Every few months, a good chunk of my time is spent in explaining the basics of gender and sexuality – not to homophobes, but to people claim to be ‘LGBTQI+ allies’ and ‘influencers’, who do more harm in the name of helping the queer community. The Tamil media at large – print and visual – seem to have many ‘allies’ on the surface. But their allyship, in many cases, doesn’t translate to their work and their workplace. The terms to refer a queer person are still largely demeaning, and the kind of reporting regarding queer issues is hetero-centric and moralistic.
While reporting on issues about queer people has increased, the people who the media believes are the ‘voice of the queer community’ makes me question their judgment. A case in point is Dr Shalini, a well-known public personality and psychiatrist in Tamil Nadu. She is vocal about many social issues, has a regular media and public presence, and has branded herself as an advocate for LGBTQI+ rights.
However, her argument and language are outdated and outright homophobic, biphobic and transphobic.
Dr Shalini’s primary argument for homosexuality is the ‘genetic modification of the fetus in the womb’ hypothesis. While this is only one of the many hypotheses that exist as a ‘reason’ for homosexuality, she seems to be consistent in having her argument regarding homosexuality based on this, for at least a decade now, if one goes by her blog posts. While the research regarding this hypothesis is based on limited ‘subjects’ (in sample size and diversity), they also establish that the hormonal theory of sexuality is not the only reason for the genesis of a person’s sexuality or gender identity.
In her blog, Dr Shalini says, “But now, we have some information. Very interesting one at that. At formation, all babies are originally female, irrespective of their chromosomes. For the first 6 weeks of life inside the uterus, all babies are female. If the child happens to have a Y chromosome in its genetic makeup, then this child’s body forms organs called the Testes. These testes secrete a hormone called testosterone. This hormone then converts the baby’s body into a male. It travels all through the baby’s body and rewires every cell from its original female form to a male form. This entire process is called Masculinisation.”
“Most importantly, the testosterone rewires the brain of the little baby and upgrades it into a masculinised Male Brain. Rarely in some cases, the testosterone fails to masculinise the baby’s brain. In these children, the brain remains female as it was originally, whereas the body changes to male – complete with the testes and penis. Because the brain and the mind are female, this child though born with a male’s genitals, thinks of itself as a female. Hence this child prefers all feminine activities, prefers playing with girls and dressing up like them. But when it comes to sexual orientation, they are attracted to males, because in their minds they remain female forever,” she adds.
The second hypothesis she puts forth for homosexuality is sexual abuse in childhood. She also goes to the extent of suggesting to parents to take their gay children to psychiatrists, to see if they are ‘naturally' gay or have been 'turned' gay due to sexual abuse, and then go on about accepting their sexual orientation. This is nothing but a call for conversion therapy, disguised in the language of concern.
In a Facebook post, she says, "If your son or daughter has homosexual orientation, don't overreact immediately and scare them; instead, you must take them for a psychiatric evaluation. For some people, such same sex attraction is initiated because of childhood sexual abuse. Such homosexuality can be cured with treatment."
There have been many instances where Dr Shalini also has put forth partially scientific and outright unscientific claims for homosexuality and transgender identity. She makes sure to send the message that heterosexuality is the default and other sexualities are anomalous and need scientific research for the cause of ‘deviation’ from heterosexuality. She applies the same incomplete scientific hypotheses for trans women and completely discards trans men, persons with intersex variations, sexuality of trans persons, and other gender diverse individuals. When a claim is half-truth, let us also remember that it is half-lie.
The issue in the argument that persons like Dr Shalini make is that ‘being gay is natural but an anomaly, and hence they shouldn’t be discriminated against.’ This argument is flawed because when we talk about social justice and human rights, it is based on extending equal rights to all individuals. And the queer community has always been a victim of bad science. This pathologizing of queer identities only puts us under more risk and enables discrimination at various levels. Such approaches only encourage policies that are intrusive and invasive to queer persons, like the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 which conferred the authority to decide ‘who is a transgender person?’ to a district level screening committee.
The real-life implications of what these opinion makers and influencers say are harmful to the queer community. They appear on mediums that are accessible to everyone and the misinformation and stereotypes affect us at every step of our lives.
In a YouTube video discussion published by Galatta in September last year, right after the Supreme Court judgement on Section 377, Dr Shalini, social activist Shalin Maria Lawrence, and television anchor-filmmaker Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, talk about homosexuality. The 16-minute video is the most vile and uninformed discussion one can have around homosexuality. Dr Shalini says in this video, “If a boy has elder brothers and if he is the third or fourth child formed in his mother’s womb he has higher chances of becoming homosexual. The earlier babies hormones change the environment of the uterus.”
In this discussion, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan says she isn’t familiar with ‘homosexual issues’ as her expertise is on family, women, and children. This raises questions about her integrity, and that of her arbitration-based show, Solvadellam Unmai, that used to air on Zee Tamil.
In 2015, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan had two lesbian women on her show, where she shamed and moral policed the women for their ‘sexual deviation’. The show was condemned by the queer community and activists. But with her own admission now, the question that Lakshmy Ramakrishnan needs to answer is about her ethics of being an ‘arbitrator’ for the issue when she clearly wasn’t equipped to deal with it.
We have sparse queer representation in our media and pop culture in India. Most of the time, these are one-dimensional, and the representation does not come from queer persons. During my teen years and early adulthood, I had to scavenge for resources that would have a positive portrayal of someone who is gay.
Tamil cinema and TV do not portray someone like me, even in a superficial way. The most popular portrayal of gay men is as a source of laughter and ridicule. Even today, the access to positive gay representation in Tamil media is almost nil.
In such a scenario, I remember watching one of the episodes of Kathai Alla Nijam by actor Lakshmi (not to be confused with Lakshmy Ramakrishnan) on Vijay TV, in the early 2000s if my memory serves right. This particular episode dealt with homosexuality, and while I do not remember the entirety of the show, I remember two silhouetted women, narrating their stories. I felt positive after watching those women talk about themselves, although I believe the entire narration wasn’t positive.
Later, the title montage of the show also included a silhouette of two women getting close. Maybe the creators of the show thought it would add a dramatic effect to their ominous title song. Nevertheless, it helped me personally and till today, I haven’t seen any other positive portrayal of gay or lesbian persons on Tamil television.
While the argument that Tamil media does not represent any person fairly may be true, the representation of heterosexual desires is so normalised that we don’t even realise that the mere existence of such a character in our media screams of heterosexual privilege. And it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that positive queer representation does make a huge difference.
Now, I do not know if this representation would change the general perception around the LGBTQI+ community, but for me these are signals to other queer persons out there, telling them that they aren’t alone. And it is important to send that positive message that would help empower them rather than push them back.
However, our ‘influencers’ who claim to be allies are stuck in the past, and media houses are apathetic. Neither seem to care to learn about our lives or the correct language while writing about us, which is a huge disservice to the community.
Like any movement, allies play an important role in the struggle for LGBTQI+ emancipation. And this is where it becomes important to understand what role our ‘allies’ play. Their active public image of being ‘queer friendly’ deceives queer individuals and their families, many of whom reach out to them during crises. It is important for persons like Dr Shalini, Shalin Maria Lawrence. and other social activists who claim to be the ‘voice of the queer community’ to first understand the conversation that the community drives.
The discourse in the queer movement has moved from acceptance to demanding our constitutional rights. And the best way of activism for these influencers would be to amplify and enable the marginalised voices using their visibility. We would have more authentic and powerful narratives when we speak for ourselves.
Moulee is the co-founder of Queer Chennai Chronicles. He is a workplace Diversity, Equity and Inclusion professional and is based in Chennai.
Views expressed are the author’s own.