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The Illusion of LGBTQ+ Privilege

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Why does the mainstream media portray only rich, creative, white-collared people as LGBTQ? Are the LGBTQ+ restricted to a certain class?

(Source: Popsugar, 2017)

In my second year of Degree College, in a paper on culture studies, we were told to read an article, titled, “Can the Subaltern be Gay?” .While it was a short and simple article which spoke about the absence on poor gay characters in mainstream Hindi and Bengali cinema, the pertinent questions it raised lingered around in my mind for long. When I try to recollect all the Bollywood movies I have seen which have a character from the LGBTQ+ community, however clumsy the treatment of that character might be, or even try to think of all the LGBTQ+ people I personally know, the upper class, English educated, cosmopolitan character features almost always prominently. It might be partly due to my social position that I encounter other LGBTQ+ people coming from the same social class that I belong to, but their scarce representation as belonging to the lower middle class or the working class in the media has to be more than a mere coincidence.

The Myth of Gay affluence in West v/s in India

The recurrent trend that we see today in the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in media is the ‘myth of gay affluence’. This basically refers to the commonly held notion of the masses that the LGBTQ+ community is in general more educated, more affluent and more privileged than the rest of the population. This myth is currently more prevalent in the European and American countries, especially those which have legalized homosexuality. In these countries this myth is so innate that it has resulted in the extended flawed belief that the LGBTQ+ community enjoys the same legal rights as the rest of the population, leads a luxurious consumer lifestyle, holds high paying white collared jobs and is socio-economically better off than the heterosexual population!

This perception is mainly reinforced by the media portrayals of white, middle class, urban gay people. Think of the character Mitch from the famous English soap opera ‘Modern Family.’ Mitch, a lawyer is a son of an affluent businessman, lives in a comfortable suburban house and can afford branded consumer items. Even Ellen DeGeneres, the popular lesbian American comedian who hosts her own talk show and leads an expensive lifestyle gives the illusion that it is very easy for the LGBTQ+ people to make it big.

The Indian scenario differs however. The Indian treatment of the LGBTQ+ character as rich, white collared, creative and affluent is quite recent in origin. In fact it was quite recent that the LGBTQ+ community was given any screen space in Indian media at all. In 1930’s- 1940’s LGBTQ+ characters began to appear in Indian cinema for the first time. But they were regularly shown as silly, shady, promiscuous characters whose main purpose was to provide some comic relief in the film. But in the 21st century, the trend of propagating the myth of gay affluence soon caught up in India as well.

The initial portrayals of these 21st century gay characters were that of closeted rich men, as if to say that the only reason why they could be rich in the first place was because they kept their sexual orientation hidden. Movies like Honeymoon Travels Pvt and Bombay Talkies are examples the ‘rich closeted businessmen’ genre of the Indian depiction of the LGBTQ+ in the early 21st century. This trope of the creative affluent gay man is increasingly being resorted to in the recent times.

Take for instance the recent hit Karan Johar movie, ‘Kapoor and Sons’. Unlike his past insensitive caricature of ‘fake gay men’ in ‘Dostana’, the gay character of Rahul played by Fawad Khan was pretty sensible. However, it again conformed to the prototype of the rich, good looking, and savvy gay man. In the movie, Fawad plays the role of an author settled in the US, indicating that he is privileged and economically well off.  It is important to keep in mind that the director/ producer of the above mentioned movies, Karan Johar who himself identifies with the LGBTQ community as revealed by him in his autobiography, ‘An Unsuitable Boy’, comes from a privileged background as well.

The Myth of creativity

The myth of LGBTQ+ creativity is deeply rooted in the myth of affluence. According to this myth, since majority of this community belongs to the upper class, they must work in creative professions. Richard Florida in his book “The Creative Class” first proposed the notion that having creative people like gays and bohemians in cities is what makes cities more financially affluent.

A creative profession is basically any profession which requires some kind of critical, analytical thinking v/s a blue collared profession which mostly involves mechanical, manual labour. Thus, a creative profession is better paid than a mechanical one under today’s capitalistic conditions. And according to the myth, since gays are creative by extension they must also be rich. Does this mean that construction workers, house helps, watchmans, auto rickshaw drivers cannot be LGBTQ+ because they work in non-glamorous blue-collared professions?  According to Suraj, a 23 year old Banglore based data analyst who also identifies as a gay man, “LGBTQ+ people work in all professions though their visibility is much higher in the creative professions as they find it more accepting to come out there I think. ”

The Origins of the Myth of LGBT affluence

It is interesting to note that the origins of this myth can be traced to the golden age of advertising and marketing towards the end of the 1980’s in the US. Up until then, the public and media image of the LGBTQ community was extremely negative. The gay lifestyle was considered filthy, unhygienic and sinful. They were relegated to the shady bars and bathhouses and were over all regarded as depraved individuals. The rapid gentrification of the US towards the end of 1980’s with the arrival of financial hubs like the Madison Avenue and the Wall Street resulted in corporations realizing that they had ignored a large potential target audience.

Thus, this corporate sector of America took up the task of revamping the stereotypical negative image of the LGBTQ community by replacing it with another stereotypical image- that of the affluent LGBTQ+ person who is essentially a voracious consumer of high end brands and a loyal customer to these brand labels.

The problem with this is the selfish and self- serving intentions of the corporations. They did not propagate the image of the ‘classy gay person’ with any humanitarian intentions. The only intention was to hike up their profits by catering to that section of the LGBTQ community who could afford to both, spend lavishly and to come out about their sexuality. When asked if he agreed with the notion that the LGBTQ lifestyle had come to be associated with affluence and consumerism, Suraj says “Yes.  [I] Strongly agree. LGBTQ people are portrayed to have very lavish lifestyles and wearing only branded clothes and chiselled bodies, which is far from accurate representation.” Even though real life LGBTQ people feel this way, in today’s Karan Johar brand of cinema, we hardly see any pot-bellied, dishevelled or unfashionable LGBTQ character.

Why is the Myth of Gay Affluence dangerous?

Well, on the face value, the myth of LGBTQ+ affluence seems pretty harmless, even empowering to some extent. But a deeper analysis of the intentions behind this myth being propagated reveals its dangerous potential. Although no concrete reports on the correlation between class and sexual orientation are found in India since homosexuality is criminalized here, US Census reports reveal that the LGBTQ+ population is just as diverse as the heterosexual population in terms of class, ethnicity, gender, family composition, age etc. The researchers however believe that well to do LGBTQ+ people are more likely to report their true sexual orientation in surveys as compared to the poor LGBTQ+ people resulting in the over representation of the affluent LGBTQ+ population, further reinforcing the myth.

The repercussions of this myth can be quite detrimental. By representing only the affluent LGBTQ+ people in media and in surveys, one may be led to believe that being LGBTQ+ is a luxury, a privilege which only rich people can afford. This might lead people to believe that being LGBTQ+ is a matter of a choice rather than something over which the individual has no control.

The myth also can increase the hostility of the masses towards the LGBTQ+ population which can manifest itself in demands to reduce protection laws and public welfare policies for them. For instance, in the 1996 Romer vs Evans landmark case in US, Colorado, the justice refused to provide legal protection for lesbians and gays by stating that this community has “high disposable income” and “disproportionate political power”. Such judgements can be detrimental for those LGBTQ+ people who are truly impoverished. Poor LGBTQ+ people are more vulnerable to health problems, discrimination and abandonment from family.

Even within the LGBTQ+ community, some people like transgenders, women and people of colour are more disadvantaged than others. Furthermore, belonging to a high social class may not necessarily ensure safety of the LGBTQ+ population considering the deep disgust which majority of the population have for them.

One of the reasons why I am worried about this myth slowing conquering the Indian media is that it could potentially act as an excuse for the Supreme Court to not repeal Section 377. This has already happened in several other countries where governments of underdeveloped and developing countries like Nigeria and Senegal are hindering the efforts of LGBTQ+ groups to legalize homosexuality and receive foreign aid on the premise that the whole LGBTQ+ movement is a Western phenomenon and thus a First World problem which is not applicable in their country. 

Here, 23 year old Suraj suggests an interesting point. When asked about his opinions on the myth of gay affluence, he says, “They (poor LGBTQ+ people) are not represented at all. I can count with my fingers the number of times we saw an LGBTQ character who was also struggling financially on any media form…. Privileged people with access to better education and facilities often are the ones who get to understand what it is to be different. They also tend to come from the more accepting social bracket. Underprivileged ones hardly have any such luck.” Thus, according to him, although there are several poor people who secretly identify with the LGBTQ+ movement, they are often conflicted about their feelings and don’t have the necessary social or educational support to come out. If this is true, then more media representation of these working class LGBTQ+ people, who manage to come out despite adverse situations, can go a long way in inspiring and encouraging more people from that social class to embrace their true sexuality.

What is encouraging is that there are several cases of people from poor and not-so-rich families coming out of the closet and professing love for their partners which are being increasingly reported in the newspapers. Take for instance the case of two married women from the tribal Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra who eloped with each other after coming out of the closet in 2015. Even majority of the transgender community in India which comprises of 4.8 million people who identify themselves as ‘hijras’, predominantly belongs to the lower class. Even Indian mainstream cinema seems to be getting it right finally. For instance, Aligarh, a 2016 Hindi film inspired from a true story, depicts a Marathi professor from the Aligarh University falling in love with a rickshaw wala. Hopefully someday the depiction of the LGBT community will be free from the constraints of class, caste, race and gender and become truly inclusive.

( Divya Mahatame is currently studying B.A in Sociology and Anthropology in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai)

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