Queer, confront it

The Trans #MeToo

Members and supporters of the LGBT community are seen during Namma Pride Bengaluru Queer Habba rally. PTI

Over the past year, we have seen the emergence of different versions of the #MeToo movement in India from varied social locations — the LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia) compiled by Raya Sarkar, a Dalit law student studying at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, #MeToo on Facebook by Dalit-Bahujan women from Kerala, the protest by nuns in Kerala against Bishop Franco and the current #MeToo twitter revelations by a largely dominant-caste list of cis-women complainants against powerful heads of media houses, politicians, cinema stars, NGO heads, etc.

It is the toxic combination of caste and patriarchy that enables the perpetrators to harass women and be granted impunity for their actions, all the while climbing steadily in their careers. So, it is no surprise that most of the cis-men named were dominant-caste men with institutional power and privilege. Some have been asked to step down from their positions while others are just lying low for the moment to pass.

However, there are many gaps in the current social media based #MeToo movement. It does not amplify the voices of marginalised women and trans folks. The fact that social media is not accessible to a significant population of women and trans folks from oppressed communities is a barrier to making #MeToo democratic. There is also the issue that for a person to name a perpetrator, talk about violence, to be heard and for there to be consequences, there are some prerequisites of privilege that you must already enjoy — especially the privilege of having humanity and individuality granted to you.

Most Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women, people in occupied territories and trans-women across castes are just statistics in accounts of violence. There are many exceptions, like Soni Sori, Phoolan Devi, Bhanwari Devi who have fought protracted, lonely battles and taken up social justice at the cost of their lives. Today, we stand on the shoulders of these women and the work they have done.

When it comes to violence faced by queer people, especially trans/gender non-conforming people, there are negligible laws protecting us from specific kinds of violence. Trans-women who face sexual violence during sex work, in intimate relationships, in workplaces across public and private spaces, have no recourse to justice. Even when trans-women approach the police to register cases, they are mocked and turned away or brutally assaulted in police stations.

In 2004, Kokila, a Hijra sex worker, was gang-raped by her client and his friends and later brutally assaulted by the police investigating the case at the Byappanahalli police station, Bengaluru; on June 17, a court granted bail to all four accused of gang-raping a 19-year-old trans-girl in Wadgaon Budruk, Pune, after her gender identity was revealed. The survivor’s lawyer had filed the case under Sec 377 against the perpetrators since under Indian rape law, only cis-women can be rape victims.

Trans-women have named and filed FIRs but cis-male perpetrators are still at large, enjoying impunity for their actions. Trans-men/gender non-conforming people who are forcibly married by their parents or sexually abused in workplaces/intimate relationships also have no recourse to the law.

In Hijra communities, historically, the jamaat system (in which the elders adjudicate intra-community conflicts and issues), emerged as a parallel legal system precisely as a community accountability process, in response to state legal systems that are inaccessible or further criminalise victims/survivors. But often, these systems prove ineffective in dealing with intra-community violence. There is a growing critique of state incarceral systems in activist circles and many are grappling with this question of community accountability.

Who or what defines a community and the relative caste, gender and class power of people within each community is a huge issue that must be tackled to ensure that oppressive, self-appointed juries are not formed to attack and single out scapegoats from marginalised social locations without examining our own practices and culpability. Collectively and yet critically attempting to bring about some process of accountability and self-reflection is indeed crucial.

“Queer” epistemologically, performatively, aesthetically and politically is one that cannot be contained. Often, our ways of expressing desire are what can be called “over the top”. There is a celebration of immorality/indecency against structures that try to discipline and govern us and there is radical potential in this. There are also “decent” LGBTI people who have assimilative aspirations and distance themselves from the “indecent other”.

No matter what the media and NGOs would have you believe, we know that according to social locations and gender identity/expressions, some groups under the rainbow umbrella are separate and unequal. Anyone who has gone to queer parties in urban cities knows that the codes of flirtation, consent, desire are different from that of cis-heterosexual worlds.

Anyone who has an account on Grindr would know the amount of misogyny, femme/transphobia, fat-shaming and casteism expressed in the name of “desire” or innocuously passed off as “preferences”. There is a pervasive culture of non-consensual touch in queer circles and we must all take responsibility for it. Since this culture is a collective one, the effort to change it must also be a collective process.

Recently, after an anonymous account of intimate partner violence was shared by a trans-man, there were several discussions on trans Whatsapp groups. What was significant was the push-back and silencing of these crucial issues by “insiders”, who cited “trans masculinity”, “trans patriarchy” and the oft-repeated “let’s look at both sides” argument. Trans-men do have specific, situational privileges of patriarchy but not structural ones. Our bodies are vulnerable and our lives are precarious.

However, when movements are currently focusing on cis-women survivors and dominant-caste cis-men perpetrators, would we be equalising the narrative to talk about violence faced by a trans-man and perpetrated by a cis-woman? There are always some people and issues that will be put on the back burner in our struggles for justice. But we know what powerful fires emerge from those back burners.

Shouldn’t we be ready to examine ourselves, our friendships, our complicity, our enabling behaviours, the violence we perpetrate and take collective responsibility for opening up a conversation on consent, desire and accountability? We know that nobody else is going to do it for us. But it is imperative that we do this for our own liberation. Not because someone is going to handcuff or incarcerate us, but simply because we will remain broken if we break others.

(Gee Imaan Semmalar is a trans activist and writer living in Bengaluru)

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