“That’s Gay”: Do Labels Do More Harm Than Good For Queer Folx?

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That’s gay”, said one of my classmates to refer to something that was lame or bad and definitely not homosexual in nature. Welcome to just another day in the ‘locker room’ conversations of Indian male adolescents. Start yourself off with some casual homophobia, blunt sexism, arguments against reservation, and finish it off with a crudely delivered rape joke. Ah, how enlightened the future of our country is.

As far as I can remember, the word gay has had a negative connotation. I’m pretty sure I knew it meant something bad and/or lame even before knowing what it actually meant. This half-knowledge was the perfect complement to my left-out self, who often felt at unease in the conversations by my male peers. I knew I didn’t fit in with the ‘straight male clique’ but the only other option was the ‘dreaded’ gay camp. Knowing the latter wasn’t an option, I made the bare minimum effort to participate in such conversations about the opposite sex to prevent aspersions from being cast about my sexuality.

Identifying with the label ‘gay’ and coming out to myself were inexplicably linked together. Obviously, I couldn’t have one without the other. The homophobia which had been the norm since I was a kid had percolated into the inner recesses of my mind and made me believe that the word ‘gay’ was something bad. Days and days of hearing it used as either a stand-in for the word lame or for insulting somebody who didn’t comply with the strict gender norms had made that label persona non grata for me. Even though, later on, I knew that rationally there wasn’t anything wrong with being gay, the years of conditioning wouldn’t allow me to sound the label out with cringing inside. Cognitive dissonance can work wonders with the malaise that is internalised homophobia. I have no doubt that I deserve all the rights and respect my straight counterparts do, but ask me to ever say ‘gay’ out loud and I’ll flinch. You won’t notice it but it’ll hurt inside and I’ll think about why I felt that way the rest of the day.

This fraught relationship with labels extends to the lesbian community too. Decades of fetishising sex between women by straight males have given the label a ton of negative baggage. In their view, romantic relationships between women are for the enjoyment of the male gaze. This perverse connotation with the term leads many women to label themselves as gay instead of lesbian.

The conversation around labels is still nascent in the Indian context since that is a luxury usually exercised when actual rights have been granted. In the so-called developed countries, the next debate for queer people revolves around labels and how people use them to define themselves. Sexual and gender fluidity which seems to be the future we’re moving towards would render the current repository of labels redundant. I would say that labels are, hence, a double-edged sword. Although they help people who feel very alone to know they’re not, they also restrict people who don’t fit into the discrete boxes we’ve made.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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