Some Notes toward Queering the Humanities in the University

On February 23, 2011 by admin

Brinda Bose

Has the increasing visibility of the movement against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (that criminalises homosexual behaviour) in recent years brought any significant change to gendered spaces in Indian universities? Is ‘gender’ as an established theoretical tool for reading the humanities – and literature in particular – being ‘queered’ in the classroom and outside it on campuses now? Gender studies have been traditionally seen as analogous to women’s studies, read through feminist tracts and critiques that identified women’s positions as marginalized and disempowered, and women’s politics as collusive or resistant. Queer studies has given this somewhat-tired paradigm a new lease of life in the classroom, perhaps its own shot-in-the-arm coming from fresh turns in contemporary sexuality politics in the country. We now seem to be witnessing a parallel movement in university spaces like corridors, plazas and gardens in which the politics of reading literary texts through radical queer frameworks, for example, is being extended to assertions of non-normative sexual choices and a spreading support for queerness – and queer thinking – on campuses. This is not to say that homophobia, and a conservative heteronormativity – in response to texts as well as lifestyles – is not still visible and disruptive, but is it possible to mark, analyze and interrogate an identifiable turn towards queering the gendered space in/through the humanities in the Indian university?

A few weeks ago, a young woman came up to me on the metro, checked that I was who she thought I was, and identified herself as an MPhil student of sociology for whom ‘Phobic Erotic was a Bible’ when she first began to do research on lesbian lives, and that she now could ‘not wait for the Gender Conference to begin’ (referring to the recently-concluded conference on gender, sexualities and multiple modernities that we organised at Delhi University).  So what, I wondered as I stepped off the train, has been happening in the Humanities and Social Science disciplines on university campuses since I put together The Phobic and the Erotic in 2007, an anthology of writings by feminist and queer activists and scholars? The intention of the anthology was to take stock of both activism and academics around sexualities in contemporary India, and to identify ways in which feminist and queer intellectual interventions had both interrogated and extended those politics and the thinking around it. Contributors to the volume included some of the foremost feminist and queer activists and thinkers in the field, and what emerged from the volume – and the subsequent reception to it – was the sense that while it was indeed time to critique both the activist and intellectual movements and analyze their limitations, the core necessity for feminist theorizing was far from dead. While feminisms have been challenged and transformed, and ‘woman’ as a category entirely destabilized and continually reconstituted, feminist theory as a tool of critical inquiry has remained essential to intellectual interrogations of how we materially inhabit multiple spaces. Queer interventions in feminist thinking had then given it new directions by fruitfully complicating the scenario and throwing up new and old spanners in the works.

I currently teach an MA course in Literature and Gender, and last semester offered an MPhil course on Sexualities and Visual Cultures in Contemporary India. The MPhil is a more advanced discussion class in which students are aware of originary debates in the field and can push the arguments in certain directions through the texts they consider and the critical readings they access. It has been the MA class which has been far more revelatory in a sense: the students are intellectually and otherwise younger and fresh from undergraduate degrees in which feminist criticism seems to start always by looking at how a woman has little or no ‘agency’ in her social structure and is dependent on, and oppressed by, a male figure. While this is not an entirely useless entry point into reading gender in the classroom, it has its obvious limitations. Starting at the undergraduate level, we try to complicate this scenario and offer ways of approaching texts that look at how men and women are gendered, constructed and performed, and how their desires, frustrations and negotiations of categories of male/female are fluid and overlapping. Students travel the range of heteronormative/homosocial/homoerotic/homosexual desire, and are able to make distinctions between different registers of desiring – not merely in terms of sexual difference, but in the ways which point toward collapsing binaries of difference into other more complex patterns of gendered and sexual interactions.

What I wanted to think about, then, is whether the climate-change that has been brought about by political, cultural and social developments in India since the movement around Section 377 intensified and captured the public imagination, has made possible a completely different set of negotiations and discussions both in and outside the classroom. For the first time in almost a decade and a half that I have spent at Delhi University – first in an undergraduate college and now at the postgraduate department – it seems to me that the intellectual is slowly also approaching and approximating the personal and the political, and this is not merely to do with whether one is gay and can ‘come out’ now, though that is a vital question too.

 What I am trying to work out is whether a connection can be made between developments in the immediate world around us as they impact on us – and on our students in particular – and emergent trends one can see on the university campus over the past few years. There are a couple of instances I would like to point to as markers of a changing campus in contexts of gender, though this is not at all to say that any of the problems of sexual harassment, crassness and insensitivity, rights violations and stereotyping have been resolved. In fact, with a campus increasingly open to new ideas and expressions, new problems – both of radical posturing and those coming out of a conservative backlash – have also begun to emerge, and need to be acknowledged and addressed.

 A couple of months ago, a male student of my MA course came to see me hesitantly, saying he had a personal problem that was linked to questions that we had been discussing in class over Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and wondering whether we could also share a space outside the classroom that took up related ‘real life’ issues. He was gay and closeted, but life had become intolerable for him ever since he had revealed his orientation to his male roommate, who was, presumably, straight. Without probing at all beyond what he felt he wanted to tell me, I gathered that this student had begun to ‘like’ his roommate (who, it seemed to me, was not entirely against indulging in some sexual experimentation until he had found a girlfriend who was incensed at whatever mischief she sensed in these uncertain equations). Much bitterness and heartbreak had followed. My student was terrified and confused at the same time; closeted, he feared that his erstwhile roommate who had now moved out would create trouble for him by spreading stories, but also perhaps about whether this ‘not coming out’ showed him up as cowardly and uncommitted toward a movement that was his lifeline. Another gay student, in the meantime, had begun to wear his sexuality on his sleeve (and on his Facebook statuses) and was enthused about all of us attending the Delhi Pride together as a university contingent carrying placards. Between these two students falls the shadow of queer activism and awareness on campus, of course, but what is interesting is that these are no longer just personal stories of angst and bravado.

Students have now begun to organise around their gender politics, and to look for strength in the support they might find from friends and faculty. Queer Campus India is a network which proclaims that they will address ‘sexuality… from scratch’, aiming ‘to be an Indian queer youth/students’ collective – a space to share your experiences, deal with coming out and find your own circle of queer friends’. There is a potential problem here too, as I see it, with its very specific and definite focus on coming out and identifying as queer by hanging out with members of the community – if ‘queer’ is defined narrowly as those who practise and acknowledge a homosexual lifestyle choice. What some of us on our very diverse campus are trying to do, through linking discussions in the classrooms with lives (secret and outed) outside of that more formal space, is to queer thinking, and to diversify the idea of sexual orientation to build a sexual politics that is interrogative, subversive, multiple, various.

What does Queer Campus India and its activities have to do with the Humanities classroom in particular? When gay and lesbian students come to campus after a relatively sheltered and closeted (if frustratingly constrained) existence at home through the growing-up school years, they are at once overwhelmed by the freedom campus life brings them as well as assailed by a whole new set of doubts and anxieties which are to do with their newly-forming/transforming identities as adults and their new and budding relationships and friendships. Life in hostel rooms, in cafes and canteens, on the metro and the roads, is far bigger and more real than the life contained within their textbooks. At those moments, however, when classroom discussions speak to their lives outside of it, and when their personal and political confusions are one with their intellectual engagements, those are potentially transformative moments, and moments that we can wrench into making a difference. That is the hope I still hold out, even as I recognise how difficult everyday negotiations of sexualities are for each of us in different ways.

We had an unprecedented turnout of students at our conference on gender, sexualities and multiple modernities at Delhi University last week, right through the three days, right through till 6 and 7 pm when we ended each day. This month, the St Stephen’s College Literary Society is organising their annual festival with ‘the Body’ as its theme; students of the university’s Political Science department are trying to put together a day of films and discussions around queer issues. There is a new Facebook group called Quest-Prayatna which has been trying to link campuses around the country on queer debates and posts. In fact, Facebook has sprung some spectacular campaigns for feminist and queer rights, including the Pink Chaddi and the protest against the sacking – and subsequent suicide – of Professor Siras by Aligarh Muslim University when it was discovered that he was gay.

The debates are alive and kicking up dust on campus, and there appears to be a tentative, provisional dialogue erupting, finally, between the classroom and the plazas and streets on which rainbow banners are held aloft once a year on Gay Pride Day. There is an awareness that feminism is vitally linked to queer debates, and it is often the point at which the isolation of the gay/lesbian is breached in the classroom and outside. There is also a gleam of awareness that one must begin to think queer, whether one is queer or not – where queer translates into an inclusive space in which all cohabit, in empathy as much as in combat. Surely something must come of this traffic?

Brinda Bose is Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi.

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