In Naz Foundation vs NCT, the Delhi High Court famously held that the word “sex” in Article 15 included “sexual orientation” as a prohibited ground of discrimination. Unlike the South African Constitution, there is no support for this proposition within the four corners of the text. What, then, justifies this interpretation? Clearly, it must be shown that sexual orientation is in some way analogous to the stipulated Article 15 grounds: religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth. One popular argument is that Article 15 – and, more broadly, Part III of the Constitution, through other provisions such as Article 25 – protects personhood: i.e., it stipulates that one’s equal moral membership in society (or, one’s right to be treated with equal concern and respect) must not be made contingent upon those characteristics most fundamental to one’s sense of personhood, or the most basic markers of one’s identity: religion, race, sexual orientation etc.
The argument from personhood is a popular one. In the United States, it was used to uphold abortion laws in Planned Parenthood vs Casey, and subsequently invoked by Justice Kennedy in Lawrence vs Texas, the American Supreme Court case which held that criminalising homosexuality is unconstitutional:
“These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.“
In National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality vs Minister of Justice, the case which struck down South Africa’s sodomy law, the Constitutional Court – speaking through Ackermann J., held:
“The group in question is discriminated against because of the one characteristic of sexual orientation. The measures that assail their personhood are clustered around this particular personal trait.”
There is, of course, something intuitively attractive about the personhood argument. It is, for one, closely connected with other, similarly attractive ideals, such as autonomy and dignity. The idea that there is a core set of beliefs, practices and world-views that define who a person is, and must therefore be held inviolable and subjected to no interference by the State, seems a powerful one, and speaks deeply to our conceptions about what freedom means.
There may, however, be good reasons not to advocate a personhood-based justification for Naz Foundation, or, for that matter, for the philosophy underlying Article 15 and/or Part III in too facile a manner. One set of arguments to this effect are grounded in the work of the philosopher Michel Foucault.
In his three-volume series, The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues against what he called the “repressive hypothesis”; i.e., the idea that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sexuality was systematically “repressed” through a practice of official censorship, legal prohibition (including the criminalisation of sodomy), and the dull compulsion of social relations – and that this repression is only now beginning to be shaken off. Foucault contends, on the other hand, that a closer look at historical evidence demonstrates that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed a proliferation of discourses about sexuality:
“Under the authority of a language that had been carefully expurgated so that it was no longer directly named, sex was taken charge of, tracked down as it were, by a discourse that aimed to allow it no obscurity, no respite… rather than a massive censorship, beginning with the verbal proprieties imposed by the Age of Reason, what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse.”
This happened through numerous practices of surveillance, taxonomy, the re-classification of sins as medical aberrations, religions confessions, and so on (the complete argument may be found in chapters two and three of Volume 1). Foucault then lists four ways in which there was an “incitement” to sexualised discourse. In the second category, which he calls “a new specification of individuals”, he deals with homosexuality. In an extended passage, that deserves quoting, Foucault observes:
“As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized – Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on “contrary sexual sensations” can stand as its date of birth – less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”
But this is precisely the personhood argument writ small. What Foucault is describing (and perhaps, at the same time, warning us against) is the dangers of allowing a set of acts or practices to become the full measure of human beings.
And because of this, Foucault goes on to write, “scattered sexualities rigidified, became stuck to an age, a place, a type of practice.” What is crucial to understand, ultimately, is that subordination must depend, primarily, upon classification and definition: and there is no more effective way of classifying than by holding that a certain set of actions define, or constitute, what a person is. Seen this way, personhood suddenly becomes less of an emancipatory tool, and more of a trap. It also, as Foucault points out, both ossifies and excludes: by holding that one, defined set of practices constitutes the core, immutable being of an individual, it denies the possibility of the practice itself being malleable (for instance, by excluding other forms and conceptions of sexuality) and open to change, as well as denying the same to the “individual”.
We may pause here to notice a moment of irony: in Koushal, when the Supreme Court overturned Naz Foundation, it rejected the Article 14 argument on the ground that S. 377 classified between acts and not between persons. This reasoning was excoriated on the ground that the Court simply ignored how central sexuality and sexual acts are to persons. But, as Foucault points out here, it is the acts-to-persons shift that is precisely what we should be wary about embracing too uncritically!
The application of the arguments in A History of Sexuality to personhood-based claims in constitutional law has not gone unnoticed. In a 1989 article called The Right of Privacy, Jed Rubenfeld subjected personhood-based definitions of privacy to a Foucauldian critique. As Rubenfeld reads Foucault:
“In Foucault’s description, the decision to give medical treatment to homosexuals, which became institutionalized medical practice in the nineteenth century, in fact created the “disease” of homosexuality. It generated a division be-tween homosexuals and heterosexuals that had never been absolute before, and at the same time created new institutional practices through which individuals would more and more sharply identify themselves, be identified, and be processed as homosexuals.“
In a brilliant series of passages, Rubenfeld then explains the connection between classification and subordination, and how the personhood argument – by engaging in the former – undercuts its own emancipatory potential by facilitating the latter.
“Those who engage in homosexual sex may or may not perceive themselves as bearing a “homosexual identity.” Their homosexual relations may be a pleasure they take or an intimacy they value without constituting – at least qua homosexual relations – something definitive of their identity. At the heart of personhood’s analysis is the reliance upon a sharply demarcated “homosexual identity” to which a person is immediately consigned at the moment he seeks to engage in homosexual sex… thus, even as it argues for homosexual rights, personhood becomes yet another turn of the screw that has pinned those who engage in homosexual sex into a fixed identity specified by their difference from “heterosexuals.“
Of course, it might be argued that there is no necessary connection between classification and subordination, and that identities, if put to emancipatory purposes, need not become the trap that Foucault describes them to be. To that, Rubenfeld says:
“These two “moments,” [of classification and subordination] however, are not really distinct. Or rather, if we call them distinct, the impulse toward hierarchy actually precedes and produces the differentiation in identities. Obviously, differences of sexuality, gender, and race exist among us. These are not, however, differences in identity until we make them so. Moreover, it is the desire to count oneself “superior” to another, or even to count oneself “normal,” that converts such differences into those specified identities in opposition to which we define ourselves. To protect the rights of “the homosexual” would of course be a victory; doing so, however, because homosexuality is essential to a person’s identity is no liberation, but simply the flip side of the same rigidification of sexual identities by which our society simultaneously inculcates sexual roles, normalizes sexual conduct, and vilifies “faggots.” Thus personhood, at the instant it proclaims a freedom of self-definition, reproduces the very constraints on identity that it purports to resist. Homosexuality is but one instance of this phenomenon. The same flaw can be shown in the context of interracial marriage: once again, for the parties directly involved, to say that the challenged conduct defines their identity, and therefore should be protected, as-sumes that marrying out of one’s race is in some way the cataclysmic event its opponents pretend; it thus repeats the same impulse toward rigid classification presupposing the discrimination sought to be undone. Interracial marriage should be protected because it is no different from intraracial marriage, not because it is so different.”
A caveat is perhaps important here: this is not, by any means, an argument for “colour-blindness” – i.e., a legal system that ignores socially-constructed markers of identity altogether. Whether we like it or not, it is a simple truism that sexual orientation, race, caste, religion, sex and so on have been historical (and present) sites of oppression and subordination; and that subordination cannot be resolved by now ignoring their existence altogether. This is a well-worn argument in the affirmative action debate in the United States: the key, in reading Foucault, however, is the insight that in attempting to philosophically ground our anti-discrimination law in a manner that is sensitive to historical, group-based injustices, we should not fall into the trap of using “personhood” in a way that only entrenches and rigidifies group markers which – in the last analysis – cannot ultimately be the tools of emancipation.
If personhood is not the basis of Article 15, or other aspects of Part III, then what is? In his article, Rubenfeld advances what he calls the “anti-totalitarian argument“. Continuing within the broad, Foucauldian framework, he argues:
“The distinctive and singular characteristic of the laws against which the right to privacy has been applied lies in their productive or affirmative consequences. There are perhaps no legal proscriptions with more profound, more extensive, or more persistent affirmative effects on individual lives than the laws struck down as violations of the right to privacy. Anti-abortion laws, anti-miscegenation laws, and compulsory education laws all involve the forcing of lives into well-defined and highly confined institutional layers. At the simplest, most quotidian level, such laws tend to take over the lives of the persons involved: they occupy and preoccupy. They affirmatively and very substantially shape a person’s life; they direct a life’s development along a particular avenue. These laws do not simply proscribe one act or remove one liberty; they inform the totality of a person’s life.“
Anti-totalitarianism, as a grounding for a right to privacy, is an interesting suggestion; for non-discrimination, it might not work so well. Another option – broadly on the lines of the South African Equality Act, is to simply identify the historic sites of discrimination, and prohibit practices that perpetuate such discrimination (South African hate speech law is expressly based on this premise), without any further assumptions about personhood. In this context, it might also be interesting to see what the Constitutional Assembly Debates have to say about historically-oppressive markers of identity, such as caste and sex, and their remedies for amelioration.
In any event, given the central place occupied by the idea of “personhood” in judicial decisions world-over (including India), this is a debate that will continue; nor is it a purely academic concern, because the philosophical ground if rights is, ultimately, what determines their reach and their limitations.