South Asia Program Seminar Series (SAP) Speaker on March 21st, 2016, Svati Shah, relates that over the past decade, a sea change has occurred in discourses of sexuality throughout the Global South. In this presentation, I review this set of changes in South Asia, by focusing on sex worker, transgender and queer spatial politics as they have unfolded in Indian cities. These transformations may ostensibly be read through the rubric of modernity, in that, if sex workers have been subject to ‘temporal distancing’ through erasure, then gay and transgender rights are increasingly framed as signs of the times. The rising discursive legibility of gay, lesbian and transgender subjects, in particular, has been acute in the wake of a stalled national campaign to decriminalize “unnatural sexual practices,” a phrase that has been interpreted to mean ‘sodomy’ and criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual contact between adults. Here, I suggest that, while the familiar frame of 'modernity and its Other' is useful for understanding some of the new juridical and other discursive regimes of sexuality being produced in South Asia, these rubrics must, in their turn, be read through the twinned lenses of migration and temporality. My argument takes up Benjamin’s assertion in his essay on translation, that “In the final analysis, the range of life must be determined by history rather than by nature, least of all by such tenuous factors as sensation and soul.” I contend that, by considering the question of modernity alone, the discourse of sexuality has risked being read as biologized constraint. Countermanding this propensity requires concomitant attention to a materialist history of sexuality, and specifically to how, where and why discourses of sexuality have moved, and to what effect.
Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality University of Massachusetts, Amherst
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