By Dhrubo Jyoti:
I remember I was about eight when I first embarrassed my parents by wearing a full-length nightie of my mother’s, in front of the help – “He’s a big boy, what will people say,” was said in hushed tones as I was shuffled out of the room. This was the first in a string of gender ‘mistakes’ I would make in the years to come, which made it difficult to reconcile to the sex I had been assigned at birth, but also facilitated my search for an alternative expression beyond male and female boxes.
I was brought up by two strong and courageous women – my mother and grandmother – who taught me many things but questions about the absent father were always followed by shuffling feet and uncomfortable answers. The absence also meant, for me, an absence of lessons in masculine performance that my peers thought commonplace – shaving, walking in a certain way, even the kind of underwear one wears – all key pieces of performing one’s gender role and taught by people more adept in the game – brothers, fathers.
I think I always knew maleness was an act for me, I just went along with what I thought was popular – quite like my taste in films. I still pepper my language with expletives when I think I need to act more manly, a throwback to the school years when a friend had told me I would need to be brought upto speed in the gaali department as a part of being a mard. I thought it was quite reasonable and was possibly an extension of the changes that were happening to my body. I simply attributed my lack of interest in tailing women or making sexist jokes to the absence of a functional father or brother.
Sex and sexuality hit my friends and I pretty late, by 21st century standards. In addition to not knowing about my own body, I also didn’t know why I was not interested in ogling at women or sneaking up on them, or why the boys bathroom became strangely sexual. This lack of interest was separating me from my male peers – and I knew I was a man – so I tried my best to cover it up and play along. All information we had about sex was advise from brothers and seniors – who were relying on hand-me-down suggestions themselves – and pornography, which was great entertainment at best but a poor educator.
I remember cycling home after meeting friends, where I had spent hours enjoying myself but also constantly trying to align myself with gender roles expected of me. I had no information, neither did my peers, and we were all hurtling down the gender role tunnel with only scraps of biased and prejudiced advice handed down to us by an older generation.
It became doubly difficult to reconcile my sexuality in the closing stages of school, so much so that I withdrew from a very vibrant and welcoming homosexual society around me, when I moved to Kolkata for my undergraduate studies. Sure, I liked watching men in porn, even in real life sometimes, but that didn’t make me gay, right? What is gay? Are they the same as the hijras I saw on the roads? There was no one you could talk to or ask. It was suffocating at times. Even the few men I chanced to sleep with seemed to be struggling more than I was, or were in complete denial about their sexuality.
In the small town I grew up, whispers is all that you got by way of sexuality related talk and the whispers were stifling, telling you to conform, be a certain kind of body, toe a certain kind of gender role. These included instructions to sit with your legs apart, walk straight, don’t move your hands, undo a few of your shirt buttons, do your hair a certain way, don’t listen to your mother, get a bike, talk about women but don’t talk to them.
It was years before I stumbled upon information that told me identifying as a man was a choice that you could opt out of. That gender needn’t be a binary. That you could choose your own gender. Painstaking exploration of my gender and sexual needs over almost a decade made me realize I was not straight or a man. I was introduced to the wonderfully ambiguous term queer, which saved me and which I now use to define my gender, sex and sexuality.
I just wish my friends and I had access to information related to sexuality education that would have saved all of us years of misinformation and prejudices packaged as helpful advice. It would have likely helped me avoid the emotional trauma, bullying and abuse that is still so vivid, that I’d rather fill this page with small town details than talk about how identifying as a non-man and queer could cost one their family and career. Ask me, I have been stalked and attacked on the streets, I know.
Sexuality education is about creating an environment where that bullying and abuse do not thrive because the misinformation and bias that nurtures violence is dispelled. People, when they talk openly about sex and sexuality in a comprehensive manner, that takes into account their diverse backgrounds, shun handed-down gender roles and sexuality mores. This information comes in a way that is scientifically accurate and from trusted sources and affirms people’s inherent right to determine their own gender, sex and sexuality.
Such a conversation is urgently needed in schools and colleges today, if we are to create an environment that is rights-positive and violence-free for young people to explore their bodies, choices, desires and lives. If I had access to comprehensive sexuality education 10 years ago, I know it would have changed my life.
Author bio: Studied Physics till 23 only to abandon it and become a journalist. Too many identities to wear on sleeve, disoriented, unfocused and queer. Deliciously queer. Talk caste, gender, sexuality, politics for orgasm cue.