Five-point someone

J Devika | Updated on January 12, 2018

Break the code: The transpeople, especially transwomen, demanding freedom to dress as they choose, are the voice of all people who are denied that freedom. Photo: K Ragesh

Why the Malayali mainstream should embrace the struggles of sexual and gender minorities

Sitting through a discussion on the rights of sexual and gender minorities in Kerala’s local self-government system, I could not but indulge in the sense of elation that many Malayalis feel when they encounter the best that Kerala has to offer. Where else in India would such a discussion be possible? Members of sexual and gender minorities were presenting a lobby-note in which they pointed to the structural changes necessary for their inclusion, and shared thoughts on how their needs could be met within the terms of the present system. Elected members and presidents of local bodies, besides members of the State Planning Board and representatives from major welfare programmes sat in the audience and listened to these hitherto-silenced people. And even though many mainstream stereotypes lingered, leader after leader declared their willingness to learn and their determination to be allies. It was the 100th anniversary of the revolutionary act of inter-dining between members of different castes, organised by the legendary social reformer Sahodaran K Ayappan at Kochi: the famous panthibhojanam that shook to the roots the entrenched order of caste. May this too today lead us towards an expanded vision of humanity, I prayed.

There are at least five good reasons why all of us, and particularly those in the Malayali social mainstream, should join the struggles of sexual and gender minorities.

First, there can be no doubt that when these people make demands for welfare, the notion of welfare itself transforms radically. In India, welfare is understood as support for families that nurture the future generation — most commonly, then, the heteronormative family. Sexual and gender minorities who make these demands are redefining what constitutes a family, fundamentally, when they demand welfare from the State; or, they are implicitly insisting that welfare ought to be an entitlement of every citizen, and not just those who live in heteronormative families.

Secondly, when sexual and gender minorities demand security from violence, and especially sexual violence, they are effectively eroding the highly patriarchal habit of projecting women and children as largely passive victims who need to be protected by the State. Against such stereotyping, the demands of sexual and gender minorities — for instance, the experience of transmen — reveal that attaining manhood does not necessarily mean freedom from sexual and other kinds of violence and exploitation. It becomes clear that men who insist on their status as men and yet do not endorse mainstream masculinity are perhaps more targeted by violent males. This, in a way, radically projects the vulnerability of all bodies, and not just female bodies. Again, this liberates women from suffocating protectionist discourse (which often means no real protection) while making State protection more open to intervention by many social groups.

Thirdly, the demand for free choice of dressing styles by transpeople surely echoes through many other sections of the Indian people. Social reform in India did away in large measure, at least among the new elite, the practice of dressing styles marking difference from other castes and deference to privileged castes, but it fostered the belief in the connection between a person’s chosen style of clothing and his/her character, spawning a whole family of pervasive stereotypes. Until very recently, many of these were cast in stone and, no doubt, they continue to mutate with Hindutva chauvinism brandishing their conservatisms as ‘national culture’. The transpeople, especially transwomen, demanding freedom to dress as they choose, are then the voice of all people who are denied that. Besides, it reveals the darker face of much-vaunted 19th- and 20th-century social reformisms and demands that we move forward.

Fourthly, for Malayalis, expanding the framework of political decentralisation to include sexual and gender minorities is surely a move that ensures the health and dynamism of welfarist democracy in a society blessed with that unique legacy. If the structures of local democracy here must be kept alive, they must be refurbished to include newer oppressed and deprived groups that enter the public realm and make demands on the government.

And, finally, sexual and gender minorities offer us yet another chance to re-examine the health of all intimate relationships, thus expanding our sense of humanity. I cannot emphasise enough how precious this is, though this is likely to be what is least amenable to quantification.

In sum, joining the struggles of sexual and gender minorities expands freedom and welfare for all. But for Malayalis, threatened as we are by the menacing jaws of Hindutva, this is the chance to advance a new Kerala Model — for the 21st century.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on June 30, 2017

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