Shortly after the targeted, queerphobic shooting in Club Q, an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, USA, mere days prior to the all-ages drag brunch that was planned for the following weekend to commemorate trans day of remembrance, queer activist Matt Bernstein wrote: “there is a direct correlation between conservatives waging a culture war against drag queens and trans kids and the shooting that happened last night.” A look at the tweets of conservative politicians or the venom spread by Fox News proves that he is right. The contemporary hate-mongering in the West is not a new development; their Puritanical ideas even formed the basis of colonial ‘reform’ of the East. Several studies have emphasized on the paradigm shifts in ideas of desire and sexuality in India that came along with colonization; Menon (2018) argues that the colonial regime emphasized on the minority Indian practices that restricted sexuality, and suppressed the alternative history that permitted it. While there seems to be a resurgence of emphasis on binary gender in the West, we have been fed such ideas by the post-colonial Indian state since independence, ironically in the name of ‘Indian culture’.
In the midst of all of this, however, trans people in India as well as in the West have continued to subvert the normative understanding of gender, sexuality and desire – their body itself being the site where essentialist ideas of gender and embodiment are challenged, destabilised, and reconstructed. In this space of challenging binaries and creating new possibilities, I suggest, lies the possibility of a queer future.
Penetration, Possibilities, and the Separation of Gender from Genitals
Existing literature on the politics of penetration has consistently talked about the space of penetration being gendered. It is also apparent in regular life, as indicated by the top/bottom stereotypes for gay couples – the question of “who is the man and who is the woman” is vested in the heteronormative narrative of gender and power, associating the act of penetrating with a dominant masculinity and that of being penetrated with submissive femininity. However, many trans people, through the dynamic expression of their bodies in penetrative sex, have challenged that dichotomy.
Zimman and Edelman (2014) provide insight into how trans men with surgically unaltered genitals navigate homonormative spaces that reproduce cishet ideas of binary gender within a homosexual framework. While seeking sex with other men, they use language to reconstruct the dominant relationship between gender and biological sex – phrases like “all man, with a bonus hole” are used, indicating that their genitals are a ‘bonus’ which only enhance their desirability, and which in no way is at odds with their masculine gender identity.
This delinking of gender and body is also seen in Indian men’s sexual explorations with people from the hijra community, albeit in this case the politics of penetration is subverted by sustaining it in a sense. Saria’s (2020) ethnographic work explores how when cisgender men request to be penetrated by hijras, the femininity of the hijra slackens sexual norms for the man and mitigates the risk of emasculation. In the market of sexual exchange, the hijra community, therefore, makes sexual experimentation available to cisgender men without the latter having to change the entire narrative of one’s gender or sexuality. In doing so, they also delink their own gender from sex, as they do not perceive their act of penetrating a man as being in opposition to their femininity. Rather, they justify it through cultural myths which allow for multiple selves to be embedded in each other – such as the myth of Shiva and Parvati’s gender transformation to discover what sex feels like for the ‘opposite’ gender (Saria, 2020). It is also interesting to observe how the dominant cultural idea of infallibility of gender binaries is challenged by employing cultural myths from the same dominant culture.
Both studies reveal unique ways in which trans people separate gender from genitals, and conceptualise the latter as a space of exploration and possibility.
Towards a queer future: Destabilisation of binaries and discomfort of trans-exclusionary dominant culture
It does not come as a surprise that this reconstruction of gender is perceived as a threat by the dominant culture, which includes trans-exclusionary feminist spaces as well, as delinking of gender from sex assigned as birth shakes the foundation of their belief system which associates biology with destiny. Transphobic comments made by trans-exclusionary radical feminists like J.K. Rowling are only a small part that attracts widespread critique; it barely scratches the surface of the increasing hate speech and violence against trans people worldwide. As feminist scholar Alison Phipps (2019) points out, feminist politics of such kind find parallels with politics of far right in their idea of a ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ victim, and the vilification of trans women and sex workers – categories that often overlap and are at a disproportionate risk of violence.
Thus, when I imagine a queer future free of binaries and suggest that trans people have consistently worked towards it through the way they express and present their own bodies, the point is not to ignore the violence that exists. The point is to present it as how it is: the body and being of trans people are sites of resistance within a setup that continues to be violent towards them. A conversation between Jonathan Van Ness and Alok V. Menon in the show Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness sums it up: Ness asks, “What is it about non-binary and trans people that is so threatening to these systems of power?” to which Menon replies, “We represent possibility. We represent choice, being able to create a life, a way of living, a way of loving, a way of looking, that’s outside of what we’ve been told that you should be.”
So here’s my idea of a queer future: We deconstruct all the binaries that we frame our lives around. We deconstruct the binary understanding of existence as a whole, and that includes the way we perceive the world, as well as the way we live in it. We need not make a choice between ‘either/or’; we can be a bit of both, and everything else beyond it (bonus: we also get to make the conservatives mad!). There is enough space for ideas that do not fit in the confines of the binary, just as how there is enough space for every queer person to experience queerness in their unique way – by queering all institutions and bending all conventions to fit the life we want. Our fight for acceptance is the fight for that freedom.
Edelman, E. A., & Zimman, L. (2014). Boycunts and bonus holes: Trans men’s bodies, neoliberalism, and the sexual productivity of genitals. Journal of homosexuality, 61(5), 673-690.
Harvard Law Review., Vol 6. (Jun., 1993). Racial Violence against Asian Americans. The Harvard Law Review Association. pp. 1923 – 1943
Kapur, R. (2001). Postcolonial Erotic Disruptions: Legal Narratives of Culture, Sex, and Nation in India. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 10(2), 333-384.
Phipps, A. (2019). The fight against sexual violence. Soundings, 71(71), 62-74.
Menon, M. (2018). Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India. Speaking Tiger.
Saria, V. (2020). She Pricked Thee. Etnofoor, 32(2), 67-82.