Notes on Pride

Sissy Lessons: Kareem Khubchandani's Ishtyle

June 20th, 2021
Somewhere on a dancefloor in my 20s. The dancefloor is a potential site of collective undoing. Hands slip and slide across bodies. Touch inaugurates intention. Desires spill into the seas of sweat that ebb and flow through the crowd. Dancefloors curate the porousness of the body, turning down its defenses: the grammars of disicpline, composure, and sometimes gender that have organized us. But not just between bodies, but also within, our senses of self are undone. Hands bend. Fingers extend. Hips shake and pivot. Sometimes to the beat. Sometimes not. I've spent a lot of time in clubs, with nightlife. It organizes my weekends, occasions meet ups with chosen family, and sometimes breaks my heart with the cruelty of its patrons. But I keep coming back night after night, weekend after weekend, because there is something familiar and comforting in the devolution of bodily discipline. Growing up, adults used to remind me, that I am "like a bull in a china closet." A crude but effective similie, this literary device cum warning was meant to name how my size and stature take up space, and can be menacing in a world of order. I've spent most of my life moving through space (literally) trying to negotiate how to take up little space, how to keep my body contained, how to not wreck the shop. Queerness became an invitation to think not just about sexuality and desire, but also how to unsettle my own relationship with my body and the space it takes. Nightlife, specifically gay dancefloors, were my first invitation to open up, to let my own body slide, slip, spill, and move for my own comfort, and not others.

"I am eschewing identity politics, attending instead to aesthetics and performance, to ask: what styles are given value; what are politics, histories, and circulations of these styles; how do people perform in line with and against dominant stylistic codes; what new forms of relation are made when performances grind against the dominant aesthetics of nightlife? I ask how nightlife-architecture, invitations, entertainment-iteratively orients bodies and engenders tendencies, close-reading moments in which social dance (re)orients the party or even just me, in unexpected ways” (Khubchandani, 2020, xxiii)
"I mobilize ishtyle to work beyond its vernacular use and serve as shorthand for “accented style.” Thinking broadly with accents allows me to analyze difference across borders and scales, but also to ask how brown bodies, regardless of cultural performance, are rendered accents. Accents are a useful rubric to study performance in the interstices of empires and between regimes of culture, drawing our attention to “the sensorial logics of imperial governance and its manifold resistance.” 29 Accents engender both emplacement and displacement 30 and are thus fickle and precarious, but at the same time nimble tools to think queerly across scales of analysis" (Khubchandani, 2020, 6)
"When the club asks migrants, people of color and postcolonial subjects to leave the "unfashionable pedagogies of home behind, it becomes imperative to accent the club with dances that feel home, with ishtyle" (Khubchandani, 2020, 153)

Lavni and Laughter

Bombay 2016

Kareem Khubchandani presents nightlife as an ambivalent space: pleasurable and exciting as much as racist, casteist, and femmephobic (among many other forms of exclusivity). All the chapters conjure figures like the Dalit, hijra, kothi, working- class immigrant, faggot, and sissy as ghostly presences that haunt “the precarious gay spaces where men dance and find pleasure” (77). But he does not disappear these figures completely from nightlife. Nor does he settle for the neat story of their separation or absence. Instead, Ishtyle excavates these figures as central to the stories told about nightlife and its patrons. Specifically, the book invites readers to learn from the labors of transgender and femme figures as crucial to nightlife. As he lays bare for his readers, the faggotry, femininity, and sissiness that gay men refuse and are eager to run from are not only inescapable facets of nightlife but also the irresistible “pedagogies of the dark” (Gamboa 2021). Ishtyle takes seriously the recalcitrance of these accented modes of inhabiting nightlife if only to teach us the disruptive power and persistence of feminine, bodily excess. It teaches us to think about the capaciousness of the dancefloor. Not just the spaces it offers to each of the terms under the queer and trans umbrellas of identity categories. The dancefloor is capacious enough to hold our bodies, to make room for us to unlearn the gestural, aesthetic, and physical restraints that our gendered, classed, raced, caste, and ableist upbrignigns have instiled in us. But this space is by no means democratically given. Khubchandani’s text ruminates on the exlcusions that these spaces reenact. The policing of femininity, race, caste, class, and gender are everywhere on the dancefloor. But ishtyle, as accented gestures and speech, signal the recalcitrance of the very things that some nightlife spaces seek to eschew. Ultimately, these bodily slips and glints of gendered possibility are haunting reminders that those queer and trans figures evicted from nightlife’s reaches cannot so easily be erased and that their presence and labor are the reason the lights are still on, and the music is playing.