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#SPEAKINGOUT: Queer Desi Perspectives at the South Asian Literature Festival

Despite LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) themes holding a historically prominent position throughout South Asian literature since the time of the Mahabharat, the subject has become a silent spectre lurking within the hazy and taboo filled South Asian society.

It is becoming increasingly important to speak up against the myriad taboos associated with being LGBT – not just for the sake of acquiring the human right of equality, but for acceptance in a contemporary world where being oneself is quickly becoming the “norm” – South Asian or not.

(Un)conventionally fitting-in within a South Asian mould holds many obstacles, yet the obstacles can be tackled through breaking the many silences entrenched within the community. 

Indian literature serves as a vital reference point, highlighting the changing attitudes towards same-sex love, as well as distorting the myths of same-sex love being a stranger to South Asia and of homosexuals being “unconventional” Indians.

Interestingly, before Section 377 specifically “criminalised” homosexuality in nineteenth century British India, same-sex love between men and women held a generally tolerant place in Indian literature.

For example, the canons of Urdu poetry unashamedly described the love and attraction between the same gender.
Lucknow’s “Rehkti Poetry” of the 18th and 19th Century portrays same-sex love between women openly and unapologetically:

“When you run your tongue over my lips,
My heart and being experiences a myriad of pleasures.
I think of men, young and old, as one thinks of a holy man —
I have forsaken the whole world for you:
The way you rub me, ah!…
What fools they are who run after men,
It’s absurd to burn oneself up like a candle for men!
When one woman clings to another, such is the happiness
They never want to part or let their desire decrease….”

However, the repercussions of “Section 377” as well as Victorian Puritanism can be pinpointed as just two of the reasons why homosexuality has moved away from the boldness once signified through Rehkti poetry as well as other material, and headed not only to become tangled into a perplexing taboo, but also a stifling “stereotype”.

“Queer literature” holds a magnifying aura of being “different”, of being categorised into a “Pandora’s box” of its own: positively confronting the taboo yet also reasserting homosexuality as “different”.

I am of the opinion, that this difference is not a mark of individuality but is rather, a sign of the profuse inequalities within society.

Academics argue that due to Freud and other sexologists “defining” sexual constructs such as “gay”, “lesbian”, “heterosexual” would cause hindrance rather than liberation. 

Through producing a dissertation on “same-sex love in contemporary Indian literature”, I was astonished to discover that stories not “labelling” romantic relationship between two women through sexual constructs were in fact the most tolerant towards same-sex love.

Although these stories (of which most) did not end in happy, requited companionship, they held connotations of tolerance, where the emotion was not “judged”.

However, sexuality should not merely be “tolerated”, but accepted – regardless of a sexual construct or not.

The only way to progress towards acceptance is indeed speaking up and demolishing the negative connotations, misunderstandings and silence towards LGBT.

“Speaking Out!”, a “Queer Desi Literature” panel organised at the South Asian Literature Festival in London this month explored different aspects of how literature and the arts can break the silence on LGBT issues within the South Asian context.

Hosted by Fiez Mughal, a dentist volunteering for LGBT and human rights groups such as “Imaan”, the panel consisted of writers Iman Qureshi and Sharmila Chauhan; writer-director Aleem Khan and theatre producer Bobby Tiwana.

Here are some of the highlights from the session:

The panel discuss: sexuality in films and literature; the challenges of South Asians being represented through a “white” perspective and why it is important that South Asian voices themselves must be heard.

In relation to changing attitude, talking about sex is still a taboo in Asian society. Hence talking about homosexuality is a higher taboo. 

As a gay man, I find talking about homosexuality is conflated with sex – which is not the same thing.  For example, when I talk to my mother about my partner, she closes down.  She is afraid that we will talk about sex.  So how do you deal with the taboo of sex in literature, films and theatre?

Sharmila Chauhan: I think that for a culture such as the South Asian community, a society that is obsessed with love. It’s always that narrative obsessed with love, hate sex – can’t ever talk about sex and it’s a really taboo subject.  I think all we can do as artists is to create work, to change people’s’ mindset.  If you’re talking about gay sex or gay relationships – it’s not just about sex it’s about relationships.  Everyone can relate to having a relationship with somebody else. For me it’s about making that “universality” about what is a relationship?  Whether it is straight or not and sex just being a healthy part of that relationship whatever form it’s in.  So I think basically we just need to see more of it.  More sex! 

Iman Quereshi: I would like to draw a general distinction with the issue of sex with Ismat Chugtai who was taken to court and prosecuted for presenting a lesbian short story (“Lihaf”- Deepa Mehta’s film “Fire” is loosely based on this) and she won. The only reason she won was because the prosecution could not prove that lesbians actually have sex. There is no concept for what lesbian sex is.  It was never outlawed in this country – male homosexuality was outlawed because it is a very specific kind of sex that people think about with male homosexuality.  What women do in bed is a question that is actually asked a lot.  What do you “actually” do?  And so there is a big lesbian invisibility and a male extra visibility. I think it’s those stereotypes that we need to move away from.

The inspirations behind and the barriers obtruding writing and telling your story:

Asians being represented through the eyes of White people

Iman Quereshi: I guess in the stories that I read and have seen on screen and the stage, I feel that my life with my friends, people that I have met and have grown up with are not represented as much.  So I’ve always had stories to tell and I was also very, very tired of seeing our lives represented through the eyes of white people and straight people.

It was making me more and more angry.  Every time I saw that Stephen Fry documentary it made me really angry.  I was feeling why does Stephen Fry need to go to these countries to tell their stories?  I find it interesting that the majority of the audience here are of South Asian background. Where are all those white people who harp on about Islam being oppressive?  Why aren’t they here?  People aren’t listening to us. Maybe we are not speaking loud enough.

The problem of “compartments”

Sharmila Chauhan:  There isn’t enough representation.  I think everything gets put into a compartment – black literature, queer literature, etc.  I feel strongly that it should be integrated into mainstream literature.  And I think that is happening slowly in white society, but in Asian society it is still quite slow.  There is so much talent and there are so many people who have stories to tell.  We just need to create a platform for people to do that.  There are so many people whom their families support, have great friends and networks and we just don’t often see that kind of thing represented. And why is that?  I think it’s ridiculous.

Films and Funding: Ticking a “box”

Aleem Khan: My inspiration definitely comes from my life, my friends and my family and their stories. I remember the first time that I saw “East is East”- which is still one of my favourite films. I think that was the first time a film spoke to me.  The ideas, the questions it raised spoke to me – my mum is English, a Muslim convert; my dad is Pakistani; I have loads of sisters.  So this story, this is my life in so many ways.  I thought there’s an opportunity for me to really tell my stories from my perspective. 

As a filmmaker, cinema is one of my biggest inspirations.  I think in terms of barriers in my field, the primary problem is funding.  There are pockets of money – there is a London scheme called “London Calling Plus” which gives £15,000 to five filmmakers from minority backgrounds. Although that’s great, it’s kind of “crap” at the same time.  I do sometimes feel like a box that they are ticking off to fulfil the “diversity” criteria.

Do you have to be of the same orientation to step into the skin of your character?

Aleem Khan: When I was auditioning for my film, we asked for transgendered people to audition. For me as a producer it was important to represent these people. We auditioned a number of men, women and also drag artists.

In the end I couldn’t find a natural transitioned actor. In the end we went with a male who is gay.  I guess the important thing is that he really brought the truth to his character and really embodied what I wanted the character to speak about. And really, it made me realise that I didn’t really need a full op transsexual actor. Because actually, at the end of the day, if you are watching the film, if you believe that person is really that character, then that’s all that really matters. If the truth is there, then that’s what’s

Bobby Tiwana: We recently cast two actors and faced this dilemma of “do they need to be gay and Asian? Can they be straight and Asian? We went through the whole debate of the context that we were representing: an audience member may actually ask an actor – “well are you…?” So actually we built that sort of self-reflective question into the piece itself where an actor asks the audience – “I know what you’re thinking, you’re wondering, am I?”  It was a way to resolve the issue as well.  But that’s another issue; to find actors of the highest calibre who obviously fit the part and the character’s orientation. 

Should there be more “out of the closet” gay actors in Bollywood?

Aleem Khan: I think yes and no.  People do respond to role models.  In Hollywood there are so many actors who are – and even in this country there are actors who are in the closet who don’t want to come out for the fear of the repercussions.  So obviously in an ideal world they would have the support behind them to feel like they can come out.

Bobby Tiwana: On that note, actors can damage their careers because of the risk of being typecast and prevented from playing the “straight hero”.  This question made me think of a film like Dostana – films with the subject of homosexuality are being made.  Even when the subject of homosexuality is being ridiculed, it’s a ploy for another agenda, to get close to a girl.  But I think what that does actually is to sum up the awareness even amongst people for whom homosexuality may be totally off their radar. It sort of, even in a way that is not “politically correct”, starts off an awareness that it does exist.

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