Rooms to Sleep In

The complexities of contemporary queer politics

Imtiyaj and Ravsaheb near the fields at the Krishna River, southern Maharashtra in 2018. In Indian culture, there tends to be a good deal of homosocial bonding that often serves as an alibi for desire. In this context, homophobia does not necessarily, as Rahul Rao says, “presume the existence of something called homosexuality, to which it is antithetical.” MARC OHREM LECLEF/FROM THE SERIES “ZAMEEN ASMAAN KA FARQ”—AS FAR APART AS THE EARTH IS FROM THE SKY
31 August, 2021

SHORTLY AFTER THE Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in September 2018, I said in a talk that I was better off when Section 377 was in existence. What I meant by this was that I preferred to continue to be a resisting subject in some sense rather than be co-opted by the state, which now saw me as a citizen with locus standi. I recalled this sentiment while reading a recent book by the academic Rahul Rao, titled Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality. One of the questions the book poses at the very beginning is articulated by the scholar Jasbir Puar: “What happens after certain liberal rights are bestowed, certain thresholds of parameters of success are claimed to have been reached. What happens when ‘we’ get what ‘we’ want?”

Rao’s book is not as interested in examining this question at length since he writes, “Rather than offering critique in the smug afterlife of victory, I am interested in critique in contexts in which people cannot not want things that they do not have.” Nonetheless, his book poses a useful starting point for considering how responses to Puar’s question might play out in India today. Out of Time’s critique of certain tendencies when it comes to contemporary queer politics could provide a valuable framework for a reading of a very different recent book: Queeristan, a work slanted more towards the political Right. Read together, the books throw up questions regarding how queer individuals position themselves within the nation today.

Out of Time examines the political aftermath of various nations’ struggles with the decriminalisation of queer sex and focusses in particular on Uganda and India, both of which inherited certain anti-queer laws from British colonisation. It examines histories of queerness against those of imperialism and anti-imperialism, paganism and Christianity, whiteness, embourgeoisement and caste. In Uganda, Rao says, he is identified as a “muyindi,” or an Indian, and at times even a “muzungu,” or foreigners who are thought of as being white. He acknowledges himself as “a postcolonial Indian citizen with a great deal of gender, caste, class and religious privilege,” but contrasts this with “the coloniality of my sexuality.”

The author refers to a debate, held in 2012, at the British House of Lords on the persecution and criminalisation of the LGBT community in “the developing world.” During this debate, a Conservative member of the House of Lords referred to Britain’s responsibility for laws that criminalised homosexuality in various countries of the world. He singled out TB Macaulay, who, he said, “incorporated Britain’s then firm and unbending intolerance of homosexuality” into the Indian Penal Code. This, he added, “became the model for the legal systems of Britain’s colonies in most of Africa and Asia.” Even before the 2012 debate in the House of Lords, Britain’s responsibility for these laws has been addressed—for instance, at the Mumbai Queer Pride Parade of 2008, an apology was demanded from the British government for the imposition of Section 377. However, Rao also expresses his belief that “the responsibility for ongoing oppressions [of the LGBT community] must be apportioned between colonial and postcolonial regimes.”