Is the Vagabond Happy? Friendship, Family and Queerness

Session Report
Yuvaraj

The workshop titled “Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India” was a five-day immersive online certificate training course organized by the IMPRI Gender Impact Study Centre (GISC). The event featured an esteemed panel of experts who shared their expertise and experiences.

Remarks by the Chair

Throughout the workshop, Professor Vibhuti Patel, the chair of the program, provided opening remarks and offered insights on each day’s theme.

On Day One, she highlighted the importance of conceptual clarity and terminology in understanding sexual identities. Day Two focused on the contemporary political atmosphere and the challenges and achievements of grassroots mobilization.

Day Three delved into social and health issues faced by marginalized communities, emphasizing the need for comprehensive data and visibility in policy-making. On Day Four, Professor Vibhuti Patel discussed legal rights and issues, shedding light on the experiences of queer individuals in Assam and the struggles they face.

Dr. Debolina Dey, an Assistant Professor at Ramjas College, University of Delhi, conducted a session on the final day, exploring themes of vagabond, happy friendship, family, and queerness. Her presentation provided valuable insights into the complexities surrounding these concepts.

She commenced her address by acknowledging the customary practice of starting queer panels with confessions related to gender or sexual identity. However, she admitted that her confession was somewhat problematic as it pertained to her own struggles with personal identity. As an academic researcher whose PhD focused on the history of science, she often found herself in a dilemma when asked to speak authoritatively on queerness in panel discussions. Nevertheless, she recognized and embraced her own queerness.

Dr. Dey proceeded to discuss her unique position, situated between the realms of being an academic researcher who does not directly work on gender and sexuality, and yet teaches and advocates for queerness. She metaphorically depicted herself as a hinge, capable of both opening and closing doors. She highlighted the complex nature of her identity, emphasizing that her talk would be a fusion of autoethnographic reflection and an exploration of the historical period.

Challenging Fixed Identities and Binaries

She questioned the notion of fixed identities and binaries, delving into the concept of queerness as a journey rather than an essence. Dr. Dey pondered the relevance of personal differences in the broader context of queerness and proposed the creation of a more inclusive vocabulary that could resonate with a diverse range of individuals. She stressed that queerness is a rapidly evolving and expanding organism, necessitating an adaptable and dynamic approach.

Queerness as a journey than an essence

– Dr. Debolina Dey

Drawing inspiration from scholars such as Michel Foucault and Bell Hooks, Dr. Dey examined the performativity of language and its potential to reshape understanding. She moved between the noun, adjective, and verb forms of “queer,” exploring the twists and turns of language and the transformative power of linguistic shifts. Through her talk, she sought to challenge conventional definitions, pushing against the fixed boundaries of queerness.

Historical Context of Queerness

Dr. Debolina Dey explained the historical context of queerness by exploring English law in the 19th century. In 1834, the Vagrancy Act pathologized vagrants, portraying them as contagious examples of immorality and idleness. The act associated vagrants with disease and social disruption, particularly emphasizing their threat to the institution of the family.

The Vagrancy Act criminalized idle and disorderly persons, rogues, and vagabonds. Over time, amendments to the act expanded its scope to include legislation against prostitution and solicitation. By using language that associated vagrants with immorality and disease, the law effectively pathologized and marginalized this group of people. The family became central to the argument, as vagrants were seen as irresponsible and a burden on the state, disrupting the traditional economic model of the family.

Neoliberal Logic and Gender

Dr. Dey argued against the fixed and predictable nature of identity, highlighting the performative aspects of language and societal expectations. She questioned the notion of identity and the ways in which capitalism and queerness intersect. For example, she shared an anecdote about shopping for perfume and how the gendered categorization of scents challenges the binary understanding of attraction and identity.

Dr. Dey also referenced Jack Halberstam’s concept of becoming ungovernable, which involves embracing unpredictability and challenging societal norms. She emphasized the importance of friendship as an amorphous and unpredictable form of kinship, countering the rigid expectations of traditional family structures.

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Dr. Debolina Dey, Assistant Professor, Ramjas College, University of Delhi

Dr. Dey highlighted the significance of language and its connection to historical and legal contexts. She emphasized the fluidity of language, noting how words can evolve and acquire new meanings over time. In particular, she focused on the term “queer,” discussing its association with a way of life rather than a fixed identity. Dr. Dey also touched upon the concept of family, exploring how the word “familial” transforms the notion of family from a static noun to an adjective, representing diverse and non-traditional forms of love and relationships.

Prof. Vibhuti Patel further expanded on the discussion by highlighting the neoliberal logic and its impact on gender and sexuality. She referred to instances where sex workers were unfairly blamed for the spread of diseases, linking it to societal prejudices and stigmatization. Prof. Patel emphasized the need to address the material realities of marginalized groups and challenged the existing moral judgments placed upon them.

Audience Engagement and Questions

The audience also actively participated by raising thought-provoking questions. One audience member inquired about the connection between language, voice, and gendered associations. Dr. Dey reflected on the manner in which people’s voices are perceived and associated with certain genders or roles, considering the interplay between style of speaking, archetypes, and psychic associations.

Another audience member delved into the discussion of performative utterances, friendship, and family dynamics, referencing literary works that explore the complexities of gender and sexuality. They drew connections to the concepts of queer worldviews, performative victim roles, and Judith Butler’s epistemology.

An audience member raised a question regarding the recent remark made by the Ministry of Women and Child Development on the topic of same-sex marriage. The audience member interpreted the remark as highlighting the oppressive nature of traditional family ideals and the fluidity of gender. They expressed agreement with the idea of queerness challenging and examining the composition and nature of gender categories. The audience member emphasized the importance of recognizing diverse kinship structures and the role of trans individuals as mothers, advocating against limiting the idea of motherhood to a specific gender or body.

Another audience member brought up the debates surrounding transgenderism, particularly in the US, UK, and Australia. They mentioned a documentary called “What is a Woman?” by Matt Walsh, which takes an empirical approach to sex and argues for the biological basis of gender roles. The audience member expressed concern about the impact of such arguments, which are readily available on social media, on countries like India where social media consumption is high. They observed regressive attitudes among some individuals in the comments section.

Dr. Debolina Dey disagreed with the conservative perspective presented in the documentary, rejecting the reductionist view that the essence of womanhood is tied solely to biological characteristics. She emphasized the need to embrace the diverse experiences within the transgender community and cautioned against generalizing or dictating what being trans should entail. She highlighted the importance of multiplicity and the freedom to define one’s own truth and experience within the queer umbrella. Dr. Dey also expressed her support for trans reservation and the learning opportunities that arise from engaging with different perspectives.

Read more session reports from Day 3 of Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India

Prateeti Barman on Queer Identity and Rights: Experiences From Assam