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R Raj Rao

R Raj Rao

R Raj Rao

What is the most surprising commonality between the queer community in India and in other countries?
Actually, the term ‘queer’ comes to India from the West. One can speak of a ‘queer community’ in a general and generic sense, and this would refer to all non hetero-normative sexual identities, represented by the letters L, G, B and T. In that respect, ‘queer’ becomes an umbrella term that unites non-heterosexual people all over the world. And this is the commonality. But technically, a queer person is concerned with destabilization. He achieves this through what the conservative mainstream may regard as sexual perversion. Now the LGBT community in India often has a problem with this. So we have invented other indigenous identities for ourselves such as koti, panthi, kinnar, samling, samyoni and so on. The LGBT community in India is concerned with acceptance and not with radical confrontation.
What’s your favourite part of the queer community in India?
I guess here you are using the word ‘queer’ in a generic sense. I love the fact that we are all united in our belief that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is an archaic Victorian law that must be abolished once and for all, and that the Supreme Court judgment of December 2013 that reinstated Section 377 after the Delhi High Court had read it down in July 2009, was highly reactionary and retrograde, and that the two judges who reinstated it were old-fashioned judges completely out of sync with developments in the modern world.
Queers are vilified since they are misunderstood. How does Criminal Love offer solutions to this?
My book deals with queer theory, culture and politics in India. It seeks to educate readers. It rejects hetero-sexism, making readers see that heterosexuality isn’t universal, and that human sexuality in fact exists on a scale. It attempts to make readers understand that while sex is private, sexuality is a marker of identity, like race, caste, class and gender. Thus, sexuality, like these other identity categories, can be binarized in terms of who the oppressor is and who the victim. Obviously, heterosexuality is the oppressor here because it persecutes homosexual men and women for not being straight. The discerning reader is also supposed to get the irony of the title Criminal Love. How can love of any type be a crime?
Do you think the government has done enough to raise awareness about the queer community?
Not at all. The present RSS-BJP regime is homophobic to the core. Far from raising awareness about the LGBT community, they are concerned with maligning us in the eyes of the people. Some BJP men like Subramaniam Swamy have to be heard to be believed! But the previous Congress government has done nothing for us either, though Sonia Gandhi is Italian and Rahul Gandhi part Italian. In Italy, though the Vatican is opposed to homosexuality in principle, it does not criminalize homosexuality as we do in India. If it were not for the efforts of support groups like the Naz Foundation and the Humsafar Trust, Section 377 wouldn’t have even come up for hearing in the courts, though we live in the 21st century.
How has the feedback to the book been?
My session at the World Book Fair in Delhi in January this year where the book was released was attended by a large number of people. Not one of them asked me a hostile question during question time. They were all extremely supportive. The ink in my pen dried up as I signed god knows how many copies of the book after the reading-cum-discussion. The launch of the book in Bombay and Pune was also well attended. But not just this book, but even my novel The Boyfriend and my translation of transgender activist Laxmi’s autobiography have become bestsellers. The latter book was released at the main venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2016 and audiences spilled over each other to hear what Laxmi, Jerry Pinto and I who were on the panel had to say.
About the author:
R. Raj Rao is a writer, poet, and teacher of literature and ‘one of India’s leading gay-rights activists’. His 2003 novel, The Boyfriend, is one of the first gay novels to come from India. Rao was one of the first recipients of the newly established QuebecIndia awards. R. Raj Rao is the author of almost a dozen books of poetry, fiction, plays, biography, and criticism. His book, Whistling in the Dark: Twenty-one Queer Interviews, co-edited with Dibyajyoti Sarama, was published by SAGE in 2009. He is former Professor and Head of the Department of English at the Savitribai Phule Pune University.