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Mainstream, VOL LX No 29, New Delhi, July 9, 2022

Ideating Sexual Citizenship: The Right of Sexual Self-Realization | Akanksha

Friday 8 July 2022

by Akanksha *


Queer Citizenship, Erotic Citizenship, sexual citizenship and Intimate Citizenship are the several attempts by scholars to bring about a union of two forms of belongingness- sexuality and citizenship. At the very core of this union lies a seeming paradox - how does an intimate identity, a ‘private trouble’ to use a concept from Michael Burawoy like sexuality enters into the public belonging like citizenship? Most accounts sexuality-citizenship interaction interrogate into how certain sexualities are persecuted in the state- civil society nexus, and thus are prevented from the exercise and very often, also the possession of the full bundles of rights guaranteed to a citizen. This paper, while affirming those accounts of sexual citizenships [1], shall also seek to understand how interaction with the state can prove restrictive in not merely exercising certain sexual practices, and achievement of legal and symbolic recognition of the same; it can also intervene in the process of ‘sexual ideation’ — that is, the discovery, development and sexual self- expression of an individual, thus enabling certain forms of sexual citizenship, while foreclosing others. 

Keywords: sexual citizenship, erotic habitus, sexual ideation, sexual scripts, self- definition, rights as citizenship


Citizenship in so far as it can be conceptualized as a full and complete membership of a political community (Marshall, 2009), is primarily concerned about the relationship of the individual with the state. As a form of belonging, it contains within it several paradoxes. Sexual citizenship in particular runs into a paradox due to the differential nature of the two forms of belongingness. Citizenship could be seen as a uniform, universal status, which demarcates between the citizen and the other. Queer ethics, on the other hand is characterized by diversity, disruption, fluidity and ‘radical inclusivity’. This gives rise to a recurrent question- how does Citizenship deal with a form of identity that refuses categories, boundaries, and identities?

Not very well, it seems. Citizenship, is by its very nature a universal form of belonging, conferred on all individuals who have the status of a citizen. As such, it is constantly engaged with what Ken Plummer has called the ‘moral boundaries problem’. The moral boundaries problems refer to the classic dilemma inherent within citizenship: who is inside, and who is outside of the domain of citizenship. To talk of citizenship, is to assume automatically an ‘other’, someone who is not a citizen. (Plummer, 2003) Even though formally, citizenship is decided on the legal requirements like birth, descent, residence for a certain number of years, or registration. However, any substantial engagement shows that the boundary between ‘citizen’ and the ‘other’ is far from being only a legal matter. Even when individuals do have the legal membership of a nation, they often are divided into spheres of differential access to citizenship. As Plummer notes the process of setting boundaries reflects strong patriarchal, racializing, nationalizing, and heterosexist elements that tacitly exclude others on grounds of gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, and so forth. (Plummer, 2003) The citizenship we encounter is very different from the universal promise of the concept. The affiliations, marked on the identity and personality of the individuals invariably make their appearance with that of individual in the ‘public’ sphere of citizenship, which eventually becomes a crucial factor in their interactions with the state and with other individuals.

This paper interrogates the relation between citizenship and the particular affiliation of sexuality. It seeks to answer the question- how does a ‘private trouble’ like sexuality enter a ‘public domain’ (Kumar, 2014) like citizenship. In Section II, the paper shall build on T.H. Marshall’s theory of citizenship, and Ken Plummer’s conception of sexual citizenship, to discuss three levels at which sexuality enters the field of universal belonging of citizenship- state society interaction, intra- society interaction, and the individual themselves.

In the third and fourth sections, the paper shall interrogate in some detail at a specific right — that is, the right to self- realization. In section IV particularly, various accounts of how the state relates to its citizens shall be delved into to understand how performances of citizenship enable the ‘sexual ideation’ that goes behind self- definition in varying forms. In doing so, the paper hopes to bring the very assumptions of sexuality as private trouble, and citizenship as public issues into question.

II. Sexuality and Citizenship 

T H Marshall’s conception of citizenship gives us a standard channel by which to enter the discussion about sexual citizenship. Marshall gives his famous and oft- quoted formulation of citizenship as following- “[A] status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed.” (Marshall, 2009)

What does the full bundle of rights mean in the context of sexual citizens? Ken Plummer gives us a typology of sexual rights important for complete intimate citizenship in general, and for those identifying as sexual subalterns in particular. Plummer talked of three kinds of rights that must be ensured in the struggle for intimate citizenship — right to various forms of sexual practices in one’s personal relationships including right to sexual pleasure, bodily autonomy and integrity and so on; the right to public validation of sexual relations; and thirdly, right to self-identity and self- definition. (Plummer, 2003)

The right to various forms of sexual practices, is well known and discussed among the queer and LGBT activists, in their pursuit of full sexual citizenship. Most countries, at some point, and even presently have excluded queers from the exercise of some of the very important right- of intimacy, marriage, adoption, protection against domestic violence as well as state violence etc., that are generally available to other members of their country. [2] Section 377 has been the infamous example of such coercive law in India, which has denies the rights of free sexual association to its citizens, and has treated cases of consensual sex between two same sex individuals as an ’unnatural offense’- punishable by imprisonment and fine. Adoption laws in India, even after the decriminalization of the same sex associations, debars the ’inferior couples’ like the LGBTQIA+ community from adopting children together — demonstrating that homosexual couples still aren’t equal before the law (Awasthi, 2019). Similarly, the institution of military continues to hold a conservative attitude, continuing to punish “any kind of homosexual or heterosexual behaviour that falls under the category of ‘unbecoming conduct’, or disgraceful conduct of a “cruel, indecent or unnatural kind” with up to seven years in jail, upon conviction by a court martial (Dutta, 2019). A background paper that forms a part of OHCHR’s series on gender stereotyping has notes how several states have passed law s against “public promotion of homosexuality” or “homosexual propaganda”. This contravenes not just the freedom of speech and expression generally, but also restrict the transmission of important information and awareness on reproductive health issues (United Nation Human Right: Office of the High Commissioner).

Analysis of the rights claims has been the predominant concern of both the academic works on sexual citizenship (Richardson, 2015) as well as queer movements. State has been an important site of mobilizations, around and against which the queer subjects have organized. This is for the simple reason that queer theorists both hold it responsible for the sanctioning, institutionalizing and perpetuating heteronormativity as well as feel the need to engage with it for securing their rights and a better quality of life.

The second domain where the sexuality and citizenship come together is in the realm of public validation for one’s sexual choices and relationships. Public validation is surely an important consideration for the belonginess afforded to those with different sexualities. It has been frequently reported how the suspicion of the queer individuals by their fellow citizens have led to the contravention to their rights, accorded to them by law. Queer Indians often face the lack of housing protection by fellow discrimination, even after the reading down of Section 377. The individuals face the impending possibility, of either not being able to find a house for themselves, even in the metropolitan areas, or being forcibly evicted. (Talwar, 2021) Gayle Rubin’s observation that “Queerbashing has become a significant recreational activity for young urban males” remains true even today (Rubin 2006). The queer news platforms frequently report instances of self- appointed moral police vandalising, injuring and attacking queer persons and their property. (Brooks & Murray, 2021)

This view of sexual citizenship as public validation of one’s way of being is echoed in Niraja Gopal Jayal’s documentation of the evolution of Indian citizen. Jayal talks of citizenship “primarily as a relation between the individual and the state, but also as a relation between citizens”. (Jayal, 2013) However, to bring the discussion in the intra- civil society domain is not to absolve the state of its responsibility in instances of queerphobia and violence. Both through its personnel, and its ideological inclination [3], State often draws upon the intra- civil society to justify its own restriction of rights. For instance, in February 2021, Centre sought the dismissal of petitions praying for recognition of same sex marriages. It argued that in our country, marriage necessarily depends on age old customs (which presumably do not allow for same-sex marriage) and thus there is a ‘legitimate state interest’ in preserving this ‘societal morality’. (Ahsan, 2021) A similar justification was invoked earlier, to argues against the reading down of Section 377 for decriminalization of same-sex activities. Additionally, even if it were not to be the case, The state here is responsible for not merely not restricting the universal rights available to all citizens, but also for recognizing the vulnerability of the queer community and affording them special protection.

Whereas these two strands of citizenship are frequently debated, right to sexual self-identity is often treated as self-evident. It is the third right that this paper shall seek to highlight in a discussion of full spectrum of sexual rights.

III. Right to self-definition and self-identity

The right to self- definition and identity, in so far as it is talked about is majorly in connection with one’s freedom to be able to ‘name the kind of sexual person one is’ (Plummer, 2003). In that regard, there has been a spirited dialogue around the mandatory closet one often finds herself in, in being unfree, by the virtue of their legal and social institutions. The obvious site of resistance, to this suppression of one’s sexual identity lies in coming out, a confession of one’s sexual inclinations and identity with one’s closest ones. This is deemed important, both from a personal and collective point of view. From a personal point of view, coming out is seen as an important step to being ‘how one really is’, and thus reject further suppression of self even at the cost of massive emotional estrangement from one’s close ones. At the collective front, coming out takes on a political significance. It is hailed ‘you must come out, for your own sake and for the sake of all of us’, in the belief that ‘if every gay person comes out to their families, a hundred million (Americans) can be brought to our side’. (Sedgwick, 1986)

This dialogue around being closeted and coming out is no doubt important, and seeks to capture the experiences of multiple individuals. However, it still premises itself on the pre-requirement that the closeted individual is aware of one’s sexual inclinations and desires, and claims it as a form of identity. Only then the question arises, whether one is truly suppressing one’s desires or not.

This paper bases itself on a broader definition of sexual self- realization, which captures not merely the free and authentic expression of one’s identities, which we are assumed to already know and have articulated — and that requires one to struggle against misrecognition in the legal and social domains; but also, the freedom to be able to discover, evolve and develop one’s identity. 

Here, insights from two bodies of literature converge. On one hand, the discussion around self- definition and self-realization acknowledges the self to be, not static and essential, but as Cressida Heyes says — a work-in-progress. (Heyes, 2003) Several Scholars like Heyes, Judith Butler, and Charles Taylor have affirmed the ‘constructed’ nature of subjectivities, and particular sexual subjectivities. Secondly, it also affirms a particular view of power. Foucault claimed that the movements around sexuality are predominantly based on the ‘repressive hypothesis’, which insists that “modern industrial societies ushered in an age of increased sexual repression”. This hypothesis can account for only a limited view of power, and additionally not the primary way in which modern power operates. Rather, it operates centrally through ‘producing’ subjectivities, and particularly sexual subjectivities.

To understand the nature of power in enabling as well as foreclosing certain sexual scripts to be written, Adam Isaiah Green’s concept of ‘erotic habitus’ is important (Green, 2008). Green starts his analysis from the observation that even as sexual conduct has received extensive theoretical attention, sexual desire has been left unattended. Surely, the social constructionist theories have provided an important advance over the former approaches which ‘naturalized’ sexual desires and practices. The argument “this is how I was born” might still have immense practical value, but surely seems to lack dominant academic purchase. However, even social constructionist theories, Green notes, doesn’t take into account the unconscious process of sexual ideation that preceded sexual conduct. A fuller organization of sociological organization of desire, one must be cognisant of two processes- the first is unconscious and semi- conscious psycho-dynamic process occurring at micro level; and an analysis of structural antecedents at the macro level. (Green, 2008) The latter involves a relation between different subjectivities of a person, involving their race, gender, class etc. An interaction between both these processes is required to understand social psychological process of articulating one’s sexual desires and inclinations, and could be undertaken through Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of embodiment and habitus. Bourdieu, through the process of habitus has understood the deep somatization of social structures within the self, whereby social structures are ‘deposited’ in the unconscious self. They materialise in a set of embodied inclination, disposition, schemes of action and appreciations. In turn, the habitus, as a “structured structuring structure” shapes the ways in which subjects act toward, invest in, experience, produce, and reproduce the social world. The concept of habitus then has deep significance for understanding the sociological organization of desires, a possibility that has been captured by the term erotic habitus by Green. In concrete terms, whether one approves or disapproves of one’s own attractions, whether one thinks of them as disgusting, (in)significant, (non)- enactable, or an exciting possibility has a relation to the erotic habitus one has imbibed.

Having said that there could be several sites for the dispositions of such a habitus, and where sexual ideation could take place in different ways. One could have a family that affords an immense amount of freedom in exploring, articulating and pursuing one’s sexual desires, coupled with an immensely repressive state and society. Those combinations surely give rise to manifold possibilities; different kinds of sexual scripts being written. The analysis must however, to begin with, focus on one site at a time before an interrogation into their combined influence on an individual’s sexual ideation could be attempted.

This paper narrows down the discussion to the realm of performances of citizenship, which on the first sight seem quite unconnected to one’s sexuality, but which nevertheless are important sites for creating an erotic habitus.

IV. Citizenship as a site of sexual habitation 

The idea is that framework of citizenship and practice of policy demonstrates how citizenship is grounded in normative assumptions about sexuality. Traditional conceptions of citizenship are then understood as referring to, and enabling or producing certain kinds of sexual citizenship.

Several scholars have written how the belonginess to the state could be a crucial site for construction for sexual subjectivities. Foucault is a major theorist in this regard who notes that the new political anatomy of the body, treats sexuality as a central criterion for categorising, comprehending, discipling and eventually producing subjects. Similarly, Judith Butler has noted that the prohibition against same sex desires, in the societal discourse and well as law, gets in the way of free sexual self-definition and expression. Using a psycho- analyst approach, she writes how the taboo against homosexuality leads us to introject our same sex desires in our ego, to give rise to a melancholic heterosexuality (Salih, 2002).

One such account is given by Carole Pateman. Pateman, has talked about patriarchal, heterosexual family unit to mark the foundational sexual contract of the modern state; and thus, forming a model of citizenship. In her discussion of modern, post- war, welfarist state argues that several provisions of this state like family wage, or living wage, or child endowment, were dependent on the assumption of standard family unit being constituted by a husband, wife and children. Pateman, exposes the patriarchal assumptions that such supposedly ‘benign’ and egalitarian practices of the state build on, and reproduces. (Pateman, 1988) But a cursory look would suggest that the modern state, still continuing with several of these assumptions in fact also reproduce the heterosexist bias in the conception of a what a family or intimate relationship is.

The routine administrative and bureaucratic procedures also become the site whereby one’s private affiliations, including kinship and sexuality have to be constantly reiterated and thus produced. The accommodations demanded and made in administrative services in posting to the same cadre as one’s spouse, in a context wherein gay marriage is not yet legalised conveniently leaves out those in same sex relationships out of such considerations. This then becomes a site for reproduction of assumption of heterosexual identities, because the administrative expectation of being able to construct the subjectivity of the citizen in relation to one’s spouse clears excludes certain possibilities of being.

Jyoti Puri’s analysis of ‘sexual states’ takes this observation further. She notes, that in her research around violence against homosexuals, her visit to National crime control bureau at one level proved ineffective since numbers for section 377 was omitted from the records, and she was constantly told to research on heterosexual crimes against women. However, at another level, it also gave her a crucial insight into the nature of sexual state and citizenship it produces. She, invoked the Foucauldian category of a biopolitical state to say that such a state operates centrally through categorising, interpreting, predicting, and intervening in social relationships and events. Crime records are an essential part of these bio-political modalities. But here, the gap between what is available and what is un-tabulated brings us to the crux of biopolitical governance. The omission of the data on queer, paralleled with the elevated of crimes against women as a social problem, brings us to the core of how sexualities are variously managed by the state. It is not only a case of, how Michael P. Brown and Paul Boyle put it, constructing a ‘national closet’. Sexualities are important in biopolitical modalities by the very nature, of being located at the intersection of bodies and populations. It is central to discipling the individuals, as well as securitising populations. Thus, whereas one issue of sexualities, that is crimes against women, is processed and elevated to a social problem, the violence against homosexuals and queers encounters erasures. (Puri, 2013) Whereas the former is a site by which the state disciplines through indexing and measuring, in the latter, we see the evasion and erasure being the modality of the state by which state refused to legitimise the very category of homosexuals as a relevant category of citizenship, and thus implicitly sanctioned violence against them.

Another way, in which we could talk of citizenship being a central site for construction of sexualities is through a specific mandate of the modern state, that is make its citizen legible. Jyoti Puri’s account of legible states, as well as Carole Pateman’s account of welfare states demonstrate that legibility of its populations is a crucial requirement for the modern states. However, legibility interestingly doesn’t merely invoke the identity of its citizens as an individual, which is precisely what should have been the requirement of the liberal, democratic states. Instead, the identities of citizens, is invoked and recorded within their familial and kinship contexts, which also re-affirms the patriarchal, patrilineal and heterosexist logic of these identities. James Scott example of standardisation of surnames is one example. Similarly, the ever-present requirement of having to put in names of one’s mother and father, as well as other relations, is having to perform one’s citizenship identity in relation to our kinship networks as the most stable and natural affiliation- using which the state can recognise us. This, however, excludes the realities of many individuals, who by the virtue of their sexualities might share an estranged relation with their families, and for whom, the (sometimes mandatory) requirement to reiterate their relationship to their families might be an extremely inconvenient, mentally taxing, and sometimes even an impossible task.

All these technologies of governance, inter-pellate the subject into their heterosexual selves. Interpellation, is a term derived from Althusser, who describes it as a ‘hailing’ by an authority person, of the subject into their social and ideological positions. When a policeman calls out ‘hey, you there’, she is inter- pellating the said person as a subject. Similarly, when one ticks the boxes married or unmarried in a heterosexual context; or affirms their relationship to their kin that puts them securely in their heterosexist kinship networks — the modern state is interpellating the subjects into their social and ideological location.

Adam Isaiah Green has referred to scripting theory in his discussion of erotic habitus. One of the questions scripting theory asks is why do people choose to enact certain scripts (herein sexual scripts), in differential ways. A possible answer has been to talk about a master status, that is, one’s master status of gender, race, class, educational background etc are decisive in shaping the who, why and what of sexual practice. (Green, 2008) Citizenship in this regard is a master status, and the performances of citizenship in being conciled to those of one’s sexuality play a major role in the enactment of different sexual scripts by the agents.

The focus on the macro- level social structures, and unconscious psycho- dynamic processes shouldn’t be taken to mean that an analysis taken through the concept of habitus and embodiment are able to completely determine the possibilities of sexual citizenship. The space for agency is not lost. In fact, if a Foucauldian logic is to be employed, the ‘negative life scripts’ (Heyes, 2003) that are discursively constituted around certain sections like queer populations becomes the centre around which the desire and solidarity for these subjectivities gets mobilized. When we talk of citizenship as an erotic habitus, it is only to insist that what the state enunciates as relevant categories, what it measures and indexes, and what it erases, are important in delimiting the contours of one’s sexual scripts, and hence of one’s sexual citizenship. Within these contours, different possibilities of exercising one’s rights as well resistance and agency have to be explored.

(Author: Akanksha is an M.Phil. Research Scholar at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests include feminist theory, gender and sexuality, family and kinship, post-colonial studies, resistance studies and political philosophy, political philosophy and India’s political economy. She can be reached at akankshapathk1509[at]


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[1This paper, chooses to trace the union of sexuality and citizenship through the concept of sexual citizenship, from among the several other concepts which bring about such a convergence. Diane Richardson has been right in pointing that the meaning of the term sexual citizenship is not exactly clear. This paper employs the term in an acknowledgement that all citizenships are at their very core sexual. They carry underlying and normative assumptions about the sexuality of a ‘good’ citizen, which places them in a position to discipline their citizens accordingly. To use Carole Pateman’s terminology, there is a sexual contract forming the very foundations of the modern state. When the queer movements campaign for greater rights for the non- heterosexual and non- gender normative populations, they are not seeking to do away with the sexual contract, but only re- negotiate it in favor of a more queer- friendly state and citizenship.

[2Several more theorists who have theorized sexual citizenship in fact theorize access to rights granted or denied to diff social groups on the basis of sexuality. Gayle Rubin has written, based on the distinction between good and bad sex, that state often takes recourse to the ‘domino theory of sexual peril’ to prohibit and criminalise homosexuality, among other perils like masturbation, child sexuality, pornography, and prostitution in favour of good sex that is heterosexual, marital, monogamous and non-commercial. (Rubin, 2006 ). Closer home, Jyoti Puri has written how state-based discrimination against same sex sexualities cuts across Asia, and takes the form of not just discriminatory laws but also an unequal institutionalization of citizenship rights that leaves the sexual minorities vulnerable to the physical violence, extort and blackmail from the state personnel (Puri, 2013). Even apart from those legislations specifically targeting same sex behaviour and, and marriage laws that sanctify only heterosexual unions, even other laws unrelated to sexual identity otherwise reflect a heteronormative bias. For instance, the patrilocal and patrilineal bias of the property laws leaves out the homosexual couples and families as a valid subject.

[3Herein, the attention is being drawn to the theories of state, which theorize the state in interaction with the society rather than in isolation to it. In these theories, State is not seen as Hegelian edifice, standing as a neutral arbiter between conflicting social groups, but closer to the Marxian and feminist notions of "condensation of the balance of forces" (Zillah Eisenstein as quoted in in Jagger). Moroever, the societal struggles find their way into the state edifice through the personnel that ’man’ the state. Thus, the state itself is theorized as a Milibandian entity, wherein the social background and ideologies of the civil servants and state personnel matters in determining the role of the state (Held, 1984). The view of state, as strongly embedded in the murky relations between the citizens is additionally what makes the potential for transformation possible. It lends a certain malleability to the state, and makes it heteronormativity subject to public pressure and tactics. Shawn Flanigan points how progressive bureaucrats, who are willing to exploit the gaps and ambiguities in laws to help the same sex couples, ought to be made the target of same sex advocacy (Flanigan, 2003). Similarly, Puri has also pointed to the divergent views among the policeman as a source of inconsistency in the practice of law, and hence as potential sources of activist intervention (Puri, 2013). This logic brings back the point about the societal validation squarely within the realm of state- society relation, and thereby citizenship.

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