On the trail of the global rainbow revolution
Mark Gevisser’s deeply reported new book opens up the many debates about LGBTQ+ rights and identities unfolding in different parts of the world
On 6 September 2018, as the Supreme Court read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, India reconfigured what Mark Gevisser calls in his new book “the Pink Line". As he explains early on in The Pink Line: Journeys Across The World’s Queer Frontiers, this is a notional line “between those places increasingly integrating queer people into their societies as full citizens, and those finding new ways to shut them out now that they had come into the open". Such boundaries are opening up conversations about gender and sexual identities on the internet and social media, spilling over into street protests and pride marches, entering our living rooms and workplaces.
Based on his visits and re-visits to different countries over several years—Malawi, Uganda, Egypt, Israel, India, the US, among others—Gevisser documents stories of resilience and fortitude, bravery and heartbreak, to map the shifting contours of these pink lines. While his narrative is grounded in the historical, political, legal and cultural specificities of the places he travelled to, it is also informed by his investment in the subject as a gay man. “I wanted the stories to live and breathe, instead of burdening them with too much context," Gevisser says on a video call from his home in Cape Town, South Africa.
This deft interleaving of macro-analyses with close insights into microcosms lends The Pink Line a unique flavour. You can dip into the book anywhere you like, or skip to a character that catches your fancy. There is always Gevisser’s constant and reassuring presence, his sharp observations and light-footed erudition, to steer you through the ever-expanding scope and complexity of the LGBTQ+ alphabet soup. As he shows, “the Pink Line" is inspiring uncomfortable conversations within the LGBQT+ movement too, not just conflicts between queer and non-queer populations.
A key focus of the narrative, for instance, is to reveal the fault lines that are opening up between a woke generation of queer people, choosing their pronouns and rallying for gender fluidity, and their predecessors, who were satisfied with their constructivist approach to gender as long as they were able to embrace their sexual orientations, even if that meant identifying as one of the male-female binary or abiding by socially encoded heteronormative prescriptions.
Clashes and rifts are being created not always because of a refusal to accept queerness, but because authority figures are trying to set the terms and limits for the expression of such identities. Take, for instance, the case of Sean, whom Gevisser meets in Ann Arbor, US. Sean does not face any opposition from a liberal feminist parent for coming out as lesbian as a teenager. But when Sean opts for the “they" pronoun and announces they are “pansexual but homoromantic", rumblings of discontent erupt on the home front. Gevisser’s encounters with another American teenager, the trans man Liam Kai, come as a sobering reminder about the psychological gulf that allies and welfare states have to bridge before they can boast of being non-discriminatory, fair and equal towards all. Rewriting the laws and upping the human-rights ante are not enough to guarantee equality.
The last statement rings especially true in places where sexual minorities have been tolerated historically, either due to progressive laws (in Jordan, for instance, where sodomy was decriminalized in 1951) or as integral to the traditional fabric of society (“eunuchs" in harems, for example). Gevisser’s visit to Israel and his meetings with Arab-Jewish couples reveal nuances that may not be obvious from an official rhetoric about the fair treatment of sexual minorities. From exploiting such a stance to stoke Islamophobia, to ethnically profiling members of the LGBTQ+ community, the infractions of the Israeli state have been subtle and insidious.
In India, too, despite the triumphant repeal of Section 377, which criminalized carnal intercourse against the order of nature, the tensions between acting out a sexual urge and owning a sexual identity are far from resolved. As is the case with many Asian and Arab cultures, the idea of non-heteronormative desire was ingrained in India through history, as scholars such as Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have shown. The objection to queerness in Indian society is often not so much to do with the sexual act itself but with the idea that it could lead to the emergence of new identities, followed by demands for recognition and rights. And so, homosexuality is perceived as a Western import, but homoerotic desire goes back to ancient times.
The opposition to sexual choice is, of course, never benign, or without context. It is, as Gevisser witnesses in Cuddalore, a small town in Tamil Nadu, inflected by class, caste and education. There are real and palpable dangers involved, too, including the threat of violence and bloodshed. The harrowing ordeal of Tiwonge Chimbalanga, nicknamed Aunty, is a case in point. A Malawi who was assigned the male gender at birth, Aunty made international headlines by getting engaged to a man in 2009. The breathtaking story of her ordeal, which opens the book, became a flashpoint in the narrative of global aid—a moment in the human rights struggle that segued into debates about the treatment of refugees. Another story, about a lesbian couple in Cairo who came together during the Arab Spring revolution in 2010-12, ended with them seeking asylum in Europe. Yet, in spite of the promise of a new life, their future is undone by institutionalized racism, inflicted on the sly.
Gevisser’s understanding of these fissures in the global narrative of human rights and sexual politics is informed by his personal circumstances, as a white cis-gendered gay male. To his credit, he is aware of his privilege and the advantages it brings. However, while his passport may make it easy for him to fly around the globe and his Ivy League education may open doors, Gevisser is unafraid of putting himself in tough, often vulnerable, positions vis-à-vis his interviewees. “To a couple of them, I became a benefactor, even a father figure of sorts," he admits. “But being cast in that role has helped me, I believe, to unpack some of the issues I try to explore in the book."
No matter where you belong along the spectrum of genders and sexualities, Gevisser’s book will make you reflect on your inner and outer pink lines, especially about your own stakes in this teeming ecosystem of identities.