The family is the first gatekeeper of conservative regimes. Now, more than ever, such regimes are gaining political mileage in the global North and global South. Anukriti Dixit explores the violence of heteronormativity and its related fundamentalist ideals through two social phenomena: the recent rise of ‘honour killing’ of queer persons in India and the rise of violence against queer and trans people in Switzerland
These two vastly different countries might not immediately appear fruitful for comparing conservative policymaking. India lies in the ‘developing’ global South; Switzerland the ‘developed’ global North. Their size, geographic location and cultural composition are entirely distinct.
I am a policy studies scholar who has lived and trained in both countries. In each case, I notice parallels between conservative ideals and implemented policies. One significant recent development in nationalist politics common to India and Switzerland concerns trans and queer rights. The idea of the family as central to the nation, and to national identity, prevails in socio-political discourse.
The Indian government proclaimed earlier this year that the Indian ‘family unit’ comprises a husband, a wife and child(ren). The Supreme Court of India (SCI), while recognising gay couples' rights, dismissed a plea for legislation regarding same-sex marriage. In the same verdict, the SCI declared trans people in heterosexual relationships can marry under India's existing legal framework.
Thus, ‘family’ in its strictest legal sense is a heterosexual, binary entity in India, feeding stereotypes about gay couples as ‘unsanctioned’ unions. The irony of the rise in ‘honour killings’ of queer people in Indian heterosexual family units is lost on these authorities. Family members are more likely to inflict violence on LGBTQ people. This (largely heteronormative) violence leads to ‘gay brain drain’, insecurity and India’s LGBTQ population becoming increasingly vulnerable.
‘Family’ in its strictest legal sense is a heterosexual, binary entity in India, feeding stereotypes about gay couples as ‘unsanctioned’ unions
In Switzerland, gay marriage is legal. Despite this, anti-queer violence has increased in the last decade. Public discourse preserves the idea of a heteronormative order, through 'gender/woke wahnsinn’ (gender/woke madness). This ‘madness’ typically signifies merely the queer community’s objections to gender binarism and the right to a genderless life. The Swiss Supreme Court, in 2022, denied non-binary persons an official genderless status, claiming the 'binary gender model is still strongly anchored in Swiss society'.
A specific idea of 'family', rooted in a heteronormative order, is central to policymaking in both countries. Conditions of oppression against queer/trans people are not equivalent in both countries. Yet heteronormativity continues to shape the circumstances and struggles of queer/trans people in India and Switzerland.
For instance, policymaking often reproduces heteronormativity, through the neoliberal logic of the 'deservingness' of individuals and the security of the nation. Following this neoliberal logic, only those who 'deserve them' can enjoy rights.
The government constructs certain target populations as ‘deviants’ and therefore not ‘worthy’ of rights or policy interventions. These may include poor, physically/mentally disabled, LGBTQ, old/ageing, 'lower' caste, religious ‘others’ and occupied territories, among other marginalised communities.
Governments portray queer lifestyles as a threat to the family, and to the nation
Regarding national security, I observe in both India and Switzerland carefully nurtured notions of ‘safety, family and nation’. Governments create fear around queer lifestyles, suggesting homosexuality and/or non-binary gender identities represent a threat to the family and to the nation.
This picture ignores what Jane Ward describes as the ‘tragedy of heterosexuality’. Ward says heterosexual cultures are premised historically upon institutionalised violence, inherent in the subordination of ‘women’ and/or marginalised others. This violence includes workplace sexual harassment, domestic abuse, bullying, surveillance and queerphobia.
Often, the heteronormative family is the site of such violence. In India, there exists a de jure inequality because same-sex couples are denied the legal right to marry or adopt. In Switzerland, there is de facto inequality. Despite the recognition of queer rights, violence against LGBTQ communities is normalised, and escalating. Both states reproduce heteronormativity through the ‘queer threat’, while inflicting violence on queer, trans and non-binary bodies.
Feminist post-development scholars have long argued that we should examine the global rise of conservatism through a postcolonial, feminist lens. I posit that studies spanning the ‘developmental spectrum’ of countries are important to get an accurate view of what is happening under conservative regimes.
Heteronormative national orders in India and Switzerland are taking broad-stroke democratic stances for queer rights. Yet both countries share converging logics of anti-genderism, conservatism and queerphobia. Indian and Swiss conservative regimes are part of their respective political landscapes in a fundamentally democratic setting.
To gain an accurate view of what is happening under conservative regimes, we should study countries that span the developmental spectrum
India is an indirect democracy, Switzerland a direct one. India decriminalised homosexuality in 2018 and Switzerland legalised gay marriage in 2021. Following these policy changes, governments of both countries encouraged anti-democratic narratives of fear in their conservative populations. Both conservative regimes appear to feed off ‘backlash propaganda’ – attracting votes, or support for policy change, on the back of recently passed democratic policies. In India, this manifested in the government dismissing pleas to legalise gay marriage. The Swiss government passed legislation to retain a gender binary.
Conservative groups in both countries have been extremely adept at using democratic means to ensure their agendas become policy. Perhaps, rather than comparing conservatism based on country demographics, size and development status, it is time to compare across the global North-South divides. Scholars could gain particularly interesting insights from comparisons based on the values, policies and operational modes of different conservative regimes.
India and Switzerland might seem unlikely candidates for a comparative studies sample. However, a closer look at the two reveals historical similarities in the conservative and heteronormative logics of their nationalist politics.