''Fire, Lesbianism and Other Issues''
BREAKING SILENCES, OR SILENT UNDERSTANDINGS?
LESBIANISM AND THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
compiled by a Saheli volunteer
The demonstration on December 7, 1998 at Regal and the formation of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights provided the boost for our women’s group, Saheli, to organise a discussion with friends and co-workers from other organisations. Written invitations, phone calls and spreading the word around resulted in a discussion on February 9, 1999 in our office. It was attended by students, activists, and other individuals too—a group of forty to fifty people.
For those of us in Saheli, it was a significant event because there has been a lack of discussion within the group on the topic of sexuality in general. There is no consensus on the issue of homosexuality among us, and therefore it was important for us to openly share our views within a larger group. Becoming a part of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights was yet another conscious move to further the process of learning about, and exposing ourselves to, the various dimensions of the issue. Since we are a women’s group, there can be no shying away from taking a stand on lesbianism, and the aftermath of the Regal demonstration provided us the opportunity.
The discussion was initiated by three individuals from the Campaign for Lesbian Rights. The conversation went in so many directions that it is not possible to present it in sequence. It covered several broad areas. Our three friends from the Campaign began by sharing their views on Fire as a way to evoke responses from those present and involve them in the debate. The filmmaker’s claim that it was nor a film on lesbianism was critically assessed by all present. Mehta had argued that it was a film about “choices”, but the speakers suggested that Jove is not really a choice—a woman can choose to be public about her lesbianism, but cannot choose to be a lesbian, it was pointed out. Many agreed that it was a matter of convenience for those associated with the film to deny that Fire is a film on lesbianism, in the wake of right wing forces’ attack on the screenings of the movie in India. This hypocrisy was apparent, since Fire was marketed through gay and lesbian film festivals in the West.
A heated debate started when a college student wanted to know whether lesbianism is natural or not. One of the speakers responded by saying that for her, the fact of her lesbianism was very natural. Many organisations around the world support the perspective that there is nothing unnatural about lesbianism: for example, the American Psychiatric Association no longer sees homosexuality as pathological, while the Indian Psychiatric Association has not taken a position on it as yet, either positive or negative. Lesbianism is not an illness and therefore there is no question of a cure.
The Campaign was asked whether lesbianism is a life-and-death issue. The response was that it is—cases of lesbians being forced into marriage and opting for suicide, or being murdered because they resist heterosexual norms.
The next question was whether negative experiences with men make women opt for lesbian sexuality. Members of the Campaign clearly stated that, in their experience, a dislike for men did not drive women to other women. Many women have faced tremendous violence and abuse from a man and yet continue to relate to men in general, emotionally and sexually. In addition, lesbians are exposed to the same media images of heterosexual bliss as the rest of society—and yet can not relate to those models. Sexuality is not just born of circumstances, it is very much a question of identity. The question was thrown back, making some individuals in the group feel targeted and/or defensive: When did you find out that you were heterosexual? Did you think of it as unnatural?
Another person wanted to know—is lesbianism only about sexual interaction or is it something deeper? The fact is, as the representatives of the Campaign clarified, that homosexuality can be as casual or as serious as heterosexuality—some women might look for committed, stable, full-time relationships, while there are also many instances of married women wanting casual sex with women while keeping their so-called happy marriages intact!
In response to a question on why homosexuality has to be talked about so much and so openly when it is a private issue, one Campaign member responded that no amount of talking and writing on the topic of lesbianism could begin to counter the quantity of blatant images and depictions of heterosexual sexuality all around us, which lesbians often find very oppressive. We all need to see/hear representations of our own realities.
There were a few questions regarding poor and working-class lesbians and their realities: was lesbianism an upper-class phenomenon? The speakers responded that working-class lesbians were often less visible since they found it difficult to “come out” for socio-economic reasons. The marriage of Leela and Urmila, two policewomen from Madhya Pradesh, was cited; both of them started denying hotly that they were lesbians as soon as their superiorsthrearened to remove them from their jobs. The speakers pointed out that lesbianism is seen by each section of society as being “foreign,” not just on the level of “Indian-ness” but also on the level of class and caste. On the one hand, working class/ middle-class families tell their daughters that lesbianism is the preserve of rich, bored women; on the other hand, in 1992 when seven high school girls from Thiruvananthapuram were expelled for having formed a lesbian group called the Martina Navratilova Club, the school authorities explained that the bonds between the girls were the outcome of their belonging to dysfunctional, impoverished families with alcoholic fathers. It was pointed our that, in actual fact, lesbianism exists wherever human beings exist. Issues of class and race have also had their impact on the lesbian movement in the West, as was discussed. Lesbians of colour have had to articulate their overall concerns and locate the issue of sexuality within these concerns while confronting their differences with privileged white lesbian feminists.
As someone was keen to know the origin of the word “lesbian”, it was shared that it was derived from Lesbos, the name of an island .in Greece where Sappho wrote her poetry about woman-loving women thousands of years ago. In the Indian context, one finds lesbianism mentioned in the Manusmriti as ''strikrida'', explained as two women found together sexually. This act was considered an offence, with the maximum punishment being the amputation of two fingers and the women being made to ride a donkey.
The Campaign representatives initiated a discussion on lesbianism and the autonomous women’s movement—the topic has emerged only very gradually in women’s meetings and conferences. It was first brought up at the Calicut Conference in 1990, during the session on Single Women. The efforts of a few lesbian activists enabled a separate session on this issue in the 1994 Tirupati Conference where the attempt to claim space was met with severe hostility from some participants. Recently it was also discussed at the 1996 Ranchi Conference, where there was a workshop on lesbianism open to all women, attended by more than seventy women, and a closed evening get-together only for “women who love women.” Lesbians in several cities have also made attempts to organise locally—in Delhi, the first small beginnings towards this end were made in 1990, when three women and twenty men formed a group called Red Rose. Since then several other groups have come up in the city—support groups, help-lines, social action organizations
for gay men and lesbians.
We then discussed the Campaign for Lesbian Rights and its plans for the forthcoming year. The mixed responses that came up during the process of organizing the demonstration held to protest the Shiv Sena’s violence were shared. The joint effort seemed intent on focusing on the Shiv Sena’s attack as purely a curb on the democratic tight to freedom of speech and expression. While it was undeniably such a restriction, the focus deliberately blurted the Shiv Sena’s homophobic panic around the film’s theme of lesbianism. The formation of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights is one step towards dispelling the myths around lesbianism and establishing it as part of an existing reality in our society and culture.
The entire discussion in Saheli reflects the long road we have to traverse. From accepting the word “lesbian,” to changing the general perception of lesbianism as unnatural. The need for all of us to be together in this struggle is imperative.
The Campaign’s Comments
Looking back at this first public meeting, months later, it is interesting to see how our thinking has developed, together with a willingness to respond to difficult questions without being simplistic. We have learned not to be afraid of the “grey areas” where there are no easy answers. For example:
In February, when it was almost impossible to talk about lesbianism without talking about Fire, we were very wary of discussing sexuality in terms of “choice,” given the fact that Deepa Mehta had asserted that her film was not about lesbianism, but about choices. Now, we are more ready to say that lesbianism and choice are not mutually exclusive—women can and do choose to be open to their attraction to women, but unfortunately, in the context of society’s “compulsory heterosexuality,” where women are presented with no options to heterosexual marriage, we have little or no freedom to make that choice. As for the argument we presented at Saheli that the act of being public about sexuality is a choice, today we are more open to talking about the fact that there are many lesbians, gay men and other sexual minorities who have no option but to be public about their sexual/gender identity because of the way they look.
• Our responses to the natural/unnatural debate are less fully fleshed, and there is no consensus among us on the best ways in which to address this query. However, we would no longer allow ourselves to be cornered into a position where we find ourselves asserting (as we did at the Saheli meeting) that lesbianism is OK because it is natural! Our experiences in public campaigning have afforded us the courage to articulate some of our actual beliefs around sexuality.., that all sexuality is constructed by culture, and that 5000 years ago Indians gave up the right to say that they were living in a state of nature, where desire is ruled by the reproductive imperative .. that the norm is no argument in favour of any behaviour or practice, whether heterosexuality or corruption in public life ... that we shouldn’t have to mimic heterosexual structures of marriage, monogamy and insist that we are “just like everyone else” in order to demand out rights.
• Can women become lesbians because of bad experiences with men? Well, we have a number of responses to this. For one thing, we’re no longer afraid to talk about desire, and you can’t desire a woman just because you have grown to hate men. Being a lesbian, most of us would agree, is about more than seeking a refuge from the brutal world of men (a notion which entirely fails to account for bisexuality, in any case). At the same time, while sexuality is about identity and “who you are” inside, it is also fluid and changeable, and most of us have few problems saying that, even if it means acknowledging that women might indeed come to develop and articulate attractions to women after a series of bad experiences with men.
• One of the most painful questions we were asked at the Saheli discussion was: “What have lesbians done for society that people should support you?” Our response at the time was immediate and defensive: each of us talked about the length and intensity of her involvement in the women’s movement, even on issues which had no relevance to her particular life and life choices, such as reproductive rights. Later, however, we wondered why we felt compelled to justify our existence in mainstream terms—what about universal human rights, after all?
• Our response to the question “Is lesbianism a life-and-death issue?” was also very inadequate. By looking at “life” and “death” as issues purely of the body, we rendered invisible all the day-to-day pain of living our choices in the face of tremendous opposition.