square one. They are pushing us around, the judiciary, the legislature, the bureaucracy; they’re just pushing us around so it couldn’t be bleaker, I don’t see any silver lining. It might seem excessively pessimistic and cynical, but that’s how it is.
Tank What is your perspective on the role of Western activists picking up or responding to issues here in India?RR During the panel it seemed to me like it came to people as a surprise that there is a law here that we’ve been fighting and that nothing is likely to change. Not everyone in the West is like that; I think there are a lot of Western people who know. Last year I was at this conference called Visible Evidence in Delhi and there were foreigners who were speaking in the panel who knew about Section 377. Not to begrudge them – their achievements and their liberty – but I think the reality here is very different and it seems that nothing is going to change that easily, at least until the government changes. And they are a popular government – they have the absolute majority in parliament and it’s very likely that they’ll get a second term. And as long as they’re here, things will not change. They are very right-wing in their outlook because it’s the religious Hindu Right that decides what they think.
Tank How do class and caste also intersect with these issues? I was interested in the way in which LGBT writing was absorbed into the academy here: it was seen as alternative literature and grouped with [lower-caste] Dalit literature.
RR That is taking the discourse to a more advanced level when you have these other intersections of caste. I’m able to discuss this because I am an academic, a fiction writer and a poet, so I’m very much concerned with representation. But in the real world, there is no question of addressing these other intersections when we don’t even have basic rights.
We are criminals technically, because of Section 377 in India, but I’m also grappling with issues of censorship and self-censorship. I can be punished for writing my poems. In terms of jurisdiction, if you look at the wording of Section 377, it talks about unnatural sex, but does that mean if you represent unnatural sex in film and literature, they can argue that the section applies to you as well? So that’s the situation for these other intersections, and of course, for myself. My own fiction is – and I hope I don’t sound pompous but I’d like to use the word – transgressive, because it’s got things like cross-caste relationships, as well as intergenerational relationships. These relationships are not really exploited because I think it depends on how the fiction negotiates these categories, but on the face of it, they may seem exploited and so that makes me vulnerable.
Even the queer community meet people who don’t agree with them, activists see these things differently from right-wingers; activists think that we have to gain acceptance, that we shouldn’t be too confrontational, too upfront. I don’t buy that. My method is confrontation. I think of myself as a terrorist of the spirit. I think of pain as a weapon, so, short of going and killing people – I wouldn’t do that – I think pain can be used. We have been mild and moderate for too long and nothing has happened. We are trampled all over and it’s time to fight.
Tank You get to a point where you have to ask what costs you will pay to be accepted into a family structures. Ultimately there’s something strange going on in that thinking.
RR It’s what Laxmi also thinks and within the queer community that seems to be the more popular point of view. You might say – and this is to my disadvantage – that I live in an ivory tower because I teach at a university at a postgraduate and research level. I offer a course on LGBT writing, which has an Indian focus and a little bit of a Western focus, and I’ve written considerable amounts of gay fiction, poetry, plays, as well as non-fiction. So that’s my universe. I don’t really cross the path of politicians but I do have a column in a newspaper which has been going on for nearly two years. Week after week I speak out against 377 and the politics around it. My work is restricted to that; I don’t have to meet anyone and seem amiable to them or seem like I’m willing to make compromises. So that’s my space and that’s where I’m coming from.
Tank It was so interesting to see the reaction to Laxmi; people obviously love her.
RR We have run several panels like this, but every one was like the last one because she touches upon things. Whereas with me, everything I say may not be clear. It’s also her personality; she’s so effusive, she lets herself go and I think people like that, not all lecturers are like that. That’s her personality. She knows it’s her strength and she uses it to the fullest.
It’s a shame but I don’t think there were enough questions about the translation [of Laxmi’s autobiography]. In terms of writing and her life, it’s strange that I’m saying this as I translated it so I should stand by her, but the other hijra autobiography by Revathi, The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story, is much more moving.
Another thing about Laxmi, that a lot of people have questioned, is that she is not castrated. There are people who think that a real hijra must be castrated. She has had the best of both worlds; unlike Revathi, she had parental support, whereas Revathi was thrown out of the house. Revathi describes her castration operation in great detail, the pain. The operations are supposed to be done as part of a bloodletting ritual. They’re not like modern sex-change operations; you can’t use anaesthesia. You have to feel that blood draining off. Laxmi didn’t go through any of that, and those things are terrible.
Tank Isn’t it the case that hijra has a very specific meaning and transgender has a much broader meaning?
RR No, it is problematic and one of the reasons I took the [Laxmi] project up was to try and build these bridges. I do know that the mainstream lesbian and gay community, especially the gay community in India, doesn’t always see eye to eye with the hijras. They need their own support systems. The lesbians have their own agenda and ways of seeing. As you said the Western transgender model where you become a fully-fledged trans man or woman, that doesn’t apply to the hijra. The term “hijra” is a cultural construct; it means you have your own customs and rituals and you have a guru. One can’t be a hijra in isolation, whereas you can be trans in isolation. Actually a lot of trans men and women in this country sever all links with their families; they don’t want people to know that they’ve changed their gender. The hijras want to be known, that’s a crucial difference.
Tank With regards to your work and your use of language...
RR I would call myself queer, rather than gay or homosexual. The way that I worked it out, which may seem like an oversimplification, is that the word homosexual denotes a sexual preference. One can be in the closet and be homosexual, so I would tend to use the word homosexual for people who are in the closet. Whereas, to me, gay and queer imply a political identity and that would mean that they are out of the closet.
I would define myself as queer over gay. The word gay is narrow, whereas queer is more of an umbrella term; it includes other sexuality minorities, as well. They are interchangeable though. Being queer is part of my identity. It shapes my ways of seeing. Not everyone for whom same-sex attraction is a preference would say that it shapes their identity, but in my case, it certainly does. You are surrounded by heterosexual bridges in this culture, and in all cultures, but especially here with Bollywood and arranged marriages. It’s a family culture; I don’t think there is any more of a heteronormative institution than the family – it puts emphasis on parents, children and marriage. So you’re surrounded by heteronormativity. Everywhere you go there’s talk about dating and if that is going to bother you – as it’s always bothered me – then you have a right to be called queer. It’s not just sexual preference; it shapes my way of seeing.
In my own case, I get things like, “You don’t look gay, how can you be gay?” Which is a humiliation, because they’re stereotyping me. My personality is shaped by that. Even these five days at the festival, I can’t make conversation. Writers are talking to each other and I feel very awkward. I realise that’s why I feel awkward because I don’t know how to intervene except for very superficial talk about someone’s latest book. More profound conversations are not even possible. §