Reflecting on IDAHOT’s focus on the family *

Arvind Narrain

Arvind Narrain

Geneva Director at ARC International
Arvind Narrain works on advocacy for LGBTI rights at the international level. As ARC’s Geneva Director he is currently involved in advocacy at the Human Rights Council and in advocacy around the Yogyakarta Principles. As a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum he was involved with litigation and advocacy around the anti sodomy law in India.
Arvind Narrain

Today, on the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, I was invited  to respond to a film, Out & About, the screening of which was organized by The Netherlands Permanent Mission in Geneva. This posting is a summary of some thoughts on the film and its relevance to the theme of IDAHOT, namely families and LGBT people.

This year’s IDAHOT focuses on the LGBTI person and their relationship to the family. Typically the family has been seen as the source of violence for many LGBTI persons who are expelled, tortured and killed by their own families. For many LGBTI people, the focus on family could be problematic especially since the family is the source of often unacknowledged violence.

However, there is also another side to the family, where it can sometimes be a source of enormous support for LGBTI people and in some cases the power of the family can also be harnessed to the project of social transformation.

These reflections were prompted by the screening of Out and About, which was made by Koen Suidgeest. The film itself is a story of ‘coming out’, set in three different contexts, Russia, Kenya and Indonesia. In all three contexts, the families initially struggle with accepting their children. However finally the power of the parents’ unconditional love for their children wins out over the hatred in their respective societies. As such it is a moving affirmation of the positive role that families can play in supporting their LGBTI children.

While one strand of queer culture portrays queer people as different from straight people, this film does the opposite. We get images of the gay Indonesian man going out for dinner with his father, the gay Russian man walking on the streets and sharing a drink with his mother and the lesbian woman from Kenya having long chats with her mother while she mother is cooking. The LGBT people in this film, lead quotidian lives and their lives are not framed or defined by the sexual activity they may engage in. In fact we get no glimpse of the sexualness of the LGBT person apart from a playful reference by the Indonesian man to the possibility of getting married to a man. While it is true that the film in some ways erases the sexuality of its protagonists, perhaps we should see this as a conscious attempt to counter the hypersexual portrayal of LGBT people on which  mainstream homophobia and transphobia is based.

One homophobic and transphobic framing device is to see LGBT people as being about nothing more than the sex acts they perform. This particular way of defining LGBT people has been extraordinarily successful in denying LGBT people human rights. To give a couple of examples:

On 13th December 2013, the Indian Supreme Court recriminalized the lives of LGBT persons. In the oral arguments in the case, whenever counsel sought to frame the issue as one pertaining to the right to live with dignity of the LGBT community, the judges would incessantly go back to the question of what were the sexual acts which were criminalized under Section 377 of the IPC. This refusal to acknowledge that LGBT persons were indeed persons and the impact of Section 377 went beyond prohibiting certain sexual acts to criminalizing intimate aspects of LGBT people’s lives, was arguably the substratum of homophobia on which the judges drew.

The US Supreme Court in 1986 in Bowers v. Hardwick upheld the law criminalizing same sex conduct. The Court frame the question as to whether the ‘constitution conferred upon homosexuals the right to engage in sodomy’ and answered in the negative.  The Supreme Court used a homophobic and transphobic framing device of seeing the LGBT community as nothing more than people who want to commit the act of sodomy.

The third example I would like to advert to is a powerful statement by a lawyer in a conference on decriminalization which I attended, who self described herself as ‘straight’ and as someone who was initially scared of defending LGBT persons. In her own words, when she saw an LGBT person, what she saw was a penis on their heads! She felt a rising sense of panic when she was to meet her gay client for the first time. It was only interaction with her gay client and through him the wider LGBT community which cleared the myths and misconceptions and today she is one of the strongest supporters of LGBT rights in her country!

One way of challenging homophobia and transphobia is to constantly challenge the myth of LGBT hypersexuality. The film takes a step in that direction. What the film demonstrates through dwelling on the quotidian lives of LGBT people is that LGBT persons are not ‘isolated, lonely and abstract figure possessing a disembodied and socially disconnected self’. Rather LGBT people ‘live in their bodies, their communities, their cultures, their places and their times’.[1]

The film is about a deeply personal journey towards acceptance by three incredibly brave families. The love that the parents have for their children, which says that -I love you regardless of the life path that you have chosen, that I respect your decisions even if I find it difficult to accept -is incredibly moving. In some ways the film is a tribute to unconditional love, which perhaps only families can give to their children.

However what is exceptional about these three families is that their love not has an inner and private dimension but also a outer and public dimension. These three families are remarkable because they choose to move beyond the domain of the private and share their intimate stories of pain and hope with the wider world. Can such public sharing of the love of parents for their LGBT children transform the way society thinks on an issue?

I would like to share another story from India on the incredible role that families can play in not just creating a supporting and accepting environment for their children but also in transforming wider society. When the decision decriminalizing same sex relations was challenged in the Supreme Court by 15 Hindu, Muslim and Christian religious groups, there was a very brave response by a section which is not often seen as political. This was a group of 19 parents of LGBT persons who decided that they must make the case for why criminalizing a sensitive and key aspect of their children’s lives was actually a threat to their right to peaceful enjoyment of their family life. Their argument was that criminalization impeded the ability of parents to communicate to children and children to parents, it created an ever present fear that their children could be arrested and it thereby cast a shadow over the right to enjoy family life. The intervention of the parents figured on national TV with numerous programmes where parents spoke out on behalf of their LGBT children.  One particularly striking image was of three mothers sitting with their three children on three separate sofas speaking out on behalf of their LGBT children. Interventions such as this may perhaps be one of the most effective ways through which minds and hearts can be transformed.

How does this image of the family, link up to debates in the political sphere? Is there a way that we can show families as institutions which both confine ways of living and yet at the same time give meaning to life? Are families both deeply status quoist institutions which can also embody a challenge to existing values? Can the power of this deeply contradictory institution called the family sometimes be key in the project of transforming social and cultural values?

[*] This blog post is based on a public response to the film, ‘Out and About’ which was screened by the Dutch Mission in Geneva to mark IDAHOT, 2017.

[1] Opinion of J. Albie Sachs, National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v. Minister of Justice, http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/1998/15.html

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