Queerness as disease – a continuing narrative in 21st century India: Kaushal Bodwal

Guest post by KAUSHAL BODWAL

In August 2018, it came to my knowledge that a few of my pictures wearing sarees were circulating in my extended family’s WhatsApp group. Phone calls from home regarding my “obscene” behaviour were followed by a shift in the entire conversation towards my having some illness that needed to be cured. At some point my mother called me to tell that one of my aunts knew a doctor who can heal me. My first thought was that she was joking; unfortunately, she was only too serious. Once I registered the gravity of the situation, I panicked. Even though I was staying in a closed campus, I was not sure of my family’s potential to do what they claimed they wanted to.

The issue was with both my gender expression and my sexuality. I was a male assigned at birth walking in a saree and they thought that it was because of my interest in men. One of my aunts assured my mother that my love for sarees will end once my homosexuality is cured. The next time I went home, I was anxious and terrified. I knew I had to speak to them and explain what was going on. There were going to be a lot of questions. It’s not as I had ready-made answers for them, especially since the understanding of gender and sexuality that I had was not easy to articulate in my native language of Haryanvi. Through whatever words I could, I came out to my parents. My mom cried and my father stood numb. But mostly, confused. Despite their anger and other emotional expressions, the overall emphasis was on going to a doctor to get me fixed. After all, I was sick.

The most common usage of the word ‘sick’ for queers has a long history. From families to churches to medical specialists, all have played a pivotal role in justifying this kind of characterisation. Beginning with the Enlightenment, we come across the revolutionary developments in science that changed the landscape of how we understand nature and humankind alike. Amongst these, the evolution of medical science, both as an episteme and as a diagnostic architecture (what Foucault calls ‘the clinic’), resulted in pathologizing people whose notions of desire went beyond the contemporaneous ideas of morality and biology. With the fetishizing of Reason that scientific project foregrounded, the dreadful process of colonialism employed biomedical science that led to making conditions worse for the natives who, as the anthropological evidence reports, did not share the European beliefs about gender and sexuality. These moves to universalize science and instrumentalize it for governance allowed colonizers to deepen their power by claiming legitimacy from science.

Heteronormativity was one of the biggest production of modernity, with all the sub-institutions catering to its values and ways of living. But multiple accounts beyond the limited Western paradigm prove that modern heterosexuality and heteronormativity have always been haunted by the cultures of what the colonizers called the ‘uncivilized’. Non-modern cultures did not understand desire and sexuality in the ways that become dominant during the Enlightenment. This is not to suggest that those who lived beyond the heteronormative frames were not subject to violence, but that their status in the cultural epistemology was not understood as a disease in the way medical science did.

Let us take the case of South Asia. What does it mean to be a queer in South Asia? My interaction in Haryana with Nachars has provided me with a representation of queers in Northern India which challenges hegemonic understandings of gender and sexuality. Nachars are, for the most part, bisexuals in both their actions and behaviour. Being a nachar is also a professional identity. Here, someone assigned male at birth and also identifying with that assigned gender, dresses up in daaman, a Haryanvi dress for women, and performs dance and drama on festive occasions. While the identity of nachars needs more insightful theorizations, the point I am trying to make is that they are ruptures in the existing societal norms. I would even go so far as to say that they are queers in the word’s broadest sense. They are usually married in a heterosexual relationship, but what came to my notice was also the failure of their marriages due to their gender performance. Their accounts tell stories of both acceptance and violent rejections leading to suicides. Many of their acts, identities, professions still thrive in the margins of queerness and remain beyond the modern medical gaze.

If we are to do a historical analysis of the relation between medicine and queerness, then we can take a quick look at the discipline’s implicit presumptions. The two major branches of medicine that deal with gender and sexual orientations are psychiatry and sexology (which have at times produced contradictory conclusions). They primarily function and operate within a paradigm of procreative matrix whose roots lay in the Christian ethics. This has been noted by Herbert Marcuse who points out the hegemonic status of procreative sexuality where individuals are required to fulfill genital functions of reproduction.

Initially, homosexual individuals welcomed the authority of the American Psychiatric Association, as Ronald Bayer writes, the emerging consensus was that “better sick than criminals, better the focus of therapeutic concern than the target of brutal law”. However, by 1960s, queer rights activists discarded this “humiliating domination of psychiatry” and attacked the “unassailable status of science and technology, especially medicine”. This attitudinal shift resulted in increasing sensitization and discourse surrounding not only homosexuality but also regarding trans and intersex persons.

Just like the punitive settings, therapeutic custodial institutions also sidelined the question of the causality of this “deviance” they are in the project of curing. What happened instead was the production and cultivation of this deviance through various sanctions and perceptions of disgust from the ‘social’, legitimized by other factors.

Jessica Hinchy, in her book Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India, explains how colonial administration found the Hijras in India “ungovernable” and perceived them as a danger to colonial rule. They were criminalized by courts as “unnatural prostitutes”. The problematic usage of ‘unnatural’ brings science in play, where British physicians acting as ‘knowledge gatherers’, categorised hijras as ‘hermaphrodites’ subject to physical examination. By 1840s, the medical gaze was extended to hijras and debates regarding their sexual classification was publicly discussed.  The colonial parlance for Hijras- ‘eunuchs’, regarded by British doctors as “emblem of Indian sexual perversity”, were held guilty of sexual deviance in the Criminal Tribe Act of 1871.

Contrary to this situation, in the colonial period, medieval South Asia saw the role of hijras in many contexts as political advisors, administrators, generals as well as guardians of the harem. The better status for hijras during the Mughal empire subsequently deteriorated under colonial administration that has, since its very emergence, used eugenics to homogenize the beneficiary population who can act as normal persons to participate in the process of production and reproduction. Hijras were portrayed by British Commentators as producers of “filth, disease, contagious, and contamination.” Hinchy argues that these genders and sexual disorders were interlaced with the political disorder under colonial rule. These ungovernable bodies are still, following the colonial legacy, treated as a threat to state control and its functioning.

One such example of colonial legacy in contemporary times is Transgender (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 which makes ‘sex reassignment surgery’ mandatory for a person’s identification as a transgender. While nation wide protest has led to the amendment of this clause, Transgender (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019 comes up with certain voluntary loopholes to attack transgender community of India particularly hijra community.

What haunts biomedical conception of body the most, perhaps, is the reality of intersex people in our society. Intersex is a condition that is classified as a Disorder of Sex Development in International Classification of Diseases- 11 (Revised) whose inception calls for immediate surgical intervention, by attempting to discipline intersex bodies into the “heterosexual matrix”. Recently, Tamil Nadu Government has passed a legislation judgment on consensual surgeries on intersex infants and minors.  In a surprising but welcome move, a 2016 Madras High Court judgment banned irreversible sex reassignment surgeries on infants and minors.

The queer movement has had to deal with medical science in multiple instances since its inception and the field has largely not been in favor of passing an empathetic and socially conscious judgment toward queerness. Even though trans persons have sought the help of sex reassignment surgeries to feel a sense of belonging in their body, ‘gender dysphoria’ (a condition where an individual believes that their psychological sense of gender does not align with the one ascribed on them at birth) is classified as a mental disorder in American Psychiatric Association. For many other queer persons, their gender expression has been largely characterized as sickness. Certified doctors in the capital city of Delhi still promise to cure ‘homosexuality’ through drastic ways of ‘hormone therapies’, ‘electric shocks’, and ‘nausea inducing drugs’, which has been the standard procedures across regions. Conditions in rural areas, unfortunately, are even worse where no support mechanism or sensitization exists. Even beyond the legal victories, there is a necessity of more awareness being created across institutional and professional boundaries.

Kaushal Bodwal is a Queer activist, Hasratein: a Queer Collective, JNU.

One thought on “Queerness as disease – a continuing narrative in 21st century India: Kaushal Bodwal”

  1. The Indian Psychiatrist Society (IPS), never very distinguished, has distinguished itself with a shameful statement on the Lancet’s editorial on Kashmir earlier this month. In response, Dr.Kala, a psychiatrist, in a letter to the IPS, pointed out that he had quit the IPS over its refusal to remove homosexuality as a psychiatric condition, needing treatment. Clearly, we need to debate the mental health of psychiatrists!


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