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, saying “that blighted Wilde was a faggot”. I remember gasping in order to maintain the decorum of my favourite restaurant in my favourite hill-station.
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 on 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 occasions 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. At least, 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—the most sure-shot way of instilling shame in the person they target. 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 didn’t correspond with the present society’s definition of being ‘straight’, or heterosexual, was something that one had to be deeply ashamed of, if not self-obliterating. Not just heterosexual, but heteronormative, if you will. Could this be the general reason for you, June, 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 on its pages—the robust and vibrant parades that the more privileged dissenters to heteronormativity participated in (mostly) worldwide. The faces, the smiles, the rainbow flags (and not to mention, the dazzling costumes that the bolder segment of the parade donned) unanimously spelled out ‘freedom’. The rainbow specifically shouts this out to an onlooking (often scowling, or worse, denying) audience that fails to conceive of each colour in the spectrum of existence due to the over-saturated monochromes of patriarchal social conditioning.
As you know June, ‘homophobe’ is the analytical term used to refer to the more radically conditioned populace that arrives at a visceral aversion to 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 once the preferred shade for boys and blue for girls, because doesn’t that serve the same binary that you and I denounce? Perhaps I’ll leave this for another letter.)
Now a person who is less fond of June might ask me why I am overreacting to banal comments on Wilde and pink shirts.
Because those are only 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 using #LoveIsLove.
Because these were, or still are, the parents who are sending their kids to homophobic (albeit homosocial) schools to graduate into adulthood and repeat the behaviour of their parents, relatives and friends.
Because I (and many like me) am 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 suppressed for our fluid nature and choice of expression.
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 that ‘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 often had 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 by 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 push-ups.
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’; “You would have been such an eligible bride, 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 feminist theorist Judith 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 an “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” From moment on, 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 whoever they choose to be!” The finality of a 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 part of the bandwagon that is 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 unapologetic 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 an ancient acceptance of queerness, but also pains me for how they’re now being shunned by the rudimentary combinations of imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy.
Now, keeping in mind your celebratory pretext of LGBTQIA 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. In my (naïve) opinion, gender justice has little to do with vindicating queer identities and avenging homophobic myopia. Rather, the monster that deserves our unanimous fight is the homophobe as well as the ‘queer victim’ that to many of us carry within our selves due to the uninterrupted conditioning of heteronormativity, in which we eat, breathe, sleep, and, essentially, live.
Though my privilege and lived experiences might make me more gender-sensitive, I am not a morally upright exception to the conscious or unconscious denouncements that, as a preconditioned society, we make towards fluidity and ‘deviant’ identities. There are times when, for so many of us, an inner homophobic villain takes precedence! 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 end note that I hope you and your successors pioneer.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen refutes one’s identity as being a source of accidental discoveries. Instead, he 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 make through choice and mediation in multifarious situations of constraint. But then again, Sen wonders, which choice is made in the absence of limiting circumstances?
In a nutshell, the presence of never-ending contingencies doesn’t take away the cardinal existence of choices that we are entirely responsible for and accountable towards.
June, since you advocate for the freedom of diversity more than any other month, I welcome you yet again in 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 undeniably worthy quest of self discovery and self truth.
As the world continues to be gripped by the fangs of a dreadful pandemic, I welcome you yet again as the month of freedom and diversity. I hope for you to usher us 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.