It’s been a year now, since I’ve moved to Delhi. Despite the severe pollution and the one-month long allergic reactions I had at the height of the after-Diwali smog fest when everyone was smoking a packet of cigarette just by breathing, I still love Delhi for the freedom that it offers to migrants like me. It is truly intoxicating in ways I can’t explain for I have finally found and accepted myself in this city.
My parents were originally from Assam and my father worked in Meghalaya. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Shillong. Somehow I had never really felt like I was home either in Shillong nor in Guwahati. I was in an all girls’ school there, and as many children did, I developed crushes on my classmates, and on a few of my female teachers. Having crushes was quite a trend that didn’t invite unnecessary harassment. Some people would call it “just a phase”. I wore boy’s clothes outside of school though girl’s uniform was something I couldn’t bypass. I used to play outside like other boys and didn’t really develop much interest in dolls like many other girls. The idea was that it was “just another phase” and allowed as well, as long as I grew up to become a conventional woman later in life. However, I didn’t grow out of both these phases eventually.
We moved to Guwahati. Growing rapidly and haphazardly, Guwahati was not really a small town anymore. This time I was in a co-ed school, and by then I had harmless crushes on a few boys and several girls. The teen years were confusing at the least in terms of romance, lust and most importantly gender identity. I was young and naive enough to believe that one could only be born a girl or a boy. Perhaps the lack of adequate representation of the diverse queer identities had something to do with the confusion and lack of understanding. Who would have thought about gender identity as a choice and not essentially determined by birth at that point in a place like Guwahati?
My school days passed without unpleasant incidents but that is only because I hid my real identity so well. I conformed or rather tried to, behaved ‘acceptably’, dressed ‘appropriately’, kept my sexuality and emotions under lock. Homophobia was apparent even among the school counselors, sex education was a joke. It possibly still is, there have hardly been any changes in most parts of the country. As a young school girl, my response to danger had always been flight rather than fight. I ran away as far as I could, from my own gender identity. I didn’t have the tools or the support to face the consequences in grave situations. Being a social pariah, getting bullied and harassed, were legit fears I had while growing up, in case someone found out about my sexuality.
It’s also quite interesting that the society manages to get you actually hate yourself and your feelings, all because it isn’t the norm. Imagine if suddenly heterosexuality was declared unnatural and hence heterosexuals are persecuted using the law (seems rather unfair doesn’t it? Even though that’s what’s been happening to homosexuals or gender non-confirming people for years). Would heterosexual people start hating themselves and try various methods to behave in a manner which doesn’t really come natural to them? Heterosexual people often do not understand the struggles of homosexuals and gender non-conforming people to begin with. What does it mean to live with shame and fear is an experience only the latter relate to.
Self acceptance came pretty late. For the longest time I felt isolated. I grew up feeling there was no one I could talk to. Even God, by popular accounts, was not fond of my queerness. I don’t know what I would’ve done had I not had access to the internet and Queer literature. I read Annie on my Mind when I was 17, a 1982 novel by Nancy Garden about the romantic relationship between two 17-year-old New York City girls. Coincidentally, I was the same age as the protagonists of the book. The book left a long lasting impact; the intensity of relief and sheer joy I felt while reading the book was something indescribable. It was my first encounter with lesbian fiction that started my love affair with lesbian fiction, then living vicariously through reading lesbian versions of Mills and Boons. These helped me get a deeper understanding of myself. I saw myself in the people I read about. And slowly I came into terms with the fact that I liked women!
It was an important experience for me to have met strangers on the internet who were going through the same thing as I was. I met people from far-flung corners of the country but having similar experiences, feeling the same alienation and insecurities I was feeling and it opened up a new world of my own, my community and family. I identify as Queer because there are certain things about my identity I am still unsure about. The idea of being gender fluid and gender blind makes sense to me. I usually just see myself and others as people and less through their gender. I met other women who also were in the same stage of self discovery.
Coming to a metropolitan city indeed turned out to be a turning point in my life though it brought its own challenges. I had several firsts in this city; I had my first kiss, my first gay group of friends, my first exploration of another woman’s body. Considering the fact that women conventionally are taught not to have any sex at all before marriage, making love with woman must seem quite a rebellion to many. It is, yes on one hand, but it’s as natural as all kinds of intimacy. It never felt wrong, even for once. When two consensual adults are having sex or are in love with each other, how is it anyone else’s business? The Supreme Court judgement has proven the legitimacy of it, yet social morality remains a long battle ahead to fight. Of course I can’t look at the city through rose-coloured glasses anymore, the honeymoon phase is over. I ignored several instances of racism, again out of fear of making waves and other people uncomfortable, though my feelings and sentiments were hurt.
Once, I had noticed that people were staring at me when I was walking along the corridor of my college building and I felt self conscious as one does. I thought it was because of my short hair, my classmate noticed too, and she said, ‘Oh it’s because you look like a foreigner.’ Very casual racism, an everyday occurrence for many Northeasterners. It isn’t a compliment to be treated as an outsider in your own country, it isn’t a compliment to be called ‘exotic’. We aren’t birds. We are humans who belong here by birthright, and we do not appreciate the ‘othering’ of our identity just because we do not fit into the mainstream idea of what an Indian should look like. I was also once asked if I ate ‘Indian food’. I can’t even.
After being stared at in the ladies compartment in the metro, after hearing people sneering behind your back and wondering aloud whether you are a woman or man, after being questioned whether you belonged in the women’s toilet, you tend to develop a thick skin. I wonder sometimes, what makes people forget that I am a human being, whose feelings could possibly be hurt, who more than anything just wants to be accepted. In a country where people talk about unity in diversity, where is the sense of diversity in everyday life?
The story is written by Prerna Roy and can be reached at email@example.com