Monday, January 18, 2010

Interview with Dr Ashley, IIT (Hyderabad) after his lecture on 'Gay Rights in India' in JNU

The following five questions struck me while I was listening to Dr Ashley, who was invited to speak on 'Gay Rights in India' at Godavari Hostel Mess (JNU) on 14.01.2010.  We were a group of about 50-60 young boys and girls, awestruck at his brutal honesty, courage and sheer strength to carry on in such a harsh world, where 'falling in line' is what is taught at homes, schools, colleges and later at work places as well. There are little spaces left anywhere, where people can just be, just simply be, without fearing or anticipating judgment. Most of us live in duality of sorts that gives us one face for the world at large and quite another, privately.  When the meeting ended, all I could do was to go up to him, shake his hand, and exclaim 'you're beautiful.'     
Q1. Your areas of interest include Gender Studies (especially Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Studies), so the first thing that comes to mind is that what is it that you find common in all these ‘categories’ of people since they’re all clubbed to together and within broader 'gender studies', I'm assuming 'gender studies' implies 'women studies.' What do all these terms mean to you? Are all these rigid identities?
What is common to all these categories of people is that they are erased by the heteronormative order. The world is hegemonically heterosexual and people in these categories are rendered illegible by the hegemonic formation. For example, as a gay man I have no law to protect myself from institutional harassment because of my gayness which I have faced in every institution in which I have worked in India. Hijras (who can be considered transgender) are not given ration cards, till recently could not vote, are not given regular employment. Women, who want to marry each other (you may call them lesbian though it is not a word they identify with) are prised apart from each other by family, community and state. They are thrown out of jobs, out of families, forced to have medical examinations, very often commit suicide. So, what we have in common is suffering at the hands of the heterosexual, heteronormative order. We don’t quite see ourselves as allies of each other. We are cut across lines of caste, class, gender and regional specificity, among other things. But, for me at any rate, the struggle is to get us to fight together.
Gender Studies embodies a different realm which is that of academia. It implies the new Women’s Studies, which argues that gender is not only about women, hence Gender Studies and women are not only about women, in the sense that the gendering of women is more complex than the simple production of the category ‘women.’ From this statement alone, it would have become clear to you that there are no, for me at any rate, rigid identities. However, that does not mean I embrace the empty neoliberal category ‘queer’ either. For me that word empties identities of all material and analytic purchase. To me, that is a rightwing term. So I settle for identities that we presume are always contingent and blurred to us but we are also aware that this is not the case to the hegemon and that fixed conceptions of us have very real material effects in the world.

Q2. Would you agree that men can never understand women adequately or vice versa since both have a different body (and mind) and hence different ways/environment in which they are brought up in family (and society)? So when men and women grow up speaking different languages, can they ever actually understand each other?
I definitely believe that men and women can and should understand each other, especially as they seem so invested in each other. I do not belong to the lesbian separatists of the 70s in believing that men and women are two mutually incomprehensible and incompatible species. Having said that, I have to agree with them that men do not know very much about women and vice versa. This is especially apparent to me in India where most of my work has been conducted. The project for me then is to acquaint men with women in serious and engaging ways. This is my work as a male feminist. I work mainly with men seeking to make them understand women. It is not easy work, I assure you and after decades of it, I do not know how much I have achieved and in moments of despair I am given to believe I have achieved nothing at all. But this is serious and necessary work and I fully believe that one must continue to do it for as long as one is alive if one believes in gender justice and gendered equality. To say men and women can never understand each other is to make it seem like ontology when it is merely ontic that they don’t. They have a real need for each other and needs from each other they should learn to convey these needs better. Men need to realise that women happen to have minds too and feelings and that bodies are not separate from these. The moment of understanding each other can never be an arrived state but might always be a process. Communication even within genders is never perfect and can never be. That’s the nature of human communication. But we can try to make it the best possible. I think of a world where there will be no rape, for example, and I think that world is perfectly possible. But men need training and so do women.
Your question does, however, reinforce the male/female binary and thereby also heterosexism. There are many more genders in the world. We all need to talk to each other even if I sound like British Telecom ad.

Q3. When we speak of ‘self-identity’, do we look at it from the way that self appears to others, who’re watching and judging us all the time? What is a ‘real’ identity then, is it something one thinks about oneself privately or something one builds for others to believe, or both, or should we care about it anyway?
Identity is how we choose to narrate ourselves to ourselves and to the world which are simultaneous processes. There are various available models of this. Ego psychology in the US, psychoanalysis of the British and European kind, and so on. We are always trying to tell one kind of story about ourselves both to ourselves and to others. However, I think we need to be suspicious and vigilant about these self-constructions. We need to ask epistemological questions of the way we frame ourselves. For example, when we say ‘I am not that kind of person’ or ‘I would never do that’ or ‘I tell it like it is,’ we must ask what model of self lurks behind these formulations. Just asking that sort of question of oneself – who is this I and what is its authority? – is a good start. This is especially so in today’s world where identity politics is so dangerous and is predicated upon the erasure of other peoples and identities, like the genocidal Hindutva project. Or what we stupidly call ‘ethnic politics’ or even LGBT politics. I think one always has to be out of oneself a little, see oneself from another’s point of view to see the limits and possibilities of how one constructs oneself.

Q4. You said you’re against institutions, particularly conventional marriage between heterosexual or homosexual couples, since partners end up playing the masculine/feminine role in the relationship anyway, in most cases at least. But don’t you think when we grow up ‘needing’ something so bad, it’s difficult to let go of the fixation of marriage (and family), even though we may intellectually agree with you that marriage is the ultimate weapon of oppression and control exercised by one human over another and that it cuts off people from the larger social context/concerns?
I would answer that we have to interrogate this phenomenon of ‘needing something bad.’ Why does needing something real bad make it okay to go about getting it? Why do we not ask ourselves whether it is ethical to need that something real bad? We blame rapists for needing sex or power so bad that they go about and rape but what if they just gave you your own justification back and said they just “needed it so bad” that the women’s consent became irrelevant. Needing ‘love’ bad is a bit like rape anyway because it involves cutting people’s limbs off to Procrustes-like suit the need we want to make for them. We call this violence ‘love,’ dress it up with Archies cards and bouquets and songs of Whitney Houston or Himesh reshammiya hysteria and that erases or drowns out all the violence and we are okay with it. I think every monogamous person is actually a rapist and a criminal who kills, pillages and plunders under the guise of ‘love.’
Your binary between head and heart, intellect and emotion, is too unreconstructed for me. You need to ask yourself – intellectually – why you feel this guzzling – emotional – desire to drink someone’s life blood, restrict their movements, their desires, their imagination and who knows what else and call it your “bad need” for emotional security or some s... like that. And why you need to f... them over and call it love.

Q5. Another point you made about was sex being ‘better’ than love for it IS what it appears to be, so it’s more authentic in that sense, while love is 'complicated stuff' and people say it all the time but mean it differently etc. So, are you saying that since you think sex is better than love, so you don’t love at all or mix both when you’re deeply involved with someone? Can you actually separate both emotions? Not sure if women can easily separate both, since most of the times, they grow up internalising the two as one, so for most of them, this is their reality and they're stuck at that level. And most men grow up thinking of the two as separate, so probably looking at it that way is their reality too. Please tell me what you think.
I said sex is better than love. I did not say sex had no love in it or that love has no sex in it. These are three different questions. I think sex is best because there is the least bit of dissembling involved in it. Whether it is good or bad sex, sex does not lie. Love , in its hegemonic form, is about lies and subterfuge and mind-f....... and psychic games and role-playing; a whole armoury that f...... up heterosexuals (pardon the tautology) have devised over centuries.
But love does not have to be that. I have a model of love, for example (and to answer your question, I definitely do love) and that model can be defined more or less negatively first, in terms of what it is not, in relation to the heterosexual hegemon: my idea of love does not believe in institutionalisation of any kind, does not believe in monogamy, does not believe in possession, does not believe in control, does not believe in compulsory reciprocity, does not believe in compulsory geographical proximity, does not believe that sex is a vital and crucial component of what one feels (you can love someone without wanting sex with them) or has (you can desire someone sexually and love them but not have them sexually because they do not want you sexually and that does not affect the nature and texture of the love at all). In terms of what it is, I would actually like to say that a) it is not one thing, one solid, consolidated thing b)I hesitate to define it because it is contingent and fuzzy and uncertain, c) it pulses in and out, can be fiercely powerful now and then and can subside for long periods, d) is not prone to stay in little boxes no matter how many you make to put it in and e)it resists the narrative impulse because narratives are great in the bourgeois form of the novel but in life they crumble and disseminate into a million way more interesting sparks.
When I am deeply involved with someone, I mainly celebrate this love. Right now, I am in love with a Jat from Haryana, who assures me he will never ever love me and that he is not gay but sends me sober messages about how he loves the way I suck his d... and semi-drunken ones about how he wants to be my boyfriend and he does not love me so much that he wants to know why I have not called him for two days and calls me his ‘best friend for life’ (puts me in what my gay friend calls the common grave of friendship) and yet does not like it when a friend he introduces me wants me too; a half Tripuri-half Khasi, who loves me but does not think he can ever sleep with me but who when he smiles at me makes me want to die with his beauty; a sardarji who asks me if I will love him when he is old and no longer handsome and who will never sleep with me and who is married and abidingly unhappy and does not even know it and not because he’s gay or anything but because he does not know the person he married at all; a Telugu boy who holds me like no man has ever held me and stills my trembling body even as he speaks of how he will marry and hates his earlier boyfriend for his possessivenesss, while I assure him I will not cook his pet rabbit like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and he smiles when I tell him that I love him so much I want a million people at least to share that love and to chomp on his d... like I do; a Delhi Mallu ex-student who I’ve loved for 10 years and who does not even call me when he visits the city I am in and when we meet I can’t even look at him because his maleness does not even allow my gaze to stay on his body or his face, it bounces off…. I could go on. My point is simply that all these men love me and I love all of them and always will and I will never stay with or marry or be with or want to be with any of them and not because I can’t choose to be but because I can’t think of a stupider idea. I hate much about these men and love much. I celebrate them, I work on them and that is love. Not f...... marriage and children, a house and a car. F... that s....
Sex and love are not both emotions. Sex is mainly motion and love is emotion; but both have elements of the ratiocinative and the undertow of the psychic drive. These can and must be described in language for us to understand that when two or more people love each other or indeed when one person loves the self, there is a need to communicate what exactly one means when one says one loves someone or when one tells oneself that one loves oneself because only then can it become relational, when two or more psycho-biographical histories meet in the self or between selves. It is an emoto-intellectual complex much like the image was to the Imagists.
Women need love more than sex and men sex more than love: as dominant sociological narratives, these are true enough but as I just said, sex and love are both emoto-somato-intellectual and so women are righter and better at it than men. Men need to grow up and see the connection between their d...., hearts and minds. I’m going to try and help them do that for the rest of my life if it’s the only thing I do. Wish me luck.
(For more photos, click here.)


  1. Only Ashley can unmask reality this way.
    Unfortunatley we have very few people who fight the good fight the way Ashley does.

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  3. UFFFFF awesome!! I cant think of anyone destribing the inner lanscape of emotions and the external and internal one of sex so honestly!! I think its a highly spiritual man who can say this even though Ashley shall kill me if he reads that I have called him spiritual!! I love him!!

  4. Great interview. Wish i was there for the talk as well. Though at the moment gender the way he understands it does not directly interest me in my intellectual project, it helps me develop tools to tear apart the the psychological structure of desire, power and violence that do.


  5. I don't know how someone can observe their own love 'objectively' and put across one more narrative even though they themselves do not claim to like narratives.

    It's amazing what he says. Amazingly articulate and taboo-breaking. We look for marriage for stability. A certain stable security from which we can derive our happiness. Doesn't matter if the sex is not great or the love comes and goes. You get to see the person with or without hesitation at the end of every day, week and if the marriage doesn't break, for years.
    And ultimately it is a personal choice. You make that choice being a gay man, a lesbian woman or a bisexual in denial or a straight person who has not known any other way.

    Love, sex and sexuality are all individual choices and experiences.

    It is nice to see another forcefully engaging narrative.

  6. Yes the interview is off-beat in an off-beat subject...Tellis is at his best..the interviewer deserves kudos!It's good that people are thinking that way...but the better part of India lives in another world...thanks Tellis!You told it all!

  7. marvellous job by the interviewer and offcourse dr Tellis...he is one off a kind...he is the most honest and truthful person and he is the real argumentative indian who can show the harsh reality although he might not like the tag "indian"

  8. This interview is really an eye opener in some aspects. The way he puts it is awesome. The honesty moved me a lot. But I guess not every man is about his d... and f...... Its a subjective opinion though.
    And hats off to the interviewer for asking the right questions.

  9. loved the interview.

  10. This is very good stuff - pointed like Zizek but clearer - a sharp person rare to find in this world!