Embodied Belongings: Exploring the Politics of ‘Queer’ in South Asia

This symposium brings together activists, performance artists and scholars in the humanities and social sciences, to a series of conversations about being, becoming and belonging in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora.  Specifically, the focus will be on different enactments and translations of “queer” transnationally which in turn shape the terms of belonging in relation to state, media and community, for different groups of people across the region. While the focus of the conversations in the symposium will be in relation to communities that identify as LGBTQI; MSM (men-who-have-sex-with- men); Hijra; Kothi and Khwaja Sira to name a few, it will also consider ostensibly “normative” terms of belonging through queer lenses.

While state discourses in much of South Asia have laws that set the terms of (un)belonging for some[1], different community constituencies, such as activists, social justice collectives and coalitions (for legal reform and more) have always re-imagined and recreated other forms of belonging. This symposium will build upon contemporary conversations in South Asia about such state, as well as community and other terms of queer belongings.

In this confusing legal tangle, one such example of community practices would be that of LGBTQ activism which has a long and thriving trajectory in South Asia. It was initially driven by the HIV epidemic and its focus on men who have sex with men, which allowed funds to flood into NGOs working with gay and MSM communities. It was also driven in part by changing western ideas regarding homosexuality, in all of its variants. Many of the early gay rights organizations in India were extensions of South Asian organizations in Canada and the U.S.  In large part, this early activism was upper and upper middle class, privileged caste (in the case of India particularly), and male. While Pride Parades have been organized in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Colombo and Kathmandu among other cities, they are largely populated by urban, caste-privileged elites, not the poor who bear the brunt of discrimination. For example, the Khwaja Sira of Pakistan, a poor ‘transgender’ community, actively speak against the term ‘gay.’ Similarly, Hijra’s in India have organized and resisted being lumped together under such homogenizing categories as well.

Much of the earliest writing on queer issues in South Asia was in literature. But since the 1990s, scholars in both India and the West have examined different/other/multiple aspects of the landscape of queer South Asia. The symposium proposed here brings together activists, performance artists, scholars in both the humanities and social sciences, senior scholars and those just writing dissertations, to focus on the embodied belonging and particular politics of being queer in South Asia.