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When I was 22, I remember attending a lunch wearing a black hoodie that had a famous Oscar Wilde quote printed on it. At the restaurant, my uncle told me how he detested the quote and everything associated with Oscar Wilde, because ‘that blighted Wilde was a faggot’. I remember gasping in order to maintain the decorum of my favourite hill-station’s favourite restaurant. I sat quietly while picking at my garlic lemon butter trout with my fork, just the way I did with my pasta when my cousin asked one of our brothers to avoid wearing pink because ‘oh my god, he looks so gay in pink.’ Just the way I sat sipping my empty glass of lemonade when an unassuming elder repeated the f-word (used earlier by my uncle) to describe musical maestros like Freddie Mercury and Elton John.
It wasn’t just on these three incidents that I maintained decorum by focusing on doing something meaningless with my excessively fidgety hands. This habit goes back to my school days, when any two peers with a sense of intimacy were termed as gay as if gay were a cuss word. Atleast for us school kids, it was. And for those of us who refused to become more gender aware, gay and lesbian are still cuss words used as one of the most sure-sought ways of instilling shame in the targeted person. Interestingly, the validity of this claim had little to do with a person’s sexual and/or emotional orientation. It didn’t, actually. In fact, it turns out that being anything that failed to correspond with the present society’s definition of being ‘straight’ or heterosexual1 was something that one had to be deeply ashamed of, if not self- obliterating. Not just heterosexual, but heteronormative, if you will. Could I reason this to be a general reason for you being celebrated as Pride Month? To dispel (in instalments) the cumulative amount of shame that is brought upon the majority of the global populace for not fitting into neat labels, boxes and definitions as per heteronormativity’s assumed taste?
Every year when I read June newspapers over breakfast as an undergraduate student in Delhi, I would spot pride parades. In other words, the robust and vibrant parades that the more privileged dissenters of heteronormativity2 participated in (mostly) worldwide. The faces, their smiles, the rainbow flags (and not to mention, the dazzling costumes that the bolder segment of the parade donned), all unanimously spelled out ‘freedom’. The rainbow specifically shouted out to its onlooking/ scowling or worse, denying populace that failed to conceive each colour in the spectrum of existence due to their oversaturated monochromes of patriarchal social conditioning.
As you know June, ‘homophobes’ is the analytical term used to refer to the more radically conditioned populace that arrives at a visceral aversion vis-a-vis non-heteronormativity. Logically then, this term implies their sole characteristic as being ‘homophobic’, which can be defined as a phobia towards all things non-heteronormative. You know why this extended definition is important? Because while my anti-Oscar Wilde uncle was averse to a renowned artist solely on the basis of his homosexuality, my cousin was averse to our brother’s choice of dressing for being non-heteronormative (possibly because for prudes throughout the better part of history, pink is a girl’s colour*. Never mind that pink was the preferred shade for boys and blue for girls3, because doesn’t that serve the same binary that you and I denounce? Perhaps I’ll leave this for another part of the letter.)
Now a person who is less fond of June might ask me why I am over-reacting to banal comments on Wilde and pink shirts.
Because, those are the slightest discriminations against diverse identities that go pardoned, unapologised for, or even unnoticed.
Because, those are statements that well-educated and gentrified persons of modern day societies continue to make despite lending a hashtag to #LoveisLove.
Because, these were or are the parents who are sending their kids to homophobic (nevertheless homosocial4) schools to graduate into adulthood and repeat the behaviour of their parents, relatives and friends.
Because I, and many like me, are tired of the usage of derogatory words to rattle the self worth of any identity that chooses, or even dares to be different. Because we are tired of the constant threatening and even terrorising treatment offered to any ambivalence around heteronormativity.
And most of all, because we are beyond tired of being subsumed for being fluid in our nature and choice of our existential expressions.
As a kid, I remember being labeled as a tomboy for preferring jeans over skirts, Lego over Barbie, sports over makeup and Eminem over Spice Girls. My teenage gait didn’t have the girly hip swing, and my pubescent self began to slouch due to being conscious of my recent developments. Apparently, they didn’t go too well with my ‘sporty jockishness’. And yet, I was fond of applying French manicures, straightening my hair, and got my young heart broken by doofus teenage boys.
Even now, I often perceive myself as tiptoeing deftly on the shores of androgyny. For example, I fasten the longer flicks of my cropped hair with a shimmering pin. On days that I don’t have corporate meetings to attend, I am found in oversized spectacles and plain t-shirts that are flanked by indie pants. My dressing ritual ends with a casual pinning of earrings and a smear of lip colour, in hues that range from subdued nudes to the boldest shades of scarlet. I enjoy musky colognes as I do fruity splashes, and focus on maintaining toned biceps despite failing miserably at performing basic pushups.
What does this hopscotch game amidst so-called binarisms make me?
They make me who I am, and it is in this fluidity that my essence finds its home.
I was not exempted from the brigade of seemingly benign comments made by close as well as random people such as, ‘beta, it’s so nice to see you become all girly’ ; ‘you’ve cut your hair too short’ ; or ‘you would have been such an eligible boy, if only…’ The lack of validation accorded to my nuanced androgyny did leave me feeling confused about my identity, and at times, frustrated. Overcoming the need to conform to several binaries does originate from a certain amount of privilege, and that is an undeniable fact. But it also arises out of an ongoing internal battle wherein these binaries are vanquished, little by little every day.
My contention against these binaries gained additional zeal when I began to increasingly realise the futility of their artificial imposition.While at LSE, I heard Butler say that gender is nothing but an act of doing, or performativity that is assigned to us from the moment our birth is heralded with- ‘it’s a boy!’, or, ‘it’s a girl’. From that very moment, it is either this way or that. The pursuit of gender justice that unites Butler with humbler selves like me is our mutual wistfulness for a time when birth announcements sound more like, ‘it’s a boy/girl unless (s)he chooses otherwise!’ The finality of birth certificates becomes terrifying to those like us, who'd rather opt for a provisional one that can be revised later by a more evolved and informed version of our adult selves.
Oftentimes, my supposed idealism has been flouted as a bandwagon of western modernity. Those who are more well-versed with the diversity of Indian culture and heritage would agree with me when I say that heterogeneity is unapologetically Indian in its foundations, as is modernity. The temples of Khajuraho, Mahabharata’s Shikandi, the legends of Ayappan, Mohini and Brihanalla only form the tip of a colossal iceberg that swells me with pride for its ancient acceptance, but also pains me for its more recent shunning by the rudimental combinations of imperialism, capitalism as well as patriarchy.
Now keeping in mind your celebratory pretext of LGBTQA pride, I do not mean to undermine the urgency of diverse self-expression making itself more visible through each subsequent June. However, I also wish to bandage an over presumed affliction that rhetorically places a homophobic lot of the society as ‘villains’ against an alienated queer populace as ‘victims’. There are two flaws in this assumption. One, that it is impossible to put an end to binarisms with yet another binary. Two, and more importantly, because this is a redundant mechanism of division. I’ll tell you why I say that. According to my naïve understanding, gender justice has little to do with vindicating queer identities and avenging homophobic myopias. Rather, the monster that deserves our unanimous fight is the homophobe as well as the queer victim that we carry within us due to the uninterrupted conditioning of heteronormativity wherein we eat, breathe, sleep, and essentially, live.
Even though my privilege and lived experiences make me more gender-sensitive, I am not a morally upright exception to the conscious or unconscious denouncements that we as a pre-conditioned society make towards fluidity and deviant identities. There are times when the homophobic villain in us takes the subtlest precedences amidst the best of us. And it is this constant internal conflict that I find to be the cause of our alienation. This alienation resides in the very sophisticated boxing of our own fluid selves, as well as everything that we happen to interact with or know. For, how can water be boxed without ice trays?
So June, I end with a thank you for patiently enduring my musings that find more concrete expression with the unfurling of your rainbow flags. But before I sign off, June, I leave you with a crucial endnote that I hope for you and your successors to pioneer. This endnote revolves around an important observation that Amartya Sen shares when it comes to identities. He refutes one’s identity as being a source of accidental discoveries and instead, points at conscious choice as its fountainhead. In other words, we are not passive victims of stagnant identities that we happen to discover. On the contrary, we are active agents of our constantly evolving identities that we harbinge through choice and mediation in multifarious situations of constraint. But then again, which choice is made in the absence of limitating circumstances?, asks Sen.
In a nutshell, the presence of never-ending contingencies doesn’t take away the cardinal existence of choices that we are entirely responsible of and accountable towards.
Since you advocate the freedom of diversity more than any other month, I welcome you yet again with the earnest hope of leading each one of us to reclaim the choice of being who we are and how we conduct ourselves. I welcome you yet again with a pledge to continue the uncomfortable, yet undenyingly worthwhile quest of self discovery and self truth. As the world continues to be gripped in the fangs of a dreadful pandemic, I welcome you yet again as the month of freedom and diversity. I hope for you to usher it to a more sincere, accepting, and liberating means of existence. May you end after weakening the impostors within us, and undoubtedly, the biggest impediments to our own freedom.
* 1918: Smithsonian on magazine Earnshaw’s Infants Department (stated in Vintage News by Khadija Bilal)
Glossary : -
Heterosexual: A person sexually or intimately attracted to people of the opposite sex (only sex, not gender). Source : Google dictionary, italics mine.
Heteronormativity: A term related to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation (and conduct). Source : Google dictionary, italics mine.
Homosociality: Relating to social interaction between members of the same sex. Source : Google dictionary.