On July 5, friends on Facebook began to share a story whose headline was designed for outrage: “All Hell Breaks Loose As Two Women Wed In Koramangala”. The matter did not die down once the terrible headline had succeeded in making the piece go viral. Several news stories followed, both in print and on television. Scrolling through these, I came upon a news item which showed the “blurred” images of two women – their faces were hazy, but recognisable. I was worried about the repercussions.
Sure enough, another piece appeared soon after – one of the girls had been asked to resign from her workplace. Unsurprisingly, the two women denied being married or being in a relationship at all. What choice did they have? Both the sensationalist news exposé and its consequences raised the long pending about what qualifies a marriage and what constitutes workplace harassment for a queer-identifying person.
Ties that bind
Lesbian women face routinely face harassment and blackmail from the police and their family members on the pretext of Section 377, which criminalises non peno-vaginal sex. The law does not however, criminalise relationships. Same sex marriages do not have legal sanction, but no one can stop anyone from marrying someone of their sex in a symbolic or religious ceremony.
My views on same-sex marriages have also undergone change over the years. Once, I was critical of marriage in general and this applied to queer marriages too. I refused to attend my heterosexual friends’ weddings, I did not even congratulate them because even though I knew these women to be feminists in thought and action – I believed marriage at its very essence, is patriarchal.
But despite these misgivings, my feminist comrades and friends kept marrying men. I saw them giving in and wondered why – didn’t they know that marriage was the first institution that perpetuates patriarchy? It is through marriage that society establishes the notion of a “legitimate” heir, who will carry forward lineage and property. Marriage propagates compulsory heteronormativity, which states that a holy union between two people has the sanction to carry forward societal norms, under the benevolent, all-controlling gaze of the State.
This rigorous critique of marriage, once a staple of any feminist discourse, has somewhat abated in the last 15 years. Friends choose to marry on the pretext of family pressure, seek sanctions to have sex, to live together, forgetting that some of us cannot marry the person of our choice, and that their choice of marriage dis-privileges us.
So I began to come around. If heterosexual feminist friends were willing to disregard the problematic aspects of marriage and still get hitched, why not queer people too? Admittedly, this realisation is still somewhat uncomfortable for me. Marriage can never be a completely free choice until societal privileges remain attached to it. One’s spouse is the socially-sanctioned answer to all of the following questions: Who can I buy a house with? Who will be the default parent of my children? Who will be the nominee of my life insurance policies? Who will be the legal heir to my ancestral property?
For same-sex couples, these aspirations of economic benefits cannot be achieved because same sex unions are not recognised by the state. But still, the social benefit of respectability, the heteronormative idea of coupledom can be and are achieved through a marriage. A married couple is one that will look after each other in sickness and health, a couple who will be the emotional and physically dependent on each other, or so the fairy tale goes.
Part of the problem is also how same sex unions are viewed and represented to the world. Time and again, people from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Questioning community have asked media houses to be sensitive while telling our stories. False information, unverified information and false legal information can cause tremendous upheaval in our lives. Bangalore Mirror’s article on July 5 changed the names of the women but the smaller details of their lives were mentioned, like their age, their occupation, their family background and their live-in-relationship status.
Media houses may not realise or care, but these are easy markers and people can easily trace those in the news. For queer individuals privacy is often the difference between life and death, between security and unemployment. Due to the stigma and discrimination still attached to being LGBTIQ, it is not easy for everyone the community to be out and proud about who they are. It’s not easy to talk about our families of choice because blood relatives and families by marriage are still considered more important. Therefore, to forcibly out someone is violence against the entire community.
For instance, following Bangalore Mirror’s report, this is how the company where one of the women worked decided to let her go: “The company people called me in the morning and asked me if I want to continue in the job or not,” she told the same newspaper. “They asked me to talk to my parents and get back. I told them I’ll talk to my lawyers and get back. When I called them back at 5.30 pm, they said Human Resources had decided that I should leave the company since they knew that it was me who was making rounds in the media from morning. This is totally unfair.”
A person’s gender identity or sexual orientation should not be a hindrance to their employment, but sadly, this is not how things work. Many work places have established sexual harassment and work place harassment cells in the past few years, several corporates now claim to be LGBTIQ friendly. A few reputed organisations have even organised sensitisation programmes on issues related to LGBTIQ identities.
But on the whole, discussions about discrimination and harassment at the workplace are limited to the sphere of sexual harassment, where male bosses sexually abuse and harass female colleagues. While this issue is incredibly important, it should not be forgotten that several members of the LGBTIQ community constantly face this form of harassment too, particularly when their gender identity and sexual orientations become known to the company.
As part of my work as an activist, I have encountered a pre-operated transgender man who was given a ladies handbag and a makeup kit for his birthday by his colleagues. A lesbian friend was offered sex by her male boss when he learnt that she was gay, a transgender woman who knew 13 foreign languages was denied employment in an MNC because she mentioned being trans in the form. Since many queer people are thrown out of families, their life is dependent on these jobs. Where is the space in the women’s movement or in the general discourse to talk about these issues?