When it comes to alternate sexual orientations, lesbian women are undisputedly the minority. Add to that a variety of other social currencies like your race, your religion, hell, even the way you dress up or carry yourself, and voila, lo and behold- a rare breed of humankind. As a person who identifies as an out lesbian, I have subsequently faced a lot of discrimination and misconceptions due to this. I have been called “one of the guys” in my friend circle, and sometimes even been subject to mild homophobia from really close people. I always or have gotten one of the following comments, including the typical “oh, Nikita, you aren’t really a girl like us”, or the very frequent “why can’t you be more ladylike often? You look so good when you dress up for parties and functions!”, or even a rare, hurtful and mildly homophobic warning from an ex-roommate, “Don’t look at me while I’m changing!”, or the school time jibe, “Don’t hit on me just because you are gay.”
And I am sure, every lesbian who reads this post can right now be sighing in frustration; frustration which frankly nobody else is going to empathize with.
While I do enjoy the many close male and female friendships I have formed over the years, and I am successfully one of those few rare girls who do manage to navigate through male relationships in a strictly platonic way, it would be nicer to not be discounted as a woman because of my sexual orientation. Hell, even the fact that I had a boy cut and was overall a sporty kid in middle school; probably let my teachers feel okay about telling me to go stand in the boys’ line so that the class could do the march-past in ordered lines. I feel deep down somewhere, even the simple fact that I am the one who opens the door for my significant other, somehow makes people think that I am not a “complete” woman. And this very often has led to another horrendously misinformed question, “So, if you are a lesbian, who is the guy in your relationship?” This and all the preceding statements is beyond infuriating now.
Somehow, I feel that lesbians have to fight for a lot more in the global and Indian diaspora. We are not only people with alternate sexual orientations; we also belong to a gender identity that has long been repressed by our male, patriarchal counterpart. So not only is there homophobia towards lesbians, add sexism towards women to the mix, and you get a lethal combination. As someone who comes from a middle-class family, and is the oldest sibling, I always exceeded expectations when it came to familial roles and responsibilities, to the extent where one of my parents told me “to think and act less like a guy”. This reinstates patriarchal standpoints, wherein a woman is considered inappropriate if she does not act meek and submissive, and/or if she speaks her own mind, asserts herself and her socio-economic independence. But while I have been fortunate enough to have had parents who educated me, and raised me to be capable enough of earning and feeding myself, there must be other lesbians, bisexual, genderqueer, transwomen, who might not have had the same privilege that I did. These women and people must be still getting married to men, must still be expected to be an ideal bahu, and must still be expected not to have careers of their own.
Which brings me to the point: a gay man, who is often imagined to be this effeminate stereotype that the general heteronormative community cannot take seriously, is still a man. He can choose and work for his own economic independence in whatever way he wants to, and he can get away with a lot by the sole virtue of being a man. For most Indian women, this is not even an option. If you wonder why, this is because, from a very early age, we are told that marriage and motherhood will be the pinnacles of our lives, not a professional career. Coming out as a lesbian is a huge thing for any Indian woman; you not only stand to risk estrangement from your family, you also have personal safety as a woman on the stakes. Because after all, the men of this country are keen to assault women in some way or the other, in abusive marriages, in crowded buses, in offices, in dark alleyways, and it doesn’t matter whether you are a few months old, or way past seniority, or even if you are covered from head to toe in an attempt to wear “non-provocative” clothing. Why, you ask? Because the dialogue “akeli ladki khuli tijori jaisi hoti hai” (translation: a woman alone is like an open treasure chest) sadly holds more truth in our country than it did in its origin film, Jab We Met. Because men, in spite of being born to women, married to them, raising daughters, will not miss the chance to ogle or grope or use an abusive word targeted towards somebody else’s sister, mother, daughter, friend, etc. or any random woman, really. So what chance do the Indian lesbians have, really?
Growing up, I always thought there was something horrendously wrong with me because I did not have any exposure to any LGBTQ literature/news/trivia/media/culture. And there was always this fear that I would end up alone, or worse, in a loveless and forced marriage, because I knew what I felt for women was real, and I could never feel that way for a man. It was by accident that I discovered this American TV series called The L Word on torrents way back in the early 2000s, which while may not be the most flattering or realistic representation of lesbian women, was a massive eye-opener for me. It was thanks to the Internet that I Googled for “women who like women romantically” and came across the term lesbian. And then, there was no turning back. For the most part, my teenage self felt greatly relieved that I was not a mentally disturbed person for liking women, but also majorly depressed because I was certain that I might never find anyone else who liked women openly, considering we live in India. When women and children and students and anyone who belongs to any sort of minority is openly abused and discriminated against on both individual and collective levels in this country, I felt absolutely hopeless for my own prospects of freedom. And the worst part is, right now, when I have fast forwarded ten years into the future, have successfully come out to the people to the people who matter to me, somehow miraculously gotten the most wonderful woman in the world by my side, and am economically empowered enough to pay my own bills, I still feel hopeless.
Maybe some straight men will tell me I complain too much. But I do not complain. I demand it. And they would too if they were in my shoes. I still cannot hope to legally marry my partner, let alone even dream of having kids in this country, not in a million years. I want all of that because I want to be happy and because I reserve the right to have my own family. It might not be your standardized housewife with the corporate job husband and two rich brats behind a white picket fence, but the government has no right to impinge or intrude on my personal happiness, especially when it is not harming anyone in any way. Not mine and neither on the thousands of out and closeted LGBTQ people in this country.
We need representation. Before we fight against the government, we need to inform and educate as many people in this country that LGBTQ people exist, that lesbians, bisexuals ,and transwomen do exist. This is not only to assert ourselves as a community but to give closeted queer women and people the strength to come out. I wish I had gotten better guidance and information on my sexuality growing up, rather than sneaking around on an incognito tab on my home desktop. To be honest, if I didn’t get Internet access in that point of time, I would probably still be languishing in my own suppressed sexuality today. We have barely a handful of films and television with lesbian/transwomen characters, and even lesser on the Indian ones. And most of the foreign representations of these characters are subjected to the “lesbian death trope”, where the lesbian either dies or “reforms” and marries a man. We barely have any Indian literature that focuses on these themes, save for probably Ismat Chughtai’s short story “Lihaaf”, which dealt with lesbianism on a more connotative level. Although, thankfully enough, we saw that story being adapted into a major Bollywood release, with two well-known Indian actresses, Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi, playing the same characters, in Dedh Ishqiya. While the film did not do well at the box office, it was a bold move, and much like the earlier Deepa Mehta film Fire, cast two major female faces opposite each other, there were no violent protests against the former, which is major progress.
There is some progress now, and it is not contained only in international releases like Carol and Boys Don’t Cry or the forthcoming Disobedience and the countless TV shows and web series like Orange Is the New Black and many more. I was personally delighted to watch films like Fire, I Can’t Think Straight, Margarita with a Straw, and many more in the past few years, which have been major representation for the queer Indian female audience, in addition to the few lesbian themed indie web series and short films produced in our country. I hope for more, and I hope to make a film or two of my own one day, which shows a simple and beautiful love story like so many films and books do, and nobody dislikes it for the fact that it has two female protagonists falling in love with each other.
And also because (echoing the words of Maggie Sawyer, the Latina lesbian cop character in DC’s TV adaptation of Supergirl), “Life is too short. And we should be who we are. And we should kiss the girls that we want to kiss.”