The Bigger Picture: What's the Difference? - Radhika Chandiramani
Without difference, we do not know things …
We know black and blue and white because they are different from each other, we know hot because it is different from cold. It depends on the frame we use to categorise things.
That is why, for so many years, the notion of homosexuality or heterosexuality did not even exist, though the behaviours certainly did. That was because people were not evaluating each other on the basis of who was having sex with whom, in terms of gender, in the way we do today.
In our part of the world there is such a profusion of gender and sexual expression. But schooled in binary ways of thinking, we turn blind to our own experiences and what stares us in the face. We speak in modes that disregard and exclude the existence of those we have grown up seeing around us. For example, in India, when asked, how many genders there are, most people will say – two, man and woman. But if while crossing the street you come across a hijra, and ask who that is – even a child will say ‘a hijra’ meaning someone who is neither man nor woman, someone who occupies a ‘third’ gender. See, we have moved already to three.
According to biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling there are at least five sexes. Even with two sexes, we know that people put on a wide array of gender performances. Given five, what might happen? As many people, including Gayle Rubin and Anne Fausto-Sterling have pointed out, sex and gender are two different systems. While Rubin speaks of sex in terms of what we do, Fausto-Sterling speaks of it in terms of biological sex (genitals, chromosomes…). They are speaking about different things while using the same words. To put it crudely, one speaks of what we do with our genitals and how that is socially evaluated, and the other, what our genitals are, look like and how they behave. Be that as it may, what does it have to do with us?
Sexuality is about so many different things – sex, feelings, social attitudes, personal ethics, relationships, one's own self, power, love, bodies. It is also about who does what with whom sexually, romantically, and otherwise. How do they do it? It may be linked with pregnancy, health, contraception, abortion, infections, and HIV/AIDS. There are questions of what is allowed and what is not. Who decides what is acceptable to do, to watch, to say, and by whom, and when and where? Who has the ‘right’ to rights? When can you marry? Who can you marry? How many people can you be married to concurrently? Can you have sex outside marriage? Must you have sex within it? What if you refuse to? What do the laws in your country permit you to do sexually? What happens when you transgress the law? And this is not even the half of it.
Looking at different aspects of sexuality is like looking at ever-widening circles surrounding us as individuals, where even the furthest circle can begin to collapse towards the centre, depending on the circumstances of our lives. People might believe that the law has nothing to do with their ‘private’ sexual lives. ‘Why’, one might ask, for example, ‘do I need to bother with the law? I am a good person and have committed no crime’. That may be so, but if you happen to engage in any form of sexual activity apart from peno-vaginal intercourse, in any of these countries in this region – Bangladesh, Burma, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore or Sri Lanka – then, technically you are engaging in acts against ‘the order of nature’ (whatever that is supposed to mean), and you are indeed committing an offence, regardless of whether you are doing it with a person of the same or opposite gender.
Of course, it is not as if all of us are policed in our bedrooms, kitchens or wherever we may have sex, but some people are. What happens within heteronormative1 relationships is assumed to be ok. And, obviously, as long as it is mutually consensual it is fine. But that is not the point. The point is that sanctions are applied more to people who are considered to be on the ‘fringes’ of society. And the point also, equally importantly, for everyone, is that some expressions of sexuality are assumed to be ok and some not.
In this issue of In Plainspeak, we have focused on people who are generally regarded as being on the margins – people who maybe young, transgender, transsexual, same-sex desiring, selling sex, – people who most of us think are ‘different’.
But what’s wrong with difference? Without difference, we do not know things …we know black and blue and white because they are different from each other, we know hot because it is different from cold. It depends on the frame we use to categorise things. That is why, for so many years, the notion of homosexuality or heterosexuality did not even exist, though the behaviours certainly did. That was because people were not evaluating each other on the basis of who was having sex with whom, in terms of gender, in the way we do today. Our understanding and ways of thinking about sex has changed over time. After a few centuries, people might have other ways of looking at sexual behaviour and may use frameworks that we cannot even imagine today. They might for instance, develop a categorisation system based on preferences that have nothing to do with the gender of the partner, or even with sex, but on preferences to do with smell, or hair colour, or the time of day when one prefers doing certain things, or who knows what…
That is why it is so interesting to look at how people who do not fit the so-called ‘given’ as we understand it. If mak nyahs are biological men, and feel ‘like’ women, and know also that they are not women, what are they then? If you ask them, they will say simply, mak nyahs.
We find it difficult because we are used to thinking in terms of fixed categories and systems. We have rules to say who can have sex with whom and how. And all the different permutations and combinations of who with who and what might they or the sex they have be called, makes it even more confusing! Behaviour is not the same as identity, and our ideas of identity may hide many behaviours. So, seemingly heterosexual men may have sex with men, seemingly homosexual women may also have sex with men. And then there are the expressions that we may be more familiar with – what we consider ‘regular’ feminine and masculine sexual and gender expressions. Do we pause to consider what they might contain as well as conceal?
Whatever it is, the range of gender and sexual expressions shows us the limitations of binary classifications, offers us more liberating options of being and doing, and proves that indeed, the world is large enough to hold us all, and the possibilities are endless.
People have multiple identities; neither gender nor sexuality is fixed and they criss cross in many different permutations and combinations. At the end, each of us has the right to be, to be sexual, to be free.
1. Heteronormativity assumes that sex and gender are fundamentally dichotomous, that people fall into one or the other of the binaries, and that heterosexuality is the norm.
Radhika Chandiramani is the Executive Director of TARSHI and of the South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality.