Courting the 'L' word in India : lesbian activism and identity work

2017-03-22T01:45:07Z (GMT) by Wijewardene, Roshani Shermal
Since the turn of the century, many activists in India have passionately and deliberately practiced sexual politics with the word 'lesbian', rather than using an indigenous term or a less contentious English language substitute that captures their political stakes. These positions may seem awry when dominant political wisdom currently implores a relinquishing of unified sexual identities and an eschewal of Western sexual identity terms for people and politics in non-Western settings. However, as incongruous as the political retention of the category lesbian may seem in this context, there is a lack of field-based research in India on precisely what is at stake for groups themselves in persisting with this term in their political work. This dissertation examines what the word 'lesbian' constitutes for Indian activists who have insisted on retaining the category to mobilize their political activities. It explores how these groups reconstitute the category in the course of their activism. It suggests that it is not possible to approach questions of political deployments of the category lesbian without an internal view of activist engagements. Group histories, movement careers, interpersonal relationships, infighting, and activists' life experiences are rich sources of such information that do not get adequately registered in a focus on the macro environments of activism. These aspects will be the focus of this research. The dissertation addresses the widely remarked gap between what activists do by banking on 'lesbian' and 'gay' identity terms and what theorists do by destabilizing those terms. What are activists' personal stakes in this category? How are their political affiliations reflected in their use of the term? How do they negotiate the competing demands of practice versus theory, unified political identity versus its deconstruction? What binds them to the category in terms of affect? How does their political work resignify the category of lesbian in the sexual political landscape of India? I approach these questions through the methodological framework of identity work, suggesting that any identity that is part of political labor has to be accomplished through activities. Using four case studies, I investigate the premium groups of Indian activists have placed on the word 'lesbian' across four instances of their identity work with the word: 1. Stree Sangam's re-naming activity; 2. CALERI's mandate for 'lesbian' visibility; 3. the Loving Women working class 'lesbian' life history research; and 4. the Sahayatrika Project's human rights documentation of “'lesbian' suicide.” Broadly the dissertation argues that in order to apprehend the various deployments and meanings of the category lesbian in Indian contexts, an account of the multiple investments informing individual and collective identity work is necessary. By 'investments' I mean personal, political and affective interests that arise in the category 'lesbian' as a result of activists' identity work with, on, and around this word. I am concerned with the continuous conscious negotiation of those investments as activists constantly seek to accomplish the 'lesbian' articulation that mobilizes their activity.