This is a guest post by Diwas Raja Kc and Alston D’Silva
On the 18th of April this year, Dr. Priya Vedi of AIIMS tragically ended her life and left a Facebook note incriminating her husband—fellow doctor at AIIMS Dr. Kamal Vedi—for “torturing” her mentally, clearly implying that his homosexuality was the reason for her suicide. Her distress is apparent in the note as she recounts the lack of intimacy in her marriage and her discovery of the husband’s sexual activities as a gay man before and during the marriage. At the end she includes a plea to all gay men to not “marry to a girl to save yourself,” to not play with the emotions of a girl and her family. It should not be surprising that some condolent commentators have placed the blame specifically on Kamal Vedi’s alleged sexual orientation, even calling for legal action. Even within the LGBT community, the tendency has been to first put culpability on the man’s opportunistic participation in the institution of marriage. There is a sense that this incident ought to serve as a teaching moment for gay men, who are argued to require an ethical code, who need to fixate on the deliverance of their conscience, and whose rights—as Sandip Roy pointed out—”mean nothing without responsibility.” But despite Priya Vedi’s strongly felt sentiments, must we proceed as if the case of her fatal end is a logical and natural consequence of gay men’s irresponsible intrusions into the sanctum of marriage? After all, such intrusions are routine, and the ensuing heartbreaks are sometimes even known to be productive of powerful empathy between straight women and gay men.
In her pioneering text The World of Homosexuals (1977), Shakuntala Devi wrote, after detailing the turbulence a woman potentially faces upon the discovery of her spouse’s homosexuality and the realization of the ineffectiveness of her “feminine influence,” that these surprising unions have occasionally been the site for alternative practices of marriage, ones where a younger man and an older woman or a gay man and a lesbian woman might come to a “comradely understanding” of their mutual ambitions and choose to subvert the normative requirements of companionship. To the charge that gay men reap undue and undeserved benefits from marrying a woman, it is unclear what exactly of those benefits are marks of his homosexuality. For if those benefits include access to the wife’s unpaid labour, social status, and perhaps even a tacit license for cruelty, these apply as much to his straight counterparts. Even his shortcomings in the performance of conjugal duties, where sex is sequestered within the boundaries of matrimony, is not exclusive to gay men in marriage. Other men (and women) have also failed to perform the same or pursued extramarital dalliances.
If a higher moral standard guides gay men that they must opt out from the privileges of patriarchy, it might appear facetious to demand this, but why should we not ask straight men to also opt out from the rewards of marriage? And even if it is specifically gay men who must opt out from patriarchy, should they also not refuse participation in educational institutions, public offices, marketplaces, and other sites of patriarchal advantages? The very mechanics of Indian marriages, choreographed by families where the participants have limited knowledge of each other offers exactly the cover that shepherd gay men into these unions. The supposed ethical demand that gay men in good conscience should opt out of heterosexual marriage fails to acknowledge that these seemingly irresponsible choices are often made under the pressures of a countervailing ethical impetus that sees personal sacrifices as necessary for the larger good of the family and community. Indeed, sacrifice is precisely the context of marriage that make many gay men feel or be persuaded that they can satisfactorily fulfill their roles as husbands. Sacrifice constitutes marriage as always and already a compromised union between partners with asymmetrical desires, affections, and power. In fact, so many successful relationships are exercises in negotiations between imperfect partners and acts of accommodating these asymmetries.
It is, thus, not surprising that even until the end Priya Vedi staunchly held to the belief that she could change her husband and was frustrated that he would not. Should Kamal Vedi not have married Priya? The answer we propose is that his choice, insofar as it concerns the question of fairness to women, cannot be reduced to a singular decision of an ethical act. The difficulty we face in creating alternatives to hetersexual conventions is highlighted by this minor slip in Sandip Roy’s opinion piece, “AIIMS doctor and her ‘gay husband’: So why didn’t he stay single?” Staying single sidles ominously close to the narrative of lonely, loveless and feckless gay men, “cruising websites and phone-apps for sexual release just a click away.” Incidentally, many gay men would be puzzled by such a degenerate characterization of new social networking, which can be joyous and powerful experiences even when they don’t resolve into sex, forming deep friendships and communities. Priya Vedi went on to name other men her husband associates with, a cruel if understandable, impulse. Gay life is still an underground and it is underground because it is under assault. Public debates of late, not least due to feminist interventions, have underscored how the matter of choice is thoroughly complicated. We now understand that the ability to make choices cannot be extricated from the conditions of coercion. Such an understanding needs to be extended to the choices of gay people as well. By leveling our collective judgment on Kamal Vedi, in effect seeing this tragedy as an inevitable result of his deceit, we allow all of the accompanying factors that make marriages unjust to women remain intact. Coming out is undoubtedly the most effective strategy we have as LGBT people. As a strategy it depended wholly on the feminist critiques of the rigidities put in place by patriarchy and it was shaped deeply by feminism’s anarchical impulse to disrupt social norms. Since people cannot be bullied into coming out or condemned for failing to stay morally upright in the face of a hostile state and society, we continue to rely on feminist critiques to create an affirmative space and association with coming out.
The political stance of LGBTs need not be apologetic at this instance. Rather we need to put our energies into exposing the injustices that emerge from the hierarchies and prescriptions of the institutions of marriage and family, while at the same time maintaining that these injustices do not necessarily prevent the possibility of loving and caring companionships, whether homosexual or heterosexual. We need to be chanting even more loudly that the sources of homophobia and misogyny are one and the same. And that the choice we are presented in the wake of this incident, between two forms of victimhood, is ultimately a false one. It may simply be a rhetorical device on the part of LGBT voices, but making gay rights contingent on gay responsibility is an egregious error. The requirement that every gay person be a beacon of ethical and responsible living as a precondition for securing our rights reduces the need for a collective reformation of our institutions to paltry individual actions. It elides the fact that the only answer to Priya Vedi’s afflicted plea is to guarantee the empowerment of LGBT people. We cannot go on feeling that those who continue to choose the closet do not deserve the solidarity and the protection of our open politics. We cannot pretend that the closet and the desire to hide are so foreign to us. Nor can we pretend that a higher moral imperative will absolve us from the awkward situation that even our banal everyday existence seems to put us in the path of wrong and hurt.