Silba R. Marak
Research Scholar, Dept. of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Tura Campus
Dr. Dwijen Sharma
Dept. of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Tura Campus
This paper analyses LGBTQ trauma as reflected in a short film Touch. It locates the spaces where homophobic violence mostly occurs – home, streets and educational institutions. Even after the scraping of Section 377 of the IPC, the LGBTQ community continues to be harassed by families and society, often impatiently with the intention of inculcating in them the virtues of heteronormative sexuality. The streets are not yet safe for homosexuals, and educational institutions have yet to decide the need for imparting education and knowledge on gender. The real presence of law that protects homosexuals from atrocities is invisible. Hence, homophobic hooligans still unleash terror, driving vulnerable people and especially LGBTQ community into trauma, at times towards suicide.
Keywords : violence, trauma, bullying, queer, homosexuality, suicide.
Until recently, homosexuality and all non-normative sexualities were either clubbed into religious blasphemy or clinical anomaly. The theory of sin associated with ‘sexual perversion’ was debunked by the early sexologists who claimed that humans were ideally bisexual. This shifted the perception of homosexuality from sin to an internal compulsion. Thus, there was a shift from viewing sexuality in terms of behaviour to viewing it as central to our sense of self. Furthermore, the emergence of multiple human sexualities that are varying and diverse has brought the term ‘queer’ into the academic lexicon to acknowledge and describe this multiplicity of sexualities— sexualities that encompass both straight and gay but also the vast gray areas between them as well as the sexualities that might lie beyond them (Benshoff and Griffin 2).
Indian society still view homosexuals and queers as an aberration from normativity, thus labelled them as sinful, perverted and clinically ill. Homophobic discrimination plays out in the forms of bullying and harassment, social excommunication and attaching stigma to homosexuals who come out of their closets. Referring to this, Eckstrand states, “Individuals with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions are more likely to experience bias, harassment, discrimination, and violence compared to heterosexual, cisgender populations. They may also face unique internal challenges associated with the coming out process” (v). In India, along with peer-bullying and other forms of violence, expressions such as ‘gay bashing’ have come to be associated with homophobia. Thus, such forms of violence leave scars, if not outright rejection of life, engendering trauma in them, from which they rarely can come out.Recent development in psychological studies suggests that “traumatic experience can have epigenetic, neuropsychiatric, and transgenerational effects that can persist over the course of a person’s – or their offspring’s – lifetime” (Eckstrand v).
Interestingly, cinema is considered to be the best medium to represent the violence inflicted upon sexual minorities and the ensuing trauma that swallows the community. The onscreen can have impact upon reality and reality can be represented onscreen. In the words of Sean Cubbit “If it causes no effect, however ornery or belated, cinema doesn’t do anything” (1). Further Cubbit states that cinema like everything else has trouble existing “and the effects it produces—images and sounds, dimensions, durations, sensations, understandings, and thoughts—all share a quizzical and oblique relation to reality” (1). With these in mind, a short film, Touch (2019), which was produced by the Artistic Tribe Productions and released in Youtube, is analysed. Further, the paper attempts to locate the nature of homophobic tendencies, the spaces where homophobic violence usually occurs, and the traumatic effects upon them.
Does a film like Touch while representing the various homophobic acts and the ensuing trauma create a condition for its alleviation in our society? The researcher tries to establish homophobic spaces which are mostly public and most unlikely for violence, but where LGBTQ people in India are most vulnerable. By drawing from various trauma and queer theories, an analytical method is used in examining the visual narrative of Touch.
Written and Directed by Tanmay Jajoria, Touch is the story of a queer named Varun. The opening scene reveals an unrecognisable Varun in a room that is similar to a closet and dimly lit. A notebook and a pen lie in front of him. This scene is replicated in the end of the film when he sits again in a room with a notebook and a pen jotting down his last words. Varun alienates himself by repetitively recoiling back to the dimly lit room where he cathartically vents his traumatic stress in the form of writing. Writing about one’s trauma is a therapeutic technique as “the act of converting emotions and images into words changes the way the person organizes and thinks about the trauma” (Smyth 162). Varun dissociates himself from the world in his room and reorganizes his thinking to “construct a coherent narrative of the experience. Once in narrative formation, the event can be summarized, stored, and assimilated more efficiently, thereby reducing the distress associated with the traumatic experience” (Smyth 162). Talking and writing are considered expressive therapeutic unleashing of emotions. For many traumatized and stressed individuals “Writing is a form of therapy” (Greene 262). Varun discharges his traumatic stress by writing down his recollective memory, which entails the everyday bullying he faces as his cope-up mechanism.
Nevertheless, the film, Touch tries to make the viewers aware about the reality of intolerance, violence, injustice, etc meted out to queer community even after the repeal of the section 377 of the IPC. It also tries to build a consensus among the spectators on the necessity for affirmative action towards the queer community. Further, Touch invariably displays the suffering and frustrations of Varun, while convincingly portraying the homophobic society where the queer community seems to have no place. The visuals of performativity bring out the angst of Varun against the backdrop of a society which is homophobic, thereby curtailing the action of the young man for whom the sky was the limit. Simultaneously, the compelling narrative of the film engages the spectators with the vivacious life of Varun, who only because of his queer subjectivity is subject to violence, humiliation and injustice. The performativity in the film catapult the plight of Varun and his community in the imagination of the viewers. Thus, by displaying a version of reality, the film, Touch, manages to create awareness about queer community. Furthermore, the film, by creating tensions between Varun and the society, apparently upholds and communicates the social and cultural norms. It, thus, reinforces the moral fabric of the society, while reconfiguring the ethical functions of individuals.
In the screen space, Varun is harassed on several occasions at different places. The first harassment takes place in a deserted alley of a neighbourhood where Varun is surrounded, and in blurred scenes he is seen sinking to the ground, while the others hurl their fist on him, his glasses flung away on the road. Acts of violence against queer occur even during the day, in streets that are isolated and not frequented by pedestrians. Interestingly, the background of the scene in the film is blurred to maintain the essentialist position of a moralist society. On the other hand, the camera is focussed on Varun’s glasses, which are flung far off. Once the glasses fall off, one can’t see clearly; everything becomes blurred. Thus, if one wants to live with dignity and individuality in the society, s/he has to reconfigure her/ his individual ethics in accordance with the social norms. Further, the individual space is usurped by the society as it has moral sanction over and across the social space.
In his book, Criminal Love? (2017), R. Raj Rao identifies ‘monosexual single spaces,’ which are practiced in “monasteries, nunneries, the state-run armed forces, educational institutions, and so on…” (Rao 46) as ‘non-heteronormative male single sex spaces.’ He further states that the monosexual or non-heteronormative male single-sex spaces in contemporary Indian towns and cities “are the nukkad or street corner, the public urinal, the beer and country liquor bar, the paan-beedi and gutkha stall, the gents’ hair cutting saloon, the auto-rickshaw stand, the second-class local train compartment, and so on. In these spaces, mischief rules, the watchword is masti, and the idiom macho” (Rao and Sarma xx-xxi; Rao 46). The ‘monosexual space’ acts as a site where homophobic violence takes place. For instance, in Touch, the homophobic perpetrators victimise and violate Varun in a deserted alley.
These spaces which Rao identified as non-heternormative spaces are also a special place for gay people as these provides them a space to ‘cruise’, without having the need to come out of the closet. Himadri Roy identifies parks, public toilets and bus depots as places for ‘gay cruise’ where many gay and bisexual men frequent with the intention of “deriving sexual pleasure from another person who falls into the ‘type’ category of fantasy for any gay or bisexual man” (Roy 2014). However such cruises could also take an ugly turn when they are intervened or caught by policemen or moral police. In this context, Rao observes:
In contemporary India, the public face of Section 377 of the IPC has been those very traps, threats, cops, and police spies that Foucault refers to in the context of Europe. When the petition for the revoking or reading down of Section 377 was being heard in the Supreme Court, an observation made by the government of India was that very few actual convictions had taken place under Section 377. (Rao 47)
The reason for this was that money changed hands at the constabulary level, so the matters never reach the Courts (Rao 47). The unprotected minority of queers and gay men are thus targeted in their own cruising spaces. The encroachment upon such non-heternormative spaces can cause harm to the psyche of a gay, bisexual or a transgender, who has first experienced coming out, and engaging in a cruise or even a closeted gay man, who has first tried to surf the monosexual spaces. Sexual minorities who cover up their sexual identity face a greater risk of exposure which constantly throws them towards stress and anxiety. It is precisely because “The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this upon another’s mind” (Cooley 96). The risk of being discovered in the case of a closeted gay cruiser thus leads to vigilance, suspiciousness, preoccupation, affective shame, guilt, anxiety, depression, social avoidance, ambivalence of identity, negative view of self and diminished self efficacy (Pachankis 330). While cruising (or not cruising) the compromised spaces, the constant need to be hyper-vigilant is fated to affect the gay or queer psychologically.
Another scene in Touch shows the culprits wrapping a dupatta (scarf) around Varun’s head while another one takes a video (Touch 2:55-3:24). The perpetrators try to feminize and shame Varun by wrapping a dupatta around his head and forcing him to face a camera. This is an act of homophobic bullying by which Varun’s ‘manliness’ is effaced. It creates a feeling of guilt and shame in him. In this context, Halberstam states, “Shame is multifaceted and can be brought on by psychic traumas as brutal as physical bullying and as seemingly benign as mute indifference” (Halberstam 64). However, homophobic violence takes various forms either to disperse the non-normative individuals from the social space, or to coerce them into conforming social norms. In fact, non-normatives are attributed with deviant status and “cleanly stripped of many of his accustomed affirmations, satisfactions, and defenses, and is subjected to a rather full set of mortifying experiences” (Goffman 365). Interestingly, certain visible traits among trans demonstrate their non-conformity to heteronormativity, but people like Varun, who do not seem to display non-conformist look and behaviour, if found about their closeted nature, are equally targeted. In Touch, the unmentioned gender identity of Varun is conceivably one of the production tactics to indicate that he could be any queer who is vulnerable, regardless of his/ her heterosexual clothing and his/ her closeted nature.
In the classroom-bullying scene, the perpetrators take a dig at Varun’s bisexuality in the classroom (Touch 3:45-4:20). A flash of uneasiness surges over Varun when he is tapped on his shoulder by one of the perpetrators. Suggesting his bisexuality they ask if he is going to spend the evening with a guy and analogically insults him as a doorknob with whom everyone gets a turn (4:15-4:18). Among other things they call him a mamma’s boy when it seems he is about to break down. Referring to this, Nadal states that sexually and gender diverse (SGD) youths commonly face micro-aggressions that are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward members of oppressed groups” (Nadal 23). Touch shows that, apart from the monosexual spaces where homosexuals are targeted, even spaces which are recognised as safe, like educational institutions, are a horror to the LGBTQ youths. The LGBTQ students, according to Ghassemlou “hear more than twenty homophobic remarks a day”. He, further, states that “Mistreatment of LGBT youth and a lack of protection are contributing factors to the issue of LGBT teen suicide” (Ghassemlou 2018). The film, Touch, makes a defining comment by visually displaying the incident of bullying in the classroom, which can be loosely stated, in the words of Knight thus, “Section 377 is history but young LGBT Indians need concrete policies to protect them from bullying” (Knight 2019).
The effects of the classroom bullying surface when Varun gets away from the perpetrators. It may be attributed to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder which “impair an individual’s psychosocial functioning, resulting in mood vacillations, disorganized thinking, dissociation, impaired judgment, hyper-arousal, and the use of maladaptive coping strategies” (Alessi and Martin 3). As such, he is seen standing in the footwalk of the road as vehicles ply along the road. He stands there for a long time oblivious of the vehicles passing by in a state of numbness and helplessness (Touch 4:53-5:19). For Varun, the trauma is, in the words of Ruth Cohn “greater than what (he) the organism was designed to withstand and process by its usual means” (Cohn 33). In case of failure to resort to ultimate measures to stay alive, a victim like Varun often takes his own life. In the film, the camera focuses on Varun’s body which lies face down at the end while blood oozes out of his head. Apparently, he jumps off a building after leaving a note saying, “I quit.” Varun’s suicide is the result of a string of traumatic experiences. The response to such traumas is “of necessity an aberration from the norm. To respond in a normative manner would not suffice in a situation that is too extreme” (Cohn 34).
In Indian societies where homosexuality is still non-normative, perpetrators like the ones in Touch find uncomfortability in Varun’s desire for both “boys and girls”. They are troubled by his “rejection of dichotomous sexual orientation” (Meyer 128). Touch typifies a post-Section 377 India, where routine homophobia consisting of behavioural condescension among the greater populace is vented out in the form of micro-aggressions. This intolerance against the odd and the queer that transpires in assorted places, pushes the victim towards a self-annihilative end. Touch frames the inconspicuous narrative of the victimized individual who finds his peak of desolation unbearable. Varun is, thus, representative of all other victims, who succumbs to the trauma inflicted by homophobic society. Trauma is essentially an overwhelming experience, which can trigger disorientation, uncomfortability and recollective memory of the horror of the experience. Nevertheless, Touch successfully creates an awareness of how trauma experienced by the LGBTQ community can be alleviated through graded education on sex, gender and identity along with lessons on Human Rights.
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