Newswatch: Covering the queer spectrum
There’s little to be happy about the state of journalism today, but this piece will try to remain upbeat and offer constructive comments on coverage of LGBT (or queer issues). The focus is mainly on the English-language media. First, a pat on the back for doing by and large a good job, especially in the editorials department! A lot of the reportage is either by queer and queer-friendly journalists themselves or driven by them.
These journalists are also the most innovative in their approach to queer issues and in touch with the pulse of queer communities despite not being on an ‘official queer beat’— another sign to management why they need diversity and inclusion in their organisation. Having people in your media house from different communities helps you understand them, reach out to the communities and broaden and strengthen your coverage. One editor deserves a special mention here. Aditya Sinha, currently with DNA, launched a weekly ‘Sexualities’ page (it was mainly about queer issues) back in April 2008 when he was with The New Indian Express. The practice continues at DNA, which has a monthly page. Quality may be ultimately important but for marginalised identities this is great exposure in the short run.
This is not to say that there is no homophobia in the media. Of course there is sensational and sleazy reporting (TV9’s “sting” op in Hyderabad; “Central Park a Gay Paradise”: Mid-Day); insensitive, even biased writing (“A baby for gay, deaf, mute couple? It’s cruel”: Deccan Chronicle) and totally muddled, pseudo-scientific horrors as well (“Lesbian? Not quite, say psychiatrists” and “Trapped In Bad-Girl Taboo”: The Times of India). Then, there is the let’s-not-talk-about-it attitude, which is probably true of quite a few publications, but probably nowhere as ingrained as at the Reader’s Digest. However, change is inevitable and so is a debate on queer issues.
What the media needs to do most is to go beyond the superficial, else both reader and writer will be bored! And which reader would like to start their day with a humdrum piece on a Pride parade when there are so many other colourful diversions? There are many interesting queer stories waiting to be told yet. If mainstream newspapers and channels won’t tell these, then the competition will (for instance online news magazines such as FirstPost.com). The White House has a new LGBT liaison but how many people know he is of Indian origin: Gautam Raghavan. Usually, the press goes gaga over desi achievers, even those who want to deny their Indian origins. So isn’t the Gautam Raghavan story worth an interview or at least some column inches? Let’s start with the basic issue though.
The terminology: Admitted it can get confusing, especially with the never-ending acronyms (LGBTQI… – even The International Lesbian and Gay Association named its 2002 Mumbai regional conference ‘A-Z: The Other Asia’). However, journalists are supposed to know. Or find out! The latest NGO abbreviation is “MTH”, or men-who-have-sex-with-men, transgender and hijra. Label with care! Most people use ‘TG’ and ‘hijra’ interchangeably with eunuch. But hey, it’s all about letting people be themselves and choosing their own labels instead of imposing. Also, note that not only is the word ‘eunuch’ outmoded, but also a lot of queer people object to it as a derogatory term. Dictionaries can’t seem to keep up with these changes, so cultivate your go-to experts for advice on such matters. Ultimately, of course, people are more complex than labels.
Pride marches: It’s been more than a decade since this annual event became a regular feature on the queer calendar in Kolkata, and every year new Indian cities are added to the list. However, in terms of visuals at least, our photographer colleagues give it the same hackneyed treatment – the usual close-ups of a hijra/transgender or of two transgenders kissing each other. The focus is always on the most garish. If they would only look more closely, and not get blinded by all the colour and pageantry, they will perhaps capture new stories of the gay couple with kid in tow, the gay bankers network, the lesbian elders who have been together longer than you have been a journalist and so on, instead of dismissing the rest of the crowd as ‘boring, normal-looking’ LGBs (lesbians, gays and bisexuals).
TV debates/‘balance’: Twenty years of sat TV and all we have to show for it is a handful of coming-out stories and the same old discussion on every Oprah copycat show. These shows do face limitations because not many people are willing to out themselves on TV yet (even when given the honourable way out by hosts such as Simi Garewal). It’s a challenge that needs to be taken up, though, and tackled with ingenuity. Only ‘reality’ TV is pushing the boundary here, not the news channels. Although the distinction seems to be blurring!
Meanwhile, newsroom discussions have the mandatory religious figure (to the point that it has become predictable which talking head will be on air and what they will say) even when the discussion on decriminalisation of homosexuality has nothing to do with any religion, especially Christianity. Politicians and ministers, who fight shy of the issue in public regardless of which side of the debate they are on, are never pinned down, unless they are also small-time politicians with a religious minority connection. Besides Tamil Nadu parties, which have shown some initiative on TG issues, no political organisation has been made to speak up on queer issues, although politicians are difficult to shut up on any other subject. When some of them do open their mouths to speak utter rubbish, like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Farooq Abdullah did, the media allows them to get away with it.
On the other hand, sometimes journalists defend insensitive writing on specious grounds. In the name of religious celebration, it is common for people to dance on the streets of Mumbai to Sheela, Munni and Shakira numbers, and no one blinks an eye. What then would you say to a journalist specifically seeking out people who could have moral issues with Mumbai Pride week celebrations in suburban Bandra – just so that there is “balanced coverage” of the celebrations! That too in the midst of the Pride week, when some off-balance zealot might get provoked by irrational fears of children “getting into wrong things” expressed in the piece.
The business of gay icons: Most stories about showbiz are created by PR people and so a new ‘gay icon’ emerges every few weeks. Often the actors too are fooled into believing their ‘iconic’ status by their producers. The rare actor does try to live up to the status with a sensible head on his shoulders and some genuine concern for gay equality. Seriously though, gay men have very diverse tastes, and rarely is an actor put on a pedestal by them. So most of the talk about someone being a gay icon, and asking every other actor what they think about being called one is, well, a con. Sure, let’s ask what actors think about playing gay on screen (though most will give you hypocritical answers as directors such as Onir will testify because they fight shy of doing such roles). But let’s also ask them the tougher questions, such as why they play the stereotypes and caricatures when they apparently root for gay equality.
Staying with icons, how come we don’t read about lesbian icons in showbiz? Is it because it’s a male-dominated industry in a patriarchal society that still represses women’s sexuality? So the straight men will continue to enjoy the thought of girl-on-girl action but are unlikely to toast an actress as a lesbian icon anytime soon. The serious journalist would find enough genuine queer icons if they only looked.
Reactive, not proactive: Most of what we read on the subject tends to be event-driven—a film festival, the launch of a business catering to the queer community, and so on—rather than being driven by the journalist’s imagination. With so much happening anyway (and so many press releases being dumped into the mailbox, not to mention the noise on social media), it may seem reasonable to forget about queer issues. However, bear in mind that the queer community works with limited resources (even if a certain set seems to party hard), can rarely afford to employ PR professionals and most community organisations are dealing with one crisis after another (such as suicides, threats from families, HIV-positive people falling seriously ill suddenly, hate crimes, ministers shooting their mouths off, big question marks over police permissions for public events and funders not releasing money on time). In such a scenario, the journalist needs to chase the well-networked individuals from the queer community for stories too.
Outing, crime: Gossip is cheap but sometimes true. When it comes to a person being allegedly queer, the juice is passed around but rarely gets into print. Affairs of Bollywood stars and celebrities get written about endlessly, and not just in filmy magazines. Now even sports stars and politicians are making headlines for amorous achievements off the field. Only as long as it’s all heterosexual. Contrast this with the very polite treatment of gay rumours. Once in a while, a Shah Rukh or a Karan Johar will be asked about the enduring goss (okay, Karan, it wasn’t polite that one time). A Milind Soman will even admit that the silliest rumour he has ever heard about himself is that he had an affair with a man no less than Ratan Tata. However, even a quotable quote will remain buried, never receiving the same threadbare treatment of a hetero affair. Like Milind Soman telling Stardust years ago that had he not been in love with Madhu Sapre, he would have been in love with a man. No controversy there apparently, but great controversy about the Tuff in the buff ad!
That is not to say that every silly rumour should be chased and every quote blown up into a headline. However, why the unequal treatment? The privacy argument should apply equally to queer and hetero individuals. Frankly, the privacy argument is bogus and just a convenient excuse to cover up. No one’s interested (okay, some may be) in who does what with whom in bed. How is privacy invaded though by just saying that you are gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersexual, or whatever? In fact, unwillingness to answer that question, especially when you don’t tire speaking about every other mundane aspect of your life, can only mean one thing. If a person claims to be an environmentalist or feminist but runs a polluting industry or is a doormat wife of a bigamist, wouldn’t you point out the double standards at least? So if a closeted gay politician does anything to harm the queer community or a filmmaker produces a film with gay stereotypes or caricatures, shouldn’t such people be outed? Those are the questions that stare journalists in the face today.
Once, in my journalism class, there was a group discussion where we students were given a hypothetical scenario. A cinema known for its gay porn gets burnt down and several male patrons lose their lives as a result. Among them are well-known, closed members of society. The newspapers have a choice to report the names of the dead, or hide them to spare the families of the dead person the stigma. Predictably, quite a few of my classmates recommended the newspapers should not publish the names. Many queer people would also agree, on the ground of ‘privacy’. However, not publishing the names, especially when that is the publication’s usual practice in case of such accidents, suggests and reinforces the sentiment that being gay is shameful. The dead person is not around to be affected by the ‘outing’, and we don’t even know what their choice would have been had they been alive: whether to come out, or not.
As a matter of routine these days the police just hands out the names of queer murder victims whenever they think there is a ‘gay angle’ – sometimes one even wonders if they aren’t being overzealous about discovering a sexual slant. The names get published, which is not problematic per se. What should bother us is whether any journalist even pauses for a minute and questions the police’s version of events in their minds.
Dead people may be unaffected by the outing but it could be hell for closeted gay men abused, called names and forced to give out their names and contact details to the police simply for being at a party. If this isn’t torturous enough, they are put on display before an unquestioning, servile, insensitive media which has been ‘tipped off’ so that the pictures can be beamed to the world and played in an endless loop.
How come no one argues for privacy when the cops ‘bust’ a private gay party? Who takes responsibility if one of the guys kills himself or gets beaten black and blue by his family? Even as the US President tells Manmohan Singh and the rest of the UN to protect their queer citizens, the Mumbai police won’t even let gay people party.
Nitin Karani edits equity research for a living when he is not trawling the web for media reports on queer issues. He also blogs infrequently at queerindia.blogspot.com, and writes for Bombay Dost magazine.
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