What does being queer mean?
“Queer means being myself and being true to who I am. The label helps in validating my sense of identity and being. I choose to use the word queer when it comes to identifying myself because I don’t like boxing myself to the boundaries of labels,” says Avi, when asked about why they prefer going by the label ‘queer’.
The nature of queerness as a social category has remained a recurring ground of disagreement in queer theory and identity studies. Queer individuals like Avi claim that it frees them. However, in doing so, does the label ‘queer’ restrict those it claims to liberate?
Is there any way to go about the issue that does not assume a concrete definition of the concept of queerness in order to affirm the existence of people who do not subscribe to heteronormativity?
The reclamation of the word ‘queer’ from a derogatory slur to a positive self-description among the LGBTIQA+ communities dates back to the late 20th century. The usage of this term was often contrasted with the already prevailing gay and lesbian studies and politics at the time. Today, queer acts as an umbrella term that includes all those who do not identify with conventional heteronormative behaviour with regard to gender and sexuality. This allows it relative freedom to be more inclusive, compared to the static micro-label entities that ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ have become.
A micro-label is a sub-category within the umbrella term queer. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual and so on are all micro-labels or micro-identities. These micro-labels within the overarching queer banner should ideally be allowed complete freedom to exist and evolve as they wish. However, this arrangement gives rise to a few problems.
What is queer? Who is queer?
What is the definition of queer and who falls under it? As a non-binary person with sexual / romantic preferences that are difficult to summarise in one word, I spent a good while trying to choose a label and fit into it, shearing off the edges of my own identity to adhere to what I thought was expected of me.
Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that a single specific label or identity will not be able to contain everything that I am and want to be. In this scenario, the label queer enables me to feel and express every aspect of myself without limiting myself and my identity to specific categories, allowing me freedom to express my identity the exact way I feel it.
The very concept of queerness is meant to break free from the restricting shackles of societal normalisation of a heterosexual mindset. It revels in its lack of a clear definition. Queer is associated with ambiguous boundaries, enabling individual identities to thrive unhindered. It is this ambiguity that the queer communities seek and uphold.
As mentioned before, the reclamation of queer came up in response to gay and lesbian activism, which often failed to recognise other identities. Gay, lesbian and all other such labels can, in contrast, find a place in the concept of queerness, and work for queer rights means work for all of them. Not only does it make the queer movements more inclusive, but also gathers greater numerical strength as more people join under the umbrella.
Queer, however, is not about assimilation of the different identities into one homogenous one that is merely different from a heterosexual identity. Rather, queer intends to free those who subscribe to it from all bounds, and exist as individuals with all their little nuances as unique people. However, this may result in the perpetuation of the very problem that queerness sets out to solve. It wants to unite those excluded by the so called mainstream society, but it may end up making further divisions within its own folds.
Could an abolition of all micro-labels be a solution? Deveshi Bose, a 21-year-old law student says, “I don’t identify myself with any sexuality in particular since I don’t think I care enough about discovering it. I expect it to happen when the time comes instead of restricting myself with one. I expect everybody to get equal rights but I don’t see myself identifying with some sexuality.”
However, as much as we would like to leave the boundaries undefined and insist that we are all humans and therefore all deserve human rights, it becomes an undeniable reality that not all humans in society are – or will ever be – treated equally. It is here that we run into an irresolvable issue with regard to considering the queer communities as a whole with no micro-labels that have ‘concrete definitions’. Without such definitions, we are unable to provide affirmative actions. If we fail to define whom we need to protect, we fail to identify those who need protection, and hence we fail to protect them, or at least we become incapable of appealing in their favour.
Paradox of micro-labels
The abolition of all micro-labels can be problematic also because the blurring of boundaries can go on to render neglected sub-communities invisible. For example, the non-binary community regularly sees backlash, often mocked as merely identification without weight or just a fad. This can eventually cause the erasure of the non-binary community, driving its members right into the corners from where they came to look for shelter and understanding.
Being able to identify with a group and to find people similar to oneself is the basis for the queer movements. That is the purpose the micro-labels serve. “Some people might find the definitive certainty of micro-labels assuring and good for them,” says Dee, 21. Clear categories for individual identification can serve to provide a sort of safe space for people to find a label that suits them and put them at ease about the ‘normalcy’ of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.
Ideally, every micro-label should have the complete freedom to behave as it wills. We frequently see further sub-divisions within many of the queer sub-categories. For example, asexuality lies within the queer umbrella, and micro-labels like demisexuality or gray asexuality exist within the asexual umbrella, creating increasingly specific categories. But this can be a two-sided sword. While it helps people find a space where they can belong, it can lead to a situation wherein these firm categories within an umbrella community turn against each other.
A prominent example is biphobia and bi-erasure backed not only by the homosexual communities, but also the pansexual community. The latter’s argument is that the usage of the prefix ‘bi’ implies that bisexuality only recognises the binary genders (male and female) and leaves out non-binary persons, thus being discriminatory. Many hence opine that pansexuality or polysexuality are morally superior labels. Meanwhile, the bisexual community insists that ever since its inception, ‘bi’ has always referred to attraction to both one’s own gender and to other genders. This is an ongoing argument and an example of micro-labels leading to divisions.
Queerness in the context of India
Queer identities such as Hijra, Kinnar and Kothi have been present in India since pre-colonial times, with 3,500-4,000 years of recorded history and repeated mentions in ancient Hindu texts. Genderfluid, gender-changing, transgender, and intersex characters find the highest amount of mention in them, be it as Bahuchara Mata, the patron goddess of the Hijra community, or the transformation of Krishna into Mohini to marry the king Aravan before he dies as a sacrifice. References to sexuality are fewer but present.
The indigenous communities mentioned above have never been politically consolidated into an overarching community such as queer. The word itself has been carried over to India from the West, finding acceptance mostly among the English-educated elite of the country. It becomes difficult to correlate the queer debates with the Indian situation because of the absence (except in very recent times) of a defined umbrella community that accommodates all micro-labels – indigenous and western.
Moreover, there seems to be general ambiguity about how such accommodation can or should take place. As such, the major problem is that of class difference and lack of awareness. Given that the two, the indigenous or subaltern queer and the privileged or westernized queer, exist as separate categories with different socioeconomic backgrounds, it is going to be extremely challenging for queer activism in India to strive for the goal of universal human rights.
About the main photo: A scene from a march held in Kolkata in 2013 to protest against the violence faced by women and queer communities in India (photograph is representative in nature). Photo credit: Kaushik Gupta