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Book Review: ‘Queersapien’ Expresses a Strong Belief in Camaraderie Across Differences

Sharif D. Rangnekar's book is about self-acceptance, and understanding that learning, freedom and queering are continuous processes, with no full stops.
After more than three decades of struggle, the Supreme Court finally decriminalised Section 377 on September 6, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Files

Queersapien carries surprises on every next page. Rather than ordered linear progression, it flows free, resonant with the intent of self-discovery. It’s a journey that moves back and forth, in outer realms as much as inner. Simultaneous with exploring the self, is the passionate search for ingredients which would help make the world a better place, for all.  

Extending the scope of the word queer, Sharif Rangnekar describes it as signifying an expanded mindscape: where nature is allowed to flourish, each flower bloom, nurtured, in freedom. In such a space, diversity is celebrated, and each individual’s right to be who they are, respected. The opposite of order, he points out, is not disorder: it is diversity. Identifying as gay, he expresses a strong belief in camaraderie across differences. 

Interrogating present society, ranging through attire, attitude, sexuality, gender, work, etc., it’s clear that widespread prejudice prevails, severely curtailing choice. The chapter ‘To Love Is a Battle’ discusses the rarity of marriages based on love; the tough negotiations of a single mother bringing up children on her own; and the difficulty of sustaining gay relationships in a homophobic world. Real-life experience interweaves the commentary. We learn of a mother who, after losing her husband mid-stream, brought up three sons; Sharif, the youngest. He recognises that in ‘wearing the pants’ in the house, Veena Rangnekar developed fluidity, an indefinable equation with gender norms, being the breadwinner, bold, strict but also friendly, loving, and supportive. As a young adult, when he comes out to his mother, full of trepidation, she responds with unstinting affection and acceptance. This is very unusual; most families react badly to such revelations.

Sharif D. Rangnekar
Rupa Publications (December 2022)

Those who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community frequently face hostility, stigma, rejection and pathologisation. When, in 2018, the Supreme Court decriminalised ‘gay sex’, reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, Justice Indu Malhotra offered an appropriate apology, for the “delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries”. And though this judgment is a milestone, the wider ecosystem remains extremely toxic. Deep-seated bias continues to wreak havoc. 

In seemingly progressive media or corporate workspaces, Rangnekar describes how a queer person might be seen as ‘cool’, yet expected to conform to the usual stiff gender-binary norms. It’s like a one-day-in-the-year acceptance; the rest of the time, you must fit in, into a world ordered on patriarchal lines. The LGBTQIA+ community is vulnerable to bullying, taunts and outright violence whether in workspaces, education, home or the street.    

All this can take a severe toll on mental health. If simply trying to survive, be oneself, and seek love, sex, steady relationship(s), dignified work and lifestyle, entails a fraught, high-risk roller-coaster journey, sensitive individuals might well experience fear, insecurity, despair and depression.

Some might find safe(r) harbour in another country and culture, where same-sex relationships are more acceptable and there is not the constant feeling of threat and dread. Rangnekar writes engagingly of the warmth and openness of the Thai approach to life, easy acceptance of diverse sexualities, and comparative safety that Thai women seem to experience. It is a culture where he has felt accepted, comforted, soaking in the easygoing ‘mai pen rai’ (it’s okay, no worries) approach to life. 

A queer culture is developing, in India, with organisations such as Naz Foundation, Bombay Dost, AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, Sangini, Nazariya, and cafes, bars, music bands, film festivals, pride marches, various support groups as well as academic scaffolding. The LGBTQIA+ community is reclaiming its history, as with Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s classic on same-sex love in India. Writing such as Queersapiens adds to the growing literature, providing visibility, and inviting conversation. 

There are integral, underlying bonds between women and the LGBTQIA+ community; patriarchy is their common enemy. Over the past few decades, the women’s movement has challenged gender roles, stereotypes, masculine fixities, it has disrupted the status quo and influenced shifts in public and private spheres. A lot of this overlaps with the LGBTQIA+ movement. As Rangnekar puts it:

‘…if you think it is natural to question, to seek change, to work towards it and to add to a debate, a perspective of unseen and unheard lenses that aren’t of the typical heterosexual males, then you are queering the world too.’ 

Queersapien in parts reminds one of Flavia Agnes’s early feminist classic My Story… Our Story of Rebuilding Broken Lives, which narrated the raw experience of domestic violence, struggle to safety, and moving on to support others. Sharif Rangnekar has moved on; from a person fearful about disclosing his sexual identity to anyone, even his own self; to being a writer, public speaker, cultural activist and advocate for the cause. He recalls having found support and safe space at Naz Foundation when he desperately needed it; and is keenly aware of the need to extend support, especially to sexual minorities who are underprivileged also in terms of class, caste, status, education and work opportunities.

Also Read: ‘Stray? Or Great?’: Who Is a Queer Poet and What Exactly Is Queer Poetry?

Telling one’s story can be a mode of reaching out, to expand the circle of understanding, the personal showing up as political. It might well touch a human chord, help build solidarity, by encouraging an understanding of multiple realities. But being so open is not easy, for it can mean also, being vulnerable. Rangnekar observes that he’s had to shed some of the trappings of the life he led earlier, to get to where he has reached now, a point of being uninhibited, with nothing to hide, no secrets to hold on to:  

I’m done with lying
Am done with sighing
Done with complying
To the lies I tell…

I’m done with crying
And my tears ain’t drying
As I’ve been complying
With the lies I tell…

I’m done with extending
Courtesies and just smiling
Not living just surviving
For the lies I tell…

I know 

I’ve got to fell the lies I tell.

He sees the truth, now, of his journey as being towards freedom, and the expression of that freedom. It’s about self-acceptance, and understanding that learning, freedom and queering are continuous processes, with no full stops, simply onward movement.   

In this book, a lot happens, which sometimes is difficult to keep track of. Anecdote mixes with reflection, statistics with emotion, memory with music, people with places, and lots more. If the free-ranging flow feels, often, a trifle untidy, that’s part of the story – like life itself. There is, really, no easy, neat way to tell it, grasp it or live it. 

Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a social scientist, teacher, feminist, activist, single mother. Her writing includes Home Truths: Stories of Single Mothers (2003); Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur (2014); Her Stories—Indian Women Down the Ages: Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens (2022); and (in Hindi) Bharatiya Mahila Andolan Kal Aaj aur Kal (2001). 

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