I am Durga Gawde. And I am a genderfluid person. Being genderfluid means that I sometimes identify as female, sometimes as male, sometimes as both at the same time and sometimes neither. Like the term, my gender is fluid like water; sometimes there is more clarity about what I’m identifying with in a particular moment but more often, it is ambiguous and makes me feel closer to being human than when I used to try and force myself to fit the binary.
This article was published on July 19, 2017, and it changed my life. I am back here today to tell you how I got to this point and how it has been since.
I was born on January 14, 1993, to two beautiful souls. They met because of their interest in art and the reason for my inception, conception and existence was art. Now that I am a practising artist, this doesn’t only make sense but also feels natural to me. (Growing up, however, I was heavily into sports and never thought that I would be an artist.)
“Who am I?” This question first popped up in my head when I was 4. Since then, I’ve held several conversations with my reflection in the mirror, looking for an answer. I feel like I have two personalities — the extrovert and the introvert. The extrovert in me is a social butterfly who loves engaging with people, while the introvert is more self-reflective and prefers staying in. When I have these quiet conversations with my mirror, I look at my reflection and think of how every moment is different from the last. Something is always changing, inside us, outside, around us. And with every moment, our relationships with ourselves, our peers, our families and our surroundings change too. Every couple of years, almost all cells in our body are replaced, but something at our core stays the same. Something we were born with and that makes us who we are.
I had always been attentive to how I perceived myself, but after I hit puberty and my body developed, I began noticing how I was perceived by others. The standards of beauty set for a female in our society started being applied to me, and I started to feel alien in my own body. By the time I was 13, my own reflection in the mirror began to startle me. This discomfort kept growing and to cope with it, I started writing letters to myself to speak to myself the way I would with my best friend. In this process, I found that I became my own best friend.
I moved to America in 2012 to study sculpture in my dream school, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). There, being surrounded by motivated, creative, and open minds made it easier for me to express myself. My time at RISD was spent trying to understand life and the world we live in. At that point, I was looking at life on a physical level and the inspiration for my artwork came through investigations in biology. At RISD, I also had the pleasure to work at the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab — a natural history collection on campus, and the only one of its kind lending natural history objects to students, encouraging them to use various media in the space to create art.
I worked with the microscopy and marine life section, looking at over 20 species of marine life, articulating animal skeletons, and using various microscopes including the scanning electron microscope. It is one of the most powerful microscopes in our world and allows us to zoom up to 45,000 times! After three years at RISD, paying attention to what I pay attention to, I was on a path to discovery. Self-discovery!
There, I became obsessed with the process of creation so I started mixing and experimenting with various media to create artworks — my everyday life at RISD, with all these living and dead creatures fed my brain, and I went deeper and deeper into investigating life. Then there came a point where I could not look outside of me anymore; looking outside felt like a distraction.
My thesis at RISD was an installation made with organic paper, fabric, ink and my stream of consciousness (Thesis video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNa3JGFz9Kw). For three weeks, I kept my eyes closed and looked inside myself and let my hands move to the speed and form of my thoughts. Doodling turned into drawings, which turned into words, which turned into sentences; then a dialogue and then a monologue. After drawing over 1000 yards of tracing paper scrolls, I went into the space and used the paper as lines to draw in the space. It was like being inside my brain. This artwork released and revealed so much that it was impossible to instantly process all of it. It needed time and honesty.
At RISD, I understood the importance of a good education and the effect it can have on a person who once felt lost and alien. I feel pure bliss when I can learn and share with people. And when I can facilitate curiosity, amazing things happen! This is why I am also an educator. As an artist, I learnt to be self-aware. We spend the most time in our lives with ourselves, and if we are unhappy with who we are, then our life isn’t as pleasant as it could be.
I moved back to India in 2015. The minute I arrived, I was once again very aware of the beauty standards that were applicable to me in the Indian context and once again, I felt alienated with my body. Every day, I observed how much of a struggle it was for me to be myself and hold my own identity. At this time, I had not fully understood the difference between sexuality and gender identity with regard to myself. At RISD, I had the privilege of not only be part of a community where assigned biological sex did not dictate the rules of gender expression, I also had the opportunity to spend time and space with some beautiful transgender people. These people introduced me to the idea of gender fluidity.
One’s gender identity, sexuality, assigned biological sex and gender expression are terms that are often confused with each other. Gender is a social construct: rules and regulations of how we should present ourselves in society. What we, as a society, don’t realise is that each person is unique, and that there is a wide spectrum of people. It is easy to feel alien when someone presents themselves to society in a way that does not align with how they see themselves.
I believe that life is a miracle, that all life forms are miracles. The probability of us being alive is exponentially slimmer than the contrary. I like to remember that I am the winning sperm — my father’s seed beat the odds and that is why I am here right now. This makes me think that we are all in, our own way, wanted and needed in this world for our uniqueness. As long as we are honest to ourselves, as long as we trust our instincts and let ourselves be who we are, we don’t have to go in search of a purpose. Our purpose will be fulfilled by just being ourselves. As long as we don’t silence our conscience and are honest with ourselves, we are truly ourselves.
My biology-inspired artwork stopped exciting me once I came back to India. I was looking at human behaviour in the Indian society through the new lens that my RISD experience gave me. It was — and still is — so hard to digest the realities of our society that is rooted in stigmas and taboos. I just wanted to let myself be me again, but for me that meant that I had to talk about my truth openly with my near and dear ones. So I decided to come out to my parents.
I came out to them in May. It has been a few months now and my life really isn’t the same. Before I came out to them I was filled with fear.
Will they be upset?
Will they be ashamed?
Will they accept me?
Will they love me the same way?
Could they start hating me?
But when I spoke my truth to them, at first they were taken aback, but then they made every effort possible to understand what I was going through. My truth wasn’t hidden anymore, and so all I could do now was to be honest about my gender. Honestly, to explain what being a pansexual, non-binary, genderfluid person is to people whose understanding of sexuality and gender identity is deep-rooted in the binary is a herculean task. I had to figure out how to help them understand while being in sync with their understanding, and patiently, slowly, lovingly bring them up to speed. What was most effective was my reminding them that they raised me saying that they had both a daughter and a son in me. There can be no better feeling than the day I came out and knew in my heart, without a doubt, that my family was on my side. I was now alien no more, I felt human for the first time. I was free.
Even so, the next couple months were not easy. My parents had questions, fears and concerns. Their insecurities started to surface, but knowing in my heart that I was just being honest gave me the ability to work with them. There were several days where I would question my decision and wonder if it would have just been easier to not say anything and live my old life. But now that I had come out, I could not go back and it felt like I had no idea how to be human because I was so used to feeling alien.
Through the process of coming out to my family, I realised that there are several people who could relate to my experience. I realised that my family being accepting was a privilege because there are so many others who would not be as accepting. But should it be a privilege? Shouldn’t everybody have the right to be themselves? I realised that I wanted to be the person that I had needed in the past, for myself and for people like me. Gaysi reached out to me for an article to create awareness about being non-binary and I said yes immediately, because I felt like I wanted my voice to be heard by anyone out there who needed it.
There were several arguments with my family about being so public about my identity. They were concerned about how society would perceive me and whether this would have an adverse effect on my life. But I knew in my heart that people needed to know that it was possible to be non-binary and have a family who accepts you unconditionally, so I went ahead with the interview.
A few days after our agreement, I spoke at the IEEE conference in Goa, and my talk happened to be on international non-binary day, so after talking about my past work, I discussed how I was working on a body of artwork inspired from my fluidity. I mentioned how I wanted to make art to help people see that we are all human before we are associated with a set gender, race or religion. I teared up on stage and spoke about how it broke my heart to know that there are so many beautiful souls out there who were afraid of accepting and living their truth.
After my talk ended, I was surrounded by people who said that they were touched by my words. My parents also witnessed the effect of accepting my truth in public, and said they were proud of me. I began to realise that the fear of facing the world as my most authentic self wouldn’t really go away, but my relationship to that fear was changing. I now had more strength to face the world and be part of it. It takes a lot for a parent to step away from the attachment they have to the image of you in their mind. My parents had now fully understood not only my sexuality and identity but also the difference I could make by being open about it.
A few days after the conference, I was in a hostel in Goa by myself. The night before the article was going to be released, I was paralysed with fear. After the article, my truth would be out there for everyone to see. I mean, they could Google it! The day the article came out, I sat alone in the hostel common room and sent it to over 500 people. Every time the phone buzzed, my heart sank. It was not like I was looking for validation, but I questioned if my relationships with people would change, and they did — just not in the way that I thought they would.
I got no hate that day, only love and support. Every single person in my reality told me that they were proud of me for speaking up. I realised that day that my life was never going to be the same ever again. It felt like a warm group hug on a hot-soup belly.
Since then, most of my interactions with my friends and family involve conversations about fluidity. As much as I am happy that my people are fascinated by it and want to better understand it, it also gets exhausting to talk about. Wouldn’t it be easier to live in a more accepting society? Why did I even come back at all? I came back because I want to work towards changing the current state of our society, and my way is through my artistic practise, and by someday starting a university in India where assigned biological sex does not dictate the rules of gender expression.
I spoke at The Coalition in Bangalore last month, and when I was asked about where my artistic practise is heading, I said that I was now inspired by my investigation of life spiritually as opposed to biologically. The body of my work is inspired from my fluidity, and works towards helping people understand that when you accept yourself and stop hiding, you make the world a more beautiful place.
My father, who present in the audience, then took the microphone and said, “When a woman is pregnant, one doesn’t know if they are having a boy or a girl, all one knows is that they are going to be a parent to a human being, all one can do is accept whatever comes their way. So why is it so hard to accept when your child is different?’
His words brought tears to my eyes. He did not have to do this, but he did. He stood up for me and what I believe in. It is truly a blessing to be born to and because of the love between these two beautiful souls.
So this is what I believe, and I just want you all to know that honesty, self-love and self-acceptance will give you the strength to speak your truth to the world. That with patience, love and mutual understanding, your truth will be heard. Your reality, your life, your truth are all responsible for the fulfilment of your purpose. It is not easy living your truth but it’s better than living a lie; there is too much energy wasted when one is living a lie just to cover it up. But when one lives their truth, all that energy can be spent productively instead.
Loads of love,