The Mother of a gay activist places a matrimonial advertisement in her local newspaper in Mumbai. She is searching for a groom for her son. This is extraordinary because all other ads are searching for brides for grooms, and grooms for brides. Apart from the same-sex requirement, this advertiser has other expectations of the groom. He should be well placed, animal loving and vegetarian. And caste is no bar but he should preferably be an Iyer, a Hindu Brahmin.
This ad is a welcome new disruption to the popular imagination of heterosexual marriage in India. It portends the possibility of a matrimonial alliance between two men or, in other words, of same-sex marriage. It was so threatening to some newspapers that they refused to publish it.
Newspapers routinely carry matrimonial ads. Most are for heterosexual marriages and they disclose information like age, occupation, height, religion and caste. Often, these ads are clustered under caste categories, which implies that matrimonial alliances are sought within those categories only. Some ads mention their caste preference explicitly. Others declare caste and their openness to matrimonial alliances from any caste.
The mother has to be lauded for her openness, courage and conviction in placing this ad. Yet this disruption is narrow, and limited to same-sex matrimonials. It does not disrupt the caste characteristic of matrimony. On the contrary, it explicitly declares a preference for Brahmin Iyers. In defence, the activist son has clarified that his mother is only trying to find somebody similar to their own culture and there is nothing discriminatory about it. But the language of discrimination can be coded with words like culture and preference for vegetarians.
The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, among other grounds. Matrimonial ads are common tools of caste discrimination, yet they are ubiquitous and unchallenged. There is something new and old about this same-sex matrimonial. It is a bold new step towards the advancement of gay rights in India, but it is also an old and well-known form of caste discrimination. It is telling of the caste composition of gay rights and it is saying that caste Hindus are preferred, Dalits keep away.
Dalit translates in English as broken, downtrodden or crushed. It is a figurative usage that calls out centuries of injustice based on caste and stares that subordination in the face. Dalits were considered to be polluted and unclean, and deemed “untouchable”. Some of these sentiments of untouchability and discrimination still flourish. Cleaning tasks are typically assigned to Dalits. “Manual scavenging”is a euphemism for cleaning sewers and dry latrines by hand. Residential areas in rural India are segregated on caste lines. Although urban India allows for greater anonymity, it is easily compromised by caste-oriented surnames like Iyer, Sharma, Menon, Dixit, Ghosh, etc. Lesser known and obscure surnames, or no surnames at all, are markers of Dalit status.
Anti-caste movements in India are bigger and have a longer history than lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) mobilisations. It is not for every discriminated group to know and understand the discrimination suffered by another group, especially if the groups are mutually exclusive. That would imply that no LGBTQ persons are Dalit and no Dalits are LGBTQ. This is not true. There are lived realities of transgender groups like the Jogappas, who are identified by their caste. In spite of these lived realities, there is a virtual absence of Dalits in LGBTQ mobilisations, and there is a corresponding absence of openly “out” LGBTQ persons in anti-caste movements. It is as if the two are distinct and have nothing to do with each other.
There is so much more to this matrimonial than its prospect of same-sex marriage. It is a glimpse into the caste Hindu constituency of gay rights and its exclusion of Dalits, and points indirectly also to the exclusion of LGBTQ people in anti-caste mobilisations. There needs to be a mutual understanding between LGBTQ and anti-caste groups, for same-sex matrimonial ads to read differently in future, for groups like the Jogappas to emerge out of the shadows and, most importantly, for united opposition to discrimination.
The writer is at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law