(Speech by Ponni Arasu at Wellesley & Church, Toronto, on 15 December, 2013. See full video of the speech here on Facebook. Or here on YouTube.)
Hello everyone. Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the land of the Mississauga of the new credit, the original inhabitants of this land and I derive deep sadness and anguish from the history of what has been done to indigenous people of this country, and at the same time, I am inspired everyday by the ongoing struggles, big and small and I believe as Harsha Walia has rightly argued that the indigenous histories need to be the anchor, the starting point of any political struggle/conversation in this country.
Speaking of colonialism, my name is Ponni Arasu and I am a citizen of India. But only kind of. I am a citizen of the country where a judge in the highest court of the country has upheld a colonial law over the constitution of independent India. He should move here, to Canada, and stay closer to the Queen. He has argued that the ‘will of the people’ is upheld by Colonial Law makers. It is this easy collapsing of elite nationalism with colonialism that keeps so many hegemonic structures in place. Structures that I came head to head with when I fell in love with a woman when I was 16. Soon I knew that this was not allowed. Not allowed by many in society. Not allowed in the movies (at least not openly) and not allowed in the Law. So many of us joined an ongoing struggle to decriminalize homosexuality in india by reading down sec. 377 of the indian penal code that criminalises among other things, also adult consensual same sex sexual activity in private. We built a movement that made head way in court and we won in the Delhi high Court. But more importantly, the movement within its limited scope has still made a dent in changing social mores. But through all of this, we knew that this was not the only struggle. It was not even the biggest one. The struggles that were out there included everyday harassment of persons of various sexuality and gender identities and practices who were harassed by the police and other goons , and we all know the difference between the two is minimal- remember the Queen St. subway, 2 days ago!. The struggle is of every single person who has and continues to be pressured to marry even if they don’t want to at all or to a person whom they do not desire. This pressure has amounted to physical, emotional, psychological violence and more often than you would imagine, even in your worst nightmares- death. This struggle is of every Female to Male Trans person secretively saving money to go to unregulated or unchecked hospital situations or worse independent practitioners to get surgeries done thus risking their life and health. All this because we cannot even begin to change people’s mindsets, ask freedom of our families as they could turn around and simply say ‘its criminal’. So in india we remain in a context where we cannot be openly homosexual, it’s a crime, because ‘it’s the law’.
However, the Delhi High Court judgment was a result of at least 3 decades of mobilization within and beyond the law and a set of visionary judges who decided to, not only uphold the basic tenets of the constitution that they trust so deeply and to fulfill what they saw as their duty as ethical, honest upholders of the law. We not only got decriminalized but our constitutional rights as citizens to freedom of life, liberty, dignity and privacy were affirmed. Many young people came out after 2009 and have no memory of even what I had of making up a hypothetical boyfriend, Bunty, and telling all the stories of my girlfriend in college to friends except with a ‘he’ called ‘bunty’. Today they are heartbroken and scared. And this is only those who belong to privileged sections of society to whom the law actually makes a difference. And for all those where 377 was only yet another hindrance in pursuing the real struggles of protecting oneself and maybe even dreaming of living a fulfilling life with food, a roof and good sex, have been disheartened. Disheartened not because this is what we expected by the supreme court’s judgment. Disheartened because we have to spend more time fighting for the bare minimum when we have so much else to do.
But we will not be bound by this judgment just as we have not been bound by 377 before this. Our criminal sexing will continue with gusto and so will our struggles. And this struggle never was and never will be just about decriminalizing any one community or person but about changing the fabric of society itself. About overturning the hegemonies of binary gender, heterosexual patriarchy, homophobic violence, caste, class, religion and race based discrimination and oppression. It doesn’t all end with this one law but it has to also begin here in order for us to have the space to speak, live, breathe without fear. We have been bad at fear so far. And we will remain that way. As Gautam Bhan says, for people who have lived through the fear of coming to terms oneself at the age of 15, any fear that this idiosyncratic law may instill in us is nothing. And we take courage from that moment. That moment when we decide to stay true to who we are. And I am sure this is a moment that all queer persons across the world can relate to.
As for the courts I hope they can learn one thousandth of the grace and dignity that my lover’s mother has shown towards me, where her Punjabi self, living in Duncan BC may not be able to say what I am to her daughter out loud but she will make sure I have warm slippers to get me through the winter. ‘She has come from des. She must be cold. Give her these she said’. If the courts can muster a fraction of that grace I will not be standing here again.
I hope all of you in Canada and elsewhere can derive strength from this movement in India while we all get through this sad moment together. And rest assured they will not get away with it. Everyone knows to never mess with the queers! We’ve come too far to step back. We always knew the journey was going to long and hard and we have in us the strength, grace and dignity that is derived from our friends, lovers, and our community of people who believe in staying true to themselves and one another and having each other’s back. Criminal or not. No going back on the fight against Section 377. The only way is forward with renewed strength, honour and love for the fight for freedom and dignity for all queers oppressed by laws, societies and families all over the world. This was never the end. It was always a beginning. No going back!
Follow this struggle on Facebook at Global Day of Rage – Worldwide.