I remember the first time I learnt the meaning of the word ‘political’. It was the first week of my Political Science classes as a wide-eyed naive college student and my professor spent quite a few classes reiterating that anything ‘political’ means that it is subject to contestation and change. You can debate over it, you can discuss it, disagree with it. Policies, laws, your affiliations. That democracy thrived in chaos and difference in opinion. My understanding back then was limited to party politics and other major institutions like the judicial system, the legislatures, or the executive arm of the government, and so on. But now I’m learning that our very existence as individuals is politicized. A relatively hassle-free life often means that the person is privileged through identity, and has adequate access to resources, whereas being marginalized in some way affects every aspect of your life including what kind of rights and liberties you have.
At first, I didn’t get what people meant when they said that the LGBTQ+ rights movement was political. I didn’t see why my existence was political. After all, everyone on TV and on the internet said things like, Love is love, or All love is equal, or Love wins!, or Marriage is about love and various other platitudes; queer people always looked joyful to march at Pride. Now I realize that my Savarna privilege shields me so much from the harsh realities of queerness. Marriage is still considered to be a sacrosanct union between a (cis)man and a (cis)woman and no two (or more) other people. And the above-mentioned slogans are a call for the government to legalize queer marriages. And while I respect someone else’s desire to be married, I think that there is somehow an idea that getting equal rights in marriage means there is equality amongst straight and queer people. Although I’m not denying that marriage is an important contract to some people, it doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory, or that there is no discrimination anymore. Representation in the active politics and bureaucracy, having equal job opportunities, equal wages, right to safe living & public spaces, not being used as a wider consumer group for merchandise, not being othered or alienated from society – all of these matters just as much, if not more. This is what makes queer existence so political, whether we acknowledge it or not – having to demand the same rights and safety that straight people take for granted.
Straight people will proudly demand “straight pride” without thinking twice and queer people need to wait for years and months to hear a verdict from the high court if we’re allowed to marry someone we love or live in the fear that we’ll wake up to our very existence being declared illegal. Humanity took on the job of building a society from scratch with no rule book or guidelines given to us and this is what we come up with – capitalism and discrimination. Why did we decide to put up existence on the list of things we debate about?
Kink and Pride-
Every year during Pride month, I see the same discourse on whether or not kink should be allowed at Pride. Kinks are often invalidated citing mental illness as the reason. BDSM and kink are often appropriated by straight people and are seen as overly sexualized acts, when in fact, they are a lifestyle, a way for the members of the community to engage with the world. There is so much content online saying that enjoying BDSM or other kinks would mean there is something psychologically wrong with people and that it should be checked and tested by professionals. Like the ‘daddy kink’, for example, wherein women are shamed and told that not having proper attachment in their childhood or having an absent father would later manifest in their adult life as “daddy issues” and if they just address them with their father, this perverted kink of theirs would go away. This idea was solidified by Freud (and his disciples), who was a sexist, racist and problematic person in history, who came up with the concept called “penis envy” (that every AFAB desires to have a penis- invisibilizing the need for gender parity and the experience of trans-ness in a singular hypothesis!). Freud, honey, are you sure you hadn’t internalized homophobia, which you then projected onto your partners, secretly wanting them to neg you perhaps?
BDSM and kink are ways of bonding with people, making families, forming communities. It is dependent on consent, communication, and love. It’s not just sex. Reducing everything to penetrative sex and reproduction is, in my opinion, a heteronormative move. Michele Foucault, in his introductory chapter of the book The History of Sexuality, talks about how in earlier human civilization, sex was openly talked about in public life, even in the presence of children. But it was during the Victorian society that appropriate discussion of sex somehow became restricted to the bedroom and only between a man and his wife since it was seen as a mechanism for reproduction and transfer of intergenerational wealth. Similarly, many of the Vedic scriptures too adopted a similar approach, especially to preserve caste endogamy.
Sex, even today, is an extremely taboo topic. BDSM and kink are slowly becoming part of mainstream discussions, but it has been appropriated and reduced to mere sexual acts like handcuffs, spanking, and so on, and disregards the cultural aspect of it. It has been reduced to a mere tool that spices up sex for straight couples. But sex among queer people and polyamorous partners is still seen as ‘perverted’, ‘unnatural’, and ‘abnormal’ – for the longest time, these were the legally-coded terms that were interpreted as referring to homoeroticism.
We see this in inappropriate questions like, “So who’s the man in your relationship?” and in discourses on whether or not BDSM and kink should be a part of Pride.
Pride is a celebration of queer people, it is a space for expression of all that has been excluded and ostracized historically. Often the argument to exclude kink from Pride is, “Think of the children”. We don’t censor acts of public display of affection when it comes to straight couples; sex scenes are shot for movies, innuendoes are allowed in public, little children are encouraged to play house and find spouses and significant others. Including kink and BDSM at Pride is a way for people to express themselves, find community and subvert normative cultural boundaries with mutual consent. This is again a reduction of the lifestyle of the kink community to just sex.
Pride is a politically-charged discussion in Poland, as the state resists accepting and accommodating queer rights in the country. I spoke to Agnes who is a member of the Polish queer community to understand how Pride is political there. Going back in time, we see that Poland has had a rather negative outlook towards the LGBTQ community. Between 1952 and 1989 Poland was under communist administration and there were constant internal struggles for democracy. Agnes also mentions that it was during this regime that Michel Foucault was forced to leave the University of Warsaw because of his sexuality. “In 1984, the first discussion on homosexuality took place on Polish television”, she says. “In 1985, Dariusz Prorok, under the pseudonym Krzysztof Darski, published the text ‘We are different‘. It was the first public voice of a gay person to describe life in a disavowing society. To silence these voices, the government started the surveillance of Polish gays. In the years 1985–1987, Action “Hyacinth” took place, which consisted of collecting materials about Polish gays and their environment. As a result, about 11,000 personal files were established.”
Warsaw saw its first Pride only in 2001, where it has been an annual event ever since with the participation of people seeing an uptick over the years. But the increase of participation in Pride also saw an increasingly aggressive reaction from the right wing. For instance, certain villages in Poland have declared themselves to be “LGBTQ-free” as if being queer is some sort of disease they have successfully gotten rid of. Unfortunately, Agnes doesn’t think this situation will get better anytime soon. “It’s really upsetting to see the same people fighting for basic human rights and social acceptance over and over again”, and she’s not wrong. It’s hard to have hope in situations like this. She said that she encourages people around her to move out to other places because although big cities in Poland have relatively more space for protest and free expression, that is not the case in small villages.
Agnes said that Polish people are averse to queer-coded words that make them uncomfortable, which is why the topic of queerness had been hidden for so long and even now, the Polish right-wingers don’t hesitate to use dehumanizing language to address the queer community, which isn’t censored on television. For example- Andrzej Duda, the president of the Republic of Poland said that the LGBT community are not people, they are a political ideology. The PIS party, which is a right-wing political party in Poland, believes in protecting ‘family values’, most of which, Agnes explains, are homophobic and believe that queer people are abnormal and are not qualified to be seen as people. Agnes thinks that allies need to be given more time on TV and radio, to help make the public aware of the derogatory nature of their language and behavior, while modeling a positive attitude towards words like gay, lesbian, or transgender.
But why is there so much negativity projected upon queer people? Agnes thinks that since Poland’s political history has been so tumultuous, while plagued with wars & conflict, that the elders want to maintain the status quo of the country and are resistant to change. She says that it’s only been a few years since discussion about mental health have become less taboo and the grief that the country has experienced has not been processed properly; there is a deep collective emotional trauma that still needs healing. “I think the subject of mental health is deeply connected to this nation’s homophobia because a country that doesn’t accept itself can’t be open to the new”, she says.
Even though the minoritized haven’t given up hope, Agnes says that the legalization of same-sex marriages is the most basic demand by the Polish Pride community. Encouraged by their strength in increasing numbers, Pride is an opportunity for the community to be as loud and enthusiastic as they can. “In my mind, LGBTQ+ activism in repressed countries is just simply showing up. It’s talking about your experience and making people aware that you exist. It’s the bravest thing one can do – to live fully, in a society that doesn’t want to acknowledge your existence”, Agnes says. Faced with extreme adversity, the Polish LGBTQ+ community mostly focuses on educating the masses, providing shelter and other community services like access to queer-affirmative psychologists, while also organizing queer events, workshops, and other experiences.
Agnes says that we need to understand the culture of carnivals to understand the political aspect of Pride. Carnivals celebrate a cyclical event, and according to recent ethnographic research, carnivals have their foundations in rebellion against an established social order. Pride is the only Polish festival celebrating queer culture and it manifests that which is suppressed on a daily basis. In many communities, it asks for a change of law and acceptance and advocates for the government to make a move towards a more inclusive society.
The nature of Pride depends on the social, political, religious, and economic milieu of the region. For example, in places like India and America, people have the right to protest and demand amendments to the law. However, that is not the case in every society. I spoke to Rossanna from EQUAL GROUND, a non-profit organization fighting for the visibility, acceptance, and equality of the LGBTQI community in Sri Lanka. It was the first organization of its kind in the country, providing a safe space for various queer identities on the spectrum. EQUAL GROUND also provides counseling services for queer people.
Although she couldn’t comment on the experience of being both Tamil and queer in Sri Lanka, Rosanna says that EQUAL GROUND works towards providing a space for queer people from different social and economic backgrounds and they try to be as inclusive of various intersectional identities as possible.
EQUAL GROUND also has several resources of its own to help people navigate through their confusion if they are questioning their identity as well as guidelines on how to be a good ally. They publish a magazine called EQUALITY along with other research publications discussing homophobia, transphobia, discrimination, stigma, laws in Sri Lanka, among other things.
In Sri Lanka, Pride was first observed in 2005, and EQUAL GROUND hosted a party with over 350 people in attendance. The following year they conducted several events like the Abhimani Film Festival, which is the oldest film festival in South Asia, wherein they had forum theaters, photo exhibitions, the rainbow kite festival and many more. They also conduct other events, workshops, sensitization programs, music and dance festivals, to provide space for queer expression.
Rossanna told me that the reason they can’t openly march on the streets is because it requires permission from the authorities, which they don’t receive. Moreover, there is also a question of security on the streets. Lastly, not every queer person in Sri Lanka is out and so the parade would not attract as much participation as required to become a movement. Security becomes an issue of utmost importance since they have received threats in the past; so they hold parties in different venues, nightclubs, tourist spots, and other high-profile locations like 3-5 star hotels to ensure safety. They also hire their own security to ensure the safety of whoever is attending. However, last year, and also this year, EQUAL GROUND had to take its celebrations online due to Covid. And although it’s neither very personal nor accessible to all, Rossanna says that going online has helped to gain more participation since they had over 500,000 people attending the digital events. She says it’s difficult going online, but it’s doable.
Rossanna also said that Pride isn’t politicized too much since the Sri Lankan government has not warmed up to the community. They also have a Savings Clause which means they cannot challenge laws in court and are unable to file any kind of public interest litigations in the interest of the LGBTQI community. So what they do instead is try to garner the support of the people to push representatives and politicians to stand up for queer rights, which can be a slow process. Nonetheless, what matters is the continued presence and advocacy. Learn more about EQUAL GROUND’s work here: https://www.equal-ground.org/.