A quick blog post in response to the video (below) that has been produced by the UN’s Free & Equal campaign, a campaign that I do support – in theory – without always agreeing with it. Before I begin I want to thank my friend and colleague (and PhD student!) Rohit Dasgupta for posting this on Facebook and soliciting comments. Rohit will doubtless have a more nuanced and well-thought out response to this video.
But I felt compelled to jot down a few notes here, if only because such a video is likely to divide opinion. Firstly I want to distance myself from those who believe that the UN and initiatives like Free & Equal are exercises in neo-colonialism that seek to impose Western ‘morals’ and norms on non-Western peoples. This is the argument that many who gather under the ‘queer’ umbrella would make. The argument is hollow, hypocritical and dangerous. It is hollow because in essence it is not true. It is hypocritical because, for the most part, such articulations of queer antagonism are normally learned in the hallowed lecture halls of elite Western universities – suggesting that queer theory and politics is, for the most part, an academic enterprise engaged in by middle-class folk who forget the fact that criticism of *any* kind of gay activism is a leisure pursuit open to only a few well-heeled individuals. Yes there are poor queer folk. No, those poor queer folk haven’t read Judith friggin’ Butler. Finally it is also a dangerous argument because it risks killing off any kind of sexually dissident politics before it’s gasped its first breath. In Uganda and Nigeria, *any* kind of political fight against homophobia (and bi phobia and trans phobia) is better than nothing.
This was a long-winded caveat but it needed to be said. And I do, personally and professionally believe that the UN’s initiative is an important step in the right direction…. but this video? Oy! Where do we begin? Others on Facebook had already pointed out some of the most problematic aspects of the representation by the time I joined in the critique. Class, caste and skin colour all work together to position homosexuality as a middle (even upper-middle) class issue. Look at the house! The garden! The mis-en-scene! Oh if only every queer person in India had access to such resources.
For me though it was the narrative that jumped out as the major stumbling block. Why does queerness here have to be the ‘surprise’ that is sprung on the family – and in particular the older woman? Why does she have to be the one who determines whether the queer couple are accepted? And why the queer couple? Having witnessed the shift in acceptance that family and friends displayed towards my own identity when I ‘settled down’ I speak from experience here- couples do help to ‘contain’ the ‘disaster’ of having a queer in the family. But that doesn’t mean this is the route *all* narratives of ‘coming out’ should take. Indeed, why should this *be* a coming out narrative? Or, to be more precise, why does the queer always have to be framed as the deception (whether a happy one or not)? Trans activists have called for narratives of trans lives to move beyond the point of transition – that fraught and tense cusp. I would like to make a similar call. Stop coming out, or, rather, build (inclusive) narratives that move beyond the point where a ‘deception’ is revealed.
I’ve suggested in the title of this post that what we are watching here is the (re)presentation of homonormative ideals. This term needs unpacking – something I’ve still not had a chance to do – but when I use the term here, I’m referring to narrativity, rather than a particular way of life. The narrative of this musical number is staunchly homonormative. The structure conforms to, and confirms stereotypes. The humour draws upon reservoirs of queer representation (also found in Bollywood) that relegate homosexuality to the realm of the comedic – and therefore the unimportant.
Would we be better off without this video? No. Nothing, in this context, is not better than something. But that doesn’t mean we should demand more from those very good causes that seek to support queer people around the world.