From Sex and Desire to Care: Feminist Insights on Heterosexism
By Lai-shan Yip.
In February, I participated in a consultation on “South and Southeast Asian Churches Reponses to Human Sexuality and Gender Minorities” sponsored by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) in collaboration with other ecumenical and non-government organizations in Bangalore, India. I found significance in the theme of extending the queer concern about affirmation of sexual desire and sexual freedom with feminist theological insights in understanding the contemporary construction of heterosexism that LGBTIQ communities have been facing. As I will show in what follows, this connection allows for fruitful conversation around critique of current concepts of care in order to imagine a more just and egalitarian future for people in south and southeast Asia.
2017 marked the 50th Anniversary of decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain, although Section 377 of the penal code in former British colonies such as India, Malaysia, and Singapore makes homosexual acts still criminal today. In 1991, the gay rights movement in India began efforts at decriminalization and, in 2009, the High Court of Delhi finally passed decriminalization. However, the Supreme Court overturned it in 2013. A petition to the Supreme Court for a final hearing was submitted by the Indian LGBTIQ movement in 2016.
The topic of sex has been a taboo in many Christian communities, and many have condemned homosexuality. This consultation showed that in all these years of repeal for Section 377 in India, the NCCI had been in the vanguard. In 2001, the NCCI organized the Study Institute on Human Sexuality. In response to the 2009 Delhi High Court ruling, the NCCI held a theological roundtable that affirmed the existence of different sexual orientations, denounced related discriminations, and supported the High Court ruling. Some member churches resigned from the NCCI as a result. NCCI continued to provide theological and biblical resources as well as training workshops for churches to start related ministries.
Discussion of queer theology in this 2017 consultation highlighted the need to deconstruct meta-narratives and challenge any reductionism to a single-issue concern such as sexual issues. Participants urged for a broad agenda to safeguard universal rights including access to health care, in addition to countering the religious discourses in stigmatizing persons with HIV/AIDS.
The influence of capitalism on the extension of care was a major thread in the conversations. For example, one reflection illuminated that the consumption of private properties in modern capitalist societies relies primarily upon modern hetero-patriarchal families, thus continually legitimizing compulsory heterosexuality. And when considering how the experiences of intersex persons have been regarded as unproductive and thus such people are prone to abandonment by their parents, I pointed to the connection between biological productivity and economic productivity. This connection means that it is imperative for us to uncover the myths of productivity as they relate to the provision of care by the hetero-patriarchal families in the society.
From a feminist lens, I suggested a critical examination of the concept of care and its provisions. Some governments refuse to allocate adequate resources for public health and thereby push responsibilities back onto individual families; most home and community care work is done by women in the name of women’s naturalized caring role and unconditional love or sacrifice. Agendas of the Christian Right in the United States and in certain parts of Asia have showed an intimate link between hetero-patriarchy and right-wing economic and social policies. Theologians and religious studies scholars need to interrogate how religious values like the unconditional love of care-givers have been manipulated in particular socio-economic, political, and cultural contexts to avoid providing public health care.
While queer theories broaden the focus of sex to sexuality, feminists turn to structural oppressions. When forms of care provision have been shaped by the abovementioned hetero-patriarchal familism, women are exploited for their unfair share of unpaid care work and LGBTIQ people are deprived of their sexual rights for their “un-productive” sex, which does not supply the next generation of labour force. The caring role of women is naturalized in heterosexism, which simultaneously refuses other possible care arrangements in other intimate relationships. The meta-narrative of freedom and the right to pursue sexual desire needs to be tested across various marginalized groups to reveal privilege. Most disadvantaged communities are affected by multiple oppressions, so no single privilege is sufficient for their well-being.
A closer look at some queer lives and families in Asia reveals the richness found in diverse forms of sexual desire, intimacy, and care arrangements. Some exemplary queer people or couples take on major caring responsibilities for their aging parents or become actively involved in community services and care. The reality of aging single queer people was raised in this consultation, and then broadened to attend to the issue of care for all aging single individuals in the society. Not only do queer experiences spark creative imagination of what it means to be human in a society, but it also expands the pursuit of equality and justice.
 Dr. George Zachariah (United Theological College, Bangalore, India) gave this point in his response to a panel on contextual theology related to human sexuality in this consultation.
 This analysis on the relationship between capitalism and modern hetero-patriarchal families was made by Dr. Philip V. Peacock (Bishops College, Kolkata, India) in one panel on access to health care in the consultation.
Lai-shan Yip is a PhD student at the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA) in Interdisciplinary Studies on Christian sexual ethics, Confucianism, critical theories and cultural studies. She is also a founding member of Emerging Queer API Religion Scholars (EQARS).