July Reading List on Queer Feminism

Everystory Sri Lanka
12 min readJun 30, 2021

Curated by Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, a feminist activist working independently on topics relating to gender and sexuality, and is passionate about rock climbing and mountaineering.

Learning about feminism isn’t always easy. The more you learn about it, the more you are compelled to unlearn and question almost everything you have been taught so far at home, at school, and by society in general. Watching a rom-com movie will never be the same again. In fact, nothing will ever be the same again. The same goes for queer feminism.

An Introduction to Queer Theory

If you are willing to embark on this challenging yet liberating journey of seeing the world through a queer feminist perspective, then a whole new world awaits! And this is precisely what Nivedita Menon offers through her book Seeing Like a Feminist. If there is just one book you would like to read to learn about feminism, and queer feminism, this is it. If reading the whole book is too much, a good start would be the Introduction, a few pages of the Chapter on Family, and also a few pages from the Chapter on Body where she introduces Judith Butler’s theory of ‘gender performativity’ and how this is normalized within what Butler refers to as the ‘heterosexual matrix.’ The best part is that this book is so easy to read and hopefully you will be tempted to keep reading till the end.

Source: Perera, S., & Ibrahim, Z. [2021] Somewhere Only We Know: Gender, sexualities, and sexual behaviour on the internet in Sri Lanka. Association for Progressive Communications.

So you know a little (or a lot) about feminism, but what exactly is queer feminism? To put it quite simply, queer feminism is a combination of feminist theories and queer theories. If you want a quick and very rough introduction to queer theory click here. Better yet, check out this illustrated book Queer: A Graphic History which will shake (and possibly rattle!) all your existing assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality. While reading this however, you might feel that the ideas that are being proposed, although important, are primarily from western theorists, and perhaps not so relatable if you are living in a South Asian context.

This is why another critical text on queer theory is Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India by Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan. Narrain and Bhan’s book is critical as it contextualizes queer theory from a South Asian (specifically Indian) perspective by including not just the LGBTIQ communities in India but also the traditional non-normative gender and sexual identities such as Hijras and the Kothis and many others whose sexual desires and sexuality cannot be captured in identities alone. You could begin by reading the Introduction and then proceed to read Akshay Khanna’s Beyond Sexuality. This book also includes a few personal narratives — one on Being Gay and Catholic and another on Islam and Me.

Ok so now we have learned that queer theory resists all definitions, resists all binaries, resists identities, tells us that sex, gender and sexuality is on a spectrum, and basically includes everyone who is non-(hetero)normative. But don’t worry if it’s still a little confusing and difficult to understand — here’s an easy-to-read (and partly illustrated) blog on What Exactly is Non-Binary that might be able to help with these ideas a little more.

The LQBTQI Communtiy in Sri Lanka

What about studies on sexuality and stories of LGBTQI Sri Lankans? Thankfully there is more material today than there was 10 years ago! This next section will guide you through a few of the key resources to help you better understand the local context.

If you would like a peek into the true life stories of four LGBT Sri Lankans, have a look at this graphic narrative — Spectrum: Four Illustrated Stories of Discrimination Faced by LGBT People in Sri Lanka (also available in Sinhala and Tamil). For a more in-depth qualitative study of experiences of violence and discrimination as faced by lesbian, bisexual women and transpeople in Sri Lanka, have a look at Not Gonna Take It Lying Down (also available in Sinhala and Tamil). Since all queer people do not experience violence and discrimination in the same way, do take a look at this brief video which tells us about the specific forms of discrimination faced by transgender people in Sri Lankan as they try to navigate the challenges they face on a daily basis.

Source: Perera, S., & Ibrahim, Z. [2021] Somewhere Only We Know: Gender, sexualities, and sexual behaviour on the internet in Sri Lanka. Association for Progressive Communications.

As Covid19 has forced us to inhabit a more digital space, a recent study (with illustrations that will blow your mind!) looks primarily at how queer Sri Lankans use the internet in their expression, for their work, to consume and create content, to find pleasure, or to find a community. The study by Sachini Perera and Zainab Ibrahim — Somewhere Only We Know: Gender, Sexualities, and Sexual Behaviour on the Internet in Sri Lanka, is also available Sinhala and Tamil.

The travel restrictions that have been in place due to Covid19 have also forced many LGBTIQ youth to stay at home — possibly in transphobic / homophobic environments, with family members who might be struggling to come to terms with a child / sibling / relative is who is queer. In case it’s helpful, here’s a little booklet for parents of LGBT children — Stepping Out: For Parents of Children with Alternative Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities (also available in Sinhala and Tamil). If by any chance you feel you might be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender but are not sure about this and want to know more, have a look at these booklets that may be able to help you — in English, in Sinhala and in Tamil.

Gender and Sexuality

When we talk about sex, gender and sexuality and all the related terms — sometimes referred to as the Alphabet Soup (LGBTIQ++) — one thing to keep in mind is language. How do we translate these terms without losing their original meanings? Who actually does the translations? Is there a feminist politics to translation? For example, does the identity category ‘transgender’ correctly capture the nuanced meanings associated with the Sri Lankan Nachchi community? Or the Indian Hijras and Kothis? Or the Pakistani Zenanas? Or the Nepali Metis? Or the Two-Spirits in Native America? Not quite. While ‘transgender’ is an umbrella term, it is also a term that can easily erase the varied diversity of gender and sexual identities that we can find in the global south, including in South Asia. This is why a trilingual, community-sourced glossary of terms relating to gender identity and sexual orientation begun by two queer, feminist Sri Lankan activists is an important step in documenting terminology in local languages. The glossary currently has phrases and terms which have been sourced by LGBTIQ Sri Lankans and you too are invited to add to it if you think there are terms that should be included.

When we talk about sexuality, more often than not, we may tend to focus on the dangers often associated with sexuality — the violence, the brutality and coercion in the form of rape and sexual harassment. So much so that it’s easy to forget that sexuality can also offer many pleasurable experiences — intimacy, desire, curiosity, sensuality, adventure, human connections and many more. This tension between pleasure and danger has been explored by a number of feminists, but Carole S. Vance’s essay Pleasure and Danger: Toward a Politics of Sexuality continues to be relevant even today and is one of the seminal pieces which foregrounds this tension. You can also read this brief essay by Sri Lankan feminist and women’s human rights activist Sunila Abeysekera on Sexuality: A Feminist Issue? which is available in English and Sinhala.

Since we are talking of pleasure, this brief animated documentary on The Clitoris is a must watch! Did you know that the clitoris — which has 8,000 nerve endings — is the only organ in the human body dedicated exclusively for pleasure? And here’s another fun fact — it was only as recently as 1998 that Australian urologist Helen O’Connor (yes, finally a female scientist!) discovered the actual anatomy of the clitoris! Prior to this, a string of male scientists (including our not-so-dear-friend Mr. Sigmund Freud) had ‘discovered’ the clitoris and wrongly claimed that a woman can only climax through vaginal penetration! And if you are disappointed by Freud’s patriarchal thinking, you must also read The Trouble with Women — a witty book of cartoons by feminist cartoonist Jacky Fleming, where we learn about how the highly respected Mr. Charles Darwin claimed that women had smaller brains, and therefore could not achieve anything great! Somehow he doesn’t sound very smart to me.

An excerpt from The Trouble with Women by Jacky Fleming.

Source: Fleming, Jacky [2016] ‘The Trouble with Women’ New York: Andrews Mc Meel Publishing.

Now that you have learned about the hidden talents of the clitoris, do check out these two personal narratives on pleasure and intimacy — one by Ponni Arasu: ‘My favourite part about being lesbian is the exhilarating sex’ and another by Niluka Gunawardane: ‘What Does Intimacy Mean to You?’

And finally, and most importantly, since consent is a key ingredient to all things pleasurable, here’s another must watch animated cartoon on Consent.

A Systematic Oppression; The Queer Community and the Law

A reading list on queer feminism isn’t complete without a mention of the laws in many contexts including Sri Lanka, where being LGBTQI is often criminalized. Many of these laws are legacies of British colonial law — specifically Section 365A of the 1883 (yes, 1883!) Sri Lankan Penal Code — that we inherited, which criminalizes consensual, adult same-sex sexual relations even in the privacy of your own bedroom!

To begin with, you could read this essay by Shermal Wijewardene and Vijay K. Nagaraj On Queering our Approach to the Law: A Conversation with Priya Thangarajah, (See pages 5–9) to understand how an alternative and queer approach to the law is necessary if we are to engage with it. Also read Marini Fernando’s A Queer Wish List for 2017 (See pages 45–51) as she highlights some of the key legal obstacles faced by LGBTIQ people in Sri Lanka today. Both these essays are available in the December 2016 LST Review dedicated to Queering the Law — so feel free to browse through the rest of the articles as well if they interest you.

On a more positive note, if we look across the shores at our Indian neighbours, there have been some recent victories, as a result of a struggle for justice that began years ago. In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality, and declared that “the LGBT community has the same fundamental rights as citizens” and even went on to say that “history owes an apology to members [of the LGBT community] for the delay in ensuring their rights.” More recently in June this year, the Madras High Court issued a set of guidelines to state and non-state actors and institutions to protect the rights of LGBTQ people. You can read more about this here or listen to this podcast — How a Judge Learned About Queer Lives (Gender Question, Episode 37, 16 June 2021).

These guidelines were issued by the Madras High Court when they were hearing a case of a lesbian couple who had sought protection from the court. A common occurrence in both Sri Lanka and India has been that when two women (over the age of 18, and therefore adults) leave their parental homes and decide to live together as a couple (because they actually are in a romantic relationship), in a number of cases, parents have often filed a case of ‘kidnapping’ with the local police, in an attempt to bring their daughters back home. Nivedita Menon’s piece — How Natural is Normal? is critical and relevant in this regard as it questions the laws that criminalise homosexuality, and pushes us to think about how ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ a heterosexual monogamous relationship actually is.

Finally, there are many films, TV shows, blogs, websites, zines and more that have queer themes or deal with sexuality more broadly. If you’d like to explore these, here are some links and suggestions below. No reading list is exhaustive but hopefully this will get you started on your journey into the world of queer feminism.

Websites / Queer Zines / Blogs / Instagram pages

· Tales from the Crypt — A collection of Tamil and English stories, poems, photographs on life, love, courage and healing.

· Gaysi — The Gay Desi

· IndianWomenBlog.org (Check out the LGBT Section)

· Centre for Studies in Gender & Sexuality, Ashoka University, India — regularly hosts interesting webinars on queer sexuality. If you’re interested, subscribe to the ISHQ Speaker Series.

· Agents of Ishq

· Biblioseks — Online resource of Sri Lankan studies / research conducted on sexuality in Sri Lanka.

· https://sexualityanddisability.org/

Comics / Graphic Novels

· Fun House by Alison Bechdel

Movies / TV Shows / Videos

· PRIDE (2014)

· Kinsey (2004)

· Frangipani (2013)

· Funny Boy (2020) [On Netflix]

· The Danish Girl (2015) [On Netflix]

· Rafiki (2018)

· The Art of Loving (2017) [On Netflix]

· Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

· Holding the Man (2015) [On Netflix]

· Special (2021) [On Netflix]

· Tales of the City (2019) [On Netflix]

· Jaffna Transgender Network — FB Live — Interview with Pathmashree Narthaki, a transwoman from India, 13 June 2021 [Available only in Tamil]

Academic Texts / Essays

·Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty [1988] ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture edited by C. Nelson & L. Grossberg, McMillan: Basingstoke.

o Alternatively, you could listen to this 30-minute video which gives a summary of Spivak’s seminal essay

· de Beauvoir, Simone [1949] ‘The Second Sex’, (See Pages xix — xxxv) New York: Vintage

o Also see TedEd Video on ‘The Meaning of Life according to Simone de Beauvoir’

· Marinucci, Mimi [2016] ‘Feminism Is Queer: The Intimate Connection Between Queer and Feminist Theory’, Zed Books: London. Read Chapter 8: Notes Towards a Queer Feminism.

· Butler, Judith [1999) ‘Gender Trouble’ Routledge: New York

o [Video] Gender Performativity as explained by Judith Butler

· Vanita, Ruth (ed) [2002] Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society

· Vainta, Ruth & Kidwai, Saleem (eds) [2000] ‘Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History’, Palgrave McMillan: New York

· Henry Abelove, Michèle Barale, David Halperin (eds.) [1993] ‘The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader’, Routledge: New York. Specifically the following chapters:

o [Chapter 1] ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality’ by Gayle Rubin (Pages 3 -44)

o [Chapter 2] ‘Epistemology of the Closet’ by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Pages 45–61)

o [Chapter 16] ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ by Adrienne Rich (Pages 227–254)

· Hines, Sally and Sanger, Tam (eds) [2010] ‘Transgender Identities: Towards a Social Analysis of Gender Diversity’, Taylor & Francis: London. (Read Introduction — Pages 1–22)

· Vanita, Ruth [2009] ‘Same-Sex Weddings, Hindu Traditions and Modern India’, Feminist Review

· Weiringa, S and Sivori, H [2013] The Sexual History of the Global South: Sexual Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America

· Ibrahim, Z and Kuru-Utumpala, J [2016] ‘Not Just a Man in a Sari: Queer Politics in Ranjan Ramanayaka’s Maya’, LST Review, Vol 27, Issue 341, December 2016 (See pages 52–56)

· Kuru-Utumpala, J (2007) Queering Sinhala Cinema: A Critical Analysis of Asoka Handagama’s Flying with One Wing. Dissertation for the Post Graduate Diploma in Women’s Studies, University of Colombo.

· Lorber, Judith [2010] ‘Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics’, Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

o This book maps out all the different feminist theories (mostly Western), including an analysis of the sources of gender inequality as argued by each theory.

The Curator: Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala is a feminist activist working independently on topics relating to gender and sexuality; she holds an MA in Gender Studies from Sussex University in the UK, a Post Graduate Diploma in Women’s Studies from Colombo University, and is passionate about rock climbing and mountaineering. In May 2016, she became the first Sri Lankan to successfully climb Mount Everest.

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Everystory Sri Lanka

Everystory Sri Lanka (formed in 2018) is a collective of young Sri Lankan feminists identifying as a storytelling collective.