(The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to a person living or dead is in most cases, quite deliberate.)
“We used to call them pansies,” my cousin said, elbowing me in the stomach, as if sharing a joke. “They used to meet at that park in Connaught Place. And my friends and I used to go there in groups to beat them up.” As I looked on in horror, my cousin went back to enjoying his drink. To him, it was just another happy memory of the time he still lived in India. A funny anecdote that you told at family gatherings over drinks and finger food. I sat there, drowning in silent rage. This was a person who i once had love and affection for, who I once looked up to. This was him telling me that he used to beat up people like me when he lived here.
I wanted to shake him and yell at him. Knock that smug smile off his face. Tell him that to me he was now the face of every bully who had picked on me. Every stranger who has made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. Every adult whose casual homophobia made me ashamed of myself when I was a kid. But I didn’t do any of that. I sat there, plastering on the best fake smile in my oeuvre of expressions, refreshed his drink and burrowed myself another two meters into my metaphorical closet.
I know a more mature and put together person would have read him the riot act, explained to him the wrongness of his position and failing to change his opinion, would have at least ended the evening by throwing a drink at his face. But I am not that person. Instead, I am someone who has spent most of his life internalizing other people’s homophobia so I just politely shook my head at his unconcerned show of bigotry.
This is why I am always incredulous when I hear people ask why more folks aren’t coming out of the closet. I mean, really, you need to ask? Do you even realize what happens to people who do?
This is brand new information
The first reaction of most people when someone comes out is either “I knew it!!” or “you don’t look gay.” The person has probably been working up his or her nerves for weeks or months, chewing over their decision, practicing what they would say, wondering what your reaction would be, and all you can come up with is an inauthentic assumption based on the stereotypes that exist in your head? Well done!
Then there is the responsibility. If you’re the first gay person someone has the privilege of knowing, you’re going to be the yardstick against which they’re going to compare everyone else with. If you like drinking juice, they’ll be like “so all gay people like juice, huh?” or “so this cousin of mine I’ve met like three times in my life also drinks copious amounts of juice, so you think he’s also gay?” You tell them you were just thirsty and did not spend a lot of time thinking about your choice of beverage and they’ll nod their head and go “interesting.”
After you come out, every person of the same gender you’re going to hang out with is turned into a person of interest. It doesn’t matter that they’re your childhood friend or a guy on the street who just asked you what time it is, if you’re talking to a person of the same gender, then you’re obviously dating them. “Hey, who’s that guy leaving your room at this late hour? Wait, is that your boyfriend?” “Nope, it’s four thirty in the afternoon and that’s the guy who just fixed my computer.” “Interesting.”
And god forbid if you come out if you’re famous. If your behaviour is anything less than perfect then you’re a bad reflection on your entire community. Straight celebrities can run over people or beat up their girlfriends and still become India’s sweetheart but if you’re gay and someone accuses you of merely looking at them in an unacceptable way, then you’re a pervert deviant in a long line of pervert deviants that inhabit your entire community.
Otherwise known as the human condition
Don’t forget all the hate we get in this country for merely existing. There are still a majority of people out there who believe that gay people “recruit” other people to join their ranks. This is what happens when you never talk about human sexuality during biology class. You don’t choose your sexuality. You don’t choose whom you have feelings for. It’s not something that you can be converted to. Let’s face it. If homosexuality was a choice, a majority of women would have become lesbian by now. Because, straight guys, seriously, do you even think you stand a chance? I mean, just look at yourself.
Sexuality is a natural thing. You don’t choose who you have feelings for. It’s like having ice-cream. Some people like vanilla. Some people like chocolate in a waffle cone. And some people like a whole banana split shoved into their mouth while their hands are tied behind their back. What’s that difficult to understand?
But it’s not just the bigots. It’s also the people who are supposed to be our allies. Even acceptance comes at a huge cost. “I am for gay rights! As long as they don’t shove it in my face.” How is someone living their life “shoving it in your face.” Oh, you cannot handle two adult humans showing affection for each other? I’m sorry. My bad. I forgot that you’re still mentally a child and the rest of the world needs to treat you like the special snowflake you are.
A couple of years ago, a self-styled youth icon volunteered his service to us as an “ally.” He warned us against expressing pride in who we were. Why do you even need to throw parades, he asked us. The gist of his advice was for all gay people to just sit quietly inside your house and wait for the world to change. This is another version of “why are you shoving it in our face.” Yeah, because that is the way civil rights movements work. You wait it out. Because they just give them to you. That is how we got independence. We remained quiet for hundreds of years and then the British left on their own volition.
The pride parades aren’t an expression of arrogance. No one there is going LOOK MA, I’M A HOMO! Most of us have spent our entire lives being told we’re not human, that we should be ashamed of who we are, that we deserve all the shame and scorn that is thrown our way. The pride parades are a way for us to express our dignity and self-respect. This is us telling our haters, that your words won’t affect us. That we’re not ashamed of who we are. That no amount of derision will make us hate ourselves. It’s a safe way of breaking down that closet door.
Do you know what being in the closet is like? Have you ever kept a secret? Imagine doing that for everyday of your life. When you first find out that who you are attracted to is a little different from your peers, the knowledge is like a little snowball. As time goes on and realization dawns upon you that the world won’t embrace you as you are, the snowball gets bigger. And it keeps getting bigger until it turns into the avalanche that controls your life.
Everything you do, every opinion you express, every choice you make, every person you choose to talk to, is a conscious decision you make from the prison of the avalanche. You go from being a person to an approximate projection of a person. Instead of coming into your own like other people, you pretend to be the person you think you should be.
You do things to yourself that don’t even make sense but you’re so deep into the avalanche that you can’t even see that. If someone mentions that a shirt makes you look a little gay, you never wear that shirt again. You stop having your favourite cocktail because you heard a stranger scoff at your choice of beverage that one time you ordered it in a bar. You never publicly admit to your choice in music because you imagine that unless you pretend to like bland, dumb singers and bands that a straight version of you would choose, everyone will find out that you’re gay.
But this is the reality me and my people live in. The world is already against us. We know that! But, most of the time, even acceptance from those closest to us comes with it’s own set of riders. We’re okay with you being gay and all, but please don’t talk about any of that in front of us. It’s gross, no offence! The same people who will tell you to “not turn into that sort of gay” will want you to be grateful to them for their “tolerance” of your humanity. Yes, thank you coming close to almost showing us basic human decency. Your medal is on its way!
For some people in this country, coming out of the closet might mean losing their friends, their family and even their jobs. Yet they still stand up for themselves, embracing who they are. So yes, we’re going to continue to have these conversations. We’re going to continue to remind you that millions of Indians still live under colonial rule. We’re going to “shove it in your face” as much as we can. Even if it makes you uncomfortable.
It’s not our job to be your soothsayers until you come to your senses.
We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.