“Write yourself, your body must be heard” ~Helen Cixous
For the longest time, I thought that I didn’t have any queer friends because I didn’t look ‘gay enough’. I considered chopping my hair off, but flashbacks to the much-detested elementary school ‘boy cut’ deterred me. I also considered dying my hair blue and getting an undercut, but flashbacks, this time to my mother’s glare, stopped me again. Dating girls? 100% okay. Bleach? Never in this household.
Gender, as Judith Butler told us back in 1988, is a performance – “an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.” I was, and still am, anxious to perform and affirm my queerness through the performances that existed before me. At the same time, since gender is performative and not a biological given, it holds scope for transformation. By scripting our own narratives that defy normative understandings of gender we can remould its meaning.
One of the most obvious and powerful ways of doing so is through drag. Nitish Anand, playing his drag persona Shabnam, says that “drag is an art form and it’s about creating a new personality. In our day-to-day lives we do drag everyday!” He elaborated, “The way we carry ourselves is very unique. This is what makes us who we are, so for me everyone is doing drag even when they’re being themselves.” Drag makes visible the rewriting of gendered binaries. As Anand explains, the process can be arduous, time consuming and painful “It takes a lot of your energy and time…Sometimes after the show your head will ache because of the tight head cap or your back because of the tight bra…” But at the same time, “I feel more confident, comfortable and myself when I drag.”
Anand’s point about everyone living in drag highlights the fact that gender is a performative order ossified over time. This makes the body not just a biological entity, but a historical one and by extension a site for revolt. Rishi Raj Vyas, an openly gay 16-year old, says “My biological gender certainly cannot trap me. Before being this body I am a soul that is genderless and thus I shall wear and feel what makes me comfortable.” Acts of subversion, however, do hold consequences. Vyas recalls, “I had to perform this poem on gender equality, but my vice principal misunderstood it as obscene… she said ‘We don’t need kids like you in our school and you have a deviant lifestyle’.”
When it comes to the queer movement, the body is the primary site of contestation. Take the most obvious example of Section 377, which criminalises sexual acts “against the order of nature.” Be it through laws or institutions (like Vyas’s school) the state creates prototypes of ideal citizenship by policing the bodies of its subjects. The very existence of queer individuals punctures its patriarchal, heteronormative narrative. Thus, by reconstituting performances of gender we take back control of our bodies and turn them into locations of resistance.
Our politics are centred on our bodies, and so we speak with them. Language is a slippery terrain. It can never encapsulate meaning in its entirety. By trying to organise reality through the creation of narratives, language itself produces a centre and a margin. It has the power to amplify certain experiences, while glossing over others. This does not mean that we reject language; it just means that we must recognise its limitations. The subaltern have been speaking for a long time, it’s time we heard them.
Sandhra Sur is a member of Nazariya.