Issue in Focus: Queering the Indian Economy: Sexuality, Income and Autonomy - Priyanka Gupta

In most cases young gays and lesbians find themselves bargaining with their parents over their adherence to social norms. I analyse their ability and willingness to be open about their sexuality with their parents and the extent to which sexuality emerges as a constraint in bargaining power.

Priyanka Gupta

Feminist social researchers have emphasised that economic and social development should be evaluated in terms of the ability of all members of a society to enjoy autonomy and security. The analysis of greater world economic integration from the perspective of gender has brought to light the contradictory outcomes for poor women and other less privileged groups of people. Their well-being has historically been invisible to both economists and policy-makers. A pursuit of the feminist as well as the queer cause in contemporary India necessitates a discussion of queer politics within the context of the rapidly liberalising economy. The lens of sexuality reveals the various ways in which young gays and lesbians are negotiating their preferences within this setting of social influx and economic change. 

This article is an attempt to forward discussions on the dialectic between sexuality, economic independence and social norms. In most cases young gays and lesbians find themselves bargaining with their parents over their adherence to social norms. I analyse their ability and willingness to be open about their sexuality with their parents and the extent to which sexuality emerges as a constraint in bargaining power. In bringing the lens of sexuality to this analysis, I draw on the contributions of feminist political economists such as Nancy Folbre (1994), Naila Kabeer (1994), and Bina Agarwal (1997) who have pioneered the effort to understand how social norms and values act as constraints on individual choice, particularly for those who belong to the least powerful social groups. 

A quick glance at the contemporary state of Indian economy would suggest that liberalisation has led to greater foreign investment, creation of jobs and opportunities, and hence an increase in income. The middle class gays and lesbians, who have access to these newly created jobs, might be able to channel their increased income towards their sexual autonomy. They may be able to come out to their parents relatively easily given that they can support themselves financially in a situation where they have to move out of their parents’ house or are not supported by them any longer. It can also be argued that with greater access to the Internet and other international sources of information, young people are able to customize their fall-back positions in ways that suit both themselves and their families – this could simply be through living dual lives (at home and outside) or entering into a marriage of convenience (gay men marrying lesbian women), or articulating their sexuality in ways that remain fluid enough to accommodate various preferences. 

While some aspects of such a neoclassical framework may be true, human agency, support from other gays and lesbians as well as gender and social norms transcend much of this linear causality. Narratives from young gays and lesbians across the country suggest the need to include the interplay of the ‘pink rupee’ with other class, culture and identity sensitive factors1. ‘Pink rupee’ refers to the newly generated disposable income as a result of jobs created through liberalisation that is specifically used by middle class gays and lesbians to articulate and perform their sexuality. The phenomenon of the ‘pink rupee’ as it is catalysed by the role of language, communication, and the Internet, spreads across the space dimension.

Given the strong gravitational pull of the family in India, many of the negotiations between parents and children result in outcomes of increased mobility, ability to resist marriage, and/or in establishing support networks outside the family. During such negotiations, income does not always feature as the most crucial variable; social status, gender, class, as well as access to gay and lesbian groups prove to be much more influential characteristics. Hence, it is not a surprise that the ‘pink rupee’ phenomenon can be largely dismissed by outcomes that are far more diverse and arising at the intersection of various social constraints. 

Status, Earned Income, and Feminist Autonomy

What kind of an identity does money buy? Many complexities surround parent-child bargaining over sexuality as we sort through functions of gender, sexuality, socio-economic class, age and networks of support. 

According to the Survey on Sexuality, Liberalisation and Bargaining Power, women are more likely than men to be out to their parents2. One reason why more women are out than men could be the age composition of the sample; women are older than the men in the sample, thus may be better experienced with navigating through social norms against the expression of sexuality. In addition to age, there are also different social pressures facing women and men that may place men in a situation whereby they have more ‘at stake’ in coming out than women. 

Furthermore, the women interviewed were more inclined to view both their gender and sexuality in a political context which emphasised coming out and gaining social visibility. For women, social constraints around sexuality are closely linked with those surrounding gender; therefore, in resisting the restrictions levied by gender, they are also, in many cases, able to weave in their struggle against compulsory heterosexuality. 

Men did not have the same gendered constraints on their independence and mobility that women had. For men, in many cases, so long as they were able to find a social niche that was progressive enough for their sexual preferences and lifestyles choices, the need to come out was not of immense concern. As more men seek support through the Internet, creating new social networks online, they run the risk of being entrapped in the Internet closet. The anonymity and personal space offered by the Internet induces a sense of detachment from the real-life consequences of sexuality as a political identity3.

In the case of those less privileged, a significantly larger percent of women are out as compared to men. Ruth Vanita (2005) in her recent publication discusses cases of lesbian marriages and joint suicide attempts among economically less well-off lesbians in different parts of India. Vanita describes the joint suicide attempt by two young women from South India who could not bear their imminent separation (Vanita, 2005, p.131)4

Even in my interviews with lesbian women I heard stories of lesbian couples from poor families who eloped despite their unstable financial situation and managed to find support from social networks to eventually gain access to means of survivability. These narratives highlight a distinct sense of agency: an agency that comes from a strong desire to transcend social barriers irrespective of gender or class and from courage that allows them to act without waiting for financial security. 

As Bina Agarwal posits, for women, the options may come from their personal determination to exercise agency despite not being able to view their alternative options accurately5. Women may prefer to die together rather than living a life of subordination. For these lesbian women, income is not the sole measure of alternatives outside the household. Moreover, the complexity is not limited to sexual behavior or identity, but differs across socio-economic strata. It is the subordination created by their overall vulnerability as female, lesbian, young and dependent that provides the agency for some women to elope or commit suicide. Such agency is not class-sensitive and is beyond the scope of simple linear relationships.

Queering the Middle Class: Locating sexuality within the Indian context

The Indian middle class is in an extremely volatile moment given the fast-paced changes taking place in the society, economy and politics of the nation. Much is emergent at the nexus of such global forces as they meet with the cultural forces of the middle class. In this incident of social influx, the discourse about capitalism is decentralised by the gravitational pull of the family, cultural norms and fluid identities. The role of income in determining bargaining power is undermined by the following factors: insecurity of the middle class, right-wing back-lash, close ties among family members, as well as gender differences in viewing exit options. 

Firstly, liberalisation has most strongly impacted the middle class as it has widened income inequality and led the middle class to higher levels of vulnerability and insecurity. Moreover, the middle class is also struggling to filter out what the right-wing labels as ‘Western corruption of Indian culture’. With middle class parents dealing with such insecurities, many young gays and lesbians are tempted to go back into the closet so as to avoid heightening household tensions by throwing in the element of alternative sexuality. As an interviewee of mine said brilliantly, liberalisation has created a platform for both capitalist and right-wing conservative ideologies. 

These ideologies take the form of gay-bashing, cyber-monitoring, as well as the arrests of same-sex couples under Section 377, that prevent gay and lesbian youth from being open about their sexuality. 

The second factor that weakens the income hypothesis is the close knit family system. Many of the interviewees described strong connections with their family irrespective of their family’s attitudes towards their sexuality. The gay and lesbian youth fear rejection or loss of support from their family members upon coming out. The family becomes the ultimate system of social security, support, and love, and this connection creates barriers for outing oneself. In such a setting, people may choose to negotiate sexuality in different ways whereby income or being out may not be the sole indicator of an individual’s bargaining power. One of my interviewees mentioned how he was comfortable in the duality of his lifestyle as long as he was able to make sure his family was not being subject to the consequences of his personal choices. His point highlights a powerful interpretation of priorities and negotiation in ways that work around the cultural norms so as to prevent families from the pressures and insecurities of dealing with a gay or lesbian child. 

Another example of compromises made by queer individuals to maintain their close relationships with their family members is of one of my gay male interviewees, Ram6. Ram, who has a well-paying job at an American-owned call-center in Mumbai, described his on-going negotiations with his father. Though financially independent, Ram said he preferred living in his father’s house, even though his father did not approve of his lifestyle or his boyfriend. In fact, Ram consulted psychiatrists as well as local ‘saints’ and ‘witches’ who all attempted to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality, in order convince his father of its genuineness. Interestingly enough, the father reciprocated by attending gay group meetings to learn more about his son and others like his son. Mutual efforts such as these lead to creative ways of finding a common ground that may work for all involved. 

Thirdly, women are more likely to face constraints because of the inherent gendered conceptions that influence bargaining processes. For lesbian women working in this new post-industrial era, the terms of negotiation are different from those for men. Not only are women looking to stall the pressure to have an arranged marriage, they are also seeking mobility through their jobs (especially through night-jobs in call-centers). 

By using work as an alibi to get out of the house, lesbian women have greater access to queer socio-political networks, without having to continuously bargain over permission to leave the house. Lesbian women in urban cities are also challenging the gendered hierarchies in queer organising and in the political rights debates. However, women who challenge norms face tremendous resistance. Even though women are able to gain more independence through jobs and a regular income, they are still considered ‘loose’ women for going out at night.

Along the lines of gender, there were two very interesting stories by gay men who had come out to their mothers. Both had, in different ways, underestimated their not-so-literate, non-English speaking mothers for their simplicity and naïveté. When they came out to their mothers, they were surprised and touched by their mothers’ brilliant articulation of their sons’ sexuality. Not only did these mothers understand their sons’ identities, they also came up with ways to take part in the household negotiations by standing up for their sons’ preferences. This led me to think about the ‘subversive mother’ in the Indian middle class who is usually considered ill-equipped to deal with complexities whereas she often emerges as able to consolidate all these seemingly contradictory forces in simple, over-arching and extremely progressive ways. Other factors held constant, the statistical analysis of survey data show that the strongest predictor of being out is household structure; young adults living with their mothers alone are far more likely to be out than those living alone or with both of their parents. This finding resonates with the information gathered from the interviewees, many of whom shared narratives of their positive experiences coming out to their mothers. 

While money and income may be important determinants of means of survivability, the ‘pink rupee’ creates a vision of virtual equality for gays and lesbians that to a large extent transforms itself into the Internet closet. What remains noteworthy is the creativity and effort that goes in locating sexuality within an Indian context, at home and outside, with parents, friends and queer networks of support. 

  1. This research is based on the 'The Survey on Sexuality, Liberalisation and Bargaining Power, 2005' and interviews with twenty young gays and lesbians from Bombay, Delhi, Pune and Bangalore. 
  2. 'The Survey on Sexuality, Liberalisation and Bargaining Power, 2005' was conducted in 2005 over the Internet and during gay and lesbian group meetings. It featured responses from over 150 gays and lesbians from more than 10 different cities and towns in India.
  3. This also is a reason why much of the political movement is carried forth by lesbian women and lower class gay men; they are the ones most visible in public debates, protests, and marches.
  4. Ruth Vanita. Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005
  5. Bina Agarwal. 'Bargaining' and Gender Relations: Within and Beyond the Household. Feminist Economics, 3-1, 1-51, 1997.
  6. Name changed in order to maintain confidentiality. 

Priyanka Gupta has recently majored in Economics and Gender and Women’s Studies in the US and wrote her thesis on Economic Liberalisation and the Empowerment of Gays and Lesbians in India.