In the summer of 1999, a South Delhi disco called Soul Kitchen opened its doors to gays and lesbians of the city. This first ever ‘gay night’ was, for queer people in Delhi, one of the most hotly anticipated nights in memory. As for me, then a novice fieldworker, the night held a pleasure even more distinct than that of participating in this historic public demonstration of gay abandon. It was on this night that I met the ‘‘mother’’ of Indian lesbian politics, Giti Thadani.
Thadani is the consummate cosmopolitan intellectual. She splits her time between Berlin and Delhi, is fluent in multiple languages, lectures across the world, and travels tirelessly in a search for ‘gynefocal’ tradition and a Sapphic ‘symbolic continuum’ (Thadani 1996, 9). Her presence at the disco that night surprised me. Thadani is notorious for her uncompromising disposition and evident bitterness, following years of isolation and struggle as India’s first out lesbian woman. Because of her itinerant and purposely elusive ways, I was concerned that I would not soon, if ever, have the opportunity to meet her.
So when—through the ecstatic, bouncing bodies and the deafening thump of an American techno-pop hit—a friend pointed Thadani out to me, I couldn’t help but look at her in awe. She sat alone and undisturbed in one of the booths that lined the side of the dance floor, the roving lights rhythmically half-illuminating her placid face. As I watched her watch the rest of us, I imagined her calmly surveying her own creation. There, just across the floor from her, were the directors of India’s first lesbian helpline and support group, Sangini, which had been organized as a distinct alternative to the lesbian collective that Thadani founded in 1991. To my right were members of PRISM, a group born, in turn, out of ideological and personal differences with Sangini. Between these known and watchful activists were two young women in the middle of the dance floor, dancing together in a manner utterly unburdened by care and history.
The story that I tell in this chapter is of how these contemporary lesbian communities—fractures and all—were made possible through the advent of the concept of Indian lesbian community in the early 1990s. I set this narrative primarily in Delhi because of Thadani’s centrality in enabling an explicitly lesbian community in India to form. However, any effort to be located in one geographical site is necessarily limited and partial.
I begin this chapter by examining the first of two questions that drive this book: that of how categories of queer sexual alterity in India have been made to emerge, are called into being, and are variously adopted. In this specific case, how did women in India begin to think of themselves as lesbian, and what about the politics and poetics of this term’s circulation lended themselves to passionate personal attachment (Butler 1997) and rendered it a powerful node around which a new imagined community could be formed? To be clear, informal groups of same-sex desiring activist women from India were already meeting by the mid-1980s; in fact, they began forging international commons well before national ones. For example, in 1985 Indian delegates attended a workshop for lesbians at the Na-irobi Women’s Conference (Fernandez 2002, 181). Five years later, seven Indian women activists from Bombay and Delhi attended a conference of the Asian Lesbian Network in Bangkok, where they met one another for the first time (182). However, informal groupings of same-sex desiring women in India at this time were constrained in two crucial ways: they were comprised primarily of activists, and—for reasons I will discuss in greater detail below—mostly resisted Western signifiers such as ‘‘lesbian’’ in the name of cultural authenticity and political expediency.
Thadani’s founding of a Delhi-based lesbian network called Sakhi in 1991 democratized the possibility of lesbian community by taking it beyond local activist groups to a pan- and transnational network of women who could communicate with one another about their desires through the relative anonymity of letters. Significantly, almost all of the letter writers contacted Sakhi after seeing the word ‘‘lesbian’’ in the network’s ads, and they rapidly came to identify themselves, and their nascent network, as explicitly lesbian, thus beginning to formulate an imagined Indian lesbian community where nothing of the sort had existed before. Thadani provided me with 236 of these letters, dating from 1991 to 1997. Through this extraordinary archive, I explore how non activist women from a range of socioeconomic classes, from Jammu and Kashmir to Kerala, came to think of themselves as lesbian and thus, as part of a larger web of belonging.
Excerpted from Queer Activism in India. A story in the anthropology of ethics. Excerpted with the permission of Zubaan.#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. Read our entire reportage here.