It was the best of times, wrote Charles Dickens, it was the worst of times. In our postcolonial condition, there is no impulse without vocabulary. But the commemoration of 10 years of the Delhi Queer Pride Parade evokes mixed, unintelligible sentiments. As hundreds, if not thousands, take to Barakhamba Road and its memorable Tolstoy Marg on Sunday, 12 November, they carry in brazen assertions of love, desire, and their very beings a veritable history – that they make this history is implicit in its performance.
The idea of a queer pride parade emerged in the Western world, heralded by the US in the wake of the Stonewall riots of June, 1969. The Stonewall riots, or the ‘riot’ as it has come to impinge on the imagination of pride parades, is a figure too central to exhibitions of pride and identity to be ignored. Queer pride parades have therefore, almost by convention, emphasised the political value of rage in their assertion of the self and its identity. The pride parade is a public spectacle of rage, its pride dovetailed with indignation at the many injustices of queerness. Pride, however, needs its public, and in the expression of rage, this public must necessarily be created – in the global circulations of information and by consequence identity that modern globalisation has enabled, this has to be known as the LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender). As is apparent, the US heralds more causes than it can manage. The idea of the queer pride parade has, to that end, become the fulcrum of queer political engagement in the ‘Third’ World in general and India in particular. To state its historical debt is not to berate a paradigm, and indeed, pride parades in South Asia have been remarkable for their vibrancy, for their textures of courage in a world that remains hostile, and for their temerity to demand an alternative political present.
Yet, the concept is marred with problems of its making, symptomatic of problems with queer politics in India. As Vqueeram Aditya (Sahai), a critic of ‘pride’ wrote, “I do not believe that a politics around pride can work without a politics of shame.” Shaming is pervasive in queer cultures, as elsewhere – one is only to visit ‘queer,’ radical social media platforms to be greeted with groupings of ‘No femme! No fatties! No uncles!’ ‘Pride’ masks the lived reality of shame that queer cultures routinely pulverise towards bodies and identities that cannot, nay, are not allowed to be proud. What can the tropics of ‘pride’ then mean but meaninglessness?
For the better part of this long and impassable decade in queer history, the movement has actively refused to acknowledge, let alone tend to, its own caste, class, and gendered contradictions, in the vain, foolish hope that a monolithic discourse on queerness will dissipate all cleavage among those who call themselves queer. The movement, if there is one, consequently continues to be dominated by upper-caste, cisgendered men. But contradictions, like shame, cannot be wished away. They reveal themselves most clearly when it comes on the queer movement, particularly its acclaimed radicals, to construct solidarities across other minorities and vulnerable groups. The queers and their movement both prefer a certain distance from the political struggles of other marginalised minorities, preoccupied with the delightful indulgence of the ‘pride.’
This has expressed itself most potently in queer encounters with the law. Despite vociferous and persistent critique, the queer movement stifles its own promise – its political scope, particularly in public imagination, begins and concludes with an archaic penal legality, that is Section 377 and its crusade against “sexual activities against the order of nature.” It gives an archaic law needless life and perpetuates the impoverished political imagination that has become the face of queer politics in India. Strangely, queerness becomes too willing to surrender its politics of difference and takes recourse to normativity. Evidenced by the marital bliss of queer partners bound by the ‘sacredness’ of tradition, marriage has become as much a public trope as pride. For the cause of queer normativity requires an affective public that understands the queer community’s constitutional, homonationalist betrayal, and pride parades are more than willingly to supply it.
Finally, just as pride is incomplete without shame, happiness is incomplete without grief. The narrative of the pride parade is to celebrate the proud happiness of being queer, but for many that the queer vision does not envision, there is no delight, no triumph in queerness. It is the inability of queer politics to speak to these aggrieved voices that is its greatest limitation. Many students in universities across the country take their own lives, year after year, to escape an accident of birth they know to be fatal. This makes universities, elite enclaves as they already are, further insulated from queer representation. It was the students who had asked for the pride parade to be rescheduled, for their reasons, from the terminal week of November. This ‘demand’ was conceded, but not without stressing that students were thankless philistines who had done nothing for a movement they were now trying to patronise. To many of us, this was revealing. Notice how the ‘movement’ becomes more important than the subjects it is supposed to unite, unable and unwilling to deal with the messiness of their aspirations – pride’s happy façade does nothing but make mockery of subjectivities that the ‘movement’ is only too happy to suppress. The ‘pride’ narrative has its political investments, which, as we should know, are never to be forced unto question. But it is only in contestation that pride can be redeemed and reoriented towards voicing grievance as loudly as it voices aspirations of pride. Indeed, ‘pride’ is condemned to incompleteness unless it can touch impulses it has not, engage with the gamut of expressions that gives Indian pride parades an enormous privilege and responsibility.
Yes, partake in pride. But speak also of the silenced, the shamed, and the many hopelessly forgotten, for there is no queerness without tension.