Legalizing sex: sexual minorities, AIDS, and citizenship in India

August 2020 

As part of our Conversations on Social Reproduction Seminar, we had Prof. Chaitanya Lakkimsetti present on her recent book, Legalizing Sex: Sexual Minorities, AIDS, and Citizenship in India, with comments from Dr. Shakthi Nataraj. Here we share the recording of the seminar, along with Shakthi’s notes on the book.

Shakthi’s comments:

The turbulent struggle for queer and sex worker rights in India over the past few decades has provoked activists and scholars to propose different explanations for the contradictory positions taken by the state. Scholars of queer politics in India for example have long highlighted the seeming contradiction between the NALSA judgment of 2014 and the vacillation of the state regarding Section 377 between 2013 and 2019, as well as the contradictions between the spirit of the NALSA judgment and the carceral and punitive Transgender Rights Bill. Lakkimsetti’s book offers an exceptionally nuanced and careful analysis of these activist and legal battles. She analyses the complex lives and afterlives that transnational rights discourses come to have in postcolonial India and the specific relationship between the state and marginalized subjects. Lakkimsetti rejects the instrumentalist understanding of the way marginalized communities engage with the state, and also rejects queer/feminist dismissals of biopolitical projects as simply a form of liberal governance that produces docile and compliant bodies. Lakkimsetti argues that these paradoxes are not resolved, rather they provide the tension that fuels the process of legal change. The collision and tension between the juridical power of the state and the biopolitical projects of the state produces generative and creative gaps where new political subjectivities emerge.

While activists and scholars have for many years acknowledged the central role of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and organizing in the early emergence of queer and sex worker rights in India, they have had polarized views on this. On the one hand, HIV/AIDS movements are seen as a site of pure governmentality that has stymied political mobilisation and radicalism, on the other hand there is a celebratory narrative of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Lakkimsetti offers a complicated analysis that evades these two polarized viewpoints. Instead, through ethnographic fieldwork, she traces how marginalized groups moved from being considered simply vectors of the disease to being seen as active partners capable of negotiating new forms of life and livability. She traces in careful detail the journeys of specific legal journeys around 377, trafficking, the ITPA and NALSA, combining it with ethnographic vignettes gathered from her fieldwork with activists and CBO members across the country, to show how interlocutors are multiply positioned as criminals, pressure groups, rights-bearers, capitalist consumers, welfare beneficiaries, labourers, and partners.

Lakkimsetti’s book is a valuable addition to several fields of scholarship. Firstly, it updates debates in the anthropology of queer politics. A key thread of debate in queer anthropology in the 1990s was about how the globalisation of terms such as “LGBT” and “gay” has different trajectories in postcolonial countries. At the time, anthropologists described the vernacular idioms of sexuality, desire, and gender that produced complex hybrid identities and subjectivities. Phenomenological questions of embodiment and subjectivity were central to this thread of anthropological analysis. Lakkimsetti’s book is part of a trend that is not keen on theorizing identity-as-desire so much as vernacular forms of activism, politics and ethics. Her work is also a much-needed corrective to a somewhat problematic trend within anthropology at the moment, where critical postmodern approaches are sometimes weaponized to discredit identity-based politics and dismiss it as a liberal farce, at the very moment that minoritized groups oppressed on the basis of caste and race are fighting for greater rights within universities.

Here are some of the questions I had for Chaitanya:

  • You make the point about how “life” and “livability” are being negotiated and new “life-affirming” projects are being introduced and transformed by LGBTKQI and sex worker communities, changing them from simply subjects of a “bare-lofe” sort of top-down state project (such as that conceptualized by Agamben) into something more diffuse and capillary. Yet, the idea of the “livable” in both biopolitical and juridical terms remains a secular one. Yet the horizons of the “livable”, certainly for many of the communities under consideration here, move considerably beyond the juridical and the biopolitical. For example, in the case of sami pottais and thirunangais studied for eg by Ani Vasudevan, the relationship with the Goddess is an important mediator of politics and how, for example, they should handle a confrontation with police. Lucinda Ramberg and Anandhi have likewise shown how for dalit communities where goddess dedication is a value for some and not others, and there might be non-secular modes of existing in the world which are unintelligible under the sign of progress. In the case of orgs you mention, the place of the jamat is an interesting one, because while activists do critique the criminalization of the TG jamat system, nevertheless  human rights activists have considerable ambivalence and division around the institution of the jamath, veering between seeing it as a traditional progressive institution and as a archaic feudal remnant. This is part of a deeper tension between rights discourse and citizenship projects on the one hand, and ideas of kinship, feudal caste ties and the like (Lawrence Cohen has written about this). In the case of lesbian women for eg, the case I was involved in with Sangama. Even as part of the Pehchan project, there were DIVA grants for “educating” jamath leaders and making them modern. Tradition is also a meta-thing that is claimed, for example in the NALSA judgment. How is the “liveable” mediated by vocabularies of honour, auspiciousness, love, duty, and so forth, not only empowerment and rights? What did you encounter as the tensions here, between people who feel inadequately identified with these activist projects and who might have varied other ways, marked “non-modern” of living in the world? What are the horizons of ethical action and being which exceed either the juridical and biological personhood which you emphasize?
  • Where are the fractures and regional variations in the movement, in dialogue with various vernacular movements? For example, you certain prominent Mumbai-based hijra activists, who many in Tamil Nadu’s thirunangai movement see as an epitome of the hegemony of Mumbai hijra culture. The thirunangai identity is asserted as a contrast, drawing a different genealogy to a progressive Dravidian movement tradition, anti-religious anti-caste struggles, and secular identity allied to Tamil politics and feeding into a longer-standing way that Tamil Nadu distinguishes itself from other parts of the country. How are the politics of authenticity of gender connected to other ethical axes, in the lives of your informants?
  • What are various bodies of historical scholarship you are drawing upon? In the case of vectors of disease, and criminality your interlocutors in the book seem to be refashioning much older discourses as well, and as desiring subjects as well— whether in Kamala’s emphasis on bodily desires, or also Akkai’s on sex— longstanding discourses of the habitual sodomite and so forth. Kinship and family structures are a mode of resource allocation yes, but histories there as well. For eg. when hijra communities must battle allegations of “kidnapping” they are simultaneously combating new anti-trafficking kinds of regimes and new forms of heteronormative family hegemony, but also revisiting 18th century battles over “criminal” forms of tribe and kinship, contrasting it to “modern” (conjugal/consanguineal) forms. Indrani Chatterjee, Jessica Hinchy, and other have written about this. What is your engagement with this literature?
  • As you rightly point out, the idea that neoliberalism has simply led to a weakening of the welfare state and a shifting of burdens to communities is not borne out in the Indian context — unexpected outcomes. Prabha has made the point elsewhere that in India, neoliberalism has seen an expansion of the welfare functions of the state and not their shrinkage and there are also contexts where the state has legislated to give benefits and contingent forms of recognition to informal sector workers. You emphasize in your ethnographic work too, the informal sector and the unique characteristics of India as a postcolonial development state — the uneven enforcement, the off-the-record bargains, the contradictory stances of government agencies — the informal sector over 90% of the population, where do you see those intersectional struggles coming together or splitting apart with the sexual minority/SW movements? What are the links and tensions between informal sector work and the people you worked with?

Watch the video above to hear the discussion where Chaitanya addressed these questions and others from the audience as well.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: