Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
I’ve been trying to locate where Ambedkar Buddhism is on the subject of queer and trans liberation. It’s been a hunt for clues on the fringes of the ‘net. From the bits and pieces I’ve found so far, I can tentatively say that Ambedkar knew about Hijras (Third Genders) and Devadasis (females and males who were dedicated to a Hindu Goddess and could not marry). There were many Hijras and Devadasis in Maharashtra where Ambedkar was raised. Both of these groups were assigned sacred roles in Hindu practice around goddess worship, birth and fertility. Both groups were also forced into prostitution as a way of life. Ambedkar was against their practices because they involved Hindu practices, prostitution and a rejection of heteronormative marriage, but I don’t know that he was explicitly against their way of life because they were gender deviant or engaged in queer sex. Ambedkar probably knew that homosexuality was illegal under British colonial law. From some of his statements, it appears that Ambedkar condoned a kind of heterosexist conformity, that the ‘uplift’ of the Dalits involved their ability to secure a heterosexual marriage that was recognized by the community and the State.
Queer human rights in India have made great strides in the last decade, including the recognition of Third Gender people as citizens entitled to protections, rights and benefits under Indian law. However, the social struggle of queer and third gender people in India has been extraordinarily difficult, and even more so for queer Dalits. So I have been looking for studies of a queer Dalit movement in popular and academic literature. I found a couple of strong voices for queer Dalits in Dhiren Borisa and Moses Tulasi, both documentary film makers and activists.
Poet, activist and urban sexual geographer Dhiren Borisa spoke about what it means to be Dalit queer in India at Queeristan: Caste and Queerness at our lab in January, during Pride month. Queeristan: Caste and Queerness explored how public discourse around LGBTQ rights movement in India has been dominated by narratives of upper caste activism, disregarding anti-caste assertion within the movement, and caste-based discrimination against Dalit-queer people. Dhiren spoke about desire, desirability, and how continuous struggle is what defines being Dalit queer in India today.
Moses Tulasi was interviewed by Kareem Khubchandani, which was published in South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal in March 2019
Tulasi’s story, like Borisa’s, is one of extreme complexity and intersectionality, with conflicts on many fronts: a queerness that is not allowed openly in Dalit communities, and caste discrimination in US and Indian queer communities. Tulasi relates his complex intersectionality to an opening for liberation within the broader Dalit movement, film activism that led to his arrest and incarceration, and how his Dalit queerness played out within the movement.
This hybrid essay-interview draws on the experiences of diasporic, queer, Dalit-OBC filmmaker Moses Tulasi to explore the mutually constitutive roles of sexuality, caste, migration, art, and activism. In March 2016, Tulasi was arrested on the University of Hyderabad grounds, amidst protests elicited by the death of Dalit graduate student Rohith Vemula; only eight years prior Tulasi was a married, closeted, apolitical “IT guy” living in Chicago’s suburbs. The essay traces key moments in Tulasi’s life to demonstrate how queer desires and pleasures lead him into radical community, activism, and dissent. These moments include an online search for partners on Craigslist, queer nightlife in Chicago and Hyderabad, and the outing of his partner on national television. Following Moses from his entrance into queer community through to his release from jail, the essay develops erotics as a useful analytic in the study of activism. The accompanying interview with Tulasi centers his own theorizations on these questions. He builds on the above themes, detailing how caste is imbricated in family structures, migration patterns, queer activism, sexual desire, and everyday life. Throughout, Tulasi draws attention to the sensual and erotic textures of living within caste hierarchy, engaging in protest, and espousing dissent. Together, the essay and interview demonstrate that sedition is not only rhetorical dissent, but the everyday condition of being a minoritarian subject in a Brahminical and heteronormative state.
I am still searching for exemplars in the Indian Buddhist movement of queer activism. (Buddhism in India is, for the most part, Ambedkar Buddhism, and over 90 percent are Dalits). I personally know of one man who is a queer Buddhist in India. He related that his Buddhist family forced him to marry a woman, although he had no interest in heterosexual marriage. Nonetheless, he runs a support group for queer Dalits in his region.