In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the antagonistic protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge is a lonely and grumpy old man who has only one thing to say to all festive cheer and Christmas spirit around him: ‘Bah! Humbug!’. All of this changes when Scrooge is visited by some ghosts. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet-to-Come offer Scrooge nothing less than redemption. The ghosts are eerie reminders of our inability to redeem our souls from our actions (since ghosts cannot undo their own pasts), but they do offer Scrooge the ability to change his.
Ghosts are not buried things out of place; in their haunting, they are the very place of that which we bury or repress, to use a word from psychoanalysis. Much like the unconscious that haunts our wilful and intended actions, breaking into our speech and scaring us of our own slips; the unconscious ruptures the present, but it is only in this repression that the present is made possible. Without the ability to repress, we would be overwhelmed by language and desire. Repression is necessary for us to cohere into subjects and also that which will fundamentally undo us. The ghost is the same. That which we bury, often with ritual, is what civilised people do; and that which remains, emerging from seemingly beyond us, a force out of our control, reminds us we aren’t so good at doing the right thing.
All societies must bury their dead and be haunted. This haunting is of our own making. In so far as there can be a ghost of what we have yet to bury, the ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come in the fable, then ghosts are not just about what is dead, but also about what will die or will be killed by our actions in the present. Something the social is always making a place for.
If Scrooge is an angry feminist – grumpy about the joyous celebration of a colonial tradition, over-determined by religion and the patriarchal control of the family – then in his loneliness Scrooge is also the archetype queer person. He is a queer feminist witch communicating with the horrors of our society. Through his disaffection with the social, those disaffected by the social come to haunt him. This explains why he had to be rich in the story. For if Scrooge was anything but, he too would have been lost in the ambient noise of the subalterns – those ‘who cannot speak’ and are never able to pitch a transformative subjectivity, an alternative political present.
I hail this queer feminist witch to rain on the LGBTQ festive parade.
We need to listen to the dead
Pride parades are an annual reclamation of ‘who we are’. But who is the ‘we’ in question and how did they come to be who they are?
The recent pride parade in Pune was mired in controversy. Bindumadhav Khire, a person of otherwise sound integrity and who runs an organisation that works with certain community members, has been central in organising the parade for the last few years. All of that was put at stake and into question this year for a moderation on the ways of Pune pride, asking people to fold into respectability by thinking twice about what they wear, say or do at the parade. ‘We are just like you’ is a common sentiment expressed in many LGBTQ discussions and politics that emphasise the many similarities between LGBTQ folk and the rest. This was pushed to an interesting extreme in Pune, which in other circumstances would be a radical critique of identity politics: heterosexual-identified individuals, proud parents and allies were to lead the pride parade. This of course was widely contested by LGBTQ folk in Pune, who resisted the fascism of the organiser and the violence of the call to moderate, edit and censor LGBTQ persons at the pride parade, by calling on the radical history of pride.
This is apparently Pride Month, marking the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that bled into the first pride march. There have been many memes and essays about how ‘the first pride was a riot’ and how it was led by queer and trans persons of colour (QTPOC) like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Much like religion makes room for the worship of the very women it oppresses, like Durga Puja or Diwali, the LGBTQ pride parade is when these QTPOC folk are invoked and hailed as our foremothers, often in response to the growing whitewashing of queer spaces and personhood. The ghosts of Rivera and Johnson are resurrected to challenge anything from the domination of the event by gay men within it, to the neoliberal depoliticisation of queer politics. This is an Ouija board of naming ghosts differently than the ghosts that end up showing up. The former where we frame the questions, the latter where they show us what we do not want to see.
I did not attend last year’s pride parade in Delhi for two reasons. Personally, I no longer felt proud of anything, least of all my sexuality or gender. In fact, if anything, I am most oppressed by these very traits. Secondly, I do not believe that a politics around pride can work without a politics of shame. In order for someone to be proud, someone has to be ashamed. I believe that pride parades challenge the shame around certain bodies by shifting the burden of shame on to others. Shame, like a ghost, cannot be wished away even as you walk away.
Anyone who has seen queer cultures from within, especially ones dominated by masculinity, know that shaming is central to community formation, whether in the ‘No fats! No femmes!’ groupings commonly found on popular dating apps and websites, or the many restrictions imposed through the common ‘right to refuse service’ in LGBTQ clubs and spaces.
What Khire did, then, was not exceptional, his actions only personify this violence, embody it and articulate it as policy. It brought the violence of policing and erasure, an otherwise ordinary and all-too-common experience within the LGBTQ community, to the public.
The bodies ignored
I did attend another pride walk in Delhi last year, but this was not the one organised by the Delhi Queer Pride Committee. The event was organised by a large group of well-meaning students from Indian Institute of Technology at the University of Delhi’s North Campus. The reason for not organising a walk at IIT was simple: the atmosphere at IIT falls anywhere between conservative and outright homophobic. North Campus proved sufficiently safe and provided a helpful distance for the students to organise the walk.
There was only one minor glitch: the festival under which the walk was organised was sponsored by a large corporate. Some of us who have stakes in the queer cultures at the University of Delhi – cultures that were built through many feminist and queer struggles, cultures we have benefitted from – made it clear to the organisers from IIT that a sponsored pride walk in the DU campus is simply unacceptable and disrespectful to the very history that made North Campus safe enough to host a pride walk.
When the majority of the organisers and IIT students decided to pay no heed to our stakes, I lay down on the road. In an absolute non-shocker of a move, the parade walked over and around me. This will begin to sound even more unexceptional when I inform you that I was one of the only two gender non-conforming persons at the venue (the other also tried very hard to convince the organisers to do a meeting instead of a walk).
Since then, references to last years North Campus pride walk has become a war of positions – whether they were in the right to organise it in the way they did, whether we overreacted and so on – instead of acknowledging the fact that the pride walk decided to not only ignore a gender non-conforming body lying in its way, but as a sign of its own resistance and resilience, walked over and around it.
The Pune pride parade had everything, there were dhols and singing, hoots and howls, colours and a certain flamboyance. This is not just individual expression, but the manifestation of a history where gender non-conforming and trans folks risk lives to do this everyday. Were it not for the struggles of everyday living in the city as embodied, etched and endured by gender non-conforming, trans and genderqueer folk who slowly work to build and keep space for others by maintaining an intimacy with violence, abjection and humiliation, then Khire would not need to ask for people to dress decently, they automatically would. It is to this everyday work that the IIT pride parade was irreverent when it refused to hear the voices of those who struggle in North Campus. It is this history which is disrespected when we continue to pride ourselves while someone else is walked over.
It is precisely in this way that to invoke Rivera and Johnson during pride month is simply cheap talk, an attempt to set history straight instead of engaging in the difficult work of historical justice, a history that Rivera and Johnson would be at the centre of. After all, no matter their iconicity, Rivera, Johnson and many others who fought the police that night, died lonely and almost anonymously. It is on their dead bodies that we celebrate ‘who we are.’
When the students of IIT, the pride of the nation and now also proud queers, walked over me, I had my Ebenezer Scrooge moment. I saw that it is not that queers have forgotten their history, but that some of us are the very repression through which well intended citizen queers build their worlds. Much like a foundation to a building, we too need to be buried. We are the femmes and sissies that make you feel like a man and proud to sleep with them.We are the abjects over which you could be celebrated. Our absence makes the community.
From where I lay that afternoon, I was visited by the ghost of Pride Yet-to-Come and it looked just like the Pune pride we saw yesterday, only worse. A warning that queer folk must look carefully at the crypts of their own speech and well-meaning actions. You cannot become a ghost, but you must listen to the dead.
The preparations for the Delhi pride event are already under way and soon it will be time for meetings and the email list server will be bombarded with suggestions that pride should be more open to corporate affiliations. For ten years, Delhi Queer Pride has held on to its autonomy by resisting such a corporate takeover. It has also allowed queer folk to show up to other protests in solidarity and to not have their hands tainted by bloody capitalists.
I now wonder why this autonomy is so fetishised, when we have not been held accountable for all the violence we let take place in the community. At pride fundraisers, trans and gender non-conforming folk often find themselves in ghettos. The clubs in which queer night lives are lived are more often than not hostile to poor queer folk. Trans folks and sex workers negotiate with a very violent police apparatus. Housing is difficult, healthcare is unaffordable and livelihoods are erratic, when they exist at all. Why is it that every year we worry about a corporate entry into pride, but have nothing to say about the derision of trans and gender non-conforming persons by our folk everyday and at pride? Why is autonomy at all our concern when it is a deep interdependence that actually makes pride itself possible? Perhaps this year we let go of the illusion of sacred financial independence (which we are only able to keep because some of the queers actually have money) and work the dirtier fields of our bloody desires.
Or you could think this is all quack. After all, Scrooge could also be a rich duck which children grow up laughing to. We don’t have to be taken seriously as ghosts, some of us can always be made into cartoons.
Vqueeram Aditya writes about gender and sexuality.