Almost every middle-class Indian family I know, has an idiosyncratic ritual or tradition, that is usually so inherently inimitable, that it forms a part of their social identity.
Some families visit the cinema every week end; whilst some families have a designated “sharing session” at the dinner table where everybody pretends to display an uncanny enthusiasm about Dadaji’s bowel movement at 5:56 am on Thursday. The ritual can be as significant as a recurring annual trip to a hill station, or as trivial as a family meal time.
My family, for one, cherishes a ritual that I like to refer to as the “chai peelo, sab theek ho jaayega”. The chai peelo, sab theek ho jaayega or CPSTHJ is a delicate ritual that must be performed every time an uncomfortable truth is brought up. It serves as a coping mechanism that allows the recipient of the uncomfortable truth to seek the ephemeral comfort of a façade of normality.
The first time I was CPSTHJ’ed was in 2017, when I first came out to my mother, as bisexual. After the initial shock wore off, my mother started to display the first observable symptom of the CPSTHJ: oblivion. It baffled me.
I waited for her to cry, to throw a tantrum, break a few bangles – Bollywood style, of course. But the violent outburst I expected, never arrived. The CPSTHJ had swung into action.
My mother merely pretended as though the conversation had never happened. Maybe she thought that if she forgot about it for long enough, it would cease to exist. Maybe if she disregarded the harsh reality that awaited her, it would turn back around and choose another path.
I’ve come out to her thrice every year since; and each time, I receive the same horrified expression; the same where did I go wrong? etched into the wrinkles on her face; the same stupefied silence that I’ve grown accustomed to. Almost as if she hadn’t heard me utter the exact same sequence of words exactly 5.29 months ago.
My family chooses to chai peelo every uncomfortable truth, in the hopes that someday, everything will return to normal – which brings me to my first homophobic social myth:
Myth #1: “If you turn a blind eye to your homosexual urges, they will cease to exist.”
This myth has multiple sobriquets; it occasionally manifests as the infamous “It’s just a phase”, or more often, the concerned aunty ji edition: “You just need to find the right man. Like Yadav ji’s son – ekdum tip-top! Tall, fair, handsome. Complete combo!”
In both of the above situations, it is implied that sexuality is a choice, or worse, a temporary discomfort that can be easily mitigated by overlooking its very existence. Frankly, I’m baffled as to why society thinks that an individual would choose to be queer in a world like ours – a world where queer people are oppressed, marginalized, harassed, assailed, denied job opportunities, discriminated against in socio-political environments, massacred, and very often reduced to an etiolated sliver of their identity.
Additionally – as affirmed by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2012 – there has been no reported evidence to suggest the effectiveness of “reparative therapy” or “conversion therapy” in changing sexual orientation. If anything, the PAHO statement distinctly asserts that any attempts to change or repress sexual identity and orientation, are positively correlated with an increased threat to mental and physical health. Means of changing or repressing sexual orientation typically lack scientific backing; and when administered, often result in detriment to well-being.
My mother claims that I was an abnormal child. As a baby, I
insisted on relieving myself in a diaper until I was 3 years old. Whilst most
“normal” babies received a diploma in the revered field of Toilet Training by
1.5 years of age, I continued to view toilet seats with arrogant contempt as a
2.5 year old, and refused to bring my rear end within a 2 meter radius of one.
When I was 4, I learnt that my arms and legs could be used for activities apart from merely walking, eating and sleeping. I discovered that I could climb fairly well. Thenceforth, I spent every waking moment shimmying up trees, bookshelves, wooden racks and other steep surfaces. Of course, my parents broke into a cold sweat each time they witnessed me dangling dangerously from a towering structure, grinning from ear to ear. It became worse as I grew older. I was never “feminine enough” for my mother. She’d eye my oversized T-shirts and baggy shorts with disapproval; and berate me for my complete disinterest in dresses and skirts. Why do you never wear bangles, she’d demand angrily. All my friends’ daughters wear such pretty jewellery and tops, and I feel so ashamed to tell them that my daughter only wears clothes from the men’s section. I’d merely roll my eyes and mutter a profanity or two. Coming out as bisexual only served to pour oil over troubled waters.
I often find myself fascinated by the fact that my mother’s definition of “abnormal” changed each year as I grew older. But what intrigues me even further, is the fact that she arrived at this decision by comparing me to a minuscule percentage of the world’s population. Since that minuscule proportion of individuals formed a majority within my mother’s social cocoon, she deduced that I must be abnormal since I didn’t conform to the behavioural trends displayed by them.
This brings me to my next point – which is that my mother’s, and Islam’s, and a lot of other people’s favourite argument against homosexuality is that it’s “unnatural and abnormal” or a “pathological disturbance”. To begin with, it’s worth noting that concepts of “normality” and “abnormality” are arbitrary, culturally-defined, and subject to social norms and expectations. The American Psychological Association has published an aggregate of 5 different versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) – and each version has a different clinical orientation, system of delineation between categories, and approach towards medicalization. In simple terms, this signifies that even psychology cannot fully define “abnormality” due to fluctuating social norms and historical context, as well as the plethora of scientific advancements and research which offers a fresh insight into matters pertaining to abnormal psychology on a regular basis.
This lays the foundation of my second homophobic social myth:
Myth #2: “Homosexuality is abnormal, unnatural, and can be considered a mental illness”
To debunk the above myth, I would like to point out that according to the current edition of the DSM, homosexuality is not a disease or a mental illness. Instead, it has been recognised as a legitimate sexual orientation.
Dear homophobe, science isn’t merely a clever tool to fit your agenda when it suits you. The tough part is accepting scientific discoveries even when they’re uncomfortable or disturbing. The real challenge is trying to understand science’s perspective even when it refutes your own. That’s when we’ll truly evolve as a society. Not when you use science to invalidate queer lives across the globe. Not until you realize that “the world has bigger problems than girls who kiss girls and boys who kiss boys.”
For women, our Indian identity is an automatic prerequisite to being genetically blessed with incessant amounts of sharam (shame). Our culture celebrates shame, and associates it with having good sanskaar and being an acchhe ghar ki ladki. Sharam culture deprives women of the opportunity to understand and appreciate their sexual identity, enjoy healthy and fulfilling sexual relationships and ensure that measures are taken to employ protection during sexual activity. However, it is important to note that ensuring safety during sexual activities is a problem faced universally due to the global stigmatization of sexual activity.
Poor sex education, lack of awareness about safe sex, as well as lack of accessible protection – are all contributing factors to the surge in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). However, certain social groups, for instance, homosexual males and females – are at a greater risk of contracting an STD due to misinformation, no access to protection, low standards of living, and most significantly, social ostracization.
Myth #3: “Gay sex leads to STDs”
The fundamental principle to keep in mind whilst analysing trends in any equation, is the difference between correlation and causation. Correlation can be defined as a mutual relationship between two factors, which could be externally or internally influenced; whereas causation signifies a cause-and-effect relationship between 2 variables.
The above myth implies that homosexual sex causes STDs; when in reality, there is merely a correlation between the two – as demonstrated by the results of a study conducted by Judson FN et. al, which indicated that homosexual men were “significantly (p < 0.001) more likely than heterosexual men to have gonorrhoea, early syphilis and anal warts.” However, the very existence of a positive correlation between homosexuality and STDs, serves as an argument against homosexuality- which enables homophobes to disguise their bigotry as concern for the sexual well-being of queer people.
But why does this correlation exist in the first place?
The primary reason for the rapid spread of STDs amongst homosexual men and women, is misinformation about sex, and poor sex education. I think we can all agree that sex education in academic institutions is a shit show. It’s misogynistic, cis-heteronormative and doesn’t address key concepts like consent, communication and protection. Gay men and lesbians are often indoctrinated into heteronormative systems, which only, if ever, provide information about methods of protection for heterosexual sex – eventually resulting in the creation of generations of homosexual adults who are oblivious to the need for, and methods of protection for sex that doesn’t merely involve the combination of a penis and a vagina.
An additional factor which usually contributes to the formation of the aforementioned correlation – is discrimination. It’s no secret that queer people have been victims of harassment, ostracization and discrimination in work environments- for decades. This can often result in poor mental health, leading to the formation of self-destructive, and often promiscuous behaviours – which are typically stepping stones to illnesses like HIV and AIDS.
However, discrimination in work environments doesn’t merely involve detriment to mental and emotional well-being – it’s also frequently proceeded by unemployment and socio-economic instability, which usually end up hindering access to methods of protection and medical services, resulting in greater exposure to STDs.
Lastly, due to unemployment and reduced job opportunities, queer individuals are frequently forced into sex work to sustain themselves. The stigma surrounding sex work ensures that sex workers are at a greater risk of contracting STDs, since they’re not made to undergo routinely health checks, or provided with adequate information about sexual health- in spite of the fact that they assume a profession that is centred around coitus.
I cannot claim that these are the only factors responsible for the positive correlation between homosexuality and sexual transmitted diseases; since there are multiple biological factors which influence the contraction of STDS, in addition to the socio-economic variables discussed above. However, it’s worth noting that merely creating a safe space for gay men and women and protecting them from risk factors, can go a long way in ensuring the dilution of the spread of STDs.
Dear society, the next time you use the “gay sex leads to STDs” argument against homosexuality – consider the role you’ve played in establishing that equation. Instead of negating our queer identity, take the initiative to find out how you can aid (no pun intended) us, how you can create space for our well-being.
And when you’re ready, fight our battles alongside us.