Dr. Emera Bridger Wilson

Associate DirectorSummer 2018 - Symposium

On October 5 and 6, the South Asia Center welcomed scholars of gender and sexuality in South Asia to discuss how the field has shifted over time. To further complicate and explore the ways in which ideas of gender and sexuality are embodied, we bookended the symposium with artistic performances that examined the theme of queer belonging.

On Thursday, Vivek Shraya opened the symposium with a discussion of her experiences with becoming and belonging in Alberta, Canada and how her relationships with her family shaped her experience of being transgendered. She read from a variety of her written work, including excerpts from Even this Page is White and The Boy and the Bindi.

On Friday, in her keynote address, Gayatri Reddy, Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Illinois, Chicago, traced the social, economic and political currents that influenced her ground breaking work, In Respect to Sex, and what has changed in the 20 years since the book was published. She noted that the 1990s were a tumultuous decade, with the liberalization of the economy, the release of the Mandal commission, the rise of the Hindu right and, perhaps most importantly to gender and sexuality studies, increased attention by the State and non-governmental organizations on HIV/AIDS in India. These changes energized social movements that created new sexual subjectivities. In the 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS-related public health interventions led to the creation of the behavioral category, Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) and the more indigenous term, kothi. However, both terms subsumed the category of hijra in a way that was fraught with tension. In the 2000s another linguistic shift occurred in which the term “transgender” became increasingly common. “Much like the MSM and kothi labels in the previous decade, what seems to have occurred in the 2000s was a consolidation and institutionalization of the category “transgender”...creating both an overly bounded understanding of this category as well as a deepening schism between transgendered, often or only focusing on trans women, and MSM communities,” Reddy pointed out.

Summer 2018 - Symposium 2Following Reddy’s remarks, three panels focused on different aspects of the queer experience. The first, “On the Cutting Edge,” featured four graduate students or recent graduates whose research explored new territory in the field of Queer Studies, both in terms of topic and method. The second panel, “Social Contours of Queer Belonging,” examined the intersections of politics and law and queer belonging at the State level. Finally, “Queering Art and Literature,” explored issues of belonging and representation in the South Asian arts.

From each of these panels emerged wide-ranging but exciting discussions on the future of queer studies in South Asia. Svati Shah, Associate Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at UMass Amherst, captured this well in her remarks, stating, “One of the things that I feel, well, very moved by actually is that many of us have been involved with what we have been calling South Asian Gender and Sexuality Studies for a long time. But after today, I have really seen that there could also something called South Asian Queer and Trans Studies.” She called on the audience to continue these conversations so that this new field could be institutionalized in some way.

The event closed with a reading by Shyam Selvadurai, a Toronto-based, Sri Lankan author, from his book, Funny Boy. Through his fiction as well as his own personal story, Selvadurai explores what is means to develop a sense of self-acceptance and feelings of belonging.