“Attention, passengers! All aboard! The Queer Express will be departing shortly! The final destination of this train is Acceptance; however, the arrival time may differ for each passenger! Please note that the only payment you will have to make is love and compassion towards other passengers and yourself!”
I boarded the Queer Express in June 2016- it was the first time I considered the idea that the reason I felt nervous around pretty girls, and always felt a guilty excitement at the thought of reading lesbian fan-fiction- was because I experience attraction to women. I warily stepped into the rainbow-streaked train, a growing mixture of fear and guilt drilling holes into my gut. What would mama think if she saw me here? What would Mrs. Sharma, who lives down the road, think? What would…?
My spiral of thought was interrupted by the shuddering jolt of an engine, as the train creaked into motion. We’ve left the railway station, I’m trapped. I thought hysterically, the gilt-edged sword of panic caressing my throat as the train gathered speed. I looked around me and glanced at other faces that looked as pale and panic-stricken as mine. There were people of all ages, races, genders, sexualities, and other demographic inconveniences; but what united us was our presence in the train – our feelings of utter confusion, frustration, guilt, excitement, and everything that lay ahead of us- the obstacles we’d face, and the milestones we’d arrive at.
On 5th June 2016, the Queer Express halted at its first platform, Realization. A single passenger boarded the train; a tall blue-haired girl with coffee-coloured skin and almond eyes that crinkled when she smiled.
Her name was Sara. We’d met a couple of years ago at a theatre workshop when I was in the 8th grade. We weren’t friends then, but we weren’t strangers either- we fell somewhere in the awkward, “Hey! How are you? Haven’t seen you since 2014!” limbo, which lay dangerously suspended between the two stages of a friendship.
I saw her again, two years later – at another workshop, where we were rehearsing for a play. She was loud and outgoing, I was awkward and shy. There were times when I’d seclude myself from the rest of the group, too socially anxious to sit with them, and Sara would notice and immediately invite me to join them. Sometimes, I’d sit in silence as the group laughed and exchanged stories and contact numbers- wishing I could be anywhere, but in that room with people who’d look right through me as though I were invisible. Occasionally, when no one else was looking, Sara would glance across at me and smile, or say something funny, before turning away to join the chatter. I’d smile back, or pass a sarcastic comment- pretending like it didn’t mean anything to me.
But my fluttering heart knew otherwise.
One evening, during a break after a rehearsal, Sara animatedly narrated a lengthy anecdote about her ex-girlfriend. For a minute, I paused, confused- my pupils dilated, my heart pounding furiously. G-girlfriend? What did she mean by that? Was Sara…attracted to…women? The relentless buzzing in my ears blocked out the rest of the conversation.
That night, on my way home from the rehearsal, I stared out of the old, tattered taxi with damp, moth-eaten seats. The ephemeral blur of flashing traffic lights that dotted the streets usually enveloped me in a daze, but that night, my brain wouldn’t stop whirring.
I’d always known what the word “bisexual” meant, but that’s all it had been for me until that moment: a word… That night marked the first time I shared a minuscule portion of my identity with this strange, new word. It was slow. Hesitant. Two steps forward, one step back.
“Bisexual,” I whispered the word under my breath, savouring the soft taste of the B as it coated my chapped lips with a sticky, sweet substance that tasted like freedom- but the dangerous kind. I noticed the harsh clink of my teeth as they collided with an angry hiss to form the S– as if to foreshadow the endless feelings of emptiness and guilt, and the unmistakable sound of Mama sobbing- because after all her sacrifices, she didn’t deserve an “abnormal freak” like me. The L at the end was, perhaps, the most comforting. It left a bitter-sweet aftertaste of victorious melancholy; a quiet reminder that bisexuality felt like home. A reminder that after years of feeling like a stranger in my own identity, I finally belonged.
But seeking validation wasn’t easy. Most people I narrated this incident to, harboured skeptical responses. A therapist I confided in, quickly frowned and muttered, “You decided that you’re bisexual merely because you heard another girl talk about being bisexual? Are you sure you’re not just trying to be bisexual because it’s trendy?”.
I just smiled uncomfortably and remained silent, realizing that it was futile to explain to a heterosexual person, that as a queer Muslim girl who received little representation in the media or popular art; I needed to see another queer girl celebrating her identity, being unapologetic about her sexuality, and asserting her space in a heteronormative world filled with heterosexual people who are only too eager to pretend as though it’s not their fault that closets are filled with human beings and not clothes.
After that day, I hesitantly realized that I had a crush on Sara. Every time she’d smile at me, or touch me, I’d blush, and move away – because the butterflies flitting in my tummy terrified me. I felt guilty at the thought of my conservative mother who would rather die than admit to having a bisexual daughter. I felt fearful because my orthodox Muslim relatives would never come to terms with my sexuality. But mostly, I felt alone, because there was no one I could confide in about my guilty little secret. Not yet.
“Sara!” I called out as she entered. The girl turned around and stared at me quizzically, her forehead knotted. It wasn’t Sara. I flushed and apologized, “Oh um, sorry, I just… thought you were someone else,” I murmured. She smiled understandingly, and I turned to the window beside my seat, too embarrassed to look away until the next station arrived.
On 29th September 2016, the Queer Express shuddered to a brief halt at its next destination, Hurting and Healing. I was roused from my deep slumber, as the strident calls of a candy floss wala saturated the air. I opened a drowsy eye and took in the extraordinary scene in front of me. The candy floss wala, sauntering alongside the platform outside, was wearing rainbow-striped overalls, and brandishing a large collection of rainbow candy floss, in place of the usual pink. He peeped into my compartment as he passed by and grinned at me. “Candy floss madam?”.
“Let’s get candy floss!” I exclaimed excitedly. The Mount Mary Mela was in full flow, and the streets were buzzing with hawkers, women selling candles, vada pav stalls, and candy floss vendors. I grabbed Natasha’s hand and yanked her towards the candy floss stall. We waited for the vendor to hand us our delightful, sugary pink clouds as we soaked in the plethora of sights, scents, and sounds that wafted across the street.
As we walked around the neighbourhood, Natasha glanced over at me and exhaled. “So?”, she demanded. “What?”, I asked nonchalantly, trying to conceal the tremors in my voice. She narrowed her eyes, “You know what.” I didn’t answer.
“What did you mean by the message you sent me last night?”.
“What the fuck is “nothing”? We were texting last night, and you suddenly send me a message that says, “I think I’m bi.” And that’s it. No explanation, no context. Nothing.” “Yeah”, I murmur, averting my gaze. Her eyes soften, and she doesn’t press the issue further.
“I’m bisexual”, I say aloud, for the first time, and an explosion of relief fills my gut. It felt… good. I can think of countless other adjectives to describe how I felt at that moment, but none feel just right, and I’m jarringly reminded of the scarcity of vocabulary that can accurately encapsulate what it feels like to share a hidden piece of your identity with the one person who, perhaps, knows you the best.
It felt good. And somehow, that was enough. Because the g holds every moment from my childhood where I felt an attraction towards girls, but I merely ignored those thoughts, for I deemed them too insignificant. The o stands for the day Sara, unknowingly roused my conscience and gave me the strength to accept a part of my identity that I’d buried deep under layers of fears and insecurities and guilt. The o claims all the sleepless nights and feelings of emptiness and every single day when it felt like the guilt would consume me, pull me under, tear me apart from within. It stands for every time a wave of fear would wash over me, and leave droplets of panic all over my skin: “Log kya kahenge?”, “How will I ever tell mama?”, “What will my friends think? Will I ever tell them?”… But the d bandaged my open wounds, rubbed cold ointment over my scars and comforted me with its warmth. I felt the d as Natasha nodded understandingly; without any judgement or probing questions. She was… there, and I felt grateful and ecstatic and relieved, but mostly… I just felt good.
“Ek candy floss, please!”, I called after the candy floss wala, as he turned to leave. He grinned, almost as if he understood.
The Queer Express reached its final destination, Acceptance on 7th January 2017. As people started alighting from the train, I paused. Was I ready for this? I’d been on this journey for 6 months now, and it held so much of my soul that I wasn’t sure if I was ready to embark on a new journey just yet.
It was dusk outside, and the crickets seemed eager to gather an audience as they harmonized – performing song after song about life and love and everything in between. I glanced up at the night sky, a canvas of indigo and silver strokes; and wondered if the stars would lead me to my destiny that night…
It was a chilly January night. I sat on a stone bench with my mother after we’d completed our usual saunter around Joggers’ Park. The park was closed for the day, but we often sat in darkness for a while until an indignant watchman would approach us, usually muttering a colourful string of profanity under his breath. Generally, the darkness was unsettling, but on that day, it filled me with a wave of courage that I didn’t typically possess.
We were mid-argument.
“Why don’t you like any feminine clothes or accessories? All my friends’ daughters wear bangles and make-up, and I feel embarrassed to take you anywhere because all you ever wear are your phata hua black T-shirts from 2013, that you picked up from the men’s section”, my mother started indignantly.
“Okay good, then don’t take me anywhere”, I stated curtly. “Why aren’t you normal? Do you have a problem?”. I didn’t answer, “I asked you something. Do you have a problem? Do you feel like you… have a boy inside of you? Is that why you never do anything even vaguely feminine?”
I almost laughed at the concern etched into her face in garish lines. “No mama, I’m not transgender, if that’s what you’re asking.” “Well, there has to be some problem with you, because you’re definitely not normal.”
I hesitated, feeling a bubbling volcano of anxiety rage inside of me. This was the moment I’d been petrified of for months. The words perched at the precipice of my throat, eager to be vomited out. It was now or never. My voice shook as I stammered, “I’m not transgender, but, I…I think I might be… bisexual.” It was out there, and there was nothing I could do to take it back now. My hands trembled, and my heart thudded furiously against my rib cage.
I stared fixedly at my hands- reluctant to look up, unwilling to acknowledge the disastrous magnitude of the grenade I’d just placed at my own two feet.
“B-bisexual… So there’s still a fifty per cent chance that you’ll marry a man, right?”, she asked after a minute. Her voice was dangerously calm, which – from my experience, I knew – was never a good sign. I sighed. “When did this happen? How did you suddenly realize that you’re…?” her voice quivered slightly this time. “I’ve known for a while now,” I said softly.
She was silent for a few minutes, and for a brief moment, I made the lethal mistake of assuming that her silence was indicative of acceptance. I was wrong. “Why did you have to turn out to be abnormal? Did we not raise you right?”.
“Mama, it’s not something I can control. I love who I love-”
“What will people think? My friends and I crack jokes about people who’re like… this, and now you turn around and claim to be one of them?” her voice grows shriller.
A single tear rolls down my cheek.
“Why can’t you just be accepting? Please”, I whisper, my voice hoarse. I hear her sniff and I know she’s crying too. I felt my heart shatter as I realized that in that moment, I wanted to be anywhere but with the one person I trusted the most in the world.
All I wanted was my mother to hold me, to comfort me and to tell me that it was okay – that my sexuality didn’t change her perception of me. I wanted her to assure me that I was normal. But I knew better than to settle into that delusion. That night, something changed forever in my relationship with my mother.
And even the dimming stars seemed to notice.
It seemed ironic to me, that my final destination, Acceptance, brought with it, one of my most uncomfortable memories. But as I looked up at the night sky, the stars seemed to bring with them – a final epiphany.
I realized then, that acceptance doesn’t come in a one-size-fits-all package. Sometimes, it manifests as boundless confidence and the ability to be unapologetically queer in all spaces – sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, it means acceptance and support from the people you love- sometimes it doesn’t. Acceptance can be loud, but it can also be quiet. It can be fearless, but it can also be hesitant. And sometimes, it can just be, loudly and quietly and sometimes, imperfectly too.
And that’s enough.
I climbed out of the train, and walked back home with a new-found sense of peace. Physically, I appeared the same as I did six months ago – I had the same frizzy, brown hair; the same monotonous tone of speech that confused the people around me; the same awkward gait and the same off-center smile.
But my queer journey had transformed me in more ways than one: that night, I walked home slightly more open-minded, slightly more accepting and slightly more compassionate than I’d been before.
In the distance, the crickets continued to sing.