By: Aroh Akunth
When I sat down to write this article about my queer experiences, I struggled with the question of what counts as my queer experience. Can I, being a queer individual even have non-queer experiences? Would it then discount the experiences of those who fall for the same old opposite-sex partners, but are yet very queer? Isn’t the whole idea of being exclusively attracted to the opposite-sex, queer in itself? Clearly the aforementioned isn’t something that concerns only me and is best left to experts, but when I think about my queer experiences, I can think of a few ways in which my politics and being have evolved over the years, and that’s precisely what I will try to delve into here.
I remember never having a ‘coming out’ moment as such – I was the youngest and the most flamboyant (read extra) in the family, loosely holding on to my masculinity. This is the embarrassing bit: I recall my first crushes being Disney characters Nala and The Little Mermaid’s dad (the latter because he was the only shirtless cartoon on TV). When I was young, people would often confuse me for a girl, and I didn’t mind it one bit. In fact, I enjoyed it. It gave me a sense of power and made me feel closer to my mother and grandmother – my two favourite family members. Growing up, my mother instilled a sense of pride in me about my caste and gender identity, which I carry with me even today. Growing up, my mother instilled in me a sense of pride about my caste and gender identity which I carry with me to date.
I remember having discussions about caste in middle school where classmates would unanimously ask me to shut the fuck up – not because they were casteist, but because, at least to them, my discussion was always out-of-the-syllabus. That’s how caste and gender are still taught in school – as syllabi rather than realities. It is treated as something abstract to research (by mostly savarna cis-het academics). As a Dalit and queer person, I could connect the similar oppressions these identities face and how within the queer and Dalit spaces, both can be stifled.
These realizations come to oppressed individuals not only (or almost never) because of what they study, but more out of what they experience. Often these discoveries come at a cost – like every queer Dalit individual, I was bullied for who I was, openly called names, groped – I remember someone putting a cigarette butt to my skin for being effeminate and fat, even as they said, “We’re just burning fat, it shouldn’t hurt.”
I was asked to go to conversion therapy, and I will not excuse the people who did this in the name of being unaware. To say that they were unaware would mean that they got nothing out of what they did and the way they did it. I believe that these bullies often know what is up, but they still go ahead with being cruel to satisfy their need to feel powerful. I don’t think a Dalit queer person can get rid of such harassment ever in their life. After being put through it, I could see my earlier experience of pride, and the later experience of bullying interact with each other in ways that I decided to do something about it and call people out on it.
In my university I got elected as a representative for the Committee of Prevention of Sexual Harassment, but what I soon realized was that even in liberal places, with the best of policies and governments which are popularly elected and considered ‘better’, there’s a lot that the policies don’t cover – individuals of certain backgrounds are not only systematically disadvantaged but prosecuted under the same laws – and my university was no exception. This was when I finally decided that, as marginalised individuals who always have the cards stacked against us, just being proud and having a political stance is not enough. It is our job to bring down these houses of cards which savarna cis-hets or any other oppressors pride themselves on.
When students were challenging institutional discrimination at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), there were students who ceased to be friends with me for the allegations that were brought against their dear university. These were people who were my friends, who had up till then shared secrets, committees, classroom spaces, performances, parties, and crushes with me. They did not even bother to contact me or any formal source in any way individually, before writing pieces of ‘investigative journalism’ about me. Their opinions can still be justified, but their hate posts were peppered with slight shots at my character, my credibility as a student of AUD, and outright casteist homophobic slander.
This, however, is not to say that I didn’t anticipate this behaviour from them, and I’m definitely not the only person that this has happened with, but to make a larger point about how savarna-cis-het associations work in tandem with each other in institutions to maintain the hierarchy of a certain group of individuals. Denying someone their experience, and asking them to provide evidence is not only a very violent form of oppression, but it also stems from a certain kind of entitlement which in turn discloses the societal location of the critics who are asking for it. For them, neither an anonymous list nor absence of a proper mechanism seems to be a problem, all they care about is the shame they have to experience for some time while they shame the very existence of certain people based on their identities.
I have often been called a crybaby. For them, my tears cannot possibly be of resistance. But thankfully – maybe because humans sometimes barter some good for all the bad they do or maybe because my institution is named after Babasaheb – the larger student body, teachers and individuals are still working on instituting mandatory bodies like the Equal Opportunity Cell, SC/ST Cell, more representative bodies and effective mechanisms for dealing with cyberbullying. And I am continuing my education and activism.
But being queer is not always about your oppression or resistance, it is the spaces in between the two. For me, it is as much about writing and performing mostly (if not all) female, Dalit, and queer characters; about how my school friends and family who very well know that I am queer (and have known it for a while), but do not bring it up actively because my relationship with them is a non-sexual one purely based on the activities we enjoy, or kinship; it is about me sleeping with just men for the next eight years straight and still being a bisexual; it’s about me not buying the whole top – bottom binary; it is about my mental and chronic illnesses because even when I am unable to breathe, I want to breathe as a queer, even when I am depressed, I binge on gay dramas; it’s about how I navigate interracial relationships and my inter-caste identity.
It’s also as much about my male, class and abled privileges. It’s about me identifying as an atheist, and yet knowing how this identity has been exercised to erase people’s caste privileges in our country, its multiple ‘ists’ that make me and are yet to be identified – feminist, nudist, environmentalist, anarchist (?). When I started writing this piece, I had no idea how to paint a queer narrative. I guess it can’t be painted; it has to be a kaleidoscope. It’s in all of us and yet nothing tangible, very much like queers, it’s there.
Aroh Akunth has done their Bachelor’s in Social Sciences & Humanities from Ambedkar University Delhi. They often write about their experiences with queerness and caste and have a keen interest in literature, activism and the performing arts. They are currently pursuing their Masters in Criminology and Justice from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.