COLONIALISM AND THE GENDER BINARY

J Mogilyansky | Contributor

In their essay, “Coming Home: Queer South Asians and the Politics of Family,” Alok Vaid-Menon, a transgender South Asian activist, writes about being forced to leave their heritage and family behind in order to assimilate to white LGBT activism. They found themselves buying into the white narrative that immigrants and people of color were too ‘old-fashioned’ to understand and accept LGBT existence, and therefore were to be excluded from activism altogether.  By finding a community in other gender nonconforming people of color, Vaid-Menon writes that they were able to step away from this damaging narrative and write one of their own. They write:

In the white telling of the story my family is just prejudiced. But in my telling of the story my people have been so forcibly disconnected from their culture and tradition that they cling desperately onto heteronormativity to maintain some semblance of self. In the white telling of the story my people are acting from a place of power and violence. In my telling of the story my people are acting from a place of hurt.

Colonialism doesn’t only destroy individual families at the time of colonization, but it destroys entire lineages, communities, and cultures. However, mainstream American activism doesn’t account for this, and therefore leaves many LGBT people of color behind.  By forcing LGBT people of color to divorce their activism from their heritage, white- and Euro-centric LGBT activism blatantly ignores the fact that many non-Western cultures are not accepting of nonbinary genders as a result of colonial influence– not historical prejudice.

Before British colonization, South Asian people and governments were fairly tolerant of gay and transgender identities, with no evidence of punishment or a death penalty for gay men. In fact, The Kama Sutra, an old Hindu text on sexuality,  contained portrayals of men having relationships with each other. On the other hand, in medieval England, if a man was accused of being gay, the law called for harsh torture, which would often lead to death. These executions continued until 1836— 50 years after the founding of the University of Pittsburgh. The exact wording of this British law is present in over half of the 70 previously colonized countries that criminalize gay sexuality today. Although England repealed its own homophobic laws in 1967, gay sexuality in India was criminalized until September 2018, when it was ruled unconstitutional.

In 1897, the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act in India, which forced all eunuchs, hijras, transgender people, and anyone deemed “sexually deviant” to register their name and residence with  the government. These people weren’t allowed to have children and subject to government surveillance. By instilling these laws and forcing these ideas into Indian culture, the British turned groups of people against each other, which made it easier to maintain control of the country. The belief of transgender people being of lower status remained internalized in Indian cultural beliefs which affect Indian and other South Asian transgender people today, over 70 years after independence.

Without understanding history, we cannot hope to move forward into a future where all LGBT people are free to publicly express their identity. Western activists cannot expect LGBT rights and culture to work the same in other countries like they do in America, and cannot ignore the damaging effects that colonialism has had on communities around the world. In order to bring justice to people of color and people who have been affected by colonialism, the LGBT movement needs to work harder to acknowledge the needs and struggles of LGBT people of color.