This post is written by Bilal Khan, English (Hons.) student at Christ University, Bengaluru.
June 2022 is about to end, and we would like to farewell Pride Month with a quick read about Gender, Identity and Sexual Orientation. All three of these terms are essential for understanding the complexities of the larger discourse surrounding them. With a focus on Sexual Orientation, we would be bridging it with Identity. And what better place to discuss this issue than college campuses?
The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, decided to provide a safe space for non-binary students. The ground floor of the Girl’s hostel at TISS was made “gender-neutral” in 2018. The idea of making something gender-neutral might entail some wrong notions. The hostel is the same as other hostels at TISS, but it is the space that is changed. In fact, spatiality plays a rather important factor in expressing your Identity.
Though what TISS did was revolutionary, in 2022, another university in India reached out to the stars. The National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), based in Hyderabad, is entirely gender-neutral. The decision itself is a milestone for Queer acceptance and representation in India.
Continuing on NALSAR’s decision, we can discuss some key concepts about gender and sexuality. Though the term gender-neutral points toward a safe space for binary, non-binary and trans people, it can also be an essential space for the sexual orientations of those said people. First, we must clearly distinguish between terms like gender and sexuality. As Sahiba Khan explains in the podcast she hosts, FYI-For Your Information, humans are subject to four concepts: (1) Sex, the biological and genetic makeup of a person, (2) Expression, the way a person expresses their Identity to the world out there, (3) Identity, the way a person perceives themselves as, and (4) Sexual Orientation, the gender a person is sexually attracted. Khan also explains how these terms are not at all interchangeable with one another. Hence, when space is “gender-neutral”, it is neutral and safe for all four of these terms distinctively and equally.
Now that we know these terms, we can easily focus on sexuality on a gender-neutral campus. The American Psychological Association explains it as follows:
People express their sexual orientation through behaviors with others, including such simple actions as holding hands or kissing. Thus, sexual orientation is closely tied to the intimate personal relationships that meet deeply felt needs for love, attachment and intimacy.
We see here that sexual orientation always includes the outside world apart from the person’s Identity. A person who wants to express their Identity through “simple actions” must be in a non-discriminatory space. Because it is highly dependent upon the people an individual associates with, sexual orientation can be suppressed or even repressed in a hostile environment. This hostility is usually not experienced by a heterosexual cis-gendered person—the main reason being heterosexuality as the conventional norm in all spaces. The reason for this is the continued acceptance of heterosexuality as a “healthy sexuality”. The term itself was critically analysed by the famous theorist Michel Foucault. For Foucault, the idea of this healthy sexuality is spread and reinforced by the world’s hegemonic powers. It is this reinforcement that makes heterosexuality “normal” or “healthy”.
So, if heteronormativity is reinforced so forcefully, there must be safe spaces for people who identify as otherwise. Even the reinforcing of a heteronormative lifestyle is discriminatory towards Queer people. Charan Teja, in his article, collected anecdotes from Queer people going through different microaggressions. In his work, Teja explained how Queer people go through traumatising scenarios to access basic things. From not finding a PG that would allow an openly trans person to not finding adequate toilets. Hence, it is not just a safe space for Queer people but a justified space. A space that does not demand them to defend themselves to privileged people to not go through gender dysphoria every day.
But why colleges and university campuses as a space will help people of different sexual orientations to not just express their identities but also accept them? The answer is that a space is always connected to our sexual Identity–be it our Identification or our Sexual Identity. In their seminal work, Mapping Desire, David Bell and Gill Valentine write:
The relationships between sexualities and space are made clear when we begin thinking about the power of particular landscapes as either liberatory or oppressive sites for the performance of our sexed selves. (87)
The statement then starts to bridge space and sexuality together. As Bell and Valentine point out, these “landscapes” are powered and help us to “perform” our sexes. We shall elucidate on performance later, but Mapping Desire offers a critical understanding of space and sexual orientation. The theorists write, “…searching for a sense of place to match our sense of self, and a sense of self to match our sense of place.” So, it becomes understandable that a self is recognised through a space. But even the space around us is constructed through our selves. In the same chapter quoted here, Mapping Desire discusses the multiple definitions of home and the home as a public and private space. The idea of understanding spatiality then becomes almost detachable from sexuality. A gay person perceives the space around them differently than a lesbian or asexual person. By creating gender-neutral spaces in a country like India, where universities are a locus of cultures and identities, institutions like NALSAR are creating opportunities for Queer people to recognise their selves. Through their selves, they will also construct the campus spaces.
We have established that the spaces that people belong to affect them and affect spaces in return. But how can a term so private to a human get affected or affect something as public as space? Here we have another famous Queer theorist Judith Butler and their notion of performativity. Butler’s work on gender performativity has given us terms like “gendered”. In English linguistics, the morph [-ed] is used with verbs. Hence, Butler’s understanding provided us with gender being a verb rather than a noun. A person is continuously “being” their gender. Stemming from Butler’s seminal work, Gender Trouble, we have the term performativity. In their introduction, Butler mentions different perceptions of performativity and one of those are explained as:
The view that gender is performative sought to show that what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylization of the body. In this way, it showed that what we take to be an “internal” feature of ourselves is one that we anticipate and produce through certain bodily acts, at an extreme, a hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures. (23)
Here, Butler explains that gender or the “internal essence” of gender is manufactured through “acts”. We as humans perpetually perform these acts that are not internal but internalised. Butler’s critical understanding stands out beautifully when the term “gendered stylization” of the body is mentioned. This is where performance and performativity are different. This stylization of the body in particular ways throughout ages promotes heterosexual performativity. The gendered notion of gender transcends these internal claims of gender and, much like Foucault, creates these acts as a part of the discourse.
Like any other discourse, this discourse needs a platform for its dissemination. These acts that Butler is a proponent of should be carried out in space, whether cis-gendered or trans-gendered. Discourses that have been absent from our everyday lives, but this absence establishes its separate presence. Hence, NALSAR creating a gender-neutral campus provides a platform for these silenced discourses.