Home is where the queer heart is

Rihan Najib | Updated on July 27, 2018 Published on July 27, 2018

Shared space: When Deepti Sharma moved into her own apartment, she was clear that it would be open, feminist, jointly owned and lived in by many people.   -  ISTOCK.COM

Queer homes, in imagination and articulation, represent the powerful will to be free and to live one’s life to the fullest, even in the face of adverse circumstances

Armed with the day’s classified section of the newspaper, Deepti Sharma, a queer feminist activist, set out every weekend in search of a house. She knew she had to move out of her natal home in Delhi — and find a place that was more than just an apartment.

“For me, it was very important to be independent and to create my own life,” she tells BLink. “I was very clear that I didn’t want to get married. I was also just as clear that I didn’t want to stay with my parents, which tends to become the default option for women who don’t marry for whatever reason.”

For six months in 2002, she searched for a house, negotiating endlessly with landlords and real estate agents. Anyone house-hunting in Delhi would know how such interactions are laden with the effort (on the potential tenant’s part) to seem “normal” (to the potential landlord). Even the slightest suggestion of difference — be it marital status, sexuality, caste, skin colour, food habits or religion — would reduce one’s chances of getting a house.

In Sharma’s case, it was no different. The landlords were baffled that a single woman was looking for an apartment even though her parents lived in the same city.

“I rejected the houses and landlords that were not right for me,” she says. Eventually, she found a barsati on the terrace of a building owned by an 80-year-old woman, with whom she would go on to forge a deep and trusting relationship.

She now had a space of her own, and she was clear about what it meant: “I wanted a place that was open, feminist, and jointly owned and lived in by many people.”

She was about to queer her home.

More than just a legal document

Sharma’s narrative is linked to an ongoing research project at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, titled “An Exploratory Study on Discrimination of Non-normative Genders and Sexualities”, which analyses discrimination across multiple areas, including housing.

Using diverse stories of rental housing in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, the study examines what it means to find a house, rent it, and then live in it while negotiating gender and sexuality. The lived experiences are read against the backdrop of national and state housing policies as counterpoint.

“The effort behind this project is to not reduce the story of rental housing for queer people to that of trauma, but to also tell stories of how people cope and thrive,” says Vikramaditya Sahai, a queer researcher leading the housing section of the project. “We wanted the life histories of how queer people and non-normative genders are living in rented houses, as well as how they were negotiating with the landlord and the neighbourhood.”

The laws governing rental housing, such as the Draft Model Tenancy Act, 2015, deal with the material and tangible aspects of the transaction between a tenant and a landlord, such as the responsibility of the landlord, period of occupation and conflict resolution. But there is another overlapping contract which doesn’t find mention in the legal terrain. The contract between the landlord and the tenant as well as the neighbourhood is also a social one, articulated in moral and intangible terms, governing the tenant’s habits, inclinations and choices.

This is especially of concern in the case of LGBTQI communities. Since the negotiation between the landlord and the tenant happens pointedly in the social realm — through a conversation as opposed to an application — appearance becomes a critical factor that determines how the negotiation will go.

Activists point out that what one does is of secondary importance to how “normal” one looks. So if it is difficult for a single woman to find a house on account of her unmarried status, a person who doesn’t visibly conform to accepted gender codes finds it harder.

But once a house has been found — against all odds — what makes for a queer home?

“In the course of the study, we have had to expand the category of the queer home, because while many of us were living in open, communal homes, we would also be confronted with a queer person choosing to live alone. So queering was just this — living obliquely to a heteronormative imagination of what was expected of you, choosing to live in a particular way, and articulating it,” explains Sahai.

Faith in the queer home

Faith is a word that both Sharma and Sahai use to describe their lives in their respective queer homes — faith in an idea, and in its potential to challenge the marginal identities they inhabit.

When Sharma moved into her barsati, she carried very few things from her parents’ home. Her friends drew up a list of what a new house would need and set up her place, and so she had mattresses from one, bedsheets from another, mismatched dinner plates from assorted households.

“This allowed me to regard the place as belonging to many people, not just me. Since I was unable to afford the rent of ₹6,700 at the time, I would put in ₹4,500, while my friends would pay the rest,” she recalls.

Her house saw a constant flow of people, both friends and strangers, in and out of it. Some just spent the night there, others stayed on for six months. Because of her work with a queer and feminist collective, it was also a political space where meetings would be held, protest songs practised, and signboards for political marches prepared. It was also a space where women who needed shelter found it.

On principle, no cupboard or drawer was ever locked. There was a community cupboard, where people could leave clothes, bedsheets, umbrellas, books and so on, or pick up anything they thought would be useful. This later extended to a community drawer, where people put in loose change and took it when they needed to.

In the early years, rooms or spaces were not designated to specific people. At times, this would prove difficult because she would come back home from work and find no place to sleep. Sharma then put in one rule — that she would be able to sleep in her own bed. Negotiating such questions of personal space and power was always tricky, because laying down rules also meant curbing the openness she had imagined for the house. These transitions did not happen in a systematic way, but rather through organic ways of adjusting to the evolving needs of the house.

“My reward was having all these amazing people in my life and opening up my life to them. I saw it as a circular way in which things worked, not necessarily reciprocal. The logic was that if you are utilising resources today, I can only hope that tomorrow you open up your space to someone else,” Sharma says.

Emerging anxieties

This is echoed by Sahai, who lives in the North Campus area of Delhi with four people in his three-bedroom flat. At one point, the house would have about 11 people living in it, and a larger number of people passing through it as part of political meetings, the DU gender studies group, and people who would stay on because they had found community, solace, support and shelter.

“What made it a queer house, and not just a collection of people living together, was in the way you imagined your life and how you articulated it. It was a place where you lived the politics you preached — that of equality, common resources, compassion, empathy,” he says. It was not the same as other housing arrangements where groups of people stayed together for practical reasons.

“You don’t think of each other as house-mates, bound by the economic transaction of sharing rent. You lived, cooked and ate together, and imagined your lives together in the long term,” says Sahai. “It’s only slightly different from other housing arrangements, but that slightness is the difference of investment, power, energy, emotions, commitment, work, politics, lifestyle. That slightness makes all the difference.”

More than shelter: “You lived, cooked and ate together, and imagined your lives together in the long term”   -  ISTOCK.COM


For instance, one of the conversations ongoing in his house is whether they should set up a communal fixed deposit for medical emergencies, because an emergent anxiety in queer households is that of care-giving and ageing. This is beautifully articulated in a poem by the queer poet Akhil Katyal, who writes, “‘But who will take care of you/ in your old age?’/is the only question my parents ask that actually stumps me”. Even though Katyal “refuses to treat love like a retirement policy”, he too surmises: “Maybe all of life does come to/ ‘but who will take you to the hospital/ when you fall down’.”

Home is not just shelter

A queer home, clearly, is a space where residents feel free in a way they don’t elsewhere, often not even in their natal home. Making a home then, especially a queer one, is a powerful articulation to be free, and live one’s life to the fullest.

Sharma reflects, “I think people will continue to set up and live in queer homes, not just in the big cities but also small towns, under much more trying circumstances. These homes are our buffers against the world.”

As Jeanette Winterson writes in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, a queer memoir about leaving home at 16 and struggling to come to terms with its loss, “Home is much more than shelter. Home is our centre of gravity”.

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Published on July 27, 2018
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