Writing about why he chose to “dress as a woman” for this year’s Mumbai Pride, Harrish Iyer said: “I’m a proud feminist. But beyond being a feminist, I believe in the equality of all genders and even those who would not want to define themselves as a part of the gender binary. I believe that gender is just a social construct. Moreover, I believe that one doesn’t need a vagina to get in touch with one’s feminine side.”
He added: “So, this year on the occasion of the Queer Azaadi March a.k.a Mumbai Gay Pride Parade, I decided to explore my feminine side and be in full exhibit. I wanted kajal and lip gloss. I wanted dangerous curves and lovely hair. I wanted a pretty dress and sexy high heeled shoes!”
Iyer makes for an insanely pretty woman, as anyone who saw him sashay in that roundly feminine dress at the Pride will attest. But since we are discussing the non-binary nature of gender, I think it’s worth asking if one can “become” a woman only by dressing as one. Or might there be other avenues available?
As a gay man, I have often wondered about the heart of gay desire. When I was younger, I used to spend long hours pondering if there was, after all, some truth to the gender roles we grow up imbibing. My desire for another man seemed heteronormative in its initial days, with all the heady charge of attraction that we are told occurs between opposites. Did that make me a woman, I would wonder. What was a woman? If it was, as Iyer clearly omits as a definitional necessity, the presence of a vagina, then of course, I was not a woman.
But how else was I to make sense of my desire? To my untrained mind, love between men was entirely possible, yet the vocabulary that I juggled with was drowning in heteronormativity. I was made aware of the political baggage around words like “top”, “bottom” and “versatile”, words that were meant to indicate who assumed what position in the bed. If I chose to exclusively bottom, I asked myself, then did that tinge my gayness in a particular fashion? Did it bring me closer to the feminine side of the spectrum? How was I to decide these things?
It took me years of self-awareness and education to understand that gender is indeed more than what we are born with genitally. It is how we identify, and this identification can take myriad forms. The transgender movement taught me that a person is who they claim to be, not the biology of who they were born as. The gay movement taught me it was all right to love the same sex – not just desire them, but love them. But at the heart of the gay and transgender movement was a very strong desire to identify with or to desire a particular gender role that seemed not to sit well with this idea of a gender continuum.
Of course, we were fighting the straights, and of course, our language was meant to attack the near-universal heteronormativity that we saw around us. But as we defined ourselves and as we wrapped ourselves in the flag of our difference, we also, I think, became more and more fixed in our identities and our notions of what it means to be male, female or somewhere in between. A man had to wear a nose ring in order to proclaim his comfort with his femininity. A woman had to put on a mustache in order that she announce her comfort with drag.
What, I wondered, happened to our original mission? Of gender being a construct, a squatter that claims allegiance to our body when it really resides in the mind. When did the LGBT movement, built around people having the freedom to live as they please, become so hardened in its definition of how alternative sexuality should look in order for it to pass? When did it go beyond its gender-bending remit and become a queer simulacrum of the straight fixedness we were protesting?
There is the gay man who can pass for straight. His femininity is in his mind, in the way words slip out of his mouth in a cadence that he, and perhaps he alone, recognizes as feminine. His bobbing Adam ’s apple does not cut him any slack and as he speaks the words come out in a roar. Yet, he feels feminine, and also masculine, and he does not know when one bleeds into the other.
Truth be told, he calls himself a man because he has a penis but for all practical (and non-practical) purposes, he should really identify as androgynous. But his androgyny is not external. He has no truck with kajal or lip gloss, and he does not feel that he can reach womanhood only through these symbols. In fact, he does not entirely know what it is to be a woman and what to be a man, except he is who he is and he is happy being a bit of both. If there is anything he has learnt from the gender movement, it is that he is more than his gender, that he can be whoever he wants.
Can we welcome him too? Can our wonderful movement allow space to the quiet, the non-garish, the man-woman, the woman-man to spread their wings too? I certainly hope it does.