Caste My Labels Away: The Battle For Caste Oppressed Queer Individuals.

The institution of privilege is very important in understanding the entire discussion of navigating through caste-oppressed queer identities today.

Why gender spaces in India remain disillusioned towards the caste oppressed queer individuals.

I remember reading an article by Dalit journalist Jeya Rani on why there is a lack of Dalit representation in mainstream media. In saying that if we need media to stop denying caste-oppression, she says that we need reporters belonging outside and above the spectrum of caste-based discrimination to also speak up. In short, she asks people to exercise what we call their privilege.

The institution of privilege is very important in understanding the entire discussion of navigating through caste-oppressed queer identities today. Why is it that important? Let us have a look at the below experiences.

Hi, I’m W and I’m traditionally a man who identifies as queer.
Hi, I’m X, I’m traditionally a woman identifies as queer.
Hi, I’m Y, I’m traditionally a fat woman who identifies as queer.
Hi, I’m Z and I’m traditionally a fat Dalit woman who identifies as queer.

Here are 4 individuals who identify as queer, who wish to identify differently from socially ascribed gender roles. However, do they have similar experiences of coming out?

W fights against being marginalised because of their queerness.
X fights marginalisation against sexism and queer-phobia.
Y is fighting against body-shaming, sexism, and queer-phobia.
Z is fighting to overcome body-shaming, caste hierarchy, sexism and queer-phobia.

Apart from the fact that coming out cannot be an enforced mandate for queer individuals, the experiences of these four individuals might highly vary, because I don’t see 4 individuals who are fighting the same battle, I see a few fighting multiple battles at the same time. This is not to say that the experiences of say the gay male community is trivial compared to that of gay women. But in fighting our rights as queer individuals, if we choose to disengage with narratives of multiple-marginalizations that don’t concern us, aren’t we fighting for selective freedom?

In lieu of this, while the universally recognised movements of fighting against sexism and racism reduce multiple-marginalizations for queer individuals, we need to ask an important question. Have we as Indians created safe spaces such as those for caste-oppressed individuals? Their narratives are rooted in systemic oppression on grounds of caste, religion, and gender today. Aggressive as it sounds, the fight for a lot of Dalit queer individuals today does not allow them the privilege of coming out. Pause a moment. Let this sink in. Before you react saying that by implying that coming out is a ‘privilege’, there a massive trivialisation of what coming out means for the community, ask yourself- Do you belong to an upper caste or a lower caste? (….and if you say you’re casteless, high chances are that you belong/belonged to an upper caste because you had the privilege to disengage with your caste identity.) And there, you have your answer.

I get it. Coming out for queer individuals liberates them from the repression that dissociates them from their identity. This option of coming out for a lot of casteless or caste-entitled queer individuals like us comes from the fact that we come from backgrounds that don’t lead to marginalisation on levels that prove overtly threatening to our identity. However, why I call it a ‘privilege’ here is because caste-oppressed individuals deal with situations that don’t allow them the financial, social or the cultural space to openly accept their identity, hence making coming out a ‘privilege’ for them. As individuals born into the ‘lower’ caste, they are first fighting for a caste-less identity because there is a denial of basic human rights. If one is a female born into a ‘lower’ caste, they’re constantly fighting rape attempts and violations by men and women from the upper caste. They’re fighting for education, opportunity and basic human rights, things that most fellow upper caste and caste-less individuals don’t have to fight for. For them to exercise their identity as queer, they neither have the digital or physical safe space to support and defend their queerness. The bitter truth of the matter is that a lot of queer spaces that have been created today don’t totally encompass the spectrum of likes of Dalit queerness. While there is definitely progress, what we cannot deny is that the majority of caste-oppressed population yet fails to celebrate their queer identities, because there is not always an option to celebrate it while simultaneously fighting against caste oppression.

We should be proud of the queer community today. It is stronger than ever, and there is so much hope. Because we’re stronger, it is time to address the existence of caste-based intersections in the community. For Dalit individuals to exercise their queerness, they need to overcome an overwhelming history of caste based marginalisation. Without that battle for caste-eradication, the battle for celebration of queer identity is half lost. Intersectionality is important. Discrimination based on intersectionality disempowers queer-positive experiences. Discrimination based on intersectionality hampers inclusivity. We know this. Then why is it that we aren’t actively seeking safe spaces for caste-oppressed queer individuals in the country?

Yes, the queer movement in India is feminist. Because, we understood early on that the fight for celebrating queerness must encompass the fight against sexism, a cause that also includes oppression against cis-gendered people. To a great extent, it is body-positive because the movement chooses not to advocate selective acceptance. However, are we actively making an attempt to make it anti-casteist? Simply because, asking us only be cis-gendered is detrimental. The label of being discriminated by virtue of being female is hampering. The label of fat-disability is problematic. So is the label of being a Dalit. How then must it feel when one is labeled as all?

Let’s take a step back at W,X,Y,Z and look at another discourse. While here are four individuals that are fighting for queer rights within a sphere that is demanding inclusiveness, can it be that it is only W that represents the voice of all four individuals? Absolutely not. Why? Because while W would fight for queer rights, they’d essentially be fatsplaining and mansplaining about issues equally essential within the queer movement that doesn’t impact them. Just as W cannot represent the voice of all, the Indian Queer community can never essentially represent the Dalit voice in the Queer forum without Dalit representation. Never must we assume our social, financial and cultural capital as leeway to be able to speak on behalf of Dalit voices if we’re unable to engage them actively in the community. The dichotomy of upper-castesplaining the Dalit voice for the sake of advocating inclusiveness while failing to lend them a space for their own narrative once again hints towards a deep-rooted form of casteism that makes us believe that we can speak on their behalf. All this while, if we’ve been fighting for the marginalised without engaging with the marginalised, there is a dire need to check the nature of privileged voices that we’ve been appropriating. This is not to say that the likes of upper-caste individuals cannot speak up. Taking from what Jeya Rani says, we absolutely must. As in case of fighting sexism, we need men to lead the movement without leading the narrative. Similarly, we as the ‘privileged’ must learn to speak up without speaking on behalf of the marginalised. There’s a fine line, and all we can do learn and unlearn as we navigate through our privilege.

The US suffrage movement in the early 20th century made a mistake of excluding black women’s rights from their fight because they believed that a selective battle won is still a substantial win. Years later, the #MeToo movement in India made the same mistake of being consciously upper caste in nature.

This is exactly why today, more so than ever, the cause of being a part of the Queer community must encompass the cause of rejecting caste. Because if we’re afraid of being diversionary today, all we’re doing is disempowering a community of caste-oppressed queer individuals whose queer identity can only be achieved through caste emancipation. Ultimately, don’t we all know that a battle half won is half lost somewhere?

So, let’s not be afraid of helping them ‘caste their labels away’, because let’s accept it, we have a privilege that helps us reject ours.

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Stuti Nabazza

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