In a recent interview, Utkarsh Saxena — a litigant and one of the lawyers representing the 18 Indian couples who petitioned the Supreme Court to legalise same-sex marriage — stated that one important reason same-sex marriage should be made legal is because public spaces in India tend to be heteronormative. This refers to a world view that considers heterosexuality the norm, condemning all other expressions of gender and sexuality as taboo. “Unless we are granted these marriage rights, we actually can’t do full justice to our [freedom of] expression in public spaces,” he said.
His comments throw up a larger question: what does it mean for public space to be heteronormative; and how does this heteronormativity affect LGBTQIA+ people?
In his seminal 1968 book Right to the City, French Marxist Henri Lefebvre argues that people’s right to the city is fundamentally dependent on public space — that they don’t become part of a city unless they inhabit, traverse, and meander through its public spaces. For instance, you become a Mumbaikar once you learn to navigate the city’s local trains with ease, or a Delhiite if you attend a protest at Jantar Mantar. But as several social scientists have highlighted, space is not a given that just exists — it is constructed, most often, with a prototypical user in mind: someone who is male, upper caste and class, able-bodied and heterosexual. Anyone else has to inevitably adjust.
India’s contentious history of criminalising same-sex relations has cast a long shadow, singling out queer bodies as less than human and fomenting social stigma and censure against them (even today, when homosexuality is no longer a criminal offence). According to Ajita Banerjie, ILGA Asia’s senior research and policy officer, this has rendered queer communities outsiders to public space — always commuters and bystanders but never its possessors.
Underlining this ground reality, six members of the LGBTQIA+ community share their experiences.
Dora, 30, moved to Mumbai in the summer of 2017 to become a screenwriter. She’s a trans woman, and like so many, came to the city to find herself and her place. It wasn’t long before she found she didn’t have one. “It all started in a washroom of a mall,” she says. Dora had gone to watch The Fabelmans, and during the interval, went to use the ladies room. She recalls how everyone stared at her, before one of the women said, ‘Could you please use the other washroom?’ “They were just not comfortable. So, I said I’m sorry and walked out; I used the men’s room,” said Dora.
Ever since, she has steered clear of women-only spaces, including the women’s compartment of the local train. “If a man questions my gender identity, I’m very confident. But if a woman does it, I feel like an imposter. They’ve lived the experience of being a woman and everything that comes with it, while I’ve been a man for most of my life, with all its accompanying privilege. So there’s something in me which doesn’t want to fight them.” She only travels in the women’s compartment if she’s accompanied by other AFAB (assigned female at birth) women — which induces a feeling of legitimacy. Otherwise, she resorts to the men’s compartment — a crowded place where people get pushy, and any touch can be extrapolated as an invitation. “So, I stand with my hands tucked inside my purse or my pockets. I don’t want someone to claim I was soliciting them. I don’t want to create a scene.” Courtesy of which, whenever she can help it, she doesn’t take the train. She’d rather spend more money and take a cab.
“Every time I’m out with my gender non-conforming friends, the harassment is constant,” says Aditya Raja, 31, a queer person.. He recalls an incident at a public park outside La Makaan, an arts and culture space in Hyderabad. “The moment we stepped in, someone started making noises, there was jeering. Someone else tried to proposition us.” Raja and his friends are used to this kind of treatment, and now follow a routine response. “Trans femme people have developed strategies of always being in groups, coming across as loud, bold and intimidating.”
In a country like India, where privacy is hard to come by, public places such as parks often become points of private rendezvous. Hyderabad’s Hussain Sagar Park, Raja says, has a line of trees around it, and in the shadows cishet couples gather. But queer couples can’t access parks the same way. There’s a constant sense of danger as you never know when the police might swoop down to harass you. So, they resort to even more hidden corners of the city. But these ‘cruising sites’ are also dangerous places — dark, deserted, and prone to violence. “This is the place you go to when you have no other options,” he says.
Whenever Tashi, 32, goes to the mall, she makes it a point to go with friends. As a trans woman, her friends become her ‘pass’, allowing her entry into places she otherwise wouldn’t be let into. But even then, the awkwardness begins right from the start. When entering the mall, she is made to stand in the male line. “And the guards will never touch me — they won’t frisk me, won’t touch my purse or see what’s in it. They’ll simply give me a dismissive signal that I can go,” she says.
Also read: Same-sex marriage: Morality vs equality
Once inside, she’s confronted by the next question: which changing room to use? Tashi shares that she always uses the male changing room. She doesn’t want to create any drama; she’d rather buy her clothes and get away as soon as possible. “Everything is a minefield. Going out shopping takes so much energy as it is, I don’t want to prolong the battle any further,” she says. Tashi has now become a Buddhist, and only wears crimson robes. She no longer frequents shopping malls, which is a relief.
A space to dream
“I’ve always had instances of walking into public spaces and families sitting together would snigger, and ask me things like, ‘Are you a makeup artist’, ‘Are you a dancer?’ I’ve had airport security guards double check my boarding pass because I was going to the female security check — just to make fun of me. It is very insulting. But I’ve had completely different experiences in villages and tribal hamlets. The bias is a lot more in urban public spaces. I have a suggestion for the government to make these spaces more inclusive: it’s called T-Shops. T for transgender, T for tea, T for third-gender. In every corporation park, they can have a T-Shop, selling milk, bread, butter and tea, where local trans people can be given gainful employment. It’s a nice way to have a place that makes people aware of trans people, while also providing meaningful employment to them”Apsara ReddyTrans politician, Tamil Nadu
Cyain, 21, is a creative writing student at a private liberal arts university, who identifies as trans-nonbinary. They are part of the university’s Queer Collective and acknowledge that such spaces are often non-heteronormative. Students are trained in a liberal worldview — they see professors talk about queer history, culture and politics, and are taught to see and treat everyone equally, irrespective of caste, class, gender or sexuality.
But, as Cyain sees it, there is also a flip side: universities like these cater to a specific demographic, particularly students from rich, upper caste and class backgrounds. “Queer events often involve playing western music, or getting tattoos and piercings. A lot of students can’t afford to do this because they come from small towns and conservative families.” But anyone who doesn’t subscribe to these expressions is dubbed “not queer enough”. Cyain cites the example of a fellow student who applied to be part of the Queer Collective, but was rejected because he looked and acted too much like a cis man. “This is a kind of heteronormativity too,” says Cyain. “Because you’re still mandating people to be a certain way.”
A. Revathi, 55, a Bengaluru-based writer and activist, is most known for her autobiography Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story, which details how she fought the violence and ridicule that plagues the lives of most hijras in India. She is now a prominent speaker on LGBTQIA+ issues, but before this, in the 80s and 90s, life was extremely difficult. As a hijra in South India, she had to face constant harassment. It was particularly pervasive in modes of public transport such as buses.
She would use the seats reserved for women, and the conductor, on sensing that she was not a woman, would walk away and not issue a ticket. No one would sit beside her. Rather, a lot of men would stand next to her, and rub up against her. When she drew attention to this, the men would blame it on her. “They would say, ‘get off with me at the next stop, I’ll give you money for your troubles’,” she recalls. Everyone would laugh. “They assumed that because I was a hijra, I did sex work. Not all trans women are sex workers, and even if they are, does that give you the right to harass me like this?”
Bars and restaurants
Apoorva — drag name ‘Rowdy baby’— is the founder of Queer Women’s Collective, a body that hosts queer events and seminars online. As a woman and a lesbian living in Hyderabad, she’s consistently struck by the heteronormativity of the city’s restaurants. Just the other day, she was out for dinner with her family, and at the end of the meal, the waiter instinctively offered the bill to her brother. “Because he was the only man on the table.” And when she goes for dinner dates with her girlfriend, waiters don’t take them seriously. “On our anniversary, I asked the waiter for a private table. He just ignored me,” she says. She’s sure that if they had gone to an expensive restaurant, they’d have been treated better: merely because they were paying for it. “Money can buy you equality, but not everyone can afford it.”
Apoorva, 33, has now started frequenting spaces such as Giggle Water, instead. A queer bar, one of many to crop up in the city in the last few years, these hit the sweet spot between public and private space. On the one hand, they’re open to anyone, but on the other, their underground, speakeasy characteristics attract a particular kind of clientele.