[Editor’s Note: The author’s point of view is that of an outsider and a visitor to these parts of the country. They concede to potential gaps in their understanding and are open to review & critique from those with lived experiences. The author chose these locations due to their being subjected to notable militarisation and nationalist campaigns, and wonders how queer narratives are shaped by them. For this piece, the author spoke to local queer & trans rights activists to seek their perspective.]
I am a bisexual person, and ever since I was introduced to the idea of intersectionality, I have wondered about how being queer is experienced in places where even cis-het people are snatched of their human rights. Specifically, I have been curious to educate myself about the struggles and experiences of queer people in conflict-affected areas and state-occupied regions in India, including parts of Kashmir and the Northeast region of India.
Many states in the Northeast face the brunt of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Similarly, Kashmir, since 1947, has been a disputed territory, and there is a strong people’s movement for its independence from within the Indian territory as well as Pakistan. I am not an expert on the theme, and neither have I been to any of these places with a purpose to explore these ideas. I am an outsider to all these regional and ethnic groups and have always lived in the India mainland. The way I see it, people in these parts of the world, regardless of their gender or sexuality, may find it hard to feel safe as-is. This experience may be magnified for the local queer communities, and remaining closeted may be the norm.
I began by picking up Nations, Communities, Conflict and Queer Lives, written by Ditilekha Sharma and published by Zubaan in 2019. From it, I learnt that Manipur has seen several assertions of ethnic identity since the 1980s. Moreover, attempts at women’s collectivization failed to hold space for queer women (espeically trans-women). The queer people in Manipur are affected by several nationalist conflicts there, which has led to the repression of discourse about desire outside of the cis-het reproductory paradigm. Hence, when there is a desire to dress up according to one’s personal choice or have consensual sexual and romantic relationships, it is either disapproved, goes unacknowledged, or is met with violence.
Out of Ditilekha’s interview with one particular trans-man, there arose the narrative of a someone who was not deemed by society as ‘manly’, as masculinity meant economically supporting one’s family and taking up other expected social responsibilities. While interviewing a trans-woman, she came across an incident wherein an underground anti-state group put out a diktat that “men” found dressed in “women’s clothing” will be killed and that their presence is socially unacceptable as it is there to run HIV programmes that bring funding opportunities.
In my own conversation with Sadam Hanjabam from Ya All in Manipur, a service-oriented organisation providing mental health support to queer people in the region, I learnt that the visibility of trans-men has increased but it is still difficult for them to come out of the closet due to family restrictions and control over bodies of those assigned female at birth. He told me that there is relatively more visibility of trans-women, but they are marginalized by the society at-large as well.
In social settings, there is often no differentiation made between gay men and trans-women, which is unfortunate. The environment for them is highly hostile due to living in a conflict area. There is very lesser visibility of lesbian, bisexual women and non-binary people in Manipur. By giving recognition to trans–women and reading down of Section 377, the state has projected itself to be progressive but expels a certain population under AFSPA. Another young queer person from the region whom I spoke to, mentioned the influence of the Korean Band, BTS, which has a gender-fluid style, that is pushing notions of boundaries about gender identities among people in the state.
In Nagaland, the church has a major role to play in people’s lives and they are seen to be unaccepting of people’s sexuality and gender identity as told by Inatoli Choppy, Director of Guardian Angel, a rare organisation working for the rights of queer and trans people in the state. He mentioned that although there was some relief after a part of Section 377 of Indian Penal Code was pronounced unconstitutional, the attitudes of the church and society have not changed. There is stigma and non-acceptance by families of their children who are queer or trans. The Church believes in conversion therapy, which has been scientifically rubbished and can cause physical and mental harm to the persons subjected to it. At this point, I was also made aware that it is hard to access professional, queer-affirmative mental healthcare provviders in Nagaland. There are people who support queer and trans communities, but out of the fear of ostracisation by militant underground groups, they do not speak out openly. In such circumstances, coming out as a queer and trans person is not only difficult but also mortally dangerous. Creating a safe space is impossible for many of them due to persisting political and religious control.
The queer community in Kashmir is also rendered invisible due to its being a militarized, even more so after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in August 2019. For decades now, the people of all identities there have found themselves in a politically vulnerable situation. Amidst this, the plight of the queer community has worsened too.
The Kashmiri society mostly denies the existence of its LGBTQIA+ community. Trans women are the most visible sub-community, but are widely oppressed and called derogatory names. The verbal and physical abuse begins at an early age when they stop conforming to their prescribed gender roles. They face injustice related to education, employment, legal recognition and lack of social security. The invisiblisation is caused due to the region’s conflict alongside pervasive religious dogma as well as social exclusion of most queer identities.
The claims made after changes in Section 377 as “gay liberation for Kashmir” was nothing but pinkwashing of Kashmir’s issues and the separation of queer people’s identities from being Kashmiri. The cause of aazadi for all Kashmiris needs to be championed, but these narratives intend to create a differentiation between the identity of a Kashmiri and a queer person in Kashmir, which is inseparable.
Traditionally, the transgender community has traditionally been involved in the business of matchmaking and performing at the wedding celebrations. However, in recent times, they have been treated as outcasts even in these matters.
In an interview Aijaz Bund, the founder of the only LGBT organisation in Kashmir, Sonzal Welfare Trust, said: “We can’t deny the fact that the LGBTQIA community of Kashmir is facing multiple layers of oppression. Our lived experience cut across various intersections and socio-political barriers. Despite being disproportionately affected by health concerns like mental health challenges, violence, and afflictions like HIV, [the queer community has] low rates of access to health services often due to fear and stigma. Many of the vulnerabilities experienced by gender and sexual minority groups are exacerbated during conflicts, exposing them to violence”. Although Aijaz identifies as a trans rights activist, the organisation is approached by people from all gender and sexual identities for support.
After speaking to him over the phone, I understood how the internet cut-down has affected the lives of the LGBTQ community in Kashmir, which often relied on it to build safe spaces for themselves. Dating apps like Grindr, Tinder etc., are a way out of their mundane, oppressed reality but now, these spaces have become inaccessible, resulting in mental health concerns among the community. Tik Tok, which was recently banned, was also used by many queer and trans people through fake profiles as a mode of expression; now that too has been taken away from them. There is regular sexual violence, torture, and humiliation by multiple state and non-state actors against queer lives. Many queer and trans folxs are disowned by their families or forced into heterosexual marriages as there is no support by the state at all since the state as an institution itself is the problem. There is a brutal occupation by the state in a hyper-masculine way, repressing all that is seen as feminine. Desires are forbidden in this beautiful valley.
It cannot be denied that the blockades, curfews, as well as other forms of severely-policed movement and right to expression snatches away the possibilities of all sorts of safe spaces. Hence, I don’t mean to say that homophobia and heteronormative patriarchal approach comes only because of the people in these regions. However, as a result of the state’s constant intervention and involvement in people’s lives in a punitive way, instead of initiatives to raise awareness and affirmative action, the issues have grown manifold.
Similarly, in places like Manipur and Nagaland, although the State tries to bring about a beneficial change through its laws, there is little done to reduce the stigma or create a support system for LGBT communities.