Sharif D Rangnekar, author, Queersapien: ‘Delhi is invested in patriarchy’ - Hindustan Times
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Sharif D Rangnekar, author, Queersapien: ‘Delhi is invested in patriarchy’

ByChintan Girish Modi
Mar 15, 2023 10:30 AM IST

Against the backdrop of the government’s opposition to the legalization of same sex marriage, the singer-songwriter and workplace inclusion consultant talks about how discrimination against LGBTQIA people continues in education, health care, homes, workplaces, and in banking and insurance

The word “queer” that was once used as a slur is now being reclaimed by a lot of gender and sexual minorities. But it is also rejected by those who feel that it erases the specificity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, non-binary and many other identities. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Author Sharif Rangnekar (Nitin Mantri) PREMIUM
Author Sharif Rangnekar (Nitin Mantri)

Yes, the word “queer” was a slur at one point. I believe that the reclaiming of it has been more about “queering” the normative – which is the cisgender-heterosexual (cis-het) dominance – and taking pride in being “different”. I think this remains the case even today. But I agree that no umbrella label, word or term should erase the specificity of the various sexualities that lend themselves to what “queer” is.

Over time, I fear, it could lead not just to the denial and erasure of the uniqueness of each sexuality and their lived experiences but also to a flawed and risky assumption that all queers folks are equal when they aren’t. We could land up in a similar situation where, for example, white supremacists said “All lives matter” erasing the fact that “Black lives matter” and require specific focus and solutions due to the inequality and inequity that black people experience.

In other words, if we don’t acknowledge all the sexualities and fail to bring fair and equal representation and visibility to the fore, then we’d find solutions in policymaking catering only to what is “understood” to be queer. And what is understood to be queer will be determined by a pecking order of power amongst us that is typically defined not only by whether we are cis-gender or not but also by the intersections of caste, class, religion, disability, language and so on.

So, for me, to be queer and to use that word, is to be as honest as possible to the multiple identities that give strength and meaning to the word.

195pp, ₹395; Rupa Publications
195pp, ₹395; Rupa Publications

Do you see Queersapien as a sequel to your last book Straight to Normal: My Journey As A Gay Man? Or did you plan it as a stand-alone book?

I would prefer for it not to be seen as a sequel. Straight to Normal: My Journey As A Gay Man was about “coming out” whereas Queersapien is more of a “coming of age” book, filled with reflections, admissions, observations and commentary. It is a queer eye on society, on the constructs and confinements with which we live. Hence, I engage with religion, caste, neoliberalism, the media, patriarchy, gender stereotypes and politics. I try to stretch the idea of being queer and queerness beyond the realm of sexuality.

What has life taught you in the gap between the release of these two books, and how did you incorporate all that into your writing?

Within a few months after the release of Straight to Normal, I slipped into depression. There was a rudderless feeling, a certain kind of hopelessness, helplessness and a constant reminder that at the age of 50, I was not partnered. Every time the book was discussed at festivals, amongst community groups and the media, my struggles to come out were revisited, making it seem so fresh, new and painful. I was reminded that so many of us spent decades, half a life, just trying to be ourselves that the energy and strength left to sustain love – the intimate kind – was too little, leave alone the few opportunities that we got.

The creation of the Rainbow Lit Fest – Queer & Inclusive in 2019 helped as it got me to engage with a larger and diverse set of folks from our community. I certainly took time to put into context my life in general; what I had experienced, observed and comprehended. I could see power structures more clearly; be it the social order, caste and class, gender roles and stereotypes or the role of media and cinema. I could see the economics and politics of the system and how every element of power and social hierarchy feeds off the other; how they denied us and so many others, visibility, a specificity, a voice, and a just appreciation of existence, of being human.

When I look back, I can see my mind bringing together all my years as a child, a student, a professional in the influential worlds of journalism and public relations, making sense of how I participated in the system that worked against marginalised people and communities. I could see my ignorance and obliviousness, and feel the guilt of not knowing my privileges.

I also got to understand why coming out was not only difficult for me and many others but that it wasn’t a one-time affair. We – not just queer folks – were collectively stuck in different boxes, constantly fighting structures, scaling walls of fear or fearing to scale them. I got some more clarity on why and how love and choice were systemically throttled and, therefore, why to sustain love, to have a relationship, to fail time and again, was not entirely my own doing.

A gay couple in New Delhi. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
A gay couple in New Delhi. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

You wrote Queersapien during the Covid-19 pandemic. Did writing serve as a form of emotional release when you were stuck at home, or did you struggle to articulate?

The flip side of the treachery that Covid-19 inflicted was that it was also a time where I wasn’t compelled to engage much with the world outside. I didn’t have to socialise. I could focus my energies on my mother and home, and in so many ways, remain closely connected with the “essentials” of the self. Other than domestic compulsions that became a routine, I listened to talks and music, read books, and sort of, stripped things down to the basics. The basics of who we are when others aren’t around made me think about whether society matters at all in being oneself.

I remember my mother telling me how lovely it would have been if I had a partner sharing and contributing to the soul, spirit and blissfulness of our space, where nothing else mattered other than ourselves. What she meant was that we were so free, it would have been wonderful if I could have explored it a lot more. That sense of freedom allowed me to think and write with pretty much no barriers. So whatever I wrote was an emotional release, not a struggle.

Much of Queersapien is set in Bangkok, a city that gave you a safe and supportive environment to explore your sexuality. What prevents Delhi from providing the same?

Delhi is a city deeply invested in patriarchy. It is also a power centre; a city of networks and name-dropping. It crisply and tirelessly defines social hierarchies and power lobbies. It is aspirational and is constantly chasing an idea of success that is defined by money and elitism, playing back to the pecking order that the city thrives on. It is also a society that is deeply conscious about what others say (log kya kahte hain). It is also a city that cares little for women, their rights and dignity. When some 50 per cent of the population carries little respect, and the other 50 is obsessed with a singular idea of masculinity, there is almost no room to manoeuvre, to be anything else outside of those two roles.

Even though Bangkok is the financial and political capital of Thailand and has a defined class system, unified only by the monarch and Buddha, it is a matriarchal and matrilineal culture. This automatically plays out into the day-to-day where women are far safer than those in Delhi. They don’t have to fit into any specific gender role, and nor do men have to. With that comes the Thai mai pen rai philosophy, which translates to “It doesn’t matter” and “It is okay”, or even a more elaborate, “No problem, it doesn’t matter”.

As a result, women and men can just be themselves, and make their choices. This is how and why queerness finds its way quite easily in a city like Bangkok and not in Delhi.

Members of the Awadh Pride Committee celebrating after the Supreme Court verdict striking down Section 377 of the penal code that penalised people for their sexual orientation in Lucknow on September 06, 2018. (Subhankar Chakraborty/HT PHOTO)
Members of the Awadh Pride Committee celebrating after the Supreme Court verdict striking down Section 377 of the penal code that penalised people for their sexual orientation in Lucknow on September 06, 2018. (Subhankar Chakraborty/HT PHOTO)

You write about the vulnerabilities that queer people continue to face even after the Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Why has this legal development not been as effective as it was hoped to be?

The effectiveness of laws is related to how societies function, and their culture. On homosexuality, as it were, while social stigma continues, the press and the governments failed to do what they should have when Section 377 was read down. The media comfortably quoted the beautiful statement by the only lady judge on the bench, Indu Malhotra who said, “History owes an apology” to us, “for the ignominy and ostracism” that we have suffered. The media, of course, didn’t spell out the “ignominy and ostracism”, our history, or that the verdict can’t change lives overnight. In fact, the press turned the order into a declaration of love and freedom. What took centrestage was an emotive set of hashtags, heart-shaped emojis and headlines, such as “love is love” and “pure love”, and a pronouncement of sorts by powerful sections of the media that we were free now. All that we were allowed now was the right to have sex and not be arrested for doing so.

The press also failed to focus on other aspects of the various notings by the judges, particularly of sensitisation programmes that governments should have run to educate society about us. It was a means to slowly integrate us into public life. With no significant reporting of this sort, there was no pressure whatsoever on governments to do what was necessary. There was no creation of awareness as such, leaving our lives entirely to ourselves, with pretty much all the struggles and barriers continuing as they were, untouched by the otherwise historic verdict.

So discrimination of all kinds continues in schools, health care, homes, public places, universities, workplaces, and in banking and insurance. Which is why so many people end their lives, searching for the love and freedom the press misleadingly interpreted the order to be.

What are your observations about corporate-led Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives for queer people? Since you encountered homophobia while working in the field of journalism and public relations, do you think that some progress has been achieved?

A lot has changed since I was in the 9 to 5 corporate world. There are policies to protect the community against hate, as well as rules to support them. There is a language too. We didn’t have words like inclusion or DEI. There are reports and studies that have put economic values to homophobia and the benefits of having us on board.

While several corporations appear to be doing well in including the community, the filters generally used for offering a job are largely the same as those used for others. The problem with such an approach is to ignore the inequity of experience, that of intersectional identities, challenges that come from queerphobia, and the various forms of mental health issues. It is the flawed approach of equality, that we are all the same, have the same language and qualifications and hence to include us is to include only a certain privileged section of our community, using their label of sexuality as a success story.

READ MORE: Excerpt: Queersapian by Sharif D Rangnekar

Your mother is a significant presence in the book. She comes across as a role model for parents of queer people in India. How does she feel about you writing openly about your sexual experiences and political convictions?

I am proud of my mother, and I think she seems to grow prouder of me with time. It has taken her a while to realise and know more about our lives through my queer friends and my writings. I’ve heard her speak over the phone about me and my books, talking about their importance, that they could influence change. There was a time, of course, when she was worried for me when my band Friends of Linger’s song “Head Held High” was released but I haven’t heard or seen any such anxiety over the past few years.

Are there any plans for a Thai edition of this book so that readers in Thailand get to read how you’ve presented them and their culture?

We haven’t thought of that as yet but I believe the book is now in the library of the tourism authority in Thailand. Perhaps there is a possibility of a translation. However, I think, as said to me often, a Hindi edition is required.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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