Exchanges of Mutual Need and the Re-production of Marginality: ngos and Working-class Transmen and Lesbians in South India

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Liz Mount, candidate for PhD, Sociology Department, Syracuse University
“Exchanges of Mutual Need and the Re-production of Marginality: NGOs and Working-class Transmen and Lesbians in South India”
This presentation explores the material, affective and social exchanges between working-class sexual minorities assigned female at birth and sexual rights NGOs in South India. Through an analysis of the process by which a unique community of working-class lesbians and trans*people is interpolated, I situate these exchanges as occurring within the backdrop of the NGO international funding structure, which shapes relationships between funders, NGOs, and communities within a global network of exchange. My analysis draws on 18 months of fieldwork conducted over five years with a large NGO, Dosti, and a small collective of working-class lesbians and trans*masculine people, Dakshina Desi Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders (hereafter, DDLBT) in Bangalore.

The history of how women’s same-sex sexuality has been positioned in media and in the Indian Women’s Movement is important to understand the uniqueness of DDLBT. Indian lesbian activists are forced to assert themselves in a political climate in which same-sex sexuality for women is positioned as a concern of the elite classes (Dave 2012; Bhaskaran 2004; Vasudevan 2003). Due to a “widening disjuncture between elite Indian activists and their grass-roots subjects” that was exacerbated by privatization beginning in the early 1990s, middle-class activists were paid increasingly more while their constituents became more impoverished, putting women’s activists in the uncomfortable position of having to prove their association with “grassroots” women (Dave 2012: 99). One way these activists have argued their credentials to “the grassroots” is to characterize issues of same-sex sexuality for female assigned people as “bourgeois and irrelevant” (Dave 2012: 99). As Naisargi Dave argues, emerging lesbian activist groups responded to such accusations by “assert[ing] [themselves] as grassroots and indisputably Indian” (Dave 2012: 99). Even within the women’s movement, lesbians “had to speak in the language of local struggle and cultural protectionism, and about the virtue of being vulnerable victims” (Dave 2012: 115). It is in this context that I locate the formation of the only working-class and largely Dalit community of lesbian-identified women and trans-identified men.

The majority of DDLBT members came to Bangalore from rural South India through “crisis intervention” efforts undertaken by Dosti. Leaving one’s natal family is a salient topic for female-assigned people who do not wish to conform to the dictates of marriage. A common crisis scenario involves parents finding out about their child’s participation in a non-heterosexual relationship, which causes family members to do anything they can to break up the partnership, including extreme violence. Because their mobility is constrained to a greater degree than male-assigned people, female-assigned sexual minorities often need assistance to leave their families. In some cases, those in need of help have contacted Dosti directly and, in other cases, Dosti has heard of a crisis case and then sent people to assist. In all cases, Dosti encourages the people involved to relocate to Bangalore, promising continued help and support upon arrival.

Since they come from marginalized backgrounds, DDLBT members arrive in Bangalore with few material resources and no social support network. As promised, Dosti provides them with material support, but this support takes the form of short stints of precarious NGO employment. As a condition of their employment, DDLBT members who work at Dosti are expected to “come out” at public events and in media, narrating their stories of oppression and rescue, yet they remain impoverished and without support networks except their small, vulnerable and socially isolated community.

Many people who were part of these crisis intervention teams now question the motivations behind this manner of crisis intervention. As Sunitha, a longterm DDLBT member explained, “nowadays, I want to change the approach of crisis intervention” because “the idea of crisis intervention is to see to it that a person settles in their comfortable environment. Not uprooted, displaced, and struggling in a new place, which is what the majority of DDLBT is.” Sunitha further explained that her experience in crisis intervention for the last 15 years has taught her that, “The moment you spot a person, if you spot a person, it does not mean you have to displace that person from their surroundings and bring them to DDLBT…we are actually then removing all the support systems for the person. Why should you do that?”

Dosti staff and board members often assert how impressive it is that their organization is the only NGO that has assisted in the formation of a working-class community of lesbians and transmen. DDLBT is a key way in which Dosti distinguishes itself from other NGOs working for sexual rights. A longtime Dosti board member listed the existence of DDLBT as one of Dosti’s foremost accomplishments. Within a “social movement market” characterized by “competition for scarce economic and discursive goods,” (Thayer 2010: 131) activism is also understood as “a competitive marketplace” (Dave 2012) very similar to its capitalist counterpart. Thus, competition between NGOs is very common due to the finite character of the NGO funding structure (Biswas 2006: 4409). These structures create an environment in which “abstract development agendas and interpersonal rivalries over funding are the forces of politics” (Dave 2012: 75).

I am interesting in refining my analysis of the exchanges between Dosti and DDLBT members. I argue that Dosti offers assistance during “crisis intervention” and brings poor, often Dalit female-assigned couples to Bangalore, who then are in need of further financial assistance to sustain themselves because they no longer can depend on the support systems they spent their lives building. Dosti offers them precarious NGO employment, which benefits Dosti because the organization can highlight their employment of transpeople and lesbian couples and Dosti can also claim to have facilitated the only working-class community of lesbians and transmen in India, which offers the organization prestige, recognition, and potentially enhanced funding within the NGO world. As Gohar, a trans*masculine DDLBT member, explains, “I feel like this is some kind of forced displacement, enabled by an NGO, which promises to provide support, but is actually making the people, in a complicated way, dependent on them for a long time.”

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