Out and Out Radical

"Inside, I am a hybrid of several cultures and multiple identities -- Indian, immigrant, queer, feminist, progressive, American. Outside, I/we face the challenge of articulating this hybridity as a politics that could make a cohesive movement for racial justice, economic democracy, the abolition of gender roles, and the liberation of human sexuality and family. We need to found a new common social change movement which allows us both the mooring and the freedom to work on the racial, gender, immigrant, economic, queer, and other human issues we face. " - Urvashi Vaid, in "Identity," Trikone Magazine, January 1997.

"If [the film] 'Fire' is allowed to be screened, lesbianism would spread like wildfire through all the girls' hostels." Bal Thackeray, Outook Magazine, 1998.

When I saw that SAMAR Magazine was doing an issue on the generation South Asian American generation, I realized that, for some time, I had stopped wondering about one of the central questions asked by my own Indian immigrant community in Florida nearly 25 years ago: "will our children turn out to be real Indians if they grow up in this place?" I remembered my adolescence being defined by this question through family arguments over my hair color(s), my combat boots, my anthropology-not-science major in college... and later, I remember this question changing, becoming many questions through the process of my politicization and activism as a progressive queer activist in the American South and in New York City. As that first question has changed, the diversity of the mainstream South Asian community in the U.S. has also changed, reflected not only in the proliferation of regionally and linguistically-specific organizations, but also in the growing political diversity of our communities, to the left and to the right. It seems to me that the question of South Asian identity in the diaspora has always implicitly and explicitly rested on questions of sex and marriage. In other words, whether any of us ever went through a punk phase is far less important than when, who, and how we will marry.

In the diasporic context, this question of marriage takes on the symbolic meaning of carrying on The Culture, above and beyond carrying on the traditions of the family. The mainstream homophobic response has been to excise the possibility of queerness and South Asian-ness to productively coexist, to call queer identity "Western" and "foreign," and to claim that no such thing has ever existed in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Nepal. These attacks against queer* communities in South Asia and its diaspora are almost always framed in terms of a defense of "culture," excluding politics. However, in the context of economic globalization, where both grassroots and governmental organizations in the Global South are mounting "culture defenses" against growing economic liberalization and exploitation by multinational corporations, the question of queer identity and activism within any South Asian context is inextricably political.

My main questions, then, concern the relationship between South Asian left and progressive organizations and the South Asian queer movement in the U.S. To explore these questions further, it bears recalling two important moments in the recent history of progressive South Asian organizing in New York City.

The India Day Parade

New York's progressive South Asian organizations include groups that work in the labor movement and the movement to end domestic violence, groups that work with youth, and with documented and undocumented immigrants. The South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association in New York (SALGA) has had an ongoing relationship with all of these groups. The primary context where these relationships have materialized has been in SALGA's struggle to participate in New York's annual India Day Parade. The Federation of Indian Associations (FIA), a private organization that, until August 2000, consistently denied SALGA's right to march in the Parade, has organized the India Day Parade for the past twenty years. The fia quickly tempered its initially explicitly homophobic denial of SALGA's application to march by claiming that "homosexuality does not exist in India," and, therefore, SALGA's participation would not accurately reflect the reality of Indian communities. The fia also had a history of excluding other groups that challenged the notion of the existence of a uniformly middle class, upper caste Hindu Indian nation-state.

By articulating a critique of the India Day Parade as a whole in its call-to-action, SALGA was able to galvanize a coalition of progressive South Asian organizations, provisionally called the South Asian Progressive Task Force in 1997. The Task Force was comprised of organizations that chose to protest the Parade and its homophobia, classism, racism, etc., rather than apply to march themselves. Over several years, SALGA organized rallies, alternate celebrations, protests and press conferences to coincide with the India Day Parade, where critiques of the event could be voiced. While these events were successful in building SALGA's case for participation, both SALGA and the Task Force as a whole were left with the dilemma of fighting for inclusion in a parade that is fundamentally anti-democratic and exclusive.

When SALGA gained the right to march in August 2000, all members of the Task Force shared the victory. The struggle to march was ultimately undertaken as an attempt to change the nature of the India Day Parade itself, from one that attempted to promote a homogenous notion of Indian realities to one that entailed a celebration of the diversity of Indian identities. SALGA's participation meant that many of the organizations that had usually marched declined, and SALGA's contingent provided a venue for other progressive organizations to participate in what became, to some degree, a celebratory event.

SALGA's struggle to participate in the India Day Parade the following year was marked by many more internal and external discussions about the politics of participating in an event that promotes an increasingly unitary, Hindu-right representation of India. The decision to march was taken with the reasoning that the visibility for South Asian gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people by marching in the parade was itself a critique of many of the problematic aspects of the event. Although SALGA's application to march in the parade was again met by resistance from the fia, SALGA again won the right to march. If SALGA's exclusion was emblematic of the ways in which the Indian Right had attempted to dictate a unilateral notion of "authentic" Indian culture, SALGA's participation represented the undeniable existence of the life that exists outside the bounds of that representation.


Fire, a film set in India about two sisters-in-law who fall in love with each other, premiered in New York in 1997. When the film was first released in India in 1998, after gaining the Indian Censor Board's approval, it was met with violent protests mounted by the right wing Shiv Sena Party. The Sena's leader, Bal Thackeray, objected to a lesbian relationship being portrayed in an Indian context, claiming that lesbianism is "un-Indian." During December of 1998, the Sena did succeed in preventing the film from being released in India, inspiring an outcry from the Indian film industry, the Indian feminist movement, and the Indian lgbtq movement. Public defenses of the film from feminists and filmmakers seemed to side-step the issue of sexuality and, instead, were grounded in arguing for the right to "freedom of speech." The only Indian group that directly addressed the Sena's homophobia was the Campaign for Lesbian Rights, a coalition of queer, feminist and labor organizations. Among several other major actions, the Campaign organized a 300-person protest against the Sena's attacks in New Delhi.

SALGA and, subsequently, the South Asian Progressive Task Force initiated solidarity efforts with the Campaign for Lesbian Rights, which culminated in a press conference held outside the Indian Consulate in New York to demand immediate governmental support for re-release of the film. SALGA's written statements about the film's release included the argument that "secularism, freedom of expression, and freedom of choice are politically and inextricably linked, and that the film should be released in respect of freedom of speech," (SALGA flyer, 1998) and in respect of the life choices that the film attempted to fictionally represent.

Connecting the History

The roughly fifteen year old queer South Asian movement in the U.S. is comprised of both first and second-generation immigrant activists, and works in solidarity with lgbtq movements in South Asia. Mainstream and conservative South Asian organizations have attempted to discredit South Asian lgbtq organizations by claiming that the usage of English labels like "lesbian" and "gay" only reflect an alignment with the non-immigrant Western lgbtq movement. The assertions that queer identity is a strictly American or "Western" phenomenon is one that immigrant queers, in particular, are called upon to challenge constantly.

The roots of identity politics in Western enlightenment liberalism have enabled movements to emerge that prioritize individual identification with constructs like "lesbian" and "gay," and have served to marginalize other analytic frameworks -- most regularly, that of class. The characterization of the South Asian queer movement in the U.S. as a second generation movement that has more ties with the American lgbtq movement than with the lineage of South Asian progressivism is emboldened by the material ways in which many mainstream lgbtq organizations have not prioritized class, caste or race in their critiques.

The issues around sexuality, class, national identity, and language that have informed the struggle to build coalitions between South Asian queer and left/progressive organizations are mirrored in the transnational politics of many other communities. Recent homophobic statements by Sam Nujoma, President of Namibia, and the response by the Black Radical Congress, the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, and many African diaspora groups are worth considering in light of these questions in the South Asian community. In late March, 2001, President Nujoma ordered a purge of homosexuals from Namibia, stating that "The Republic of Namibia does not allow homosexuality or lesbianism here. Police are ordered to arrest you, deport you and imprison you." Nujoma, like President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, framed his homophobic statements as directly stemming from a strong critique of Western neo-colonialism. The Black Radical Congress, in a recent statement condemning Nujoma's call for violence against same gender loving people, wrote:

"In Africa however, European colonialism -- from which the severe economic problems of the African continent derive -- provides the context and fuel for this emergent witch-hunt. Virulent homophobia, incubated in the right-wing movements of the imperialist metropoles and also an outgrowth of Africa's own indigenous patriarchal systems, is finding a home in the political agendas of desperate African leaders. Sadly, these leaders have little power in a world dominated by Western global capital... In the absence of real leverage, and confronted with more and more popular challenges to their leadership, they have resorted to scapegoating same gender loving people and fomenting a climate of heightened tolerance for misogyny." (Black Radical Congress, April 25, 2001)

There are many parallels between President Nujoma's statements condemning homosexuality as a "Western disease," and the dismissal of South Asian queer people and movements as "American" and, therefore, not deserving full membership in the South Asian diasporic political milieu. As the Black Radical Congress suggests, these tactics must be placed within a context of colonialism and neo-colonialism to be understood as part of a strategy to scapegoat a marginalized group in order to consolidate local power. On the other hand, left and progressive organizations that have not explicitly taken up issues of sexuality may argue that this is less because of their homophobia, and more due to the need to prioritize class-based struggle. The many arguments that we might deploy to counter the idea that gender and sexuality are somehow marginal to the class struggle do not address the fundamental concern that may underlie the analysis - that lgbtq identity constructs are Western, and that the existence of these outside of the West is an effect of colonialism. Rather than react to this critique by enumerating indigenous forms of queer sexuality, it may be more accurate, and more strategic, to connect the history of colonialism with the history of diasporic anti-colonial resistance, and to point out that many movements for progressive social change have been diasporic. The examples in South Asian history are many, most famously regarding the movement for Indian independence. The relationships between the Ghadr Party in Southern California and in Punjab at the turn of the twentieth century, between Gandhi's political beginnings in the South Asian diaspora of the 1910s and 1920s and his later work in India, and, during the 1960s, between the Black Panther Party in the U.S. and the Dalit Panther Party in India are a few examples of the tradition of diasporic South Asian political struggle. These examples of cross-national exchange in the movement to end British colonialism in South Asia, and to end caste-based exploitation in India, are fairly well-known. Interestingly, these kinds of examples do not inspire critiques of the movement for Indian independence, for example, as "Western." Rather, they are rightly seen as moments of grassroots organizations in South Asia using all means available to them to promote a radical local agenda.

The Family

The perpetuation of hetero-normative family structures in immigrant communities bear the responsibility of perpetuating an "authentic" sense of one's own culture and community, nostalgic idealization of that culture notwithstanding. By suggesting an alternative to status quo family structures, queerness in the mainstream South Asian context is represented as a "Western" attack on "authentic" South Asian cultures and values. Historical analysis of nuclear and joint family systems in South Asia reveal that these were religion, class, and caste-specific forms that coexisted with many other family-forms during and before the colonial era. The nuclear family, in particular, is more readily historicized as "Western" than many other cultural forms.

These arguments of cultural authenticity and the promotion of the hetero-normative ideal of family have been used prodigiously by radical right wing organizations for many years to delineate the boundaries of propriety. We may understand this idealization of the nuclear family as a rhetorical device used by the Radical Right if we understand the need for the Right to restrict and reduce the plane of legitimate social and political, a strategy that ultimately serves the interests of expanding state and corporate power. It is more puzzling to encounter this rhetoric in the Left itself, where defenses of "The Family" have been deployed in the service of attempts to curb impacts of corporate development on working class and poor communities. The family then becomes that which we are all, in a sense, struggling to protect.

This political phenomenon begs the question of why has a significant segment of South Asian left and progressive organizations, in South Asia and in the diaspora, reiterate the homophobia of right wing organizations in either excluding or denying solidarity with South Asian queer groups, or in simply maintaining an audible silence around any issues related to sexuality? This is not simply a question for the diasporic South Asian political context, but addresses the historical tensions between left/progressive and queer organizing all over the world. Ironically, as the Radical Right uses sexuality as a wedge issue in organizing support for its broad based conservative agendas, so, too, sexuality constitutes the line between organizational ties and the potential for coalitions among left and progressive groups. Sexuality seems to be the line that few organizations, on the left and the right, dare to cross.

The progressive political project in the South Asian diaspora necessitates the integrations of gender and sexuality both analytically and strategically. By excluding gender and sexuality from the central framing of the progressive vision for democratic social change, left and progressive organizations participate in normalizing and naturalizing the traditional, hetero-normative family structure in their vision of social justice. If social justice is for the liberation of "[male] workers and their families," how are queer workers without access to these kinds of legalized family frameworks meant to struggle in the movement? The act of marginalizing and excluding gender and sexuality from the political frame is explicitly in alliance with political conservatism and the right-wing political framework. The Radical Right in the U.S., well aware of the power of democratic movements for social change, is increasingly using homophobia to galvanize support among working class communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color for its anti-democratic, racist, pro-capitalist agenda. By using the same marker of participation, left and progressive organizations find themselves in an alliance with the Right around the very definition of the family, and implicitly support the maintenance of Western, middle class, nuclear family values as universal.


While this is an analysis and critique of left and progressive organizing, broadly defined, this is a strategic call to arms for more substantive coalitions and for working across movements. This call to rethink queer and left/progressive movements in a South Asian context is also a call to rethink the charge of "Western influence" levied against movements for gender and sexual rights. If we are working for progressive, material social change, then they must not simply intersect; they must be woven together in a cogent analysis and strategy against an emergent racist, classist, sexist, and neo-imperialist world order.

*I use the term "queer" to denote all non-normative sexuality, including, but not limited to, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered (LGBT) people. The term "queer" itself in the progressive context arose in the 1980s in the spirit of reclaiming language that had been used to deride individuals who were seen to exist outside the norms of socially sanctioned sexuality.


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