By Sneha Krishnan
This May, LGBT activist Harish Iyer’s family put an ad in Mumbai Mid-Day: “Seeking 25-40, well-placed, animal-loving, vegetarian GROOM for my son (36, 5’11), who works with an NGO. Caste no bar (Though IYER Preferred).” This spawned a long discussion on caste and sexuality in the media – many people, both within and outside the queer community, criticised the “Iyer Preferred” qualification.
Harish Iyer defended the ad as harmless and humorous. Caste, though, is anything but a joke. As a friend wrote on his Facebook wall soon after, this advertisement is like a politically incorrect comment made at a moment when the room falls silent and the whisper is suddenly heard aloud. The undertone of middle-class upper-caste life in India, where we comfortably talk of marrying “within the same milieu”, was suddenly heard aloud. Of course Harish Iyer’s “joke” is an often-told one among upper-caste queers within “progressive” circles. Ranging from Goodness Gracious Me to playwright Madhuri Shekar’s A Nice Indian Boy, “progressive” comedy in India or by people of Indian origin likes to laugh at the idea that we will one day be comfortable with the idea of men marrying each other, even as we are still trapped in our casteist and racial prejudices.
It appears that the elastic band of acceptability has stretched – just a bit – to include “good” gay men, the sort who want to “settle down”, and even with people from the same “background”. This is very similar to how the figure of the “good homosexual” has come to be very welcome even within conservative circles in countries like the US and the UK, which have recently legalised gay marriage. I’m reminded of David Cameron’s comment in a conservative party conference in 2011:
Society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.
We must, in this climate, be at least a little disturbed that it is the same governments that are expressing hearty support for gay marriage that have perpetuated war in the Middle East, clamped down on immigration (I’m spoiled for choice as to what examples to give here: Googling UK Home Secretary Theresa May might be a good option instead), and created conditions in which racial minorities are increasingly made to feel like they’re on shaky ground. Obama shut down an undocumented trans woman of colour in the midst of celebrating the gay marriage ruling, asking her to pipe down because she was in “his house” and eating “the hors d’oeuvres”. To come back to our casteist gay marriage “ad”, or as Harish Iyer would have it, “joke”: it would seem gay marriage is entirely acceptable within a “pure” Brahmin space so long as it fundamentally bolsters this Brahmin-ness (feel free to replace here with whiteness, American-ness etc).
The extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples is, of course, good news in general, and of value to those people who want to marry. Given that marriage as a civil right comes with a very wide range of benefits – ranging from tax credits to adoption rights to ease of immigration – it is imperative that marriage is extended to couples regardless of sexuality. Critiques of the anti-marriage argument have poured forth, suggesting the emotional significance of marriage. On June 26th the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) legalised gay marriage: this is now a federal right in the US, meaning the same states that make miscarriages illegal can’t disallow gay marriage. At Chennai’s Pride March this year, I saw a placard asking India’s Supreme Court to follow in SCOTUS’s footsteps. India’s Supreme Court, in 2013, overturned a 2009 decision by the Delhi High Court that decriminalised “sexual intercourse against the order of nature”. So outrage at the Supreme Court in India is entirely warranted. But calls to follow SCOTUS suggest a worrying telos that does not take into account the many erasures that the marriage movement in the US – an aggressive programme that has set marriage up as a civilizational goal, and a mark of “maturity” and “adulthood” among other things – has engendered. After all, gay marriage fits very well into the more general emphasis on marriage that American politicians have placed since the Reagan years in the 1980s. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) law enacted in 1996 aims to, in so many words, “end dependence of needy families on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage.” So, the other side of the “yay-marriage” coin is the state shrugging off its social welfare mandate onto the traditional nuclear family. Ironic, because that is precisely the institution that queer movements first positioned themselves in critique of. Edie Windsor, whose case brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, has long been portrayed as a poor widow forced to pay her taxes. Far from this, she is a wealthy, white Manhattan resident reluctant to pay inheritance tax on the property she inherited from her deceased partner. It would really seem that there is a reason why gay marriage is winning whereas the right to safe and legal abortion, immigration, housing and universal health care are losing: marriage aligns wonderfully well with a conservative austere state and its focus on the traditional family.
Perhaps the greatest loss of the marriage movement lies in the way in which it has rewritten queer history itself. Frank Bruni’s article in the New York Times is a good example of this narrative, where the AIDS crisis is presented as a time that might have been a lot less tragic if marriage had been in the picture. Married couples might have been able to find stability, support each other and visit each other in hospitals. All this is possibly true. However, as we also know, the AIDS crisis was a time when motley crews of lesbian friends, ex-lovers, partners and friends came together to support men living with HIV. These forms of kinship forged through intimate and political acts of solidarity are again pushed to the margins by the mainstream marriage narrative. As scholar and activist Lisa Duggan has pointed out in the American context, a good number of people live full lives in relationships that aren’t marriage-like in any way. People co-habit with ex-partners who are still friends; with older relatives; with close friends. The counter-argument to this is often that marriage is a choice: don’t marry if you don’t believe in the institution. But when marriage comes with both social legitimacy and a range of financial and other benefits, this choice is hardly free.
This May, it was also reported that a lesbian couple from Hyderabad had found acceptance for their love in the US and gotten married. Even as we are happy for them, the notion of marriage as the highest form of societal approval and legitimacy needs to be questioned. In imagining better lives for queers in India, marriage is an inadequate goal that does not take into account other ways in which love and family are imagined. Trans communities – hijras, thirunangais, thirunambis and others – imagine kinship in ways that marriage does not contain; single women have gathered together – at moments such as the 1990 “Women’s Movements” Conference, and in less organised spaces – to express solidarity; and gay men, kothis, panthis and many others have found ways in which to align together and with these other communities to be “family” to each other. If we are speaking the language of rights, rights cannot be tied to any single affective configuration alone. The “right” to marriage is a problematic “right” to enter a privileged institution that cannot begin to contain the many ways in which people love and live their lives.
Sneha Krishnan is a post-doctoral researcher at Oxford, and is spending her time thinking about how to work art and fiction into a human geography curriculum.