A picture might be worth a thousand words, but for these phenomenal photographers from the queer community, it is worth a million that have been left unspoken by generations of LGBTQIA+ artists in India. Every single time one of the photographers on this list takes a picture and captures a moment, they force time to stop and let their perspectives take up space in the international artist community online. In no particular order, here are today’s top trailblazer photographers:
@satarangi_panda: Dhaval Bavaliya is a photographer and Digital Marketer from Ahmedabad. Dhaval’s photos often capture motion in little and big moments to tell a story. Often finding muses in the natural world, he captures a lot of flora and fauna, though the striking colours of the rainbow are never away from his lens. From black and white photography to extremely detailed and nuanced shots, he has mastered it all. For Dhaval, however, photography is not just a profession and passion, it is a way of life. As he explained in reference to how he sees his art, “A window into the outside world that leads to my inner sanctum. I see my life as snippets, and hell yeah, what a splendid movie I am living in!”.
@shreyashetty.s: Shreya Shetty brings aboard a lot of her personal emotions and artistic experiences into everything she shoots, and her work reflects that. She has captured a the whole range of emotion on the spectrum. On the subject of her artistic process, Shreya confessed, “It’s important to my shooting process to understand and learn about the person in front of my camera, to know their stories, to do justice to their current authentic selves when they choose to trust me in an intimate act of being photographed by me. I value this process above all.”
@apurvaa_jadhav: Apurva Jadhav is a 24 year old Video-Photographist and Cinematographer who started taking pictures in 2012. Since then, they have worked with multiple musicians to capture melody in motion. From music videos to concert images, Apurva always makes sure that the musician’s essence comes through on film. Talking about their medium of expression, they explained, “I try to capture the essence of what I perceive at that momen t- be it a live performance or a music video – because I want other people to experience that feeling as well. Photography soothes me, it helps me relive the past or the moment that doesn’t exist anymore.”
@_boragraphy: Amlanjyoti Bora graduated from NIFT, New Delhi with a degree in Fashion Communication and has a Master’s of Design in Photography Design from NID Gandhinagar. Currently based in Delhi, he has been shooting commercially since 2018 for a variety of projects like publications, documentaries, fashion campaigns, and editorials. Rather than becoming an obstacle between himself and the person in the frame, Amlanjyoti believes that his camera helps them come closer. As he explained, “I can be my best when I am with my camera. It is my way of communicating. Clicking your photo is what helps me connect with you.”
@daintystrangerphotos: Raqeeb is a photographer and writer from Kolkata based in Delhi, India. His works attempt to provide an antithesis to mainstream masculinity by capturing it in all forms. He started his Instagram page to deal with his own body image issues, but slowly it became bigger than that. Currently, his works explore the idea of intimacy, sexuality and love. Explaining the need to stay authentic to the subject, he said, “I try to look at things as they are. I feel oftentimes when we photograph, the aesthetics come to the forefront and we try to whitewash the photographs in a way that seems appealing to everyone. For me, that does not matter. I try to document subjects as raw as possible, and very little editing goes into that process. I like to keep things real and unabashed. I don’t sugarcoat images to fit into the paradigms of what it means to be a photographer.”
@monishaatpd: A Mumbai-based LGBTQ+ activist and entrepreneur, Monisha Ajgaonkar is known for her stunning commercial and wedding photography. Founder of The Photo Diary, she found her way to freelancing for the Mid-day and Bombay Times. Slowly, she ventured into fashion photography, shot for Rolling Stone Magazine, and started her own company. Monisha has been using her skills and talents from early on to work on several projects that shed light on the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in India. Apart from her photography, she has also made some short films that portray her fight for equality for the LGBTQ+ community. Her project, ‘L for Love’, won an award at the 2018 DMA Asia ECHO Awards. She previously collaborated with Mumbai’s very own Drag Queen, activist and artist Sushant Divgikr where they created a stunning coming-of-age photo series called “Blossom”. She is also the mind behind various projects such as, ‘Love: No Boundaries,’ ‘Unmasked’, and ‘L: Love Matters’.
@sanj_nanodkar: As someone who grew up in various places across the country, life was ever-changing for Sanjana. The only constants were the images that brought with them a familiarity and a semblance of home. For Sanjana, capturing an image has always meant pausing and editing out a moment from the many, many experiences we gather through life. She believes that a photographer imprints their experience into that one frame by observing people and places and absorbing the energies and the essence. Talking about the lessons that the life behind the lens teaches her, Sanjana explained, “It is my duty, as the one capturing that fleeting moment, to hold not just what’s seen, but all that’s unseen in order to discover myself and the world. My work as a visual artist is to bring the beauty and truth of a moment into the work and pass it on to the viewer.”
@keya_art: Keya Arati is a photographer and Graphic UI and UX designer. They have worked as a freelance events photographer with Dharavi Project and volunteered as a photography teacher at Awaaz-E-Niswaan in Mumbai. Their work includes the beautiful documentation of male and female Lavani Dancers for the documentary feature, ‘Natale Tumchyasathi,’ and the book, ‘Sangeet Baari’. In reference to their creative process Keya said, “Being a shy and introverted person, I add those qualities in my work- especially in candid photography. When I take any photograph, I look in my subjects’ eyes to connect with them, injecting my gentleness and feminist outlook to capture them in their essence.”
Bullying in Indian schools is more normalized than ever because many key stakeholders do not prioritize alleviating it and continue to deny its existence. When I was surfing on the internet to find some answers or rather, to seek validation that I am not the only one who is a survivor of bullying at school, I stumbled upon numerous individuals online who were alien to this concept. But I was exposed to another world after I discovered some answers on quora. It was a season of reflection for me as I learnt that most Indian schools have an environment conducive for bullying but only targeting some people. We, these people, don’t fit some boxes that society draws and normalizes.
Since we gain social consciousness, we are fed with content that is rooted in the binary. In schools, we are taught that a kid can be either good or bad. A very good example would be movies where we see the hero and the villain (and the hero ‘wins’), but the truth is that we all are more complex than that. This box that society draws can be with regards to gender, sexuality, caste, religion, or any other social attribute that you possess. However, the truth is that we all are different and unique in where we stand. It is high time that everyone realizes that when we start recognizing people beyond these boxes it’s a door to acceptance and healing. During my time at school, I was ignorant about this and always wanted to be the ‘good kid’ who did everything to check all the boxes. I was taught to not draw a lot of attention to myself. And this was sufficient till I grew to have my own thoughts. These thoughts needed space to be expressed and might not fit in the ‘good kid’ category. We are so used to content with tropes like bullies or bad kids that we forget the real and lasting consequences that these experiences have on people’s actual lives.
They’d forcefully squeeze the bottle, when I would lean in to take a sip, leaving me with water dripping down my mouth and ruining my clothes; the disappointment and my dripping wet state left a vivid and lasting impression on me. It might seem like a small incident but it eventually added up to become a cause of trauma for me. I think intentional pranks for a prolonged period of time aren’t funny. It turns into something horrific and intolerable that the bullied person might live in anticipation of. A series of such events can cause such a bad impact on mental health. What do we have at stake? Someone’s future, struggle with identity, mental health and so much more emotional trauma.
I can recall how awful bullying was for me in middle school. I used to come home every day and sit near the kitchen cabinets, weeping and telling my mother how the day went. Sometimes it might have involved pulling the rubber band in my hair, commentary and venomous remarks on how my body looked, or even outright disrespect for my actions thereby degrading my very existence. Sometimes it wasn’t even as visible with the double-faced peers who masked their jealousy by putting others down. In some of these situations, teachers have their tongue-tied. There’s a fine line between criticism and hate. When this line is crossed, everything seems faint.
It was my mother who urged me to let go of their comments. It’s like a bubblewrap of their terrifying taunts that had to be broken for me. Fortunately, the lockdown was the route of escape that I needed to shield my inner self and allow myself to understand my talents beyond the taunts. I am very grateful and privileged to have gotten the time I needed to hone my writing and finally speak up using this medium.
I have started to question the children who are naive, yet filled with such toxic attributes. It’s a reflection of the environment they come from, moreover a mirror for our society. Why is being different a cause for punishment? Children are not born with their own thoughts. We have shaped the pot and made it half hollow. When kids are in the phase of exploring who they are, it’s essential that a safe space is provided. If there’s a lack of the same it can lead to catastrophic harm.
Late Arvey Malhotra, a 16yo old student of a school in Faridabad, committed suicide due to enduring relentless bullying which lead to spiraling depression, and no actions were taken by school authorities about the same. The insensitive institutions have yet to fail to take any steps or even recognize the incident, fearing that it might add a black dot to their so-called merit chart.
The bitter truth is that, the suicide of Arvey could have been easily prevented if only the bullies were less captious and sensitized to his mental health and sexuality. His single mother, Aarti, who acquired a livelihood by working as a teacher in the same school, is reportedly heartbroken by the lack of justice that Arvey received in his lifetime – arguably so!
The real question that this merits circles back to whether it is a crime to be different. Schools have turned into a hub of mockery when anyone is slightly different than the normative-ized. This was the opportunity where schools could have come forward and raised awareness about bullying or sensitized about inclusivity and providing a safe space for young people to explore. But this hasn’t been the case, tragically.
The unfortunate reality is that this is just one of the many cases. There are students who still walk to their schools terrified and uncertain of what may come next. However, their bullies often escape being held accountable and lose the opportunity to be sensitized to a host of human emotions. It leaves a lasting impact on the mental health of the survivor and we should stop brushing mental health under the carpet. It is ignorant to deny the existence of air just because you cannot see it because when we breathe, we feel air gushing into our lungs and it’s everywhere. Mental health is just like it. Bullying directly affects mental health and its consequences cannot be denied anymore. We shouldn’t push more students towards the edge of the cliff. It’s high time we take a step back to introspect and prioritize bullying and mental health as a systemic initiative in our institutions.
Are you sick of seeing travel influencers post sponsored stories from their travels while you’re stuck in the office? Or maybe, you are tired of seeing your friends catch flights when you can’t even catch an auto because the driver refuses to make his way to the narrow lane that houses your PG. After being stuck in our homes due to the lockdown, a lot of us have caught the travel bug, but reality often forces us to repress that wanderlust instead of celebrating it. Books, however, have always been one-way tickets to magical places and, sometimes, those destinations just happen to actually exist on this planet. From New York to Japan, the queer books on this list take you all around the world (and many times, give you a sneak peak into the lives of queer people of different cultures/nationalities). While travel guides and books usually take a ‘how to’ approach to help tourists navigate a trip, the books in this list are the ones that provide such organic insights into the locations that the protagonists live in/visit, that they make you feel transported in that very moment.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston: New York, New York. Need I say more? The second novel by this best selling author is everything queer and warm. If you’ve always wanted to go to the concrete jungle, then congratulations, because this book will take you all around it! From queer parties to seances, it will give you a sneak peak into parts of the Big Apple that will make the city feel like your far-away home. Add to that the fact that there is a literal queer time traveller in the book and you’ll realise that the book will also give you a chance to journey through decades! A large part of the narrative actually takes place on a subway train so the feeling of being ‘on the move’ is omnipresent in the protagonist’s life – and will be in yours too, long after you’ve read the last page.
Recommended reading spot: Read this one in a metro or while you’re on the road to relate in real-time to the subway setting!
Less by Andrew Sean Greer: This book might just be my favourite Pulitzer Prize winner ever. Let me ask you a question: where would you go to avoid your ex’s wedding? Believe it or not, the protagonist, Arthur Less, chooses to go EVERYWHERE. He is a queer author who literally accepts a year’s worth of invites from literary events all around the globe in an effort to avoid having to answer the invite with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Umm, making a spur-of-the-moment overdramatic decision to avoid an awkward situation? Relate much? As a result, we go everywhere from Japan to Mexico with Arthur as he tries to recover from heartbreak. The book, however, is much more than a sightseeing tour. At fifty, Arthur is reflective and we get to see the many facets that make our protagonist who he is – this makes the book a visceral inquiry into what it means to be human, and how and why we love. The writing is witty and heartwarming, and though the book does have critics divided over the narrative style, that is actually one of the things that I loved the most about it!
Recommended reading spot: Read this one while relaxing in your book nook with a glass of wine in your hand to feel like you’re attending one of Less’ book readings/literary terrace parties!
Orlando by Virginia Woolf: Very few correspondences are as famous as the letters exchanged between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West when they were smitten with each other. It is those beautiful interactions that prompted Virginia to write ‘Orlando’ with Vita as her muse. Like most of Woolf’s work, this novel goes beyond the mundane and ordinary. The novel plays around with the concept of binary femininity and masculinity, with the protagonist’s gender ‘changing’ midway. While we witness the protagonist’s life journey (which seems to last over three hundred years), we are also journeying through London, England. From the London Bridge to the Thames, the city of London is a huge part of the narrative, with Virginia making the beautiful literary choice of including interesting descriptions of the city. However, the book is a lot more than that. Woolf’s narrative style differentiates between the author and the protagonist to the point where the interaction between their two perspectives becomes an absolutely unforgettable part of the book. Of course, the feminist nature of the book has always set it apart from most of its counterparts, but the fact that it is seamlessly progressive is what makes it the perfect read for any season. It’s also a great study into how the concept of a ‘muse’ can be celebrated in the absence of the reductionist male gaze.
Recommended reading spot: Read this one while sitting in your balcony and sipping chai in the rain to really appreciate the romance that prompted this classic.
Queer Intentions by Amelia Abraham: This book essentially tackles the question of what it means to be queer at this particular time in history. Though it is a pre-pandemic exploration of what queer life is like in different parts of the world, it still feels relevant because of how wonderfully refreshing Abraham’s perspective is. From interacting with a genderless family in modern Stockholm to chilling at one of Turkey’s secret LGBTQ+ parties, we get to accompany the author as she brings her journalistic eye and personal reflections to every experience. Another bonus point is the fact that Abraham shares the conversations that she has had with queer people from different cultures on topics like capitalism and spirtitualism, which gives you more than a ‘touristy’ feel of the places that her pen takes you to. Abraham also does the impossible task of taking the spirit of community and acceptance and placing it in the palm of our hands as she takes us right into the middle of pride parades in different places. If you are one of those travellers who opts to interact with locals instead of doing the planned city tours, then this is the absolute perfect pick for you!
Recommended reading spot: Read this one while sitting in the cozy cafe of your city that serves your favourite comfort food and is beloved by locals, to compliment the organic flow of the book.
Who gets to decide which clothes end up on which side of the binary-gendered aisle? I know this sounds like a rhetorical question, but it actually has a concrete and predictable answer: cultural norms. Which in this case, have been determined not just by gender norms, but also by the North American and European domination of the global fashion landscape.
But first, let us talk about Brad Pitt. Because apparently, his skirt is what global media would rather discuss at length – in most cases, without even mentioning how queer people have been killed for wearing clothes along the same silhouettes. When Pitt turned up to the Berlin premiere of his action movie Bullet Train in a linen skirt, most media outlets and social media platforms had a field day. However, as this Washington Post Op-Ed highlights, the problem is that we are celebrating a rich, white cishet man for something that queer children and adults are still tormented for all over the world. The problem is not with letting Pitt wear what he wants to – it is that he is being grossly, disproportionately celebrated for something like this. A small moment on the red carpet does very little to move the needle to actually take us towards a more ‘gender-neutral’ norm for clothing. If Pitt had used that media attention to give a more direct statement about standing with the community – perhaps even spoken up for the queer children and adults in his own country by speaking up against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill or the various anti-trans legislations that American states have passed this past year, it would have felt like his outfit was going beyond queerbaiting. Despite what clickbait headlines will make you believe, Pitt is NOT a trendsetter. What he is, is a privileged person who can wear whatever he wants whenever he wants because his race, public identity, money, and fame act as a protective bubble that keeps him safe and away from most forms of discrimination and harm.
Closer to home, we have Ayushman Khurana- the flag bearer of woke progressiveness – who appeared on the cover of GQ during the promotion of a film (why isn’t it the person playing the trans character, if anything?) with the words ‘Gender Fluid’ written next to him. The idea that a queer identity can be treated like a literal aesthetic by a celebrity is exactly the problem. Actual genderqueer folks face gross discrimination in India at both institutional and social levels affecting the quality of their lives in deeply painful ways, but a celebrity is hailed for painting his nails and standing next to these words as if they are a trending hashtag. Ranveer Singh, on the other hand, keeps making headlines for his clothes, which often include skirts. It is true that he faces a lot of trolling for his wardrobe, but the fact that he is a rich and famous cishet man means that the very real threat of facing violence for his clothing choices is probably not one that is omnipresent.
Just the fact that a random celebrity wearing a skirt makes headlines is telling of what a big deal the garment still is today, despite many versions of a wrap-around bottomwear being in existence for ‘men’ across various cultures. One need only look at the Scottish tradition of kilts signifying manhood or the West African Wrapper that is typically worn by everyone across the gender spectrum or even the lungis of South India to understand that the idea of flowy garments being ‘femme’ is a North American import to the rest of the world. The racial element of this dominance cannot be denied – just like White Supremacy sees the White cis-Man as superior to the White cis-Woman who in turn is superior to White people of other marginalized genders, it also sees him as superior to men from other nations, races, and identities that it considers ‘lesser than’. (Of course, that would make the Scottish kilt an outlier, but Scottish influence on global fashion has been minuscule compared to other European and North American nations.) This definition of who is ‘superior’ and who is ‘inferior’ drives our norms. This is why women wearing pants is (mostly) okay- they are aspiring to look like one who is ‘greater than’ them, but men in skirts are embracing what is ‘beneath them’ and is therefore a threat to patriarchal racism. It is also obviously why Western clothes are worn a lot more in Eastern countries than the other way round.
Our clothes are a way of expressing ourselves, and a skirt could mean anything from ‘this is what makes me feel like I’m being authentic to who I am’ to ‘I was feeling hot today.’ No matter which side of the aisle clothes are hung on in a store, the fact remains that there is nothing ‘natural’ about them ending up there. It is years of racism and queerphobic patriarchy that has convinced us that certain garments are appropriate for certain people. Our bodily autonomy and freedom of expression, however, state otherwise. What we need today is more vigorous advocacy and support for queer freedom of expression and stronger institutional and legal regulations that protect the community. Not celebrities being hailed for something that is a literal threat to queer people’s lives, without emphasis on the latter.
It all started out of nowhere at the age of 12. I was so angry whenever I was referred to as a woman. At the time, I would want to scream at top of my lungs: “STOP CALLING ME THAT…..I’M A PERSON” ! I would then try to reassure myself, saying: “Well, maybe this should pass too, right? I mean whats wrong with being female. I mean there is nothing wrong with it, but it’s just not me. At least that’s how I feel.”
Those feelings not only began to linger for longer but became a driving force, is what I later understood. At 15 I wasn’t any longer comfortable being labeled as a female nor was I okay with people calling me a chick or identifying me with any other feminine identity. Whenever someone started to say well you’re a girl or a female, I would correct them by saying I’m a person first. When I confessed this to my mother, she simply nodded and for once, I thought she accepted me for who I am and was okay with me being non-binary. But as I continued to find myself and stood my ground about being identified as a non-binary person, I would notice the expression on my mother’s face and could tell that something wasn’t right. It always looked like she was still in disbelief or brushed it off with a smile and a shake of the head. Until I hit my early 20s, I learned my mother didn’t understand the term non-binary. She would later reveal that she thought it meant I was gay, emphasizing the fact that she thought it was a phase and I would have eventually grow out of it. I was disappointed in my mother, but then she told me her reasons and I internalized it as my own fear as well. My mother said, “Why would you make things harder on yourself? You already have three strikes against you. People don’t understand what non-binary is and it will make it harder to make friends.” I didn’t even realize the new territory of danger I was walking into, until she told me that.
Was being non-binary that foreign to people? Will making friends be more difficult? I already don’t have many people to be open with. I decided that the dangers of being open about my gender was too large of something that I couldn’t bear. So I did as my mother suggested and decided to not say a word. Even to this day, the people that talk to me don’t know that I’m non-binary. It was something I kept sealed shut throughout the years and wasn’t able to access until about two or three months I go. That’s when I came out to my father, who was very accepting of me and even told me that some religious Christian scriptures talk about how God would still be accepting of me. It was so heartwarming and welcoming to hear, and the cute part was how, following that, my dad read me a bit of non-binary computer code. I was so shocked that he even looked up non-binary and what it means to be a non-binary person. My dad joked by saying: “Yeah, you’re human.” It made me do a double take because not only did he accept me, but he added a little side joke that is something we always do between us. We even have a hamburger joke about lettuce, ketchup, and mustard. I know off the back of those jokes that we share that we probably don’t make sense to others, but it’s nice to have something just for us to get and crack up when having a deep serious conversation or sharing things that might be difficult.
Earlier this week, I asked my mother about how my dad could be so accepting but she wasn’t and of course, that was a horrible question to ask. My mom replied: “The parent that comes into their child’s life after abandoning them can be pretty accepting of anything, but can’t parent because they weren’t even around.” I knew it would come back around to bite me in the butt. Yes, my dad abandoned me, took all the money and I ended up living in some pretty tough situations because of his actions. Today, I have forged a new relationship with my dad and know that he was a different person than he was when I was 7 years old. As I write this, my mother is looking at me writing and I can feel that it makes her little thoughts spin and spin, which makes me nervous. But, I have to write this out because no one should have to go through not being accepted because of the changes that they’re going through. I was completely miserable at 12 getting to know myself and I still am miserable because I haven’t fully accepted myself. But I do know one thing, that I shouldn’t feel scared or worried about my identifying as non-binary. It doesn’t make me any less of a person, and it doesn’t make me the problem or the one who’s trying to get more strikes against them. I need to start living out my truth and tell people when I feel COMFORTABLE. I don’t need to worry about how they are going to process it. What’s more important is how comfortable I am. I am non-binary and will meet people around me who, one day, will feel comfortable and tell their stories as well. I will hold my flag up high and surround myself with people that are accepting of me.
Religion and homosexuality are often considered mutually exclusive. With people quoting from scriptures to support their homophobia, religious leaders that seem to shy away from any conversation around homosexuality, and some even calling for a more radical course of action to deal with the same, it almost seems like the two cannot co-exist.
For those who don’t fit into sexual and biological binaries, finding a space for themselves in religious contexts can seem difficult. And, so for the most part it is assumed that most queer people must be atheists or at the very least, agnostic. But, in reality, along the rainbow spectrum of sexuality and gender, there is also a space for those who have faith in a higher being.
Queer and Unbelieving
Many LGBTQIA++ members do keep their distance from religion because of skeptical or hostile statements expressed by religious groups, and in other cases, because of personal experiences of exclusion. And, of course, for some, like Rishi R, it simply never clicked. For them, the fracture from religion happened after a small silly incident involving a few kids who stole their stationary pouch in school. “As a kid who was coming to terms with their sexuality, the only thing that comforted me, my pouch, was stolen, I just could not wrap my head around the fact that God had allowed something that comforted me to be taken away,” she says. This incident acted as a starting point for Rishi to start questioning the existence of God.
While the initial fracture from the religion was not in any way connected to their queerness, as social media entered their life, they found more reasons to distance themselves. “As I got more active on social media (Facebook), I came across many atheistic pages and made friends who subscribed to the same thought process as [me]. Eventually, I began calling out practices I disagreed with across religions. When I posted pictures and memes criticizing Islam, people called me anti-Muslim and I even received death threats,” they say. Even though they called out the problematic parts of Christianity and Hinduism, they were not met with such harsh criticism. Over time, they found their true space — queer activism.
However, they still have not been able to come to terms with religion. “I know many people who are gay and staunch believers. A friend of mine who is a gay Christian, says that people are misinterpreting the Bible”. They even cite the example of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, who has given religion a central role in their life. “It just seems more realistic for me to not believe. I think if you are religious you are cherry-picking the parts that suit you. I don’t get that, but for others, faith makes sense. I just choose to see people for who they are, regardless of their faith, or lack thereof,” they explain.
Zoya, however, always kept her distance from religion as she has oscillated between atheism and agnosticism, the one thing that has remained constant is her questioning of the existence of a superbeing. “I have read quite a lot of religious books and made myself aware of different kinds of religions. There are many practices, across belief systems that are positive and negative,” she says. However, ultimately, for her, the fault line has been the fact that where there is faith, there is no room for logic. “Faith doesn’t allow room for questions, and it expects the status quo to remain,” she says.
Zoya’s family, while religious, never enforced their belief system on her. But, she has not really been able to completely separate herself from her religion. “I have a legal name that I have to use for various purposes, like for legal documentation. Now, my name is one that carries a religious connotation,” she explains. With Islamophobia on the rise, Zoya has been on the receiving end of some skin-crawling interrogations once she shares her name. “Five years ago, when I was house hunting in Mumbai, I experienced this. What was interesting was that people from all kinds of backgrounds, would invariably ask the same questions. No matter where or who, the bias is the same,” she says.
While Zoya acknowledges that her privileges have allowed her to avoid the worst versions of this bias, grappling with where she fits in eventually led her to the conclusion that religion does not need to have a huge space in her life. “12-15 years ago, when cyber cafes were popular, I would frequent them and read up about sexual orientation and gender expression and their space, other than the binary in Islam, and the answers from ‘scholars’ were disheartening. There was no room for any of it, even being slightly effeminate,” she says.
Having read religious texts of all Abrahamic faiths only deepened her doubts. “When they all are so similar and differ in so many ways, despite having the same historical points of view, how do we take it at face value?” she says. While she did try to engage and understand these faiths more deeply, she always experienced an inevitable chasm. “The information that exists, that I have to cover, is still quite a lot. But, they are also filled with personal interpretations of various people over generations, which I feel has diluted the real meaning,” she says. At the of end the day, despite her lack of faith, it is the words of the prophet, who asked people to use logic when the book and his way of life didn’t prove sufficient, that she chooses to somewhat abide by.
Creating Queer Conversations In Religious Spaces
While Zoya and Rishi’s point of view seems to be the norm, there are also many who don’t fall in line with the same thought process. There are many who are both LGBTQIA++ and religious or spiritual.
Some have had to deal with conflict between their sexual orientation or gender and their religion’s principles. However, many others believe that who they are are in accordance with God. And, for some others, their faith is what aids them in combatting LGBT-hostile environments.
Tashi Choedup, a practicing Buddhist monastic, says that since childhood, faith has been their refuge. “I had no friends, I was isolated and faith became a coping mechanism,” she says. For them, faith and spirituality have been an integral part of their daily life, and the way they see it, their spirituality and queerness are not separate from each other.
While Tashi agrees that religion always comes with its own set of issues, they feel that being queer has given them some sense of freedom to engage with faith in their own way. “I have been able to try and figure out what it means to me, personally. I engage with it from a location of being a queer person. So, faith did help me with coming to terms with my queerness, and I now, try to make my faith more inclusive. I don’t know if I would have engaged with faith otherwise,” she says.
Tashi also refutes the idea that religion and queerness make for strange bedfellows. “While many progressive movements have kept a distance from engaging with religion, the fact is, religion touches queer identities in ways we are only learning to comprehend,” they explain. While institutionalized faith becomes hard to engage with due to the various ways in which minority groups and identities have been targeted, and humiliated, the journey can be so varied. “We have to engage with the religion. Questions and challenges might be the same across faith systems, but the stories vary,” they say.
Born into a Hindu family, his foray into religion and faith was through the one that they were born into. “I gave up the religion I was born into to become a part of the religion I believe in. I openly engaged with my religion and others and the more I understood Buddhism, the more I found it to be aligned with who I am and who I want to be. My arrival to Buddhism, hence, came from my queerness, because I found a sense of collection and reliability with this faith,” they explain.
While he agrees that transphobia and homophobia are very much alive in Buddhist spaces, they believe that at the crux of it Buddhism is an inclusive and all-affirming space. “People shouldn’t have to leave their religion because the way some faith is practiced is patriarchal, misogynistic, and sexist. There is a certain type of denial, a silence around these concepts. As monks, we are celibate so conversations around gender and sexuality is easily avoided. Gender exists in binary terms, such as laymen and laywomen or monks and nuns,” they say. However, as with any religion, there is scope for change, and this is why conversations are important. “Apart from those who are asexual, many of us, within the Buddhist community, are sexual beings. Celibacy means abstaining from a desire that exists, and an integral part of that abstinence is accepting and engaging with the desire. Viewing it as an abstract concept can lead to abuse. Talking about it in a healthy, and acceptable manner and making it part of the everyday conversation is how we can hope to change the status quo”, they add.
Finding Safe Religious & Queer Spaces
For London-based Anish Kumar Pathak too, his faith has been a grounding force. “My mom brought us up as Sathya Sai Baba devotees and she identifies herself as a spiritual being. The five values of human life according to Sathya Sai Baba are Love, Peace, Truth, Right Conduct, and Non-violence. So, when I began exploring my sexuality, I thought I would be accepted no matter what as long as I practiced these five human values. Unfortunately, I was not aware of any explicit guidance or positive statement of LGBTQ+ acceptance, and this became a point of struggle,” he says.
He spend his early 20’s exploring his sexuality and for the most part, the people that he surrounded himself with did not particularly identify with any religion or practices.
“Although deep down, I was still connected to the religious world and believed that there was a larger presence amongst us, I eventually became detached from that world because I didn’t think I could be both religious and gay,” he shares. However, this disconnect was rectified in his mid-20s.
“I began actively searching for different community groups that provided a space for people to embrace both their queer and religious backgrounds, and I was so surprised to find that so many spaces existed. In these spaces, I felt like I could speak more openly without the fear of being judged, which made me feel freer to explore my religious and spiritual identity even further,” he says. Being a part of these groups, allowed him the opportunity to meet other people who were flourishing in all parts of their identity. One such person that became a source of inspiration for Anish was Asifa Lahore, Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen. “Stories of people like her made me realize that there are South Asian people that are out, loud and proud; who would talk about their identities (religious, sexuality and so much more) in a joyful and uplifting way,” he says.
In his quest for such spaces where he too could embrace all parts of him, he found a Sai Centre in Russell Square, London. “I chose this worship center because one of the organizers is gay and he made a real effort to make me feel safe and included. I also know many people who have continued to practice their faith in their usual places of worship. They see it as their personal connection with God and their identity does not need to be “announced” to the community,” he says, before adding, “I totally respect that”.
For Anish, the universal values of Sathya Sai Baba are enough proof of the fact that the belief system would accept him. “I also understand that few queer people have personally attested to the fact that Sathya Sai Baba when he was alive, gave them his blessings,” he says, adding that knowing this makes him feel warm inside and that he wishes he know of this during his teen years.
He understands that queerness has always been a part of Indian culture, religion, and mythology. “I am learning that queerness has always been a part of India, but colonialization and mass migration (amongst many other reasons), especially in the UK, has affected our communities and the culture has become more conservative, which in turn has trickled down to religious conservatism and a need to maintain tradition. However, the spiritual leaders are realizing the importance of embracing our queer community, and I understand that priests and leaders are delivering marriages that are less misogynistic and accepting of queer partners,” he says. “Things are changing and hopefully that inspires more people to embrace themselves, both their queer and religious identities.”
Does he face criticism for being queer and religious? He says no, as he spent a lot of time finding groups that spark joy in him and embraces him for who he is, and he is now more open to the religious community from his youth, who are also embracing him with open arms.
Finally, he adds, “If people don’t think queer souls have a place in religion, I would just respond with love and embrace them for who they are, and hope that they embrace me for who I am in time.”
Redefining Faith and Religion
Lauren, who considers herself spiritual, says that her understanding and definition of faith have always existed, however, the form it has taken has evolved over the years. “When one grows up within the intersection of queerness and religion, trying to find faith within yourself comes to the forefront,” she explains. The conflict between what you believe in versus what a group of individuals think you should believe in is a tough one to navigate. “This conflict happened quite early on when I found myself refuting the idea that the body is a gift from God. I remember saying that if it was a gift, I wouldn’t handle with as much care as I would were it absolutely mine,” she explains.
Growing up within institutionalized structures, where everything was scrutinized, she never felt like she had the freedom to express herself fully. “I loved the youth group settings where we were encouraged to talk about what the Bible says and offer differing viewpoints. But even there, I felt alone in my efforts to try and question the theme of sexuality within the religious institution,” she shares. Over time, her relationship with religion devolved and she began a search for forces beyond these structures.
“As I learned more about these structures and other people’s relationship with faith, I realized that there is power in people’s search for divinity within themselves. And in that I discovered my queer identity and that any Higher spirit would love me because I am queer and not in spite of it,” she declares.
However, she steers clear of finding a community based on organised religion but instead across the queer spectrum of artists . “I have come across people from different religions who are accepting, and I even reach out to a queer pastor in USA for a sermon once in a while”.
In a sense, she feels that her queerness was about reconnecting with her spirituality. “Recognizing that my body is, in fact, a part of this giant cosmos and seeing it as my own precious and sacred gift helped me. I am still in the this journey of becoming, transitioning, without a destination, maybe even finding my way. For me, experiencing that magic daily is queerness,” she says.
Comfort in Faith
Tejeshwar Sandhoo, who grew up in a Sikh family, has always been religious. “I have always felt that Babaji has always had his hand over me, and always made sure that I survive, which was important for me as a gay man in a cishet-dominated world. My faith has been the cushion that has protected me,” he shares.
However, when he came out to his parents, he experienced, first-hand, how religion would be used as an instrument for conversation. “My parents had a hard time with it. My dad took me to a psychiatrist. Simultaneously, I was made to pray in ten Gurudwaras in the central western region of India, in the hope that it would convert me. They thought grounding me to my religion and the values it espouses would change me,” he shares. However, the whole experience only made his faith stronger. “I would imagine that someone who is made to do this against their will would be angry, and they might lose their faith, but it wasn’t the case for me. I fell more deeply in love with Sikhism,” he shares.
Paath was something he continued to partake in, well into adulthood. “In those moments of doubt, when I was told I was not enough, or my sexuality was attacked, I embraced my religion more,” he says. However, over time, this stopped over time. “Today, I am a reiki healer. And, very recently I spoke to my healer because I had been feeling like something was missing. She checked and she asked me why I had stopped doing my Paaths, which were my source of strength,” he shares. For him, religion, spirituality, and sexuality are all very interconnected.
He too, like Lauren, sees no need for a tribe or community. “It has just always been so personal for me; it is just me and my Babaji (a reference to the Sikh Guru),” he says.
Like the charm of old lore that floats in the veins of blue heavens, the glamour of clouds and wind carried a certain magic as it gently stirred the leaves under the blue sky. The cumulus clouds hung onto the air like giant candy floss, adding a very contemporary aesthetic vision. Sunny bright days complimented the city. The beauty of Kolkata rejuvenates in the month of September-October, one hailing from this region can naturally hear the call or awakening for Durga Puja, from anywhere in the world.
Kolkata is special for many reasons, one of them being nostalgia. The month of Durga Puja can make any Bengali person travel back in time when plastic pistols and the smell of siuli wrapped them in an innocence that was hard to defy. Even if one criticized the community for inertia, the pride of traditions and cultures always settled cozily in their hearts. And if one falls in love, the ebb and flow of intense satisfaction will fill up their stomach like the scent of street foods.
Riddhima sat up in her bed. The four days of puja are the most awaited occasion, yet those days pass by like the speed of an express train. The waiting is hard, and before you know it, it’s Dashami. And things have become harder since the coronavirus outbreak. After contemplating for a while, Riddhima decided to get dressed up and go out to the nearest pandal. She felt like being out there, in front of the mighty idol, taking in the essence of power, art, and its vision. It is amazing how the idol stands tall, almost like a metaphor for keeping our heads high every time. Without any second thought, she grabbed the towel from her sofa and went straight for a shower.
In half an hour, Riddhima decided on what she would wear and quickly wore an off-white saree, with a sleeveless pink blouse. She tied up her long hair in a bun and put two white roses around it. Her mother had gotten them for her, as she was aware of her daughter’s craze for flowers. She loosened the sides a little bit to let two strands of hair fall on either side of her face.
A pair of jhumkas and a bindi completed her look. The mirror reflected her own attire with a natural glow. She smiled to herself, not thinking of any moment before or later, just the present. She loved how she looked.
Riddhima took a small handbag that carried the most important accessory of all time – sanitizer and extra masks. The fact that she was going out alone made her feel relaxed yet a tiny bit nervous. Apart from all these things, she wished to choose a path for herself, without being led by anyone else. And what could be a greater way than to start on an auspicious ceremony? With these thoughts in her mind, she slipped on her favorite pair of heels and stepped out.
It was easy to spot a crowd during puja days. But this year mostly affected a major part of the population and left them dreaded. The hubbub of people, packed-up footpaths, and food stalls were considerably lesser than normal. Everything felt incomplete somehow. For a moment her eyes couldn’t believe the scarcity of human beings. Mass entry was prohibited. Riddhima stood outside the entry gate, the mighty idol of Maa Durga was visible right there, with a rope in the middle so people didn’t gather right in front of the mandap. What a tragic sight, thought Riddhima. Another attraction of the pandal was the richly enormous chandelier hanging right above our heads as if we all were a part of a royal fusion.
Riddhima remembered the time she came here with her mother when she was a kid. She hated the crowd for sure, but the present remoteness of the place stood unusual. She conjoined her hands as a rush of devotion ran through her heart upon the sight of the idol, closed her eyes, and prayed for goodwill.
When she opened her eyes, at her right side stood a tall figure, dressed in a black kurti and jeans. Mask covered her face except for her eyes, hair open, she looked at Riddhima with a gaze that seemed to be smiling at her.
“Hi!” That voice sounded familiar to Riddhima. She stared at that female figure’s face, blinking a couple of times, unable to recognize it. A bit of quizzical hesitance flashed in her eyes. The seemingly smiling figure took off her mask, and Riddhima almost tripped onto her, slightly embarrassed and surprised upon recognizing who it was.
“Took you long enough!” The not-so-unfamiliar woman joked, but her familiar voice made Riddhima travel back in time. If nostalgia had a face, it was that of Aarya’s. Aarya Bose. The girl she became friends with before graduating from college. Even before they became friends, Riddhima knew her only by name and face. Somehow her own group of friends didn’t like her much, but she always found Aarya interesting and was curious to know more about her. For Riddhima, Aarya was the definition of being cool.
Riddhima spoke in a voice of surprise, “I thought you were in Bombay? After a long time, how is everything?”
Aarya was all smiles throughout. This tall figure almost seemed impeccable in Riddhima’s eyes. “Hold on, woman. One question at a time. First, tell me how are you doing in this pandemic?”
“So so,” Riddhima replied in a soft voice. “A lot has changed since… the beginning.”
“It has,” Aarya agreed. “But you know what didn’t change? The essence of Durga Pujo. And you.” She chuckled a bit. Riddhima smiled widely at her, no, Aarya remained the same as she was in college. The funny girl who always stood up for the right things, who wanted to study journalism and dig deeper truths, who nurtured a kind soul in them. What’s crazy is the fact that Riddhima noticed and read all her thoughts, in silence. She feared if she confessed anything like that to Aarya, she would laugh it off.
“I think I look good today,” Aarya’s voice took her out of her thoughts. Riddhima laughed, looking away, and said, “Okay, why would you say so?”
Flashing a huge smile, Aarya took a step closer to her, replying, “Because you can’t stop staring at me.” The last part of the sentence came out as a laugh, but Riddhima remained quiet and blushed. God, this girl! She noticed everything but never kept shush. The only contrast between them, and probably the one she liked the most.
“I decided to visit Kolkata for a while.” Aarya continued to say, “I was gone for too long, my mother stays alone here, so I thought of making this homecoming special, you know. I never expected to meet you like this, in the middle of literally nowhere, but I guess here we are.”
Strangely, Riddhima recognized the sparks that had been there between Aarya and her since their college memory. She consciously was careful enough not to read into it or say anything wrong, for she never wanted to ruin the friendship between them. Her mind constantly warned her with the thought that if Aarya wanted to say something more, she would because she’d always been very expressive throughout her life.
As if sensing the trail of her own thoughts, Aarya questioned her, “Do you find it weird that we both are feeling the same kind of things at this moment?” Riddhima’s jaw dropped a little which turned into flushing of cheeks within seconds. Looking at the idol in front of her, she turned toward Aarya and answered, “I know what I feel, but it took you almost ages to understand!”
Both of them burst into laughter. Aarya looked sheepish. As the laughs died down, she suggested an idea. “So if you want to talk more, would you like to have some ice cream with the view of Ganga in front of us?” Riddhima instantly knew where this place was and understood the insistence behind it.
They walked side by side on the pavement, heading towards a place they had already visited before. The sound of dhaak poured in, the alleys of Kolkata anticipated a fresh bloom as well as the recollection of innocence that people leave behind mostly. But the binding love never left the two, it was always meant to find each other, and it did.
For a moment, their eyes locked on each other. Aarya scanned every little pore on her face, the lipstick shade, and the bindi that sat graciously on her temple. Riddhima blushed and looked away, focusing more on the heavenly beauty of Ganga. The flow of the river against the backdrop of the setting sun faded every other mode for tranquility. As if the reflection falling on the water was not about life, but about themselves. That life will go on like this henceforth. And love will always find them.
The debate over who should get the payout from a woman’s life insurance fund recently reached a court in Sweden. The contention was over whether or not her relationship with her long-term domestic partner could qualify as a legal ‘partnership’ since it did not involve sexual relations. The birth-family of the woman who had passed away argued that what they had could only be defined as ‘friendship’ and therefore the payout should come to them, as they were the ‘next of kin’. Details of the case can be found in the thread below:
The court’s recognition of their queer platonic relationship has set a precedent that is long due for the aro-ace (and other engaged in queer platonic relationships to meet their various relational needs) community. While the hope remains that this verdict from Sweden sends out some ripples of change around the world, there is still a long way to go before Queer Platonic Relationships (QRP) can be understood and celebrated in India. The fact remains that not everyone is seeking social or symbolic/ceremonial validation for their relationships. However, the amount of conjecture and misinformation surrounding aro-ace relations means that the invisibility and discrimination that folks have to go through is absolutely terrible. Change may begin from the ground-up, but like the court of Sweden demonstrated, it happens a lot faster with changes in institutional treatment and with the support of those in positions of power, when done with awareness, empathy, and social reflection.
In India, however, the powers that be seem to be unfortunately leaning in a not-so-affirming direction. Last December, a video of BJP leader Sudhir Mungantiwar in which he can be heard being extremely queerphobic remarks went viral. One of his terrible rants was about asexuality, where he said, “If you have an asexual relationship with an animal, will the animal come and certify it?” He said this aphobic, ignorant, and factually incorrect sentence during his speech which was meant to oppose the formation of Equal Opportunity Board for Maharashtrian Universities whose aim would be to advocate for the rights of people from minority groups like the queer community, women, and disabled people. To this end, it will be the people from these groups who would be members of this board. His words are actually the perfect demonstration of exactly why we need such initiatives. Thankfully, the bill was passed by the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly.
What this highlights, however, is how the systematic invisibilisation of aro-ace relationships has resulted in people being able to spread myths and falsehoods about the same. Asexuality, in no way or form, refers to any sort of attraction to animals – which is ironic, given how revered the cow in our contemporary times. It simply refers to little to no sexual attraction to any gender. However, like all sexual identities, it exists on a spectrum. As Jessica Klein wrote for the BBC,
“It tends to be misunderstood and under-discussed; people may not believe someone can really be asexual, or they dismiss asexuality entirely. Common misconceptions about asexuality include that asexuality equates to celibacy (it doesn’t), or that it’s a choice (it’s an orientation), says Michael Doré, a member of the global Asexual Visibility and Education Network’s (AVEN) project team. Some also incorrectly believe that someone is only asexual if they never experience sexual attraction or have sex. But asexuality is a spectrum, where some may identify as demisexual, for example, meaning they don’t experience sexual attraction until forming an emotional bond with someone. It’s also not synonymous with aromanticism, which applies to those who don’t experience romantic attraction.”
The idea that a relationship is less significant because the individuals in it are not engaging in sexual and/or romantic interactions places sexual-romantic relationships at the centre of the human connection pyramid a.k.a. the Charmed Circle.
Not everyone experiences connections in the same way, and not everyone feels that the same kind of interaction has similar levels of significance in their life. To see the human experience through a monolithic lens is to attempt to blackout the natural reality of a lot of folks, especially those on the queer spectrum. For a lot of people ‘connections’ are not hierarchically experienced at all, but may have significant overlaps or distance from one another or felt in myriad other ways, in a manner that resonates more truthfully with their identity. Another space where there is a lot of scope for reform is in the capacity of regional languages. A lot of Indians have to rely on the colonial English tongue to define their identities and the PanACEa conference is looking to reform that by building a directory of words related to the ace and aro experiences in all Asian languages for International Asexuality day 2022. This will definitely be a major step in helping spread awareness and fight ignorance.
The third major reason why asexual relationships are still not recognized en masse is the lack of media representation. Famously, the show ‘Riverdale’ did not portray Jughead, a character that the fans of the Archies Comics have long considered to be ace, as such. Important examples of asexual characters in global media remain Harry McNaughton as Gerald Tippett in Shortland Street, Conleth Hill as Lord Varys in Game of Thrones, and David Castro as Raphael Santiago in Shadowhunters. BoJack Horseman, the beloved animated series, also came through with a multi-episode arc for an ace couple. Closer to home, actress Meera Chopra is about to star as and in ‘Super Woman’, a film that is being promoted as India’s first film about asexuality. When talking to the Times of India, the actress mentioned that she had a tough time prepping for the role because she had never come across an ace woman who could be a reference point (the unsaid truth is obviously that she had never come across an ace woman who was OUT). She told the daily, “Asexuality is so unheard of and that’s because of the shame and taboo attached to it. It’s hard to find somebody who would open up and tell his or her story.” The hope is, of course, that this movie paves the path for more ace representation in Indian media.
While all of these changes are pertinent, the most important step that needs to be taken is creating more spaces for voices on the aro/ace-spectrum to be heard. While we continue to advocate for ace people, we must remember that being good allies means passing the mic. Recently, Hindi serial actress Sriti Jha of Kumkum Bhagya fame went viral for her slam poetry performance titled “Confessions of a Romantic Asexual”. Jha’s poetry resonated with a lot of people, and the fact that she is a household name in North India (and played a character on Disney’s Dhoom Machao Dhoom, which a lot of millennials saw while growing up) meant that the mic being in her hands proved the importance of creating safe spaces for the community to put their own experiences forward – for none could have captured the struggle that the asexual community faces in a sex-focused society like Sriti did when she shared,
“I was relieved when they wrote chants of no means no means no means no But when I said no And I meant no They said, “You’ve got to try a little more.””
It was the 3rd of February, 2022. I woke up to find my mother standing near my bed with a cup of hot tulsi and ginger tea. I greeted her with a ‘good morning’ and checked the time on my mobile phone; it was 7.30 and I was running late. “Oh maa! If you are standing so near to me why did you not wake me up? I am running late. I have to go to work.”
“You were moaning when I woke you up and chanting a name, what was I supposed to do? Anyway go, we will talk after you return in the evening,” my mother retorted. Let me take you back by a few hours, into my dreamland.
I was in the washroom brushing my teeth but my mind kept wandering as I looked outside the window and felt a strong, cold draft on my neck. It was extremely cold and windy that day, the trees were filled with newer, greener leaves and the sun was hiding behind the clouds. I hastened and had my breakfast after taking a quick shower. I wore a light, floral yellow kurta with a white pajama and headed for work. I could not quite focus anywhere and spent almost all the time thinking of incidental things. The day suddenly turned stormy around the late afternoon. So, I asked my boss if I could go home a little early, he agreed and I packed my bag and went down to get a quick smoke.
The storm was so bad that it felt like night had fallen, but it was just 4 in the evening. I strolled to the nearby shop to get a cigarette and something to munch on. The streets looked surprisingly empty and there was only one man I could see standing near the shop that I was approaching. As I neared, I saw that the guy was breathtakingly gorgeous. He was sporting a leather jacket and blue jeans with white shoes. His bike was parked right next to the shop while he was busy fiddling with his phone. I went inside the shop and got a pack of cigarettes and a bar of dark chocolate. While I was smoking, I tried booking a bike-ride for myself to reach back home and boom, I got a booking that said the driver had arrived. I went out of the shop to look for the bike and saw that the person who was standing there was the one. Where do you want to go? He asked with a smile. I said “wherever the map takes me,” tucking my hair behind my ears. As we started on the trip home, he asked, “where is your home?” I replied: “the place where we are going right now.”
On the ride, I flirted with him and opened my bag to take my shawl out to cover myself. “That is a beautiful shawl,” he complimented. “Thank you, it is my mother’s,” I responded. The wind was so intense that I could not hear him at all so, I moved an inch closer, my chest touching his back. While dropping me off, he said, “I am going to Chandigarh next month, I got selected for my MBA program. I stay here all by myself. My father passed away long back, and ever since I have been multi-tasking. Job and studies both.” I was awe-struck by his honesty. He continued: “why don’t we go to a coffee shop nearby where I can pay you back?” I blushed and could feel my cheeks and body turning hot. I hopped back on his bike and went to an open-roof cafe. We sipped coffee and chatted for hours. It was 8 o’ clock and my mother started calling me. I told him that I have to be back home because I and my mother had some cooking to do together. “So, what are you cooking and when can I have some?” This question stoked some hopes in me. For months now, I had not been dating and was not feeling sexually open, but this stranger seemed to open the gates of my sensuality to a different level altogether. “Do you wanna go out for drinks?” – I asked the stranger. “Why don’t we go to my place if that is okay with you? I got some scotch and rum and some chocolates that can be our chakhna.” I giggled, and called my mother to inform her that I’d be late and went with him to his place. As I entered, he turned on the fairy lights, light yellow; the same as the colour I was wearing. He asked me to make myself comfortable on the sofa and he went to the kitchen for the alcohol and got some dark chocolates in a bowl. Talks became so intimate that I asked him if he could play some songs. He played ‘Willow’ by Taylor Swift and got up to adjust the lights and this time he sat right next to me. I never could imagine vibing with a total stranger. Meanwhile, I took a cube of the chocolate and asked him to take a bite, he gently took a small bite and snatched the cube out from my hand. “Can I do something?” – he asked. My heart grew numb out of excitement, but I said yes. He took the cube on his lips, melted it and smeared it on my neck, and looked right back into my eyes. He came close to my ears and asked slowly, “Can I?”
I said yes, breathing heavily this time. His lips felt so warm on my neck and his tongue so wet. He held the other side of my neck with one hand and stroked his tongue hard on my neck this time, making a sound that made me lose control. As he paused and looked into my eyes, I knew I wanted more of it. “Can you kiss me?” Yes, he said and he kissed me deeply. I could taste the chocolates on his lips and his tongue working right. I grew so hot that I could not control myself. I pinned my nails on my thighs and scratched it hard. Holding the back of his head, I pulled him more close to me. With both of our lips intertwined, I moaned so loudly that I woke up from the dream and saw my mother standing right next to my bed, holding a cuppa tea and I rushed to the washroom to freshen up quickly and then headed to work, with my brain still lingering longingly in dreamland.
“I used to pray to God [to] either make me whole man or woman, but [not to] keep me confused with my gender. I can’t live in dilemma for my entire life. I would cry to God a lot.”Urooz Hussain, a trans woman from Bihar, would pray to God in desperation in her early teens.
Urooz, 28, belongs to a Shia family in Bihar’s Bhagalpur. Her family is, as she puts it, conservative and very religious. Urooz was assigned male at birth but from her childhood, she says she’s always harboured an inclination for the feminine. “I would wear ladies’ suits and sarees secretly and I would love it. You won’t believe that I used to wear sanitary pads thinking I needed them just like any other girls,” said Urooz.
From a very early age, Urooz had the feeling that she was different, but she did not know anything about gender, sexuality or the LGBTQ community. “I belong to a very small city where awareness about the LGBTQ community was zero [at] that time. Moreover, I don’t belong to a progressive family. However, whenever I would see trans people begging on trains or on roads, I would feel like I am from them. But I did not know, then, why I was feeling like this,” explained Urooz.
Because of her feminine behaviour, Urooz faced sexual abuse and harassment in her life from society, teachers, relatives, and her schoolmates. “I always [craved] men’s love, but not sex, as I did not get my father’s love from my childhood. I wanted a man in life who [could] love me like my father. But, men came into my life to abuse me sexually. One of my cousins also abused me sexually,” told Urooz. She further added, “My teachers and schoolmates would humiliate and tease me for my feminine behaviour. Until 10th grade, I would sit with girls in school thinking I was from them.” She had one crush in her junior college and whenever she would see him, she would feel good. But, the crisis around her gender, the lack of freedom to express her true identity, the sexual abuse and harassment took a toll on her at an early age.
As she belongs to a Shia family, she was taken to commemorate Muharram. “I would not do matam (chest beating) like Shia men, thinking I would grow my breasts. I would accompany my mother and commemorate Muharram like [the] women [did]. For this also I was teased and laughed at,” told Urooz. “I was close to my mother. She passed away in 2018.”
After 12th standard, she went to Delhi to prepare for the CAT but could not crack the examination. She then pursued a BBA. “By that time, I was sure that I may be born a man, but my feeling is like a woman and I am not a straight person at all. I am a trans woman,” said Urooz. “I read a lot about the LGBTQ community on the internet to seek as much information as possible. In Delhi, I became part of queer people [groups] and… gained a lot of surety about my queer self,” added Urooz. She further added, “that [this] is why I planned to stay alone and be financially independent so that I can make choices that are better for my life. So, I began working.”
She worked with Flipkart’s sales team from 2014 to 2015. She then joined Lalit Hotel in Delhi as a guest relationship executive for two years. That is where her life turned around. “While I was working there, I met a man who liked me a lot. He [loved] me a lot. I got the love I [desired] from my childhood (dad’s love) and also [the] love of a boyfriend,” told Urooz.
It was around this time that she decided to transition. “I wanted to complete myself and get rid of my dilemma,” said Urooz. “I was saving money for the same, but then the man helped me financially and emotionally in the transition. He also took me to Dubai and Saudi Arabia and I lived with him for some time,” said Urooz.
Urooz’s family members were against her transitioning. “Now, I don’t go home at all. I don’t want my father to feel like I disrespected him in society. Moreover, my brother feels like I have ruined his name amongst his friends. My sister, on the other hand, visits me often to see me. She also had a problem with my transitions initially, but she is okay with it now,” told Urooz.
After coming back to India, Urooz decided to do something that would change society’s perception of trans people. “I do not want people to think that trans people live only for sex work and begging. So, I started a restaurant called Street Temptation.” It was launched in 2019.
She invested about Rs.12 lakh and took up a place of about 750 sqft in Noida, Sector 119, for the restaurant. The restaurant allowed for 24 seating arrangements across two floors.
“Initially, I wasn’t able to get a place for the restaurant. People would not visit the restaurant because it was owned by a trans person. But slowly, [it] gained [traction] and then it began running well,” told Urooz.
She had nine people, including one trans person, working in the restaurant. “It was running so good that I would be able to pay everyone well and have some money left for me and to reinvest into the business.”
But then the pandemic hit and Urooz had to shut down the restaurant. “During the first lockdown, the restaurant was running but in 2021, it had to shut down completely. For a few months, I paid rent which was reduced by the landlord, but then I had no choice but to shut it temporarily as there was no source of income and I needed to pay the rent monthly,” said Urooz.
But her spirit did not stop there. While the entire nation was stuck at home to safeguard themselves from the deadly Coronavirus, Urooz put on a mask, applied covid-19 protocol, and began helping the trans community.
“Other people either had jobs working from home or have a support system to get through life. However, trans people were the most affected during the pandemic as they are the most neglected people in society. Moreover, they don’t have a support system,” said Urooz.
She also organised a vaccine center exclusively for the community people in Noida with the support of the district magistrate and claimed that all trans people in Noida were vaccinated. “I believe there are about 2000 trans people across Noida and all are vaccinated,” claimed Urooz. She also helped them with rations and money to support them through the pandemic.
This year, Urooz embarked on a journey to explore India with her dog and a few friends. “I am travelling to learn the different cultures and foods in India. Also, I want to experience how people treat us in different places.” She has travelled through Bangalore to Pondicherry, Rameswaram, Kanyakumari, Kerala, Hyderabad, Chennai, and many other places.
She went on to say that “the world has become more sensitive with us, especially young people who are very much aware of the LGBTQ community and don’t have any problem with us. However, I believe there is a long way to go and people need to be more aware.”
Since she is travelling with her dog, she finds it difficult to find friendly hotels. “Sometimes I have to stay in my car or stay in small places.”
She is planning to launch a YouTube channel where she talks about her experience travelling across India with a dog. She is also reopening her restaurant in September this year.
When Robin Buckley came out as a lesbian in ‘Stranger Things’ Season 3, it was one of the most heart-warming moments of the show. Her coming out speech to Steve was beautiful, subtle and thoughtful. It felt like authentic queer representation while it also retained Robin’s individual personality. So, naturally, fans of the show expected Will — who has long been hinted to be gay — to be treated with the same respect.
Another reason for these high expectations was the promotional content put out between Volume 1 and Volume 2 of Season 4. During this one month — coincidentally, American Pride month — several official Netflix and ‘Stranger Things’ accounts posted content about Byler (the ship name for Will and Mike). A few other instances include a tweet in support of Byler by Noah Schnapp (who plays Will) and a video in which David Harbour (who plays Hopper) hinted that Will was interested in someone from the main group.
The cast and crew were clearly accepting LGBTQ character ships with open arms. It raised the hope that Will’s romantic arc would be treated with the same importance given to other characters. Then why was this not reflected on screen?
Will’s Big Speech Was Heart-breaking For The Wrong Reasons
When Will finally had his moment in Season 4, it didn’t hit the mark. There’s no doubt that Noah Schnapp did an absolutely amazing job in his monologue to Mike in the van in Chapter 8: Papa. Everyone watching could tell that Will’s words were about Eleven but the feelings were his own.
But it hurt for the wrong reasons. Because Will’s big moment was ultimately a prop for Mike and Eleven’s relationship. It may have given us some insight into Will’s character but its ultimate purpose was to push Mike to tell Eleven he loves her. Even during the finale, it is Will’s encouragement that gets Mike to finally confess to Eleven.
After years of building up Will’s queerness with hints and throwaway comments, it was a betrayal to see Will’s feelings be used to boost a straight couple. He was reduced to a plot device. While a tear-jerker, even the scene where Jonathan tells Will he loves him no matter what was a last-minute addition. This goes to show just how little thought the writers put into Will’s storyline. Why couldn’t he get his own spotlight?
Robin also faced similar treatment this season. While she did have her own romantic arc, more screen time was spent on her trying to set up Steve and Nancy. Are queer stories only worth telling in terms of their relationship to straight ones?
Can We Move On From The Tragic Gay Trope
Yes, we get it. Queer people have difficult lives. But there are more than enough tragic queer stories in media at this point.
There’s nothing actually wrong with Will’s story in ‘Stranger Things’. A lot of people can relate to being in unrequited love with a best friend. But it stings harder than it would, because of all the other trauma he has already been through — abducted into the Upside Down, possessed and manipulated by the Mind Flayer, losing a chunk of his childhood.
He’s already the odd one out and being gay in the ‘80s is bound to be difficult. To top it all off, he’s in love with his best friend who is clearly head over heels for someone else? Seems a bit too cruel for the one queer lead of the show.
The Problem With Subtext
Subtext can be a powerful tool in storytelling. But it becomes a problem when it’s used as an excuse to justify poor representation. Too often, queer characters have been at the mercy of subtext. Like Dumbledore, who was queer but whose queerness was not ‘relevant to Harry’s story’. It allows media creators to neither show outright support for LGBTQ communities nor entirely deny it, but conveniently straddle the line in between.
Season 4 of ‘Stranger Things’ did bring Will’s feelings to the forefront, even if the way they did it was problematic. But even then, many viewers were divided over what it represented. The internet was abuzz with arguments between those who believed Will was gay and those who believed he wasn’t and rather was in love with Eleven (how does one come to this conclusion? Answer: homophobia).
This. This is exactly why subtext doesn’t always work with respect to queer stories. Ultimately, the much-needed confirmation of Will’s queerness didn’t come from the show but from an interview released two weeks after Volume 2 dropped. Noah Schnapp revealed to Variety that “it’s 100% clear that [Will] is gay and he does love Mike”. While the actor should be commended for his acceptance of Will’s identity, it still begs the question of why an interview was required for 100% clarity?
The delight amongst queer fans after the interview proves why ambiguity can be harmful. When you see yourself on screen, you want it to be whole, not veiled fragments.
The Final Verdict?
The real queerbaiting in ‘Stranger Things’, after all, was a combination of all these things. It was the promise of the makers to portray an authentic queer character, to treat them with the same respect and attention given to the rest. And the consequent breaking of that promise.
All said and done we have to remember that Season 5 — the final stretch of the show — is yet to air. Despite the missteps in Season 4, the Duffer brothers could turn things around and give us a storyline we loved as much as Robin’s. But we can only make a final conclusion when the very last episode is out. For now, we wait.
[Editor’s Note: This piece is written by a person hailing from a priestly caste as they negotiate their faith for themself. We invite folx from diverse caste locations to share their stories of navigating faith, whether they be narratives of reclamation, distinction from monolithic Hindu tradition, outright rejection or any other treatment.]
When I was a kid, our family use to visit a Yellama temple, where several ethnic transwomen from the Jogini community would dress up as Goddess Durga, dance and do things which conventionally may need a lot of conviction. These women would walk on inflamed coal, balance several Hundis on their head and even pierce themselves with humungous needles. One time, as I was watching the ritual, one of them came to me and handed me a rose flower, put her hand over my head, and said, may the Devi bless you.
This isn’t a singular or one-off religious event displaying gender non-conformity that I have had the chance to witness. I also recollect a cult in Bengal in whose tradition, a man would deck himself up as Kali and parade across the village and give blessings to everyone. The villagers would offer a red saree, put Sindhur on her forehead while the person completely immersed themself into the trance of being the goddess. These visuals as a child made me see feminine gods as more powerful and internalizing them over the masculine gods.
I am born into a family with weird ideologies regarding religion and politics. My father who works as a priest at a temple by day and engages in discussions about the communist revolution at night, is a person who believes religion but also questions it time and again to seek answers. For me, I don’t get along with what’s written in the scriptures but reclaim faith for myself as I want it to be, and that has made all the difference.
My faith plays a huge role in my queerness. For me, seeking faith is like eating fish, we don’t choke on the thorns but take the meat. Lot of things have been written negating the queer existence in the faith that I was born into, but the onus of accepting that is on me. I always felt my inner soul was a Devi , a feminine figure that is highly conscious, tames toxic masculinity, curtails rigid structures , one who is liberated from every rule of the gender binary.
Lately I have been fascinated by the Shakta cult, where Devi seems to be a core figure. But, when I see an image of a goddess, I always see them represented by the bodies of cis women. The trans-women whom I had witnessed weren’t presented at the forefront and when realizing so, how do I connect with my fate? That was a tough question to ask. When things are rigidly stated in our faith, our faith then depends on how we make it sensible. I felt a huge relief with transposing my Drag with my faith.
I started painting gods on my face and created looks inspired by these imageries. Dressing up my queer body as a god became a ritual for me to connect with my faith. It may be a closeted ritual, or a way where I impose my personal gender politics into my faith. I started creating photo projects with my body as canvas, posing asmany a Devi.
In 2021, as a part of Navaratri, I thought of doing a ritual of dressing myself up on all the 9 days as a Devi. Not a ritual that is passed down, but embodying the energy that we believe in, and it was indeed the most surreal experience.
I picked up the tradition of Matrikas, a group of mother goddesses who are always depicted together in Hinduism. The Matrikas are often depicted in a group of 7, often referred to as the Saptamatrika(s) (Seven Mothers). The idea behind it is that “Mothers are to be made with cognizance of (different Hindu) gods corresponding to their names.” They are associated with these gods as their energies (Shakti’s).
This drag ritual helped me connect to the image in a personal way and express these images through ny gender variant body. I could redefine the idea for myself, of a femininity that is inclusive of trans and non-binary bodies . This aspect of Matrikas’ gender fluidity made me connect better with the nature of my faith, in a manner that accepts and gives space to reclaim the images for myself. As depicted in a famous scene in the movie PK , placing a sticker with the image of a deity on one’s face would make people avoid slapping it. Dressing up as God somehow made me think that this would negate the abuse, trauma and ridicule I would get as a queer person as I shield behind the images of my faith.
The body now becomes a tapestry to reclaim my faith releasing it from the boxes of gender, allowing myself live my authentic self.
When trying to have conversations about polyamory and family, popular misconceptions about non-monogamy can conjure in many people’s minds, the image of a cult leader with 50 wives and 300 children. But the practice of queer, ethical non-monogamy, like other ethical relationships, is a far (faaaar) cry from this because one of its most fundamental aspects is the freedom to consent to the types of relationship structures and roles that one is part of. In this guide to queer ethical non-monogamy, we delve into what being part of a non-monogamous family looks like in our society.
Meet the participants:
Duha (she/they) is intersex and polyamorous. She has a platonic partner and is a molecular biologist in the making.
Hari (he/him) is a writer and drawer. He lives in Bombay with his wife and cat.
Paras (he/him) is a mental health professional and founder of The Alternative Story and is closely involved with the polyam community.
Ruksaar (he/they) is a teacher and researcher, coming to terms with being queer, pansexual and polyamorous, while mothering their 8-year-old.
Families can be chosen
People who identify with being non-monogamous, which is deconstructive in its ideas of self-designed relationships, are more likely to have unique and intentional ways of defining ‘family’. With many non-monogamous people also identifying as queer, the idea of “chosen families” is a common theme.
Has your idea of family evolved since you started identifying as non-monogamous/polyamorous? How so?
Duha: “Before identifying as polyamorous, my idea of family was shaped by monogamous ideals and looked like the conventional nuclear family, but with norms that were flexible. Although a lot of my life has revolved around forming queer chosen families, due to my ignorance at the time, [the idea of] polyamorous families translated to “unstable families” for me. However, since discovering that I am solo-polyamorous, I have started to believe that polyamorous families should be normalised.”
While they may still observe more conventional or heternormative traditions like marriage, non-monogamous people may try to explore [and express] their identities even within these structures.
How has marriage impacted your experiences of being a polyamorous person?
Hari: “My partner and I had been together for over ten years and married for 4 years, when we first heard of polyamory. It was scary at the beginning and felt very wrong because we were concerned if we were messing with our marriage. But we talked through the whole thing. We made it a point to talk about everything we felt, however hard or awkward. We talked about each other’s dates, the sex, the new things we learnt and other observations. And we still do. Did our marriage get in the way? Not at all. It became a strong foundation that we used to explore other possible relationships. It enabled me to explore my sexuality with other people including men, a rare privilege that very few married men enjoy, without any guilt, hiding or lying. Polyamory, for me, has been liberating.”
Ruksaar: “12 years ago, I married a woman who I fell in love with and believed loved me. We were close friends before that, and I had shared about my gay experiences from boarding school with her. I felt that although I had some gay experiences and fantasies, I was mostly a heterosexual man in a happy monogamous relationship. Till I realised that’s not who I am.
When I fell in love with another close friend and my wife found out, the aftermath of anger and abuse broke our relationship. We still continue to remain married for several reasons. The past four years have brought me clarity through much pain, that I am a queer, pan-romantic and polyamorous person, stuck in a heterosexual monogamous relationship. I am stuck because I cannot leave my child.
Now, I am learning to find happiness within the institutional space of marriage, while living a life of my own in companionship with my and my child’s close friends. Some queer folks and some allies—overall a loving family.”
Cohabiting as a non-monogamous family
Cohabitation can add several unique dimensions in a polycule. While the range of relationship structures that non-monogamy allows for can pose more choices when trying to figure out if one prefers to cohabit with their partners, there are several conversations that need to be had to ensure that all partners are comfortable and secure.
Duha highlights their ideas on cohabitation as a solo-polyamorist:
Duha: Personally, I have struggled with finding comfort with the idea of living together as a polycule, because cohabitation is very anxiety-inducing for me. But I’ve learnt that one need not restrict their idea of family as having to live together.
What are some common challenges that people living in non-monogamous families (cohabiting or married) seek support with, in therapy?
Paras: First and foremost, the question of having dates/partners over when you are in a cohabiting relationship is a big one. Not all non-monogamous folks are okay with kitchen-table polyamory. When they are, landlords, neighbours or housing societies may get nosey. Even the issue of domestic workers coming in while one’s partner is at home can be hard to navigate. Division of time at one’s own place with one’s cohabiting partner, vis-a-vis at another partner’s place is also something that comes up.
The larger social understanding is that cohabiting means a shift towards becoming more monogamous. Cohabiting with someone but also being non-monogamous is something that friends also may not understand very often.
There are also several barriers posed by the social and legal frameworks that dictate how visible, legitimate and legal it is to cohabit as non-monogamous partners. As pointed out in this article by The Wire, “the dominant mononormative view in the law is not restricted to India alone, it is ubiquitous on an international scale.” Non-monogamous partners are unable to seek support from legal provisions such as the Domestic Violence Act and face issues with renting apartments, not being recognised as family in the case of medical and other emergencies, matters of inheritance, child custody, separation and adoption.
Raising children in a non-monogamous family is met with challenges particularly because of social stigma and discrimination. Even with the 2010’s being labelled as the “decade of the parenting manual”, there is very little discourse that is inclusive of non-monogamous families. Non-monogamous families are also met with disapproval by the society and suffer from a lack of legal frameworks, as discussed earlier. Internalised polyphobia can make it hard to communicate with children and co-parents/partners about matters like going on dates with new partners.
However, the benefits of non-monogamous parenting as pointed out in multiple studies can offer a lot of hope. This article by Today’s Parent points out how, “the priority put on openness, honesty and emotional literacy can foster an environment where children develop a tendency for higher emotional intelligence.” Another article by BBC Future highlights that children raised in non-monogamous families, “are more insightful and wise, and open to understanding diversity and many forms of religion and culture.” A shift from the typical two parent structure can also in some ways, make it easier for parents to adopt gender non-conforming roles of parenting.
What are your thoughts on the phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child”, in context to parenting as part of a polycule or non-monogamous community?
Ruksaar: It does take a village to raise a child. And I found my village in my close friends and their children, who are also close friends with my child. We call it “community parenting” and take care of each other’s children as our own, involving them in the activities we do. – I take the kids on my field work, organise sleepovers and movie-watching sessions, while others pick them up from school, feed them and oversee their play till I go and pick them up after work. Mothering my child has now extended to mothering 3-4 other brats, who in their own way have offered love and support to all of us and made us into this oddity of a family. Words are failing me, but R’s words are always a rescue, “Appa, I will have a sleep-over with my best friends, and you have a sleepover with your best friends… Friends are also family no!”
To paraphrase Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a generation that has learnt to love itself must be in want of an avenue of self-expression.” And what is a better way to speak your truth than by rejecting the patriarchal, heteronormative gaze? This is a list of queer trendsetters who are not only creating art on the canvas of their bodies, but also expanding the limits of what makeup can do. Fearless and gorgeous, every single one of them has turned their Instagram page into a safe and glamorous place where revolt and vogue walk hand in hand.
A make-up artist for M.A.C, Ayush regularly pushes the envelope on how glitter can be featured in creative looks. Ayush inspires his followers to break free from the social norms that have been forced upon them, especially because he’s dealt with the same obstacles to exploring his self-expression in the past. In a recent Instagram post, he writes, “Growing up in a heteronormative environment my social conditioning tuned me into believing that as a man I could never wear makeup. At the age of 23, I could break out of it and set myself free from gender stereotypes.” Today, Ayush’s tutorials are helping his 12.2k followers see that not only can men wear makeup, but they can also rock the freshest looks on the block!
As someone who started sharing makeup looks on Instagram only about a year ago, Avishka has a very fresh perspective on how they see the social media platform. While they are out and proud on Instagram, they don’t feel the need to conform to straight people’s version of ‘coming out’ in their offline life and instead assume everyone is ‘fruity’ until told otherwise! Avishka’s looks regularly focus on creative eye make-up, so their posts are the perfect inspiration for all eyeliner enthusiasts out there. While Avishka has a platform to share her creativity with the world, they also do not shy away from pointing out the negatives of social media. While a lot of Instagram accounts earn through collaborations, Avishka, like many other queer influencers, believes in examining the ethics of every association. They told Gaysi, “Especially during pride, it’s so easy to get sucked into the rainbow washed capitalistic version of it all. But every year I like to remember and hold space for the fact that pride was a revolution, a resistance, a protest built on the backs of our trans siblings of colour. And any celebration that loses sight of this, is not worth anyone’s time.”
A genderless makeup artist from Delhi, Kaajee Rai is a favourite amongst brides and models alike. They were a huge Bollywood fanatic growing up, and the influence of all things drama and glamour are obvious in the gorgeous and filmy reels that they often shoot of their clients. Interestingly, they never set out to become a makeup artist, but came upon this profession while exploring the various career opportunities in the fashion industry while growing up. Kaajee very humbly attributes their success to the support of their family, but their 13k followers who see their behind-the-scenes work immediately know that it is their passion that has brought them this far. They have worked for big names like Fabindia, and was recently a part of the Lakme Fashion Week. However, they are quick to point out that their job is more than just all that glitters: “I studied makeup step by step to clear my doubts and finesse the art. It looks sexy, glamorous, and beautiful, but I need to work hard like you would for any profession.”
Whether you love bright shades or pastel palettes, Shantanu’s profile is the place to be for new makeup inspiration! Equally great at recreating famous looks and inventing new trends, Shantanu has a whopping 41k followers who religiously follow his tutorials. He recently made headlines for rocking Cosmopolitan’s digital cover and used this moment to shed light on the importance of representation. As he wrote on his Instagram account, “14 year old me would have been extremely validated if they had seen a queer individual who looked like me on the cover of a magazine. If you’re seeing this, your beauty is valid, your art is valid, your queerness is valid, your love for makeup is valid. Here’s to more queer representation”.
Another M.A.C. artist on the list, Shaurya is proof that dreams do come true. They worked day and night to fulfill their dream of becoming a makeup professional in Canada. They may live in Toronto, but their makeup looks inspire their followers all over the world. As the son of a makeup artist, Shaurya has always been a big believer in the power of this art. He writes in a recent post, “My makeup and sexuality are two different things but they both combined together define who I am.” One only needs to get a glimpse of Shaurya’s account to see the truth behind this statement, for the intertwining of their journey as a makeup artist and the way that they interact with the world is incredibly motivating to all up-and-coming queer makeup professionals.
The winner of the Editor’s choice award in the ‘Emerging Beauty Influencer Male’ category at the Cosmopolitan Awards 2020-2021, Deep Pathare is definitely one to watch out for! His looks often play with different shades of pink but his versatility as an artist is obvious from his concept shoots. Deep believes that this career path gives him the opportunity to channel the creativity that has always been within him, and his 24.1K followers would definitely agree with that! However, this profession means more than awards and brand deals to Deep; he loves the way that it allows him to connect with others and himself. He told Gaysi, “Not only did I find a great set of friends and a fantastic community that supports and loves me unconditionally, but I also found myself. My voice, my presence and the freedom to truly be myself.”
A make-up artist since 2012, Rohit has been interviewed by national magazines like Grazia, Homegrown, and MensXP. They started their Instagram account in 2017 and have been focused on making their profile a safe space where ‘everyone’s invited.’ From light makeup looks to dramatic and artistic explorations, they have done (and nailed) it all. However, they continue to see their online community as the biggest highlight of this journey. As they reflected while talking to Gaysi, “Makeup is a way of being, it doesn’t have gender – and with sharing my world, I realised I am not alone in this thought and empowering those who want to think beyond the box and just be. While India has a long way to go in accepting gender complexity, and my DMs sometimes are loaded with enquiries about my life choices, the love and acceptance from my own little community of 18k curiously colourful folks is really the best from backers who see me in all my tints and rouges.”
On the 2nd of July, Toronto-based poet and film-maker, Leena Manimekalai announced the launch of their new film ‘Kaali’ at the Aga Khan Museum. The film was announced as a part of the week-long Rhythms of Canada festival at the museum.
In the poster, a person with long hair and various adornments such as a crown and jewelry across their chest, seems to portray the blue-skinned deity, Kali. They are wearing prosthetic arms and are carrying accouterments like a trident and a sickle made of cardboard. In another of these arms is a rainbow flag (signifying the queer rights’ movement), while the person themself sips on a cigarette.
There have been myriad responses to this release on social media, with some people highlighting Kali’s significance as a deity who rejects social norms & pressures. It is worth noting that Kali is often depicted with her tongue sticking out, which is interpreted as her rejecting the moralistic pressures of society and her mockery of the people who defend them without examining their own desires and shadow selves.
Others, however, issued threats against Manimekalai, who was born in Tamil Nadu. For instance, Saraswathi, who is the leader of a Hindutva group in Tamil Nadu, Sashti Sena Hindu Makkal Katchi, threatened to ‘bash up’ Manimekalai with slippers via a viral video, if the latter didn’t take the poster down in 4 days’ time.
Saraswathi’s video went viral around the 5th of July and the Selvapuram police began their investigations into the threat soon after, ending in Saraswathi’s arrest.
Several complaints have also been filed with the police, demanding punitive action against Manimekalai, in various parts of the country. For instance, the Hindu Suraksha Manch and the United Trust of Assam have filed an FIR in Dispur, Assam.
The Indian High Commission too urged Canadian authorities to take the promotional material down, showing how the State’s solidarity often takes the form of enforcing respectability politics, instead of encouraging democratic discourse through free speech and media expression. Following this, the Aga Khan Museum has apologised for ‘hurting religious sentiments’.
Ironically, this reminds me of that Dabur Fem ad that tried to position itself as inclusive by portraying a queer couple engaged in the rites of Karwa Chauth. While several in the community welcomed this, even as others (including myself) rejected it as an attempt to rainbow-wash casteist and colorist practices as queer-friendly, the brand itself took the video down after Hindutva advocates complained about hurt religious sentiments.
The moral of the story to me is that positioning ourselves as ‘well-behaved queers’ will never earn us the liberation nor the validation that we so desperately seek from a society that espouses values that reject and alienate us in systemic ways.
In a display of misogynistic and queerphobic algorithmic bias, Twitter too took down the poster, prompting Manimekalai to ask: “Will Twitter withhold the tweets of the 200000 hate mongers?”
In response to the Hindutva-led reprimand of Manimekalai’s work and related promo material, Art Historian and Associate Professor at UC Berkeley, Sugata Ray, shared a lithographic print from the collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The print was a wrapper for cigarettes manufactured as part of the Swadeshi Movement (that boycotted foreign-made/branded goods as part of India’s fight against British imperialism).
Ray translated a few lines from the label as saying: If you care to improve the manufacture of swadeshi [national} products, if the welfare of the nation’s poor laborers is your concern, if you have a sense of good and bad, then O Hindu brothers, smoke these Kali cigarettes.
Soon after, an anti-caste Twitter user also asked if the famous Mangalore Ganesh Beedis will also be re-branded in the face of the imposition of Brahmnical values on various deities that have been part of various regional cultures and pagan groups in the Indian subcontinent.
Which begs the question: Whose Sentiments were hurt anyway? And whose sentiments do we care about? Art may not be an imitation of life in many ways, but its censorship certainly seems to be.
TW: Mention and description of Systemic transphobia
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) usually helps flights- and dreams- safely take off as it is the country’s primary regulatory body for civil aviation. In the case of Adam Harry, however, it seems to have declared that when it comes to queer folk the runway is the limit, for India’s first openly trans pilot is being denied permission to take off.
When Harry’s parents stopped providing him financial support after he came out on Instagram, he was forced to give up his pilot training at the Skylark Aviation Academy in South Africa and come back to India.
In 2019, he managed to escape his abusive household and started taking up various jobs in Ernakulam to support himself. When the Kerala government heard his story, they granted a scholarship under the transgender person’s welfare fund to train at the Rajiv Gandhi Aviation Academy. It might have seemed that the winds of change were finally going to reach Harry’s wings, but this turned out to be only the beginning of his struggle against the hetero-cisnormative societal and institutional norms.
For starters, even though Harry’s scholarship had specifically been granted under a fund for transpeople, in 2020 when he started at the academy he was forced to take the DGCA’s Class 2 medical test under the category of the gender that he was assigned at birth, i.e. ‘female’.
The lack of non-binary options on the form meant that Harry had to go through the physical and emotional turmoil of pausing his hormonal therapy for six months. Though this was an incredibly tough and unfair thing to have to go through, clearing this medical examination would have given him his student pilot’s license so Harry was left with no choice but to suffer for this period. He was also asked to undergo a psychometric test which is not a regular requirement. However, he was still denied clearance.
As Harry reportedly told The Quint, he was denied clearance on the grounds that his testosterone level was too high and his gender dysphoria and the fact that he was going through Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) made him unfit for flying. He said, “They were reeking of transphobia. They told me that if they give me license, it would put many people at risk…”.
This cisnormative and binary understanding of human bodies is incredibly problematic in a medical examination and once again exposes not only the institutionalized transphobia in governmental procedures but also in the field of medicine.
This situation has forced Harry to get into a legal battle with the DGCA in the Kerala High Court. In a statement posted on his Instagram Handle (@pilotadamharry on 5th July 2022, he clearly stated in part, “DGCA’s unwillingness to make changes in guidelines for the employment of trans community is transphobic and also denial of the constitutional right to not get discriminated on the basis of gender”.
Polyamory is a relatively new term that has emerged mostly within queer communities. But the non-monogamous practice of relationship models has always existed whether we had a name for it or not. Is polyamory just a relationship model that anyone is free to practice without political implications in a society that is overwhelmingly monogamous?
Queer movements all over the world have emphasized on including non-conforming sexual practices within the fold of queerness. We haven’t really given a thought to how “deviant relationships” run parallel to the emancipatory practices situated at the heart of the queer movement- safe housing, loving community, financial stability, and overall, ease of living in our identities.
Indian families reproduce the heterosexual social order in the image of the perfect brahmin family. What doesn’t conform to that imagination is violently discarded, ostracized, and punished. Coming from a Dalit household my first experience of caste has been of being too much and taking too much space. It manifested when savarna kids debated if reservations should be allowed and I felt that I already have enough; accessing reservations would mean I am being ungrateful and selfish. This constant reminder of being too much played out when I gained weight because of antidepressants. I was tired of the look the shopkeepers would give me when I asked them for a particular dress in my size. It was almost as if wanting a dress that would fit me and feel good, was asking for too much. When I was diagnosed with Borderline personality at the age of 17, my relationships were falling apart and I felt so much guilt for needing “extra care”.
Being queer is to reject all the normative ways we are taught to love and have sex. In the literal sense, polyamory may just be a relationship style so one might question where does it fall within queerness? Queerness ends up exposing the heterosexual illusion. heterosexual becomes heteronormative by othering the queer and dictating who we can love and who we cannot. To be kind and to love has the power to dismantle structures by showing them we do not need it.
Polyamory helped me realize that there was plenty of love to go around. I cannot be too much because love isn’t finite or quantifiable. We contribute whatever we can without the pressure of having to be everything for each other. When I told myself I didn’t deserve all this love, my friend reminded me that the word deserve operates in the same way as the word merit and that my sense of self can grow beyond either of those words. When we manifest from a place of opulence instead of scarcity, the inner voice telling me “I am too much” gets quieter.
Most of the queer people who are outed to their parents lose their home and safety. I come from a very dysfunctional family and my childhood was riddled with hostility between my parents. My mother carried the brahmanical idea of fair-skinned feminine beauty and well, I was far from it. My dark skin reminded her of my father and she detested all association with him and me along with it. For the longest time, I felt unlovable but desirable only if I’m sexually available in ways savarna women were not.
Most of the queer people I have known in my life have been abused by their families. As a borderline person it is hard to unlearn patterns of abuse being repeated in the familiar shadow of a biological family. The brahmanical model of a family that aligns with the exploitative nature of capitalism is built on endogamous marriage. The burden of maintaining caste purity fell on upper caste women where sexual exclusivity became the norm. Queerness is too profound and our hearts are too full to ever be adequately contained within this model.
How do we find a resemblance of home and safety? Brahmanical structures create a refusal to accept diverse gender and sexual identities. Can building our own family become a way to unlearn the Brahmanical model of a family? Can polyamorous love be an emancipatory practice of overhauling the casteist cisgender heteronormative monogamous institution as we restructure all our relationships?
When I came in terms with my queer and polyamorous identity, it helped me balance my sexual and emotional boundaries. I would not settle for the bare minimum anymore. Polyamory offers an erotic and emotional fulfilment that is denied to anyone who does not conform to Brahmanical cisheteronormatice structures. Being queer eventually leads us to develop our own script that best reflects our sexual expression.
During the Covid 19 pandemic, all my friends and partners had become a network to hold and support each other to the best of our abilities. I also realized I had ADHD and Bipolar. To fully embrace my neurodivergence I had to embrace its demands, and neurodivergence primarily demands rest and to work at our own pace. I believe rest is radical and it is resistance in face of capitalism. Queer love held me accountable to self care.
I wish more than anything that me and my friends can have safe housing away from abuse. This also reminds me of the popular meme that went around – ” Monogamy, in this economy?” As we step into an uncertain future in a country that is increasingly violent on the marginalized; family is what we turn to. Late stage capitalism reminds us every day that market doesn’t accommodate Dalit, Adivasi, Tribal, muslim, backward caste, poor and disabled people. It is queer love that affirms us that the value of our labor does not have to be a simultaneous devaluation of our self.
Polyamory can become an emancipatory practice against gendered oppression and familial violence. Queer polyamorous love is holistic in a way that it not only compensates for the lack of care from our biological families but also offers us a hope of what a safe and loving family could look like and that it is worth living and fighting for. I believe that polyamory does not have to be limited to a relationship pattern. It is powerful enough to push for a more expansive definition of family that is a queer-inclusive community.
K-dramas may be the epitome of romance but they are sorely low on queer representation. Finding a queer K-drama is uncommon, and finding a good queer K-drama is rare. This is why we’ve really gone through the haystack to present you with the best of needles. No need to go scouring the internet for some healthy queer representation in Korean media; here are 5 K-dramas that focus on LGBTQ stories!
To My Star (2021)
A heartwarming romance between an actor and a chef, ‘To My Star’ is one of the best Korean Boys’ Love (BL) dramas. The story follows actor Kang Seo Joon, as a scandal forces him to leave his home and share an apartment with Han Ji Woo. The forced proximity trope works really well here. The friendly and outgoing Seo Joon clashes with Ji Woo, who is reserved and likes to maintain order. Through bite-sized 15-minute episodes, boundaries are tested and connections are formed. The two begin to look at each other in a new way. A portrayal of nuanced, realistic people, ‘To My Star’ is a quick watch that hits the emotions in all the right places.
You Make Me Dance (2021)
This BL drama kicks off with a plot that requires you to stretch your imagination a little. A creditor moves in with an aspiring dancer to make sure the latter wins his audition and pays back his debt. The shaky foundation coupled with a clunky pace lends the show a slight awkwardness, but it makes up for it in the cuteness department. The highlights of the show include the stunning dance sequences and the recurring symbol of a red thread of fate. If you can enjoy a show’s visuals and emotional beats in spite of a flimsy plot, then ‘You Make Me Dance’ is a lovely watch.
Semantic Error (2021)
The enemies-to-lovers tale, when done well, is always charming to watch. ‘Semantic Error’ demonstrates this charm by keeping the stakes low. Chu Sang Woo and Jang Jae Young are college students who get in a tiff over a group project. A petty revenge scheme follows and the two end up spending more time together than they meant to. Compellingly drawn characters — Sang Woo and his computer-esque way of thinking, Jea Young and his easy confidence — bring new life to this common trope. Watch ‘Semantic Error’ if you’re looking for a short but delightful college romance.
‘Nevertheless’ tries to paint a realistic picture of casual relationships and sexual desire but fails. Where it doesn’t fail is its portrayal of a lesbian relationship. One of the highlights of an otherwise average show, this storyline follows Yoon Sol and Seo Ji Wan. It is intriguing to watch Sol deal with her unrequited feelings for her long-time friend while Ji Wan is only just coming to realise hers. The story is simple and sweet but the actors’ nuanced performances make you feel for the characters — particularly as they struggle with the all too familiar predicament of queer women not knowing the line between platonic and romantic affection. Overall, a super heartwarming watch.
Out of Breath (2019)
If you’re looking for a quick watch with your dinner, this short three-episode web series is a good fit. This Girls’ Love K-drama follows Ha-Eun who, after dealing with a break-up, is persuaded to join a dating app by a friend. As she moves from one relationship to another, she also hovers in the space between being in and out of the closet. The story tackles these issues in a lighthearted way, through little moments between characters who feel authentic and genuine. This slice-of-life web series is worth checking off your list.
While 2020 may have been the year for K-dramas to finally venture into the BL and GL territory, the 2021 releases show characters with more depth and stories with more nuance. We can only hope that the trend continues.
I recently watched a short film that was on the lines of imagining a better world by being LGBTQIA+ inclusive, and surprise surprise, I was not satisfied with how low the bar was for our collective queer future. Now before you call me greedy, insatiable, and any of those other choice words that countless people have hurled at me, a bisexual person who is often clocked as a woman, let me acknowledge that I appreciate my queer peers who showed up to document and reimagine the micro-aggressions that they face on a daily basis.
However, given my own experiences, some of it fell short of the queer liberation that I imagine for myself. This Pride Month, we invited people to share stories of how they imagined a safer queer future with Gaysi. Some contributors wrote about wanting a revolution that liberated queer folx from systemic oppression, while others wrote about the intersectionality of queer liberation, and still others emphasized on the need to build communities, families, and systems of solidarity that went beyond compulsorily romantic monogamy that has been peddled to use as the epitome of love. Having read and edited these stories, you’ll have to pardon me for thinking that watching a mother trying to persuade her son to consider a rishta from another man or someone clocking a trans-feminine person as a woman while directing them to the appropriately-gendered washroom, is as far as we can imagine a better future for ourselves.
The bit that particularly bothered me was when a school-going child is berated for not polishing their shoes. While the scene seems to indicate that the child is relieved to not be scolded for their gender-expression, it goes that there nonetheless exists a power dynamic in the school that causes students to live in fear of invalidation. There are also undertones of religious dogmatism, casteism, ableism, and couple’s privilege that peak through most of the narratives in this short.
Which brings me to my larger question: who among us really has the agency to broadcast our queer aspirations? As an avid sci-fi reader, i would often find myself disappointed at how the genre was dominated by the gaze of cis-white-men, who often equated queer sexuality with biblical depravity (think Barbarella). So imagine how cathartic it was for me to read Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, wherein she wove an intricate tale around race relations, genderqueerness, mind control and extra terrestrial plague. When I read the first book, it was as if I was allowing myself to breathe out and relax into my body, nudging it to take up space, while embracing all that had been labelled as eccentric voodoo. Yes, this was allowed to be sci-fi, I reassured myself.
Then why must I shrink my imagination in the face of fascism, systemic patriarchy, casteism & religious tensions that keep me separated from those I love so fiercely, and white supremacy? Why can I not imagine a world where queer folx do not walk around on eggshells, only to be allowed a morsel of acceptance. I want a world where gender-neutral bathrooms are commonplace, with facilities for menstruators and one that prioritizes accessibility for disabled users and their aids, big and small, furry or otherwise. I want a world where queerness does not wait to be accepted by cis-het systems, but where it participates in world-building, actively, enthusiastically, and sometimes makes its own mis-steps, without it being blamed on queerness. I imagine a world where queer villains exist amidst the constellation of queer characters in the universe of the story. I imagine a disabled superhero taking on the corrupt municipality in the Global South, but not before they go on their own journey to find disabled joy (lots of stimming scenes!) and community, before the municipality folx realize the futility of their exploits. I want to dream big without being told that it’s too big and that I should make a meal out of breadcrumbs. To be audaciously queer, and nothing short of it.
As an autistic person, telling someone you’re autistic comes with a set of challenges. Mainly, what do they know about autism and what are they going to think of you? Will they say “I am sorry” on hearing you’re autistic, like you just told them you have cancer?
Autism originated as a medical diagnosis in the 1940s based on the work of child psychiatrist Leo Kanner. Kanner theorised autism based on children who had come to his clinic showing what their parents thought was abnormal behaviour. Most of these children were young white boys, the demographic subsequent autism researchers focused on and as a result for an average person, autism means a young white boy, who also might be a savant—an image further solidified by countless portrayals of autism in the media based on a very narrow understanding of what autism is.
Autism is pathologized, considered a disorder that must be cured, because we live in a neuronormative culture. If heteronormativity is the idea that being straight is the default and straight people are systemically privileged over everyone who diverges from the straightness, neuronormativity is the idea that there is only one right way of thinking, being, and everyone who diverges from the norm is abnormal, they must be pathologized and fixed. Neuronormativity privileges those who can conform to its ideals—neurotypicals—over those who can’t—Neurodivergents.
Autistic people can’t make eye contact. Abnormal. We must be fixed. We might not like physical touch. Abnormal. We must be sick. We like to stim through repetitive physical movements.
Abnormal. Something is wrong with us. None of these things that autistic people are pathologized for are bad on their own. They are considered abnormal only because the neuronormative culture creates arbitrary norms that we all must adhere to. Autism is not a disorder, it is a disability—as neuronormative culture actively disables us to function in society:autistic people have a higher rate of unemployment because everything from job interviews that require eye contact, smiling, verbal communication to workplaces that are sensory rich—too many people, too many lights, too loud—make it hard for us to hold down a job.
Heteronormative and neuronormative norms are so violently enforced because the dominant heteronormative and neuronormative culture knows its norms are arbitrary, artificial, and they can appear to be natural only when they are violently enforced. There does exist a treatment for autism. It’s called Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. It is essentially conversion therapy.
Autistic children are mentally and physically abused to make them comply with the neuronormative norms.. If we find eye contact painful, ABA is designed to teach us to make eye contact through the pain. Ivar Lovaas, who created ABA, later also created gay conversion therapy and both function on the same principle—compliance through violence.
At the same time, heteronormative gender norms and neuronormative norms don’t exist separately from each other. Nick Walker argues in her book Neuroqueer Hearsies that the performance of heteronormative gender roles is intrinsically linked to performance of neuronormativity. Both of these are based on policing people’s bodies, categorising them in simplistic labels based on arbitrary norms, and creating an idealised version of normal personhood that everyone must conform to.
Imagine a 10 year old boy. He is autistic and he stims by flapping his hands. His parents will not like that. He will be punished because flapping hands is not normal, especially as he is a boy and if a boy does it he must be gay and girly. For that boy to behave like a normal boy, he must behave in a way that conforms to both heteronormativity and neuronormativity. His hands must be in its proper place—so that doesn’t come across as girly or neurodivergent. Our hair is also gendered. If you’re perceived to be a woman, you’re expected to have long hair. But many autistic people might not like long hair because the sensory experience of hair on our skin can be too much, it can be unbearable.
In this way for all autistic people, our experience of gender is linked with our experience of being autistic. Even those of us who identify as cis-gender, the autistic experience of being cis-gender is different from the experince of a non-autistic, cis-gender person. You have to be cis-gender in a very specific way, neurotypical way. And that means you have to mask—hide your true self, pretend to be someone you’re not to be able to better fit in. But most of us don’t fit in.
A 2014 study explored the rates of gender variance in children as reported by parents. Using a population sample obtained from Washington DC, USA, the study found that autistic children were 8 times more likely to show gender divergence than non-autistic children. Another study published in 2018 based on an international online sample, found that up to 70% autistic people identified as non-heterosexual. While in the same year, a study in Netherlands investigating the relationship between autism and gender concluded that autistic people were up to 3 times more likely to identify as trans-gender and non-binary.
There are arguments on why we show such a high rate of gender divergence. Are we more likely to publicly come out as queer because being autistic marks us as outsider and thus we might find it easier to identify with our queer identity? identifying as queer is not easy in a heteronormative society no matter your other identities. It can be relatively easier with certain privileged identities like caste and class but there is always a threat of violence hanging over with your queer identity. Being autistic and queer comes with an added possibility of violence where you will be policed for both your identities.
I would argue autistic people are more likely to be queer because of how one’s gender identity is formed. Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble that gender is constructed through repetitive performance of culturally determined norms. What it means is that there are culturally prescribed gendered ways of behaving, talking, and acting—women are supposed to have long hair, men are supposed to be aggressive, women can’t be loud, men can’t wear makeup: the endless list of norms and prescriptions we are supposed to follow based on what’s between our legs. If you keep repeating them, these gender norms are internalised, and may feel natural.
If gender identity is formed through these culturally determined norms, and if the autistic thing is, we apparently suck at social norms and conventions—we can be oblivious to them—then it makes sense that we are less receptive to binary heteronormative gender norms, we are less likely to internalised the socially determined ideas regarding gender. We are more likely to be queer.
For the longest time, I was ambivalent about my gender. As an assigned-male-at-birth person, I am of an age where I am supposed to be a man. But I have always felt a disconnect with the idea of manhood. Whatever being a man entails, it is based on a neurotypical man. It requires performing all the made up intricacies of binary heteronormative gender roles that I can’t because I am autistic. I don’t want to be the man of the house, I don’t want to socialise during family gatherings, I don’t want to greet any guests, I just want to be left alone doing my own thing. But when you’re perceived to be a man, you are supposed to perform all these things that a man is supposed to do. And it creates a distance between what you’re supposed to be and what you are.
Cis-gender, non-binary, trans-gender, none of these labels completely expressed how I feel about my gender until I came across this label: autigender. Autigender is when your experience of gender and its perception is shaped by your autism. You can be autigender, or you can be autigender boy, or autigender girl, or autigender enby, or anything else that best articulates your experience of gender.
Autigender boy is what I am. And here is the thing: for many autistic people boy/girl and man/woman are two distinct gender categories. I am a boy, but not a man. I will argue we experience these categories differently because as we grow older, the pressure to fit into the heteronormative binary gender roles keeps increasing. Being a boy or girl is easier than being a man or woman. A boy flapping his hands in public is still more acceptable than a grown man doing it. A girl having short hair is more normal than a woman having long hair.
And to be clear, I am not saying those of us who identify as autigender boys or girls are still children. Autistic people have been infantilised for far too long. What it means is our sense of internal gender that we developed in younger days is what feels closest to us. We are not trans-gender or cis-gender, we experience our gender in a way that is unique to us shaped by our autism.
How do you figure out if you’re autigender? bell hooks defines queer as “being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” I think this also applies to those of us who are autistic. We have been marginalized and silenced, our stories told by others—our parents, psychiatrists, autism researchers. It’s only in the past few decades with the advent of the internet that autistic people have been able to tell our stories, especially regarding our gender and sexuality. Autigender as a gender identity was theorized on the internet, it had to be theorized on the internet.
We are inventing it, defining it, and shaping it in real time with each new story, each new experience. Earlier, I explained autigender as when your perception of your gender is shaped by your autism. But what exactly that means is up to you. You are autigender, if you think you are autigender. Autigender as a place. If you think no other labels doesn’t feel you, come here and make this your home. You can redefine it to mean whatever you want it to be, you can create new narratives of autism and gender. These narratives are important. These narratives are revolutionary. If most of us are queer, then our stories, our knowledge provides new ways of understanding, and challenging the dominant neuro-heteronormative culture that has marginalized us. Being autistic and queer, we are odds with the world—the world is not made for us. We can create a new world. We should create a new world.
Every Pride Month, we see businesses and governments pander to the queer community through excessive rainbow-washing. Thankfully, current discourse is plentiful on how this practice creates a veneer of inclusivity without calling for social transformation. Since Pride is a time to reflect as well as celebrate, I want to delve into how we can conceptualize and practice love differently. The fight for recognition and freedom occurs on both institutional and personal levels. While there is an ongoing battle for trans* and intersex folks’ legal rights in India, it occurs simultaneously with our individual journeys (e.g. seeking a partner). In a cisgendered heteronormative world, these pursuits are bifurcated: activism and community work often decenters love in praxis, and meanwhile our personal quests for love are limited to romance, sex, and familial acceptance. This begets a few questions–What is this bifurcation? Do our public-facing personae contain love as a component of solidarity? What can love look like when not applied selectively across the compartments of our lives and can it help advance the LGBTQIA+ community’s progress and our own well-being?
In exploring these questions, I draw upon some academia, my lived experiences, and ultimately my privileges when writing (being a cisgender, gay, upper caste member of the South Asian diaspora). I do not claim to fully understand or speak for others’ lived experiences in the community, as I am part of a contingent of the LGBTQIA+ community that has dominated spaces and faces less discrimination in legal and livelihood contexts.
Queer folks seeking inclusion do so in maligned environments that interrogate the right to love and exist. Our oppression centers around traditionally “private” matters (i.e. whom to love romantically, engage in sex with). However, to combat such forces within nation-states–advocating for legal, healthcare, and human rights–often necessitates collaborating with institutional actors in the public sphere, namely private funders and government actors. These “allies,” though, are enmeshed within a dominant system emphasizing emotion-devoid rational thinking, policy-oriented solutions (and concessions), and downplaying explicit queerness (i.e. passing). Such public activity contrasts with the private sphere (e.g. our homes), to where intimacy, love, and true self-expression is consequently sequestered. Even grassroots movements and production of art, where elements of pathos are infused, cannot remain immune to the patience needed to work within a system that arbitrates the terms of existence. (Questions like “When will we get funding?” or “When is the right time to act?” remind us of this.)
This callousness of procedure enforced on queer movements and art by this bifurcation is not our fault. After all, this is a cisgendered heteronormative world. However, we must acknowledge this gap and commit to love both in the public and the private. Other movements have grappled with this, and we can borrow from their work. Feminist scholarship, for instance, provides useful critiques of the public-private divide for us to consider. While some scholars advocate maintaining some semblance of a divide (perhaps to maintain the sanctity of individual privacy and a space for reflection) others argue that the maintenance of a private sphere gatekeeps where identity can be valid, by whom, and what constitutes palatability.  Furthermore, we can recognize that the political “wins” gained through the public sphere, while necessary with the current governance structure, are often inflexible, in direct contrast with the malleability of queerness, and an unsustainable place to where we place our energy. For instance, in India, while one must celebrate the 2014 NALSA judgment’s recognition of legal trans* identity – we overlook the harm done by the 2019 Trans Act and 2020 Rules for its half-hearted attempt at engendering systemic change. Why is there no clarity on whether intersex folks are protected, whether trans* women are women when faced with acts of domestic violence? The law and governance system are insufficient to cater to the needs of queer folks and fundamentally do not match with the queer movement’s understanding of gender and sexuality. I
Finally, we can reckon with and potentially reject currently “accepted” forms of queerness in media and the public ether that predominantly highlight sex and romantic love as our primary focus and goal of liberation. Take dating apps and television and film depicting cisgender gay men, for example. We (who have taken up considerably, and dare I say too much, space), have been fed and participated in narratives (e.g. Modern Love Mumbai, Cobalt Blue) that perpetuate narratives of a single partner, the ideal romance, and the institution of marriage–i.e. largely individualistic pursuit of loves and a further entrenching of each person’s public-private divide. While other programs like Pose (notably featuring folks other than cis-gay men) offer a refreshing take on community and love outside of sex and single partner; profit-oriented, algorithm-laden platforms fuel our needs to be validated, rank folks on biases and preferences, and can implicitly “tell” us we should prioritize comfort and community from partners as opposed to sharing equally fulfilling, loving relationships with the wider queer community. Said differently, if “love wins,” then no love should be lesser than the other, and public-private divides inherently categorize whom we love into a hierarchy. I would be remiss, then, not to mention how this contributes to the transphobia, erasure of aspec folks, and other problems within the queer community.
I do not discourage finding romantic love, familial acceptance, etc. that can be someone’s support system. However, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri among others discuss the incorporation of love in politics towards sustaining four movements.  To contextualize this within queer liberation, at present I think we could do more if we are healthy, willing, and healed, such as listening to our asexual and aromantic peers and exploring structures of polyamory–that can expand our own definitions of love and its modalities. Possibly, then, this can lead to healing intra-community divisions and actually gaining a sense of community that is not tied to historically individualistic pursuits of love and sex by virtue of cultivating an acceptance that is not based on body type, preferences, and other heteronormative ways of thinking about sexuality. Considering with non-sexual, non-romantic love could then help reconfigure depictions of solidarity and empathy–especially from those of us who are upper class, upper caste, and able-bodied–with our fellow queer person. Then, perhaps our activism can transcend beyond the public and truly embrace the intersectionality that we talk about but rarely realize.
 Squires, Judith. “Public and private.” In Political concepts, pp. 131-144. Manchester University Press, 2018.
 Schwartz, Leonard. “A conversation with Michael Hardt on the politics of love.” Interval (le) s 3, no. 1 (2009): 810-821.
The first time I realised that I’m not actually cis was when a really close enby friend of mine asked me if I’m really okay with being referred to as a “cis woman”.
At first I was like, yeah, I don’t really mind it. But then it felt so wrong that I felt like I was lying both to myself and the world.
I realized that I was deliberately trying to ignore and avoid confronting the surprisingly big amount of uncertainty in my mind regarding my own gender identity. Why? Because I was scared of how society treats those who fall outside the norm. I was terrified of being alienated even more because of who I am. But then I decided that enough is enough and to face the issue head on. I have been living my whole life up until now being treated differently because of being disabled but I never gave up and kept going because it’s all I can do.
And so I decided to look up what it exactly means to be cis, and obviously, that itself made me realise that I’m definitely not cis. After this realisation, it all started to make sense why I could never relate when my cis friends and family members talked about how a woman should be behaving in certain situations and on top of that, I felt like it was pretty suffocating. I thought something was wrong with me because I never fully felt like a woman and as it turns out, when I took some quizzes online to find out what my gender identity could be, most of them suggested that I’m either a demigirl or a paragirl.
Now, both the terms ultimately mean the same thing, i.e. partially identifying with a feminine identity. But the main difference between the two terms is that a paragirl has to identify with the feminine to the extent of at least 50% while there’s no such rule for being a demigirl.
Demigirl is a gender identity term that falls under the umbrella of non-binary genders. It refers to people who may or may not be assigned female at birth (afab) and do not identify fully with the assigned gender, mentally and/or socially.
And since I like how unrestricted the term demigirl is, I decided to just go with it instead of paragirl.
Although I’m lucky to have received positive responses from the people I have shared my gender identity with till now, I’m painfully aware that a staggering amount of people say that those who identify as demigirls are just women who are confused and/or want attention.
But allow me to just ask them one question: how can you be so sure that you are cisgender, agender, genderfluid, or whatever the hell you are?
Diya was a 28-year-old gay woman who was out to her friends and would participate in queer collectives, queer support groups, and research initiatives. She had written and published on topics around various LGBT+ themes.
Once in her city, there was an event being organised by a few supposed allies of the queer community. When Diya learnt about that event, she eagerly approached one of the organisers called Pallavi, a straight cisgender woman and expressed interest in attending the event. Pallavi knew about Diya’s identity and about her work with queer folks but shunned Diya, saying: ‘you are not from the community!’ Diya was taken aback. For a while, she felt like it was a joke and that Pallavi would burst into laughter soon, but this did not happen. Later Pallavi clarified that this event is only meant for people who are ‘transgender’ and joked that the only cisgender person allowed was Pallavi, as she is the organiser. There were two trans people present during this exchange, and they too were taken aback by Pallavi’s callous remarks.
Diya had gone to express interest in this event after reading a flyer. The flyer did not specify that the event was for transgender people. She was disappointed that she could not attend the event and was deeply upset with Pallavi’s tone. Pallavi didn’t care much about how Diya felt and continued with her work as usual, while Diya was upset for several days. Two of Diya’s friends who were present during this incident shared her feelings and consoled her. They suggested that she should have responded by saying that it was not Pallavi’s place to declare who is and is not from ‘the community.’
The lived experiences of individuals within the queer community can vary with different identities and personal experiences. However, regardless of the identity, there exists a shared sense of struggle for every member of the queer community. The struggle of living in a heteronormative binary-producing world. The popular initialism of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and, Transgender) emerged in the 1990s in the backdrop of transgender, bisexual and queer movements in the United States. The acronym signifies a critical view of the norms of gender and sexuality. It also shows that identities are complex and dynamic. The label eventually expanded to LGBTQIA+ to include people who are questioning their gender identity or sexuality or feeling discomfort to neatly fitting themselves into any of the other labels (Q), Intersex persons (I), Asexual person (A) and the ‘+’ denoting the inclusion of all existing gender identity and sexual orientations. Another such umbrella terminology is people with diverse SOGIESC i.e., Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics. This term too includes every person whose gender and sexuality are non-conforming. Such terms imply collective solidarity between diverse groups of gender and sexuality. There are many individuals like Diya who see themselves as a part of the whole community and the shared solidarity. They see a reflection of their struggles and challenges in the various identities within the community. This quite naturally brings a desire to work and get involved in issues of gender and sexual minorities. People like Pallavi may however miss these intricacies of identities within the community, as they identify outside of what the space has to offer.
There can be projects and events directed only at a particular subsection of the community. However, being in a position of driving projects, hiring people and setting the agenda, one is in a place of power. And power brings responsibilities with it. What you say, how you say it, whom you include matters. How do you engage with people who wish to be included, but who you deem excluded, also matters? People like Pallavi whose gender and sexuality conform to the world around them could be mindful that their ‘allyship’ isn’t one of gatekeeping. This will require challenging and critically reflecting on one’s beliefs and positionality beyond the books, talks, writings, forums and workshops.
After this incident, Diya has convinced herself that remarks by others cannot determine how she identifies herself. Both Diya and her friends have now braced themselves to bring it to the notice of all the Pallavis in future that who is ‘not from the community’ is not their place to say.
This piece has been reviewed by several individuals. I want to acknowledge and thank all of them for their input. In alphabetical order, this list includes Dr Ameya Bondre, Gadha Thachappilly, Ragi Gupta, Rohin Bhatt, Prof. Sivakami Muthusamy, Rajan Negi, and Rajan Negi, Sharin D’Souza.
The Greenhouse sits upon the crest of a hill, beneath the shade of an oak that was once my grandfather. The trail to the Greenhouse is dug out, the ground salted. No weeds grow here. Sita keeps her hand entwined with mine, perhaps afraid if I let her go, she will truly be on her own here. Still, she holds my hand without a single complaint. With my other hand, I hold the glass dish filled with Gulab Jamun. I hold it close to my chest, hoping it’ll protect me in the way I hope to protect Sita.
The Greenhouse is older than all of us. It is built out of sandstone bricks, weathered by time and history. Inside, it is warmed by the kitchen hearth and the heavy scent of chai and my mother’s curry. I smelled it as I approached the Greenhouse, all the memories of childhood intertwined in the scent of cooking cumin seeds and turmeric. The main room of the Greenhouse is filled with a wooden table decorated with a red table runner, brass bowls, and dozens of candles. My sister’s favourite incense burns at the centre of the table.
Sita takes my hand again as the sound of mother’s voice echoes from the kitchen. Her fingertips press into the palm of my hand, and oh how I wish I could take all her fear and hold it over the open flame of one of these countless candles. My Sita is gentle as she is beautiful, with asters that run down her throat and the pale birch of her skin. She knows my own fears and keeps them close to her heart, so that I might not bear any burden on my own. My sister rushes out of the kitchen, laden with copper bowls of curry, relish, dahl and roti. She looks at me with round brown eyes, then a smile slips. Her skin is a soft brown bark, sprouts growing from every crack along the surface. Honeysuckles circle her wrists, the curved petals bright as her shy smile.
Father sits at the head of the table and sips his chai. My sister sits across from me, flustered.
Then, she enters. The light from the hearth makes her shadow stretch, cloaking me. It twitches as the flames dance. She sets the chicken curry down on the table.
“Ah, Juhi, you made time to come. And you brought your friend! I always love having another of your friends enjoy my curry,” Mother says. She smiles and pats Sita’s hand. I should be grateful, it looks like the best mood she’s been in for a while. Yet I can’t quite relax, with Sita so tense. Mother takes her place beside father and begins to serve out the meal onto his copper pan.
“Of course, I made time, Mother. I always come home for the Winter Solstice,” I say, hiding the slight tremor in my voice well.
Sita says nothing but puts on her most polite smile. Of course, she’s always been good at that. The practised, stifling politeness of these gatherings. I tear a piece of roti and begin to eat, pinching the curry and some of the okra and tomato between the roti.
“How’s your family, Sita dear?” Mother eats daintily, not a single drop of curry staining her ash tree bark. No sprouts emerge from her limbs, only the amaryllis flowers clustered around the crown of her head offer any vibrancy. Sita swallows and clears her throat.
“They’re well, thank you for asking. We’ll be seeing them tomorrow to celebrate the Solstice,” she says. Her words are braver than she knows. Mother says nothing but wrinkles her nose. A courage blooms in my chest. I slip the lid of the dish off, eyes locked with Mother’s.
I don’t need to say anything, really. The sight of the dish is enough. For it is not my dish. These sweets, decadent and sticky as they are, are the bargaining chip of my childhood. It was never my place to make them, it has always been Mother’s. Sister, ignoring the remains of her okra, takes one and plops it into her mouth with a grin.
Just like that, the unspoken rule is broken.
A snarl creeps onto Mother’s lips. “I was going to make your favourite tomorrow like always, little Juhi. But since you’re going to your friend’s house, over your own family’s, I suppose there’s no point,” she hisses. The Winter light filtering through the windows dims as a flurry of snow descends. I sit back and meet her challenge.
“I’ve already made dessert, so there’s no need to stress,” I say, motioning to the dish. I take Sita’s hand in mine and kiss her cheek.
“And Sita is more than my friend, you know this. You’ve known this for a while, Mother. Her family is mine as well, now,” I say, louder than I ever have before. Silence settles over the room, thick and suffocating. Mother merely looks exasperated, like I’m a child that has slinked home covered in mud.
“I remember, Juhi,” Sister says, softly. I give her a grateful smile and a nod. It was always hard for her, standing up to Mother. Sita tugs at my arm.
“Maybe we should just go, Juhi,” she whispers. For a moment, I welcome the idea. Leaving would be so much easier. I’m pulled from the daydream when Mother’s chair scrapes across the sandstone, and she escapes to the kitchen. I curse under my breath and follow.
I find her by the hearth, a terracotta cup in her hands half-filled with chai. She sits with her legs folded, the same way she would sit when she brushed my hair as a child. I settle beside her.
“Why do you always forget her?” I ask the hearth. An ember hisses in reply.
“I do not forget her…but perhaps I wish to. It would be easier, I think. Your sister wants to move out to her own Grove, but I choose to forget this too. I miss hearing your father speak, but I choose to forget it rather than waste time mourning the loss of his voice. Memories cannot hurt me, little Juhi, not if I bury them. The soil can remember for me,” Mother says. For the first time, I truly see the tiredness in her eyes. No malice, no condescension. Just a woman not willing to see reality, worn down from fighting the truth of things.
Something else blooms in my chest, right beside the courage.
“Come with me, tomorrow, Umma. Bring Father and Sister. Learn who Sita really is, and her family too. Know her and remember her.”
Umma takes my hand and holds it. She nods, and it’s small and barely there but it is everything to me. We sit for a while and drink chai together, enjoying the warmth of the fire and tea.
We sit in a silence that for once, is comfortable.
No, the A in LGBTQIA+ does not stand for ally. But just because you’re not part of the community, doesn’t mean you can’t meaningfully support it. With most people spending between 3-12 hours every day at work, it is safe to say that we spend a good chunk of our lives in the workplace. Creating a safe and sensitive work environment for queer and trans people can help make all these hours that much more bearable.
Even in the friendliest of workplaces, members of the community sometimes feel like they’re an animal on display in the zoo, having our lives and identities poked and prodded by others’ curiosity. Intrusive questions can be uncomfortable even when packaged in politically correct terms, which is something allies don’t often realize.
Sofie Kanpuriya, a 30-year-old deputy manager based in West Bengal shares that the times when her colleagues treat her as an equal based on her work and are curious about their life outside of their gender are the instances when she feels most welcome and included in the workplace. Indeed, it is the small gestures that can have the most significant impact.
Other steps towards building an accommodative workplace may require a complete overhaul of company policies or infrastructure to provide for gender neutral menstrual leaves, gender neutral washrooms, benefits like insurance coverage for all partners and not just spouses and so on. But, here’s what you can do in an individual capacity to be a better ally.
Address your pronouns
Whether it’s in your e-mail signature or in your zoom display name, adding your pronouns can be a subtle way to help build a more gender-sensitized workplace. This takes pressure off your queer and trans colleagues from being the only ones who may be doing this to avoid being misgendered. It also contributes towards steering away from a culture where people’s genders are assumed, which leads to misgendering them.
It can be a very long-drawn process for queer or trans people to officially change their names. Don’t question why someone’s ‘official name’ doesn’t match what they use. “Treat their names & pronouns as a fact of life. The earth revolves around the Sun. She is XYZ. Just facts,” stresses Sofie. She adds that workplaces too need to be flexible to allow people to choose the name on their IDs and emails and not just automatically use the one on their government identification.
Use your privilege to stand up
Many workplaces may not have the most understanding culture. There may be people who may deadname someone, misgender them or make homophobic or transphobic jokes. This can be especially uncomfortable if the perpetrator is someone in power. Very often LGBTQIA+ folks feel exhausted having to always be the person that calls out this type of behavior. So why not try and acknowledge and discourage discriminatory or bigoted behaviour the next time it happens in front of you? Whether it’s happening in person or via text, you can start with stopping them, explaining what they did wrong and how it could hurt someone. For example, if someone deadnames your colleague in a conversation, you can interject by saying “Their name is XYZ,” and continue speaking.
Adopt gender neutral or gender sensitive language
For people who are not actively thinking about it, it’s difficult to see just how gendered different languages are and how this can exclude people who may not conform to the binary. Very often we will hear phrases like ‘Hello ladies and gentlemen’ or greetings like ‘Hey guys’ thrown around in the workplace as well. If you want to build a truly inclusive company culture, start with yourself. Choose neutral terms like ‘folks, team, everyone, friends.’ Being more mindful in general should help, you’ll soon be able to start spotting phrases like ‘opposite sex’ that can make its way out of your vocabulary. Think about the last time you e-mailed someone you didn’t know and used ‘Ma’am or Sir,’ how did you jump to that conclusion about them?
Gender and sexuality have always been taboo topics, especially at the workplace. But in your zeal to support queer and trans people, don’t accidentally out them or make the uncomfortable. If someone has confided anything about their identity to you, don’t share it unless they have decided to do so. Amongst colleagues who eventually become friends, it may be common to talk about sex lives and dating but don’t press people for details or ask them random questions like “when did you first realize you were gay?” If you have doubts, just ask them if they’d be comfortable answering questions about a certain topic. Being in the closet, coming out to families, transitioning etc. are all potentially triggering conversations for queer and trans people so it’s best to tread with caution and not be intrusive unless they’re okay sharing.
Usher in diversity by passing the mic!
If you’ve been given a seat at the table or been given certain decision-making powers at work, try to expand your perspective to make it as inclusive as possible. Don’t be afraid to defer to someone who might know more than you or bring in newer voices. For example, if you’re given the opportunity to work on an ad for the LGBTQIA+ community but you’re cishet, be gracious enough to accept that you need people with lived experiences to contribute and weigh in. It cannot be stressed enough that when you bring in external resources like sensitivity readers or queer and trans contributors, you must compensate them for their time and effort, especially if you’re going to be profiting from the end result – be it socially or financially.
Push for policy changes
Several trans folks have stressed on the importance of having gender-neutral washrooms in the workplace. But large-scale changes like this will hardly be taken into consideration if only a small minority of people ask for it. If you’re in a position of power, take the time to educate yourself and push for inclusive facilities like these. If you’re not, then make your stance known loud and clear, so members of the community are not the only ones fighting for it.
Don’t freak out
The journey of learning how to be a good ally is ever-evolving. So don’t freak out if you accidentally do the wrong thing, like using the wrong pronoun. Simply acknowledge it, thank people for correcting you, rectify your mistake, and continue.
More often than not, LGBTQIA+ folks know that you’re trying and will appreciate it so accept feedback when you get it. It has been said that it helps to think of being an ally as an action and not as a label, so know that as the community evolves, so will your role as a supporter.
Thai Boy Love (BL) dramas have recently taken the world by storm. And while they boast of compelling stories and charming romances, they also promote some harmful tropes and stereotypes about the LGBT community. ‘Bad Buddy’, a romantic comedy drama about two boys whose families despise each other, dismantles them like no other show in the BL world. This Romeo-and-Juliet-esque show uses fun tropes that keep the audience entertained while putting the spotlight on genuine queer experiences. Here — spoiler alert! — are a few major BL tropes that the show cleverly subverts.
Unnecessary Gendered Roles
A lot of BLs force heterosexual norms onto their lead couple with one ‘masculine’ partner (the fighter and more dominant one) and one ‘feminine’ partner (the shy and sensitive one). Our ‘Bad Buddy’ male leads, Pat and Pran, are never forced within these gender roles. It could have been easy to do so. The boisterous and muscular Pat could have easily become the ‘protector’ of the couple. Instead, he wears his heart on his sleeve and sleeps with a stuffed doll. The introverted and quiet Pran could have easily become the more submissive partner. Instead, he is just as sporty, fights just as well and is even more competitive than Pat is.
Pat and Pran are real boys with a canvas of traits and interests that make them who they are. Neither fits in the mould of masculine or feminine because that is not how real gay relationships work. When Pat calls Pran his wife, Pran calls him out and points out how silly it is. He goes on to say that the word boyfriend is special enough for them. Pat apologises and ‘Bad Buddy’ slams shut the book on this prominent BL trope.
Fetishization Of Gay Relationships
There’s nothing wrong with on-screen sex. But its portrayal in BL dramas sways dangerously between representation and fetishization. Overuse of sex scenes with no narrative purpose can lead to a depiction of gay relationships as something to be consumed. In ‘Bad Buddy’, physical intimacy is messy but fun, clumsy but natural. It feels less voyeuristic and more like a peek into a real relationship. The show strays away from unnecessary gendering here as well. Unlike most BLs, there is no ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’. Sex is a fluid, changing thing.
In one of BL’s most harmful tropes, the dominant, ‘masculine’ partner physically forces themselves on the other. It is sexual assault dressed up as the force of love. In ‘Bad Buddy’, Pat asks Pran if he can kiss him, even though they’ve already been dating for a few months.
The show highlights that boys do have sexual desires, but this is just one facet of themselves. What little intimacy they show is emotionally charged and representative of queer men rather than an idealised, glamorous version of it. And you know ‘Bad Buddy’ definitely isn’t shying away from sex when the last dialogue on the show is “Pran, this isn’t a porno!”
‘Oh I’m not gay, I’m only in love with (insert name).’ A frequently heard line in the world of BL, this dialogue appears in ‘Bad Buddy’ as well. Except it is spoken by Pa, Pat’s sister, as she mockingly calls out what she expected Pat to say. Pat is quick to refute this and further says that he is open to all genders. Pran, too, admits he could like girls someday as well. In less than a minute, ‘Bad Buddy’ depicts the fluidity of sexuality and smashes the original BL trope straight into oblivion.
The Curse of Episode 11
BL dramas love tormenting their audiences with a breakup and time skip towards the end. Come episode 11, everyone was worried about it happening in ‘Bad Buddy’ too. And indeed the show does trick us into thinking they break up. Then comes the reveal. Pat and Pran had secretly continued dating and were now going strong for over four years. No contrived misunderstanding, no forced separation. Unlike other BLs where the leads are at the beginning of their official relationship, ‘Bad Buddy’ gave us the pleasure of seeing Pat and Pran’s long term relationship and how it blooms over time. A truly satisfactory ending.
Lack Of Female Representation
Female characters in BLs are usually used as props for the male character’s development and later simply forgotten about. But ‘Bad Buddy’ shines all the brighter thanks to its women. Ink and Pa are wonderful supporting characters who also have their own independent storylines. They are fully fleshed out and watching their relationship go from friends to lovers is fulfilling. It’s heartfelt, meaningful and despite having lesser screen time, no less important than that of our leading men.
All in all, ‘Bad Buddy’ is a testament to what happens when queer people are involved in the making of queer art. The director, Backaof Noppharnach, is a queer man himself and the result is a show that breaks harmful stereotypes in favour of authentic characters and an even more enjoyable story. He creates a true representation of the LGBT community because he understands them, an empathy that some BL dramas are in dire need of. Does this mean that only queer people should make queer art? Of course not. It just means that those on the outside need to step into queer shoes before telling queer stories.
What began in 1969 as an effort to normalise the existence of fat bodies has snowballed into one of the most prevalent social media movements in recent history. The capitalistic and patriarchal ways of the world have altered the way people feel about their body- from fitting into an “ideal” body type to flaunting impossible body aesthetics, our collective insecurities echo deep. The body positivity movement, which aims to embrace the beauty of the body, as it is, combats these unrealistic norms. This social movement has encouraged people across the globe to voice out their body confidence in an effort to change their body perceptions, but it is still a work in progress when it comes to a particular group of persons who might need it the most, i.e., queer folx.
When Rebecca Mudaliyar was younger, their view of their body was deeply drowned in the binary construct. “I thought being bisexual was associated with masculine energy. But as I grew up, I realized it had more to do with my personality.” For the 21-year old media student, being non-binary means they see people as people and not through their gender. Non-binary people tend to reject the restrictive boundaries of the gender binary, whether it be with respect to clothing or cultural stereotypes. For each person, the journey to rejecting this binary and embracing their body perception remains wholly personal. The way Rebecca’s body image gets a confidence boost might seem simple. “Dressing up as you want: that is the one thing that always gets my body confidence up. I love to experiment with my hair. If my hairstyles look good, I get an automatic confidence boost. Seeing myself in the mirror and taking beautiful pictures works, and I even love talking to myself and my body.”
Ace, a 21-year-old law student, has experienced their fair share of the gender construct. Identifying as an agender individual, they have felt this aspect of their queerness get questioned when anything they did fell remotely into the binary boxes. “I identify as agender but I am female-presenting. You are automatically put into a box when you fit into this binary presentation. When you come to the complete realization that you’re agender, you completely stop gender coding everything, and only at that point can you completely be fine with your body. You start to become who you want to be, and not assign yourself to one gender.” When they were in primary school, Ace was exposed to transphobic slurs, which made them question their assigned gender. “Those conflicting opinions with no one to guide me had me repress everything I wanted to explore about my gender. Open these conversations really early. Give kids a safe space to figure things out. We cannot wait for a generation to die out and blame the bigotry on them. Unless we start teaching what is right and stop this casual bigotry that every kid sees, we cannot hope for much change.”
For many queer people, happiness might come from the smallest places. Body positivity for queer folks is something that is intersectional: their bodies and queerness often interact with each other. It might be difficult to isolate one aspect from the other.
Trans joy, also called trans euphoria, is often experienced as an uphill battle along a long road. Thea, a National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) student who identifies as a trans-non-binary femme, has found that her euphoria comes in small packages. “When you start hormone transition, you initially lose fat. I was scared that I was getting skinny. But now, I have breasts- this might seem small, but I cannot control myself! I’m like a little 14-year child, touching my body excitedly. I am truly grateful that I get to experience this trans joy, to feel this part of me. I used to be uncomfortable wearing pants, so I used to wear baggy clothes to cover that part of me. And I was uncomfortable with the prospect of being shirtless as a child as well. Trans joy gets overwhelmingly high for me. Nowadays, the little things – growing my hair out, wearing flowers on my hair and taking pictures make my trans joy explode.” Thea, who started her transition two years ago, is currently undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) that tends to reduce gender dysphoria (dissatisfaction or unease in transgender persons due to the clash of their assigned gender and gender identity as well as expression). Since Thea initiated HRT, she has felt more at peace with her body. But the sun does not always shine. “I don’t love all of it, but I can live life. I model sometimes: before HRT or when the dosage was really low, I somehow got through it. But when I recently did a shoot, I did not feel like I belonged there. I did not feel great standing next to these women who were tall and slender, despite having self-confidence.”
Role of media in portraying queer bodies
‘Pose,’ an American drama series about the New York drag ball culture which focuses on African-American LGBTQ people, remains one of Thea’s favourite shows. Its cast features several transgender performers and launched several trans-actors such as MJ Rodriguez. Thea then found herself asking, why is it that when it comes to the Indian entertainment scene, the trans identity is either dismissed as a joke, or the roles are essayed by cisgender men? “By casting a man in a trans femme role, you are insinuating that trans women are nothing but a man in a wig. That damages us so much. No one except trans people must take these roles up. Otherwise, the charade and sympathy directed towards the trans community are merely performative.”
For decades, trans bodies have been scrutinized and branded as straying from the norm or objectified in hurtful ways. In India, safe gender-affirming surgeries, a life-saving resource that allows trans people to cope with gender dysphoria, remains highly inaccessible and unaffordable. Many private insurance players see this as a form of cosmetic surgery, which means that it is often not covered under health insurance. A typical gender-affirming surgery can cost upward of ₹ 2 lakhs, and the debate about whether this surgery is vital or cosmetic at large in the medical community, despite several trans-voices speaking out about the importance about improving its access.
Utkarsha Jagga, a trauma-informed, queer affirmative therapist, has dealt with the effects of such hurdles first-hand. Mandated therapy is a prerequisite for transition, which is once again undermined by the lack of access that low-income groups have to free and trans-affirming counseling. “Sensitivity training for mental health professionals with respect to queer patients is negligible. To become a certified queer-affirmative therapist, mental health professionals can undertake courses or modules, or undergo training and supervision. Awareness about this process is non-existent.” With her queer clients, Utkarsha has adopted a slow process toward body positivity. “We [first] work on moving to body neutrality, [and] then approach positivity. It is also important to deconstruct the binary rules that our society is built upon. Embracing smaller parts of the body they like is the best way to do this. Trans men, for example, might want to wear binders or keep a handkerchief or bracelet. Working on actions that give them euphoria is pertinent.”
“It is a gradual change,” Utkarsha said. “Queer people can work on an individual level in therapy. It will take time, but hopefully, one day, body positivity as a movement will not be restricted to a certain group of people.”
TW: systemic homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, mentions of conversion therapy
Imagine a round table featuring 5 pastors and a church member discussing matters related to the LGBTQ community. In a video titled “Heart of the Matter”, this is the exact scenario that plays out. The first few seconds of the video provides some snippets from the rest of the discussion and we hear pastors and church leaders say things like, “They are more than their orientation”, and “we need to repent of our indifference”. Sounds promising? Better than we could imagine, right?
1 minute into the video, we are introduced to the host, Tou Chen- who introduces himself as the person who gave a testimony of his journey to “overcoming the grip of same-sex attraction”; that marks the first red flag in the video.
To provide a little context, the video is the brainchild of TrueLove.Is, a ministry of Singapore-based 3:16 Church led by Senior Pastor Ian Toh. TrueLove.Is “provides stories and resources for Christians who want to know more about LGBTQ issues”. On paper, TrueLove.Is is a safe space for Christian LGBTQ members who wish to be heard and accepted. However, the reality is far more insidious.
The 30-minute video delves into various topics from the efforts by the Church to engage with members of the LGBT community, guiding parents of children who experience same sex-attraction on how to respond when their kids come out and how the church should help its LGBTQ members. Growing up in a fairly religious household, not once had I ever heard the priests in my church ever discuss sex, much less homosexuality. I won’t lie. For a hot second, I wondered, should we be moved by their attempts to be inclusive? But those questions quickly vanish. If you pay close attention, a lot of red flags begin to pop up. While on one hand, they bring in the narrative of love is love and posit that the problem is that people in church are not “engaging” with this subject and that the solution is love, they also continue to address homosexuality as an “issue” that needs to be confronted.
It is interesting how they choose the right-sounding phrases, like, “Don’t see the person for only what we don’t agree with”, while in the same breath telling their viewers to not “go by the letters or words they use, because they are there because of their struggle or need for validation”. Apart from the blatant disregard to the desires and needs of members of the LGBTQ community, their attempt to say that a queer person is more than their identity is an attempt at an erasure of the same. ‘Yes, a person is more than a part, but they are also the sum of all their parts.’ It is almost the same as saying ‘I don’t see race or caste’. While, yes, sexuality does not make up the entirety of a person’s identity, let’s not pretend like it is not an important part of how they navigate the world and its systems today.
I have to say, I almost feel impressed by the level of manipulation that goes into this. When one thinks of conversion therapy, your mind instantly thinks of painful, humiliating and torturous practises like ice-pick lobotomies, and aversion therapy procedures such as shock treatments. Through TrueLove.Is, they actively disengage from ideas like “pray the gay away” and talk about deconstructing the hurtful language and being inclusive. In fact, their entire game plan seems to be to use love and the idea of God’s unconditional love to “help” queer people overcome their “struggles”. The Church is your friend in your time of need, and your helping hand through the dark hours. And, I won’t lie, I can understand why that kind of acceptance can seem welcoming.
So, I did what any rational person would do. I sat and watched all the video testimonials that they have uploaded. To be fair, there were only 29 of them, each between 5-7 minutes long. But they were quite difficult to get through. I don’t think I still have the right words for the feeling, but to sum it up, they made me feel unsettled. As I dug further into their narrative, I kept wondering if it was that they genuinely subscribe to the idea that “love” is the answer or were they being purposefully manipulative. After spending close to 3 hours’ worth of videos, I believe the latter.
Now, the truth is, if you have watched one video, you have watched them all. While the specifics vary, all the stories take the same route. It starts with internalized homophobia. Some stories feature people who have accepted their identity and were out and proud. However, toxic relationships, being on outs with their family, and the lack of satisfaction due to being alienated by their community, leaves them feeling an empty void. The remaining stories feature people who simply cannot come to terms with their identity and are ashamed of this part of their lives. Both groups of people feel a yearning for a better life and their sexuality is the hindrance that holds them back. In a lot of cases, same-sex attraction is not the only thing that the person struggles with. They bring in porn addiction and sex addiction into the fold as well. The internalized homophobia takes them down a very dark path. They are plagued by the belief that they are inferior, undeserving and hence, the idea that they need to purge themselves of homosexual desires to finally be happy.
Somehow, at this point they find God. They join the church. In some cases, they find someone to confide in; someone who tries to guide them down the right path. But sometimes prayer is not enough. They continue to struggle with their desires even though they have found faith. But, the bright light at the end of this very very dark tunnel is “true love”, aka, straight love. They find pleasure, of a spiritual kind, in heterosexual relationships. Interestingly enough, every single video ends on the same note, that even though they are not free from same sex attraction, they now know how to “control” it. And to be honest, this seems a lot crueller and more dangerous than the torturous methods that I listed earlier. Here, the self-flagellation, the need for approval and acceptance becomes so deeply ingrained in their minds, that they themselves become their own abuser. It’s Foucalt’s biopower in play.
Even in the way that they choose to tell the stories they make some calculated decisions. The music is somber, the colours are dark and the general mood seems to represent depression, sadness, and loneliness. Phrases like “unwanted same-sex attraction” are used all through. The second half of the video, post having “overcome” their struggles is represented with a transition to lighter music, brighter colours and a joyful tone. They also indulge in stereotyping and some really negative perceptions about same-sex attraction as well as the larger LGBTQ community. Promiscuity, for example, is portrayed as the norm. In the first ever testimonial shared, Amy is portrayed as someone who had “resigned to a life of homosexuality”. While sharing her story, she talks about being cheated on, and describes it as a phenomenon “common in the circle”. Even the scenes of comradery within the community are depicted using shots of techno music, alcohol and mirth as opposed to the more wholesome nature of the fellowship among the church members, which is depicted using scenes in nature or games night.
The relationships and sexual identities are showcased as stemming from some kind of trauma. For example, Karen, who was abused as a child, decided she wanted to stop wearing dresses to “protect herself” or Tamae, who was sexually assaulted when she was 4. Tamae is pitched as someone who feels “compelled to earn love by altering herself to fit the people she was involved with”. Her craving to be equal to men, but also be loved my men is offered as the explanation for her bisexuality. Or, Mabel, who lost trust in men thanks to an abusive father. She believed she had to become like a man to protect herself. For men struggling with same-sex attraction, they offer porn as the cause. By their rhetoric, porn leads to masturbation, which in turn leads to sex addiction. They make mentions of public washrooms and baths as places of sexual activity, and there is a certain sense of depravation in the way these stories are recounted.
Even in the stories that are not rooted in trauma, their sexual identities are depicted as unfulfilling. Take for example, Gillian, who is portrayed as someone who “wished she was with a boy” and as someone who is not “convinced of my sexual orientation”. She decides to break up with her girlfriend and starts meeting men. She measures her relationship with them against that with her ex. “I could find fulfillment, excitement from things apart from the world Joan introduced me to,” she says, explaining why she could never go back. At the end of her testimonial she concludes that her attraction to Joan wasn’t because of gender but because “she fit the romantic fantasy pop culture sold on love”. She reconciles with her parents, who cut her off after she was outed by a youth minister. She not only reconciles with her parents and even suggests that on reflection, she had “thought wrongly about some of the past memories”. At the end of the video, she concludes that God taught her to love people in a wholesome manner and that “sexuality isn’t a political issue, it is a biblical one”.
The sad thing is, these stories are stories of real trauma. Abuse, addiction and depression are all minimized in the grand scheme of things, and portrayed as things that can be easily “overcome”. The stories of very real pain and hurt are neatly packaged for a rather sinister agenda.
Conversion Therapy: A Common Phenomenon In Singapore
Conversion therapy is not new in Singapore. The outbreak of HIV in 1985 played a huge role in pushing such therapies. In fact, STDs, and the fear of contracting HIV thanks to their ‘life of debauchery’, is portrayed in the videos as motivating factors for making the decision to leave behind the queer identity. The Church started playing a role after the Choices ministry was established by an American ex-gay pastor, Sy Rogers, in 1991. He popularized a 14-week lecture series that was designed to teach people that they could say no to being gay. The crux of their teaching was: Freedom is when you are able to say “No”. Rogers was backed by the government, who thought this would be the best method to combat the issue of HIV.
Over the years, even as conversion therapy was banned in several parts of the world, this ideology has continued to thrive. The way TrueLove.Is has positioned themselves in this world is unique. They have pitched themselves to be a safe, loving space that members of the LGBTQ can turn to. Its core message is simple: “Don’t just come out, come home”. One look at their website and social media channels, and one would easily believe, as Grace Yeoh expresses in an article on Rice Media, that the church is truly welcoming of the queer community.
The people behind TrueLove.is are far from ignorant. They have completely understood their audience”: the well-read and educated Christian millennial. They use the Rainbow flag in their favicon and other brand assets and even use phrases that are associated with the community to position themselves as liberal as well as accepting of the church. And, in a very weird way, their clear departure from the hardline stance of the church is refreshing. It moves past making judgements, and makes the goal clear: you can’t pick and choose the Bible and the Bible does not condone homosexuality. However, they are very careful in how they choose to express this. It is probably best explained in the video, Matters of the Heart, when the pastors reference the parable of the prodigal son. They refer to the story and speak about how the son leaves, but eventually comes back and suggests that sometimes, kids just need to “run the course and they will come back”.
So while TrueLove.Is tells people to “come out, come home”, don’t imagine an image of a group of people standing with their arms wide open to accept people regardless of their gender or sexual identity. No, in fact, they are simply saying that it is okay to have same-sex attraction, but it’s a sin to act on them and to come home to a God, who will accept them and love them despite their tendencies. Through their stories they refute the idea that one is born gay by not only offering back stories to the originating moment to such attraction, but by also depicting that homosexuality is a condition that can be overcome. In all of this they also achieve something else: homophobia is washed away from its hatefulness and given the garb of concern and love instead.
I was warned that this would be a rabbit hole, but I probably didn’t realize that I would be left with a lot of questions that I might never be able to answer. The more you watch their content, the more the questions arise. Are the stories genuine? Are they actors or other Christians who simply banded together with a common goal? Or, worse, are these people living in a world where they have supressed who they are for the illusion of acceptance? Is TrueLove.is truly convinced about their solution or are they very aware of exactly what they are doing.
In a response to an article on Medium, Pastor Ian Toh wrote a post on Facebook. In that, he claimed that there many who experience same-sex attractions that don’t wish to pursue same-sex relationships. “In my time working with Christians with same-sex attraction, I have learnt that they struggle with being told that there is only one way to deal with same-sex attraction. Sadly, we don’t hear much about them because their stories often aren’t told,” he wrote. And, I can’t help but wonder, if it is that this church realized that internal homophobia had created the perfect target audience for them, or they realized that there are people who could not reconcile their faith and sexual identity.
The presence of this ministry is also truly telling of the lack of safe spaces available. In Singapore, gay sex is still illegal under Section 377A of the Penal Code and any ‘male found guilty of having sex with another male’ could be punished with a prison sentence of up to 2 years. The impossibility to survive in a place where they cannot be who they are has pushed people from the LGBTQ community to crave to be a part of a system where they are not looked down upon, even if it means erasing a part of themselves, is my conclusion.
Not Just a Singaporean Issue
It seems that TrueLove.is may be exporting its brand of conversion therapy to India as well. A mirror website that seems to be linked to an evangelical church called New Bridge Community Church exists. They describe themselves as a “vibrant group of charismatic, evangelical, born again, spirit filled, highly relational, family-based church in Pune” that believes that people matter, not rigidity or formats. I reached out to the church, and managed to talk to Pastor Karan and Paresh H, who lead the TrueLove.is India ministry. The church, based in Hinjewadi, focuses on community-based activities and desires to be a gospel-centric church instead of falling back on moralism and legality, according to Pastor Karan. “We are not perfect, but are pursuing to be,” he says.
In 2019, the church crossed paths with TrueLove.Is and decided to open a chapter in India. The effort is fairly new here to have enough stories to share; however, they have already gotten the ball rolling. “People from the community think of pubs and bars as safe spaces because they believe they won’t be judged there, and we strive to become that safe space for them instead,” says Pastor Karan. He even says that in a short time period of 5 months they have been able to get the core members of the group to understand the case in point that none of them would judge another based on their sexual identity. “Many Christians have questions and we want to be able to answer them and help them understand,” he adds.
“We are not a pro-LGBTQ church,” Paresh confirms, “We completely believe in the Word of God and so we are a safe space that is equipped to handle questions about sexuality, gender, gender confusion and more,” he adds. He clarifies that he himself comes from the LGBTQ community. “I have not been a part of the community for 12 years. I no longer identify as a gay man, but as same-sex attracted,” he says. The difference, he says, is that a gay person celebrates their identity and acts on it, while a same-sex attracted person does not act on it. He runs this chapter along with Supriya, who also identifies as same-sex attracted, he adds.
Sometimes people struggle and they need a community and that’s what they claim that they want to be. There are no LGBTQ members, emphasises Paresh. Karan adds, “We are not aware of people’s orientation. But we have noticed members who have shown traits and we have members we are sure have shown the inclination but have not come out.” The end goal, you ask? Make them fall in love with Jesus, which is what TrueLove.Is about, says Pastor Karan.
During the Supreme Court hearings against IPC Section 377 in July 2018, Advocate Menaka Guruswamy had asked the five-judge bench: “How strongly must we love knowing we are unconvicted felons under Section 377?”. In Danish Sheikh’s two plays, ‘Contempt’ and ‘Pride’, collected in a single volume titled Love and Reparation, the central idea is of a people who have lived their lives and loved their lovers under the shadow of a law – one that polices a free-fledged authentic expression of their queerness, and now they are done waiting and staging resistance against their lives and loves being the subject matter of restrictive out-dated legislation.
While ‘Contempt’ is based on the 2013 Suresh Kumar Kaushal v. Naz Foundation hearings which resulted in the Supreme Court overturning the 2009 Delhi High Court verdict and upholding Sec 377’s constitutional validity, ‘Pride’ takes its cue from the 2018 Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India case where Sec 377 was finally repealed. In both plays, Sheikh makes liberal use of court transcripts, more so in ‘Contempt’, which is structured as four courtroom scenes, than in the latter where it is present only in key moments. It is a unique device which roots the plays in reality, yet allows the dramatic tension of the narrative to rise above it.
Setting plays an important role in both of them. In ‘Contempt’, there are five chairs on the stage for the witnesses. The lawyer remains standing while the two judges are seated within the audience. In ‘Pride’, the audience is split into two sections, facing each other. The stage is the place in between, with two chairs facing each other and perpendicular to the audience groups on either side. This is where A and T sit. Persons 1-5 are seated in the audience: two on one side, three on the other. The plays, while not directly involving the audience, still give the impression of their direct involvement by projecting a facsimile of participation.
Tarun Khaitan points out the law’s simultaneous ability to “be a vehicle for power’s oppression as well as a tool that has the potential to be wielded against such oppression” in his Foreword and Sheikh seeks to highlight this duality. His view of the law is necessarily pragmatic, even optimistic, and he seeks to look at “coming to terms with the law… trying to craft a relationship of repair with it.” I am reluctant to share this outlook as I look at the law’s increasingly cruel, disproportionate use towards disenfranchising minoritized people as an extension of the ruling status quo. I am also hesitant to put my faith in the promise of constitutional morality.
But then again, perhaps the law, no matter how imperfect, is the only tool in our arsenal capable enough to enact change, even if temporary. Khaitan goes on to admit later: “Its victories over power are sometimes illusory, usually modest and incremental, often reversible, and never complete.” Still, it holds within itself a firm potential, lying dormant and waiting to be utilised. This is where the love in the volume’s title gains significance for how does one love when that love is castigated, when your concerns are dismissed as those of a ‘minuscule minority’ demanding ‘so-called rights’? And then, as the dust settles, “how to love in the aftermath of legality”?
‘Contempt’ addresses that question. Those courtroom scenes are interweaved with personal stories that Sheikh labels as affidavits but they “resist the neatness of the conventional legal affidavits”. They all take off with “one foot planted in reality” then wander on invented paths, sprawl and resist attempts to be boxed in, replicating in essence the mess of real (queer) existence. It is an attempt to visibilize the person behind the story who recedes into the background in typical affidavits, a precise documentation of dry facts which “leach out the magic of everyday life”. Moreover, they individualize the queer community, give faces to the struggle for recognition, and provide relatable human stories that generate compassion.
The dialogues of the judges are generously culled from court transcripts and while they may appear exaggerated, especially when they devolve into a farcical argument with respect to what counts as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, it is sobering to discover they are factual utterances. ‘Pride’, as mentioned before, is not similarly dependent on legal documents but even though the action does not really take place in a courtroom, it is just as much rooted in reality as ‘Contempt’. The therapy sessions form a substitute for the affidavits and the interludes foreground inner politics and hierarchies within the liberation movement(s), marked by distinction of caste, class, and gender identities.
For a lot of individuals, especially those coming from higher socio-economic backgrounds, illegality was not a deterrent. As A says in ‘Pride’, he was not affected by it in any material way. It did not stop queer people from loving but it did force them to hide, to consider their love as less and inferior, to live with self-hatred and shame, enabling “the tolerance of casual indignities in public, of casual cruelties in private.” It paved the way for accepting mistreatment because that constant sense of shame told them that it was what they deserved. Moreover, minoritized people without resources were not spared its cruelties.
The repeal of Sec 377 might not mitigate this sense of shame, at least not all at once, and it does not signify an overnight change in people’s opinions but as A admits, “In that moment I didn’t have to apologise for being who I was, for loving as fiercely as I do, for wanting everyone else to know.” It reinforced the rights of queer individuals as equal citizens of India, equal in the eyes of the law compared to their heterosexual counterparts, and a proclamation by the highest court of the land that they are “not an aberration but a variation”.
Love and Reparation is the celebration of a landmark litigation that spanned decades. It is Sheikh showing us that while state violence might mark the defining moment of legal change but also within the shadow of law are “stories of people resisting, recrafting, reforging law into something nourishing.” It is the distillation of two defining moments of queer history in India, one of despair and the other of hope. In the closing dialogue of ‘Contempt’, a character asks: “Can you see why beauty is important? Can you see why it is crucial?” That moment is stretched, realised, and the future lies as an anticipative mystery.
As the clock strikes midnight and we amble into June of every year, you can almost hear the sounds of disgruntled designers and social media managers who have to create and upload the rainbow coloured version of company’s logos for Pride Month.
Finding its origins in commemorating the Stonewall riots, June started being recognised as Pride Month in the ‘90s in the United States. The crux of the celebration remains to recognize the impact that queer and gender non-conforming people have had on the world. As of 2022, several countries such as the UK, Finland and Canada are part of those who celebrate it as well, sometimes in other months.
As a queer person it is the time of year I get the most requests to feature in content. “Hey, would you be willing to talk about how you realized you were bisexual,” read one of the messages I received last year from a well-meaning producer for an online publication. The issue is not being courted for such productions, but the manner in which it is managed. What many cishet people may not realize is that a large part of the queer community that you see who may be ‘out, loud and proud’ online may not have “come out of their closets” to their conservative families. Besides, when you browse through the content put out by such publications, you realize that they have no coverage of LGBTQIA+ issues through the rest of the year. But SEO reigns supreme and they must get the #PrideMonth #QueerJoy clicks.
A one-dimensional portrayal of queer folks
A significant challenge that comes to the forefront during this month is the lack of intersectionality in the kinds of queer and trans folk that are given the mic during this month. More often than not, the people who have been heralded as the spokespeople of the community are able-bodied and upper caste who have the privilege to be open about their identities. This mirrors the larger discourse about how white cisgendered monosexual people have taken precedence when it comes to benefitting from inclusivity measures while those who are trans, disabled, people of colour or asexual have been given the cold shoulder.
Furthermore, people across the spectrum have spoken up about how the actions of private and public organizations are but tokenistic performances that make little to no difference in the lives of actual queer and trans people. There’s no use of putting out a ‘Love is Love’ post when your employee and customer forms still have only male and female boxes to choose from. There is no real point in putting out a post with an ‘Equal symbol’ in rainbow colours when the company insurance is not extended to queer partners.
In September 2021, Axis Bank announced a ‘Come As You Are’ campaign intended to be inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community by way of extending banking services. However, in a few short months, a WLW couple wrote about their experience of being denied a joint account at the bank with the employees citing that they were unaware of any such provisions.
Bhima Jewellers, a prominent jewellery company received much adoration online for featuring a trans woman in their advertisement. However, several trans people sought to understand whether the company actually employed any trans women or helped the community in any remarkable manner.
This is only amplified during Pride Month where posts and panels by companies who are nowhere near inclusive are staged. These feel like empty gestures that have little to no impact on the community. It sometimes feels like that cishet people feel like they want a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum and even then they fail. This becomes the most apparent when there is radio silence from organizations every time a trans person is killed or when the community is looking for support for causes like marriage equality. It is simply easier for companies to put on the rainbow colours during Pride Month but fail to take a stand when it matters.
‘Diversity and Inclusion’ are now buzzwords that everyone from new-age startups to legacy companies love to use. But again, your D&I initiatives cannot begin and end with having two cis-women in your senior leadership. If companies are serious about being equal opportunity employers with a truly diverse workforce, the changes need to start from within.
Something as simple as encouraging team members to have their pronouns in their email signature can signal to employees of all genders that they are coming into a welcoming environment. Sexual harassment guidelines are often framed with just women in mind, completely forgoing people of other genders. Each aspect of the company’s policies and procedures need to be examined to ensure that they are equitable and accommodating of queerness.
According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, there are 2.5 million Indians who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community and possibly millions more who will come into the fore in the coming years. It costs very little to ensure that folks like us feel like we are wanted and cared for in the workplace.
Maya Bazaar was established with the idea of creating an inclusive marketplace for members of the queer community to sell and showcase their work, to support their businesses and ventures, and to facilitate connections within and beyond the community.
Sanam – One of the founders states that the idea behind Maya Bazaar is an urge to find community in towns where hardly any exists. Their first event happened in Goa with a footfall of more than a 1000 people, out of which more than 250 people were openly queer. “It was a huge success. Many people even came out at the Maya Bazaar and now we are expecting the same in our 2nd edition in Shimla. The Himachal Queer Pride happened in Palampur, which is what led us to believe that there was space for the Bazaar in Himachal. Keeping the summers in mind, we know that most people hit the mountains and thus the destination for the upcoming June Bazaar is in the mountains”, Sanam concluded.
Maya Bazaar is not a curated show. It’s an experience put together by queer folx for the rest of the world. Sauparnika, a queer baker and mental health counsellor says while talking about the earlier of Maya Bazaar: “I have been part of pop-up markets before, which weren’t run by queer people. The experience was very different. The organisers were very warm as opposed to the strictly corporate nature of other events. Also it was nice to be in an event organised by people from the community. It was nice not to be vigilant with regards to who you’re revealing your identity to. It was like doing business while hanging out with friends”.
Even for the founders it is something much more than what was actually planned and the most interesting parts of this Bazaar are its after-affects. “I live in Goa and with each passing day, we meet people who come to us and narrate their stories of how they found partners, friends, doctors and many more through the Maya Bazaar. Someone got their mother to Maya Bazaar and now she repeatedly asks, when is Maya Bazaar happening in Goa again. It is amazing to see the impact that the Bazaar has had and it is the driving force behind the 2nd one. We know from our experience in Goa that this is something that people want to be a part of.”
In June, when the world celebrates Pride month, Maya Bazaar would be celebrating the small ventures from the queer community in Himachal. The bazaar is taking place on 4th and 5th June at Hotel Peterhoff in Shimla. This time it features pop ups by a lot of new faces, but also some familiar ones as well. Nazariya, Saksham, and Sappho for Equality are some organizations that you can expect to see at the stalls this year.
The bazaar is being organised in partnership with the Himachal Queer Foundation, Queer Collective Dehradun, and All Sorts of Queer.
The Bazaar promises to be a place that offers you something more than just a shopping experience, but also a chance to connect and create a community.
I have never been someone who enjoys podcasts. However, as with any rule, there is an expectation, and I made one for the New York Times’ ‘Modern Love’. I have enjoyed listening to celebrities voice out stories of love in kaleidoscopic glory. In auto rides back home after a night of drinking, during a long evening walk to clear my head, and sometimes as just background noise while I plod around the kitchen, these stories and the people who have shared them have come to be a source of comfort; a friend who allows me to look at the world in different ways.
The podcast, and the original series that followed, are a testament to how widely loved the Modern Love column in New York Times has become over the years. The latest addition, ‘Modern Love Mumbai’ also brings to its viewers stories of love. Much like the original series, it too serves as an ode to the city that shaped these series, and as someone who has a biased sense of affection for the city, I truly appreciated its prominence in its myriad forms throughout.
Directed by Shonali Bose, Dhruv Sehgal, Alankrita Shrivastava, Nupur Asthana, Vishal Bharadwaj, and Hansal Mehta, Modern Love Mumbai is a collection of six stories set in the city. Unlike the original series that retells the real stories of New York Times readers, Modern Love Mumbai is not based on real stories, which was a letdown for me. However, we are given stories of people from all walks of life. We meet Lalzari (Fatima Sana Shaikh), a cook in an upscale Mumbai apartment, who is abandoned by her husband out of the blue; Saiba (Masaba Gupta), a landscape designer who falls in love with a boy who is in love with Thane, and Dilbar (Sarika) who finds herself again after she catches the fancy of a 20-something man, played by Danesh Razvi.
The second episode of the series, ‘Baai,’ directed by Hansal Mehta, is meant to be a commentary on certain socio-political aspects of India such as homophobia and religious schism. The episode follows Manzu (Pratik Gandhi), who wishes to come out to his doting grandmother, aka Baai (Tanuja). It is clear from the get-go that Baai is a formidable woman who has lived not just through the riots but also has the chutzpah to send away a bloodthirsty mob with just one dialogue (which is left to the imagination of everyone, including the rest of the family members). However, his rather suppressive family believes that giving her this information would kill her. Mind you, this is a woman who has lived through communal riots.
The series captures the sentiments of the average middle-class family quite well. This is depicted in how Rehana, Manzu’s older sister, is made to marry someone despite being in a relationship with another man, or even in how Manzu’s father, played by Ghazal singer Talat Aziz, asks him if he only wanted to come out to his grandmother so she could die and he could take over their family home.
Much of the story is conveyed through bursts of flashbacks. Manzu, who no longer can handle his family’s taunts, moves to Goa, where he meets chef Rajveer, played by chef Ranveer Brar. Now, in some ways, they both seem like people yearning for love. And, not having found it, they have poured in their all to their work. Manzu turns to music as a a source of comfort and joy, and even as a means to meet people. Ranveer, on the other hand, is enamoured by food and the ability to convey love through it.
They find each other, fall in love and even decide to celebrate their love in front of their friends and family. When Manzu tries to tell his parents this, it is Rehana who steps in for him, so that he canb live his life the way he wishes to even though she couldn’t. Eventually, his mother comes around; she even once asks Ranveer if they can cancel their plans to shift to the US, where they would live their life freely. She even admits that she feels guilty about taking so long to accept Manzu for who he is.
On the face of it all, Baai seems like a good story. At the point that the story begins, Manzu has returned to a changed Mumbai. Baai is unwell, and the whole family seems to have gathered to be there during her last days. While so much has changed, the only thing that stays consistent is Manzu’s desire to be accepted.
While the crux of the story is a tender one, the way it has been conveyed is shoddy. To set the premise that Manzu is gay we are given a flashback of Rehana’s wedding, where Manzu is decorating the house with flowers, and the young man who helps him touches Manzu’s side hip. In case that point is missed, they make sure it is not by playing ‘Chandni Raat’ in the background. Just to make sure that the point is conveyed clearly yet again, they share an awkward kiss, after which the young man slaps Manzu.
What irked me was the forceful over explanation of their areas of interest throughout the episode. Manzu believes that music is his haven, so Mehta chooses to explain everything – from awkward kisses to intimate moments – with songs. Considering the episode is only 40-minutes long, the number of songs that make their way in seems intensely disproportionate. Don’t get me wrong, the songs are beautiful, and maybe do convey the emotions of the hour, but they largely seem like a crutch. I also suspect the reason Manzu’s paramour is a chef is that they wanted to set up some similarities between Baai, who is described as a great chef, and him. The cheesy dialogues that help the story come full circle and the lack of chemistry between the two men make for a rather uninteresting watch.
Also, and I understand I might be alone in this, I feel ready for portrayals of same-sex relationships that move past coming out and acceptance. While, of course, these are very real struggles, why can’t we also see portrayals of moments and struggles beyond this point? What about couples living together that want to be a family in the very quintessential sense of the word, or what about a gay couple in a long-distance relationship or a hundred other scenarios that are true for a queer couple as it is for a heterosexual couple?
At the end of the day, it is an episode that calls for the triumph of love over hate, be it about faith or about sexual orientation. It attempts to weave together same-sex romance, generational trauma, and communal discord all in 40 minutes and barely manages to come through. In the end, the most poignant part (and only real honest moment) of the episode is Manzu’s mother’s realisation: “Preventing love is also like spreading hate.”
We’re constantly being bombarded with relationship advice. But it’s usually designed for monogamous couples. Bring up being non-monogamous and all of your advisors run amok.
Even the conversation on attachment theory, a popular resource for understanding the way we communicate and form bonds with people (particularly with parents and partners) has only recently factored in non-monogamous people and polyamorous love.
What is the Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory, which has been credited to the works of psychiatrist John Bowlby and developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, states that children are born with a need to form close emotional bonds with caregivers. Bowlby explained that this need which manifests as infant behaviours like crying, clinging and screaming, are evolutionary mechanisms to promote the child’s survival by helping nurture attachments with the caregiver. How caregivers respond to these behaviours in early life and how these relationships develop can impact the way the child communicates throughout life by shaping specific attachment styles.
Through various studies that were conducted, four types of attachment styles were identified:
Works like Polysecure by Jessica Fern have helped expand the conversation on attachment styles to suit more than just mononormative relationship ideals.
Fern describes being polysecure as, “The state of being both securely attached to multiple romantic partners and having enough internal security to be able to navigate the structural relationship insecurity inherent to nonmonogamy, as well as the increased complexity and uncertainty that occurs when having multiple partners and metamours. “ She sums this up as “being polysecure is having secure attachment with yourself and your multiple partners.”
The conversation on attachment theory is still highly reductive as it fails to account for factors like gender, disability and socioeconomic background. It also tends to ignore the complexity of being human. Furthermore, contrary to previous discourses, psychologists today acknowledge that attachment styles can change over time and one can develop “earned secure” attachment styles.
To understand the place of attachment theory among the non-monogamous community in our society, we spoke to a few people who drew on their lived experiences and ideas of attachment.
Is the attachment theory a perspective that you consciously view yourself or your relationships through?
Coral: I am aware of attachment theory and use it as a rule of thumb to communicate with partners. I don’t adhere to it since it’s easy to fall into using labels instead of creating our own language within the relationship.
Coral is a researcher and cat parent who identifies as gender non conforming, pansexual and demisexual.
Paras: I would not say that I consciously view myself or my relationships through the perspective of attachment theory but I definitely do view it through the related concepts of family therapy where relationships with parents and caregivers impact relationships with people of one’s own generation. Working through my own challenges in therapy has helped me realise that largely feeling like I had to be my own parent in terms of emotional support made me reluctant to open up to anyone emotionally in relationships.
Paras is a mental health professional and founder of The Alternative Story and is closely involved with the polyam community.
Arun: Personally, I go back to reading and understanding my own attachment styles only when I feel something is not working out with a partner. It has helped me identify some patterns and heal from past relationship trauma. Understanding attachment styles has given me the tools and vocabulary that are needed to navigate CNM better, along with relying on intuition from my lived experience.
Arun is disabled, non-binary and Bahujan.
Tanisha: Yes, I am! It’s given me a lot of insight into my patterns and why they exist and has highlighted the gaps between the person that I want to be and the person that I currently am as a result of my early life experiences. Knowing those parts of myself makes it easier to then tell my loved ones who I want to be and where I’m actually at and how they can potentially meet me halfway as I find a way to get where I want to be. It also gives me a better understanding of what safety needs to look like for me.
Tanisha RK is the co-founder of Sangya Project, an online pleasure store and digital initiative to destigmatise sex and sexuality. They are Bahujan, queer, non-binary and polyamorous.
Gitanjali: I am aware of attachment theory now but I wasn’t when I started exploring polyamory. I do not think on these terms often, nor do I feel like I completely fit into any particular type of attachment style.
Gitanjali identifies as ambiguously queer and polyamorous.
Leesha: I am not aware of the attachment theory.
Leesha is the founder of Adah by Leesha, a zero waste handloom brand and believes that there are no rules in love.
Would you say that the understanding and applications of attachment theory in general conversations as well as therapy settings is mononormative? How so?
Paras: Attachment theory in children was developed from a very exclusive dyadic lens. The idea that a child could even be attached to multiple caregivers (not necessarily the mother) was largely absent from the discourse. The same has been extrapolated to adult relationships. ‘Feeling secure’ in lay terms is synonymous with the belief that one’s partner is not attracted to another person while ‘feeling insecure’ means that one is suspicious that one’s partner is ‘unfaithful’. The idea of feeling secure in a relationship and not being monogamous is alien to most people and mental health professionals. Even non-monogamous individuals that I know and mental health professionals who are poly friendly often start with the mindset that relationships start primarily as monogamous and then become non-monogamous. There is also the belief that all non monogamous people have a primary relationship, which while true for some is not true for others.
Coral: Attachment theory seems to set in stone (heredity) aspects of personhood that is in India influenced by socio-economics, class, and caste, along with various sources of generational and/or systemic/institutional trauma. Familial structures and later relationships in India are at multiple points of influence for attachment theory to be used as a reliable model.
As a queer person, how do common cis het relationship standards as well as socio-legal structures like marriage influence your practice of non-monogamy?
Arun: Every socio-legal structure is set up to push queer-disabled people away into the margins, so the invisibilization and lack of support is not a surprise. However, being polyamorous and having queer and affirming partners have helped me explore and find my own queer identity.
Tanisha: Mononormativity and cishet benchmarks for ‘valid relationships’ make it harder for me to find a sense of security while also shaming me for not already having secure attachments. I feel like I’m continuously fed the idea that there is a lifestyle out there that I must aspire to and aim for with every ounce of energy that I’ve got, even if it’s at the detriment of my own wellbeing and even if it means leaving some of my loved ones behind. It’s isolating and frightening and I have no desire to internalise a sense of terror that was never mine to begin with.
Do you believe that secure attachment is possible? And is it a conscious goal for you when you approach your relationships?
Paras: I always say that non-monogamous relationships are based on immense trust in one’s partners to do right by them. Polyamory shows us what secure attachment in the true sense can look like, where concerns like anxiety, abandonment, jealousy, desire for multiple people and dividing time across partners are openly discussed rather than being seen as a threat to ‘secure attachment’. I think secure attachment is not a destination but a state that is maintained by consciously engaging in actions that foster and strengthen trust. It can be achieved in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships of all kinds.
Coral: I think of being secure in a relationship as similar to happiness as a verb rather than it being an outcome. I think finding ways to describe honesty, talking about each other’s body, humour and being able to engage in conversations along with a sense of compression are aspects that I look forward to in a secure non-monogamous relationship.
Gitanjali: I definitely think it is possible to have a secure attachment (or a number of them) and have very secure attachments with two to three people, myself. These relationships have taken time to build and their forms may change.
What does secure attachment in a non-monogamous relationship or being polysecure look like to you?
Arun: I think a lot of past trauma with my disability has made me comfortable with a solo-poly relationship style that prioritises space and time for myself. I have felt very secure with partners who follow similar styles.
Gitanjali: Relationships which can transition from including sex and not, are formed with loving intentions and can hold space space for all partners to be vulnerable enables more secure attachments for me. These relationships have stood the test of time because of the effort and care each of us have put into maintaining it.
Paras: My ability to be vulnerable, my comfort in seeking help or depending on someone are things I definitely see as indicators of my relationships being in a good place or not.
Leesha: For me, security comes from knowing that when I am with a partner, I am there 100% and he is there 100%. We are free to be whoever we want to be and be with whoever we want to be, which makes it easier to communicate with each other.
What are some common challenges that can threaten secure attachment or cause polyinsecurity in a non-monogamous relationship?
Tanisha: Uff, what doesn’t cause polyinsecurity? I think a mononormative and capitalist society makes everything feel like a finite resource, whether it’s emotional or material. Time then becomes a measured resource, money becomes an indicator for love and care and we get caught up in these ideas that the relationship is only healthy when everyone involved is being ‘productive’ towards each other. For example, I’m someone who dissociates a lot and quite heavily. When partners view my attention and active presence as a finite resource and not something that can be as fluid or flexible as I need it to be, my dissociation can and often does leave my partners feeling insecure or unloved. It’s similar to my experiences with partners who have chronic illnesses.
But I do also think that non monogamy changes the way we make our way towards having secure attachments. On the one hand, you’re experiencing insecurities on more than just one front when you’re making yourself open and vulnerable to multiple people. But on the other hand, it feels easier to abandon the expectations that come with the Relationship Escalator mentality within monogamous relationships and that can also give you more time and space to heal your wounds. It can also strengthen the idea that you have a community backing you up, not just one partner who has to be present and available throughout your journey and that just gives everyone so much more air to breathe.
Arun: Sometimes when the relationship is dismantling comfortable brahminical-ableist structures, there will be feelings of insecurity and the people involved may feel and definitions of poly-secure or attachment theory may be inadequate to understand these contexts.
How can one work through the challenges that arise in non-monogamous relationships while experiencing internalised polyphobia?
Paras: Internalized mononormativity and internalized polyphobia is something I have seen every polyamorous person face. At best, one realises that these are inevitable products of living in a world where we are conditioned to be monogamous. In other situations it leads to severe shame, guilt, and self-loathing which may often be reinforced by one’s partners and peers. I often joke when I do sessions on polyamory that it is 90% contract negotiation and 10% actual dating and there is some truth to that for sure.
Arun: I think a lot of the challenges are intertwined with how the social structure in India is set up in brahmanical patriarchy. Sometimes it is difficult to navigate polyamory along with other marginalizations. For example, caste, queerness and disability will also modulate your experience in polyamory relationships. I have questioned my ‘polyness’ in some circumstances where my disability and caste location had made it difficult to confidently communicate boundaries or triggers and it has been a challenge for me to learn the language and vocabulary around polyamory. Even with all the missteps and challenges I personally face in my polyamory journey, I still believe it allows me the best way to express myself and show up in relationships as who I am.
Leesha: I think the most common challenge that comes from being in a largely mononormative society is insecurity, because you are so conditioned to feel that way. But I strongly believe that one person cannot give me everything. If you can have multiple pets, multiple parents and siblings and the tightness and importance of those relationships can be maintained, then why are partners looked at so differently and why are partners only meant to be one? I think the way to work around it is to sit with yourself and understand how different partners fulfil different needs. The same way you also have to accept that your partner is seeking different things from you and seeking different things from different partners. Another thing people say is that it’s really exhausting to have multiple partners, but it’s not because you get your space. If I’m not available for my partner for a week I am free to take my space and my partner is not going to get lonely as a consequence. They also have other partners they can go to. I have not been nudged by any partner for taking my time because they have other people in their support systems they can approach.
How has the freedom/agreement to be sexually active with multiple partners influenced your attachments with them?
Tanisha: It’s uprooted my internal belief of sex as a benchmark for happy relationships. When sex was a benchmark in my mind, I needed it as proof that the relationship was healthy and safe, which also meant that I had to make that kind of time and space with all my partners, and that was… exhausting. Now, I feel like I’m finding comfort in the absence of sex too. There is a comfort in hearing my partner say they’re not feeling up for it, there’s a relief in hearing myself tell a partner that I’m not in the mood because it means I don’t act for them, and that’s allowing me to feel more secure in my body and in my relationships.
Leesha: I think the freedom to be sexually active has helped me build beautiful relationships because there is so much transparency, respect and fun. I don’t have to worry about what my partners are upto or who they are texting because we communicate that with each other. I’m free to tell my partner that I met someone at a party that I’m sexually interested in and they are free to tell me the same. In a non-monogamous relationship, even if one may feel insecure at first when they hear about their partner’s interest in someone else, they feel better with some time because they are happy for their partner and that is what matters most to them. And it’s great when new dates don’t work out and you still have someone you are comfortable with to talk to and come home to. I find it more difficult to be emotionally involved with multiple partners than sexually, but I’m learning.
Are there any specific resources or rituals for care that you tap into when you require support with navigating your non-monogamous identity and relationships? Could you elaborate briefly?
Coral: I mostly sit with “The Logic of Care” by Annmarie Mol and need to start “Complaint!” by Sara Ahmed. These are some science and technology studies and phenomenology resources that I think equip me better in some ways to work with my own mental models for relationships and be critical of other ways of engaging in relationships.
Gitanjali: My favourite way of showing care is through touch – cuddles, massages, holding and being held. Of course, different people have different levels of comfort with this and it is important to have conversations about it. I also enjoy cooking, cleaning and engaging in other domestic tasks for or together with people I love. Another is spending time in the same space with the person. It is hard to say how this particularly relates to a non-monogamous identity as many of these forms of showing care are things I also engage in with friends who are monogamous, though it holds different meaning in those relationships.
Paras: Reading both academic and non-academic literature on polyamory has been something that I think is immensely helpful. Conversations with other polyamorous folks (not necessarily one’s partners) is something that is beneficial as community support. The poly community in Bangalore, where I live, is pretty active and my organisation has engaged with the formal and informal groups here to discuss real life challenges in the Indian context. There is still a very long way to go, but this is a good place to start. I really wish that there are more poly communities across India and it’s safer to talk about being poly openly.
Falling in love is easy, working on a relationship on the other hand, not so much.
The premise of the graphic novel Heartstopper, authored and illustrated by the versatile Alice Oseman, is simple: boy meets boy, boys become friends and boys fall in love. This much is inferred from the blurb of the graphic novel and one could be fooled into thinking that this is just another cheesy romance book. Oseman’s leads’ journey starts off in an idyllic sort of way in that their initial interactions adhere very much to the cutesy romcom trope where two people meet and things just seem to sort of fall into place.
There are hurdles along the way, of course, but as a reader you expect them to be overcome easily. This is a romance book after all. This is where Oseman thrives: in meticulously and empathetically portraying the obstacles a young person has to overcome while they come to terms with their sexuality, and how the world perceives them.
The story begins with Charlie, a British high school student already out to his family and the rest of the world, joining a new class in the new year. Here he meets Nick, a senior, whom he instantly finds attractive and just pleasant to be around. He wonders what it would be like to be in a relationship with someone, specifically Nick, and how he would even navigate something like that. As readers, we get to see them spending time together and getting to know each other. With time, Nick also starts to question his understanding of his own desires and eventually comes to the realisation that he is bisexual. The boys tell each other how they feel and so commences a beautiful love story.
Most other material, whether it comes to literature or cinema, ends once the main characters go through their phases of infatuation and land on epic declarations of love. With Heartstopper, it’s only the beginning. There are definitely moments that will make the reader go ‘awww’ but Oseman takes it a step further and delves into Nick and Charlie’s universe as a young couple.
The themes explored in the novel are heavy but are dealt with immense delicacy. Soon after the boys get together, they are confronted with the realisation that Nick now needs to come out to his family and friends. While Charlie never expects or puts pressure on Nick to come out, Nick himself is burdened with the idea of having to do so. They wonder if they can continue being together in secret and if so, for how long.
Charlie, on the other hand, has his own demons to deal with. Having faced severe bullying when he had come out (or rather had been found out), Charlie has, unbeknownst to anyone else, developed an eating disorder. The novel charts how the young couple deals with this, and more importantly what Charlie has to do to overcome his issues.
The joy of Heartstopper is watching these two boys comprehend, through their adventures together, that sometimes love from just one person isn’t enough and sometimes love itself is not enough. As young queer people, they understand that the sense of belonging with their chosen family is just as important as what they have with their own biological families. The cast of characters that surround Nick and Charlie include their parents and siblings and maybe, more importantly, their friends. Tara and Darcy are an interracial, lesbian couple within this circle that also includes Elle, a trans girl who soon finds love with Tao, Charlie’s best friend.
Multiple other queer characters are introduced through the run of the series, which includes students and teachers, and not one of them feels forced or out of place. They all are rightfully there, just like in real life.
With only one volume left to be released and a Netlfix adaption already out, Heartstopper is sure to melt your heart. Not only will you cheer for the wonderfully amazing cast but also shed a tear or two along the way. Nick and Charlie aren’t perfect, but their story is and that is why you need to read this one.
In his new single, ‘Gemini Moon’, British – Asian electro-pop artist Seeva explores love, longing, and loneliness. With powerful vocals and atmospheric production, the singer, songwriter and producer explores the desperation of clinging onto a relationship, knowing it is bound to end. An equally stunning and vulnerable music video weaves the story of Seeva’s relationship with a masked lover. The intimate, domestic visuals depict everything from romanticised reflections of happier times, to escapism and loneliness experienced even in the presence of one’s partner.
Speaking of the process of writing ‘Gemini Moon’, Seeva says, “I had the chorus in my head, so I played these piano chords, and sort of put two and two together when I was going through some of the productions that I do and found the drum beat. I thought maybe I could start off with this drum beat and try and write a verse to go with the line that I had in my head for ages. And it all just came together.”
‘Gemini Moon’ was also written with musicians Emma Seeberg and Matt Taylor, and Seeva says that they love the process of collaborating with other artists. “I love writing with other people, and after I released the album, one of the best things that came from it is that other artists have heard it, and they know who I am in terms of my songwriting. So, I got to connect with all these songwriters and producers.”
As for the music video, he credits his friend, filmmaker Thomas Paul Martin, with the vision. “He’s an incredible filmmaker, and he’s done some amazing things that I’ve seen before. We got in touch with him and he really liked the song. He pitched the idea to me, actually, I can’t take any credit for that. He said, ‘What if you are there and in love with a guy in a mask, because the whole song is about really being trapped in your feelings. Then we kind of developed the idea a bit more – you know very typically that person is usually more submissive, but what if they were the dominant one and I was the submissive one in that relationship. It was a very domestic scenario, and then the scarecrow came in when we were trying to find something to escape to. So it all came together in a kind of Wizard of Oz sort of way at the end, and he (Martin) was the mastermind behind all of that.”
Released in September 2020, Seeva’s debut album We Need To Talk is a potluck of groovy bops and emotional ballads. He confesses that if anything, the pressure on him increased post this release. “Not from anyone else, but just from me. I released that (album) being completely oblivious to anything. I’ve not released music before, that album was a pet project during lockdown, and I didn’t plan for anyone to hear it, really. So when people did listen, I had to follow it up with something. I think it was like, ‘Okay, well, people take me seriously now a little bit at least, I hope’. But now I have to actually sit down and write something that people who connected to the first release can connect to again. It was a weird process of, at first, trying to create something that was so similar to the first album, and then realising that what people seem to connect to is me being myself. So that’s what I need to do now. And I’m very different to who I was when I wrote the first album, so the music is reflective of that.”
As an independent artist, Seeva thrives in the freedom they get to have over their work. “There isn’t anyone over my head saying ‘You should be making this’. I get a lot of power in that way, which I feel very lucky for. But I struggle sometimes to balance all the different versions of me – being South Asian, but also being British, and being queer, and being a man, and being all these different things. I just try to be as myself as possible in the moment, and that is the most important thing for me. Then, whatever anyone expects hopefully comes through if I’m just always myself.”
Queer influences are important to Seeva’s work, and he believes that queer artists making their mark in the music industry is no new phenomenon. “We’ve actually always been here. There’s so many – given it’s mostly gay male artists who have been at the front and I think that’s still very much the case – but for me, going back and seeing people like Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and George Michael, who may not have been completely open about it, but it was very obvious to see. And now, I really love Olly Alexander from Years & Years and MNEK. There’s a lot of incredible queer artists in London who are just being themselves, and they’ve really inspired me. It’s amazing to see.”
This year, Seeva has much to look forward to with the release of his upcoming EP, Afterthoughts, on May 13. Alongside ‘Gemini Moon’, the EP also boasts ‘Twenty-Two’, a soft, dreamy heartbreak anthem, as its first single to be released. “It (Afterthoughts) is much more emotional. I wrote it after being heartbroken, and that always leaves a lot to be written about, so it’s very emotional, it’s very open, and it’s very queer – not because I’ve tried to make it queer, just because that’s who I am and I’ve been honest in my lyrics. It’s by far so much more collaborative than the album. I think every song has a different writer who wasn’t on the one before. It’s such a team effort, and I think it helps me be myself more when I have someone else in the room with me, kind of validating how I feel. I say something, and instead of me being ‘Oh no, that’s too much’, I now have someone else in the room saying ‘No, that’s great, go with it’.”
Seeva is also scheduled to perform Afterthoughts at their headline gig on June 1 at Colours, Hoxton, London. “I’m so excited to perform. I haven’t even got to perform the album because of lockdown after lockdown, so it’s beyond exciting for me to be able to show people my music.”
Moving forward, a fresh perspective is once again on the horizon. “I think I need to get through this project to sit down and work out what happens next and what I’d like to put out now, because I think I’m in a very different place again. I’m very happy now, I’m very settled. I guess now, it’ll be about writing about some happy stuff, I hope, which is different for me!”
Traveling is a stressful experience for visibly queer people across the globe. The whole ordeal is riddled with activities warped in the gender binary and can be triggering for people who are gender non conforming. In this piece we attempt to share a few tips that may help.
Tip 1- Do not use ID cards that mention a gender
Using a driver’s license or PAN card for your ID verification at the airport is helpful for some trans people as these don’t mention gender on them. This helps you completely avoid the “what [gender] are you?” conversation with airport officials. Also refrain from showing an ID card unless they specifically ask for one. Most smaller airports probably won’t ask for one.
Tip 2- Pick a queue according to how you’re comfortable being frisked
Usually airport staff will ask you to leave and join a different queue according to what they think you should do. You can politely ask them to let you pass. You have the legal right to choose a queue according to your needs.
Tip 3- When in doubt avoid the “women’s” section unless you pass as one. Security in general are more finicky and scrutinising about “women’s” spaces than “men’s” spaces (sigh TERFs!).
If you’re a trans man on hormones and you’ve started to pass it’s suggested that you go through the ‘men’s’ queue.
If you have not had a top surgery, you can wear a binder and an extra layer of clothing, so you are comfortable while being frisked around the chest in the ‘men’s’ queue.
Tip 4- Try and speak to the staff at the desk beforehand. Airports are subjective experiences and what is true for some airports might not be true for others. It is suggested that you get there early and reach out to the staff at the desk once before going through security, if you’re in doubt. They ideally know the airport well and can help you through the process. Even if the staff present isn’t supportive, they’re still obligated to help you through the process.
Tip 5- Whenever possible find a travel partner. Some trans people we spoke to said that they usually travel with another person and that helps ease the tension while travelling and also ensures that there’s another individual there in case things go haywire.
Tip 6- In case things do get tense, have a response ready. Have a prepared response to possible questions like why you picked the queue you did etc. Be as direct and calm in your response as responsible. If the security agent continues to be uncooperative, you can file a complaint later. Prioritise your emotional safety over all else. If you’re in therapy, discuss your anxieties with your therapist and arrange an emergency appointment as and when needed.
Travel can be a daunting experience as a gender non-conforming person. The constant reinforcement of gender roles throughout the process can be exhausting. Make sure to check in with your therapist, post the journey, or at least speak with a friend.
Here’s what Swarnim had to say when we asked them what they wished was different about their experience and how things could have been better.
“Lesser scrutiny, both by the other passengers and the security staff. Flying alone is usually quite distressing for me. For some reason, because of my gender expression, I am needed to be checked more thoroughly at security because I’m a potential threat. And then there’s the confusion of the staff. At times I’m called ma’am which immediately changes to sir as soon as they hear my voice. It doesn’t help my gender dysphoria at all. Something that could have helped is Trans-friendly staff. People who are more sensitive towards varied gender expressions out of the cis-normative box. Security check is specifically one of the scariest points of air travel for most trans women. Proper sensitization would save a lot of us much humiliation.”
Rayyan echoes Swarnim’s thoughts on sensitisation training.
“So legally speaking, it turns out that you can choose whichever line you want to go in. But like everything else, it really depends on the human beings present in these security lines and checks. What would be most ideal would be a neutral line where it’s not just for queer people or genderqueer people, but anybody who just doesn’t want to stand in a just male line or a just female line can choose to go into that line that would work. Gender shouldn’t be considered such a key identity marker. For the most part, there isn’t that much research out there or data about these kinds of experiences and how genderqueer folx go about it. Which has quite a lot of us probably masking their gender identities while traveling. I have heard about trans women who would present as masculine just to avoid the embarrassment. I wish that there was a lot more access to the fact that actually it isn’t just a binary system at the security check and the entrance, and that the law and the government recognizes beyond the binary. Wish that this information was not just made available to other queer people like myself but actually trained and made available to all of the staff and security at the airport.”
In a recent judgement (Kumari Neha Chandra Vs. the State Of U.P. And 3 Others, 2022 Livelaw (All) 174), the Allahabad High Court rejected the request of two women to recognise their same-sex marriage, and upheld the contention of the State Government that same-sex marriage was against Indian culture, laws and Indic religions. The order begets an important discussion which I will seek to address in this article — the first, what are the implications of this order for the marriage equality movement.
For the first part, I will seek to analyse the arguments of the State, which are quite similar to those arguments that are advanced before the Delhi High Court and that have been rejected in the order in question, and in the latter part, I will seek to address the broad question of what this means for the queer rights movement as a whole.
Dissecting the Arguments of the State
Let us first look at the arguments advanced by the State of Uttar Pradesh. A plain reading of the order of the single judge will tell us that there were the following arguments that were tabled-
1. Under Indian culture, religion and law, marriage is a sacrament. The state contrasted this with marriage in other countries where it is a contract.
2. The second contention was that a marriage between two women would be against the traditional conception of an Indian family.
3. The state also contended that the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, Special Marriage Act 1954, and even the Foreign Marriage Act 1969 do not allow homosexual marriage.
4. Finally, the state contended that under the Indian law and culture, a marriage is between a biological man and a biological woman to beget children.
The common thread that runs through the contention is the oldest trick in the book, employed by opponents of marriage equality globally – to create a moral panic in the mind of the judiciary. Simply put, moral panic is a widespread fear that is created by a threat to the perceived values, traditions and institutions. In this case, the gay agenda (whatever it may be), threatens the Indian family system by allowing western notions of sexuality to permeate the traditional notions. However, there is something far more sinister that happens in the contentions raised by the State of UP and that is the inextricability of Indian law, religion and culture.
Over the past decade or so, the Indian Courts have developed this idea of a constitutional morality – that is, a morality that is inherent to the constitution itself, and that guides the interpretation of the constitution. In Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that constitutional morality could not give way to popular morality and that being a transformative document, the constitution aims toward a theory of progressive realisation of rights. Under such a framework, religious morality ought to give way to constitutional morality and must be separated. By keeping religion and law as two inextricable parts of the same argument, there seems to be an underpinning that law must give way to religious morality when they are in conflict. Though the main issue is under challenge in the Sabarimala review petition, in no progressive society, must religion dictate the law, much less fundamental rights.
Another thread that runs through the contentions of the State is the biological essentialism in the argument. By arguing that marriage is between a biological man and a biological woman, there is a broader plot, according to me, to deprive transgender persons of the right to marriage. Not only that, but it also risks putting ace persons who are sex-averse and anti-natalists or uterus-owners who may not be able to bear children for various other reasons, who want to get married, at risk by claiming that the sole purpose of marriage is to bear children. Notably, section 12 of the Hindu Marriage Act allows for a marriage to be voidable on the grounds of impotency. Not only that, various courts (including the Supreme Court), in their immense wisdom, have held that withholding intercourse from a spouse amounts to cruelty under section 13 of the Hindu Marriage Act.
Wherefore Hence for the Queer Rights Movement?
Marriage equality cannot be the goal of the queer rights movement, given the diversity and intersectionality of identities it represents. It, however, seems to be the short-term goal for the movement in India. As Allahabad High Court accepts these contentions, this will have persuasive value in the Delhi High Court Case. This also presents an important question for homonationalists within the movement – is the government that they support supporting them? While the outcome of the petition there remains to be seen, the queer rights movement in India must introspect — where are the petitions challenging the Trans Act? Where are we headed as a movement? Is the movement, as it now stands only supporting causes that benefit the cis, upper-class, upper-caste queer persons? If the answer to that is yes, are we, as a movement, truly fighting to be equal and inclusive?
The rain begins to fall about an hour after Arya wakes up, and it only serves to make her morning even worse. It’s a Saturday—there’s that, at least—so she can spend the day however she likes. She ends up lying on the couch and staring at the empty ceiling for the entirety of the afternoon.
At six in the evening, she finally convinces herself to pee, and it is five minutes later that the doorbell rings. She has no idea who is at the door, but there is one thing she is certain of: it’s nobody she wants to see right now.
Tom’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes. He raises his hand in an awkward wave, and Arya’s eyes flicker to Margot standing behind him. And that—that throws her off. Because she’s talked to Margot all of three times since she moved here, and they’ve all been polite, surface-level conversations; that was all it took for Arya to realize that while Margot was probably a great person, they had next to nothing in common, and wouldn’t end up being best friends anytime soon.
Tom, though, seemed to think otherwise, because what the hell was he doing here with Margot?
“Hi?” Arya croaks, her throat dry from lack of use.
“I know I didn’t ask you this beforehand but I was with Margot and I thought it’d be fun if I brought her along too and now that I think of it, it was probably stupid, but—yeah.”
“Tom,” Arya shuts her eyes for a few seconds before opening them to speak again, “I don’t understand. What are you doing here?”
She notices Margot’s lips twitch, like she’s trying to fight a smile. Weirdly, it makes something like pride bubble up in Arya’s chest. Margot is still the cool kid to her, and making her smile isn’t easy.
Tom answers a second too late, his brows furrowed: “Oh. We were supposed to have a movie night tonight. Did you forget?”
Arya blinks. Unsurprisingly, she had, indeed, forgotten.
“Oh—I—no, of course I didn’t forget. Come on in. Margot can stay, of course.”
“Thank you, m’lady,” Margot says, grinning as she enters the house. Then, more gently: “How are you doing? You look exhausted.”
Arya shrugs, not knowing how to respond.
She knows that Margot can be very attentive, but somehow, it manages to throw her off. Her voice is usually toneless, lacking any emotion, so to feel the warmth seep through was a surprise.
The night finds Arya in a corner, twirling her brown hair and counting the minutes until she’d be alone again. She catches Margot glancing at her a few times, concerned, but luckily, Margot chooses not to comment on the fact that Arya is clearly not watching the movie that’s playing, and doesn’t even have the vaguest idea what the plot is. Arya, on her part, chooses to ignore the way Margot keeps looking at her, pretending like she hasn’t noticed anything.
It’s only eleven in the night when Arya looks at the couch to find Margot asleep, Tom drooling on her shoulder.
The first emotion she feels is relief, but it fades away quickly, replaced by a sudden urge to get out of the house because she feels like she’s suffocating.
The porch is as far as she gets, so she sits there, on the first step, trying to breathe steadily again. It’s quiet, as it always is in towns as small as this, she supposes. There’s forest, trees, animals around her, she reminds herself, and it helps in slowing her heart rate a little. There, bathed in yellow light, time seems to have no shape or form—it simply flows, liquid gold, and Arya doesn’t know how long she’s been there for, before she hears someone move behind her.
She starts, turning around at the speed of lightning. For some reason, her mind goes straight to home invasion, even though she knows of the two people inside her house, sleeping on the couch at that moment.
Margot walks towards the doorstep, lighting a cigarette as she does.
She settles down next to Arya, her mouth turning upwards when she sees how surprised Arya looks. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you. I just needed a cigarette.”
Arya nods, looking away. She’s always hated the way cigarettes smell. She hears Margot take a drag, amongst the sound of the crickets and a car honking somewhere in the distance. Arya’s never going to admit aloud that it’s the cigarette that surprised her, but she doesn’t know a lot of people who smoke. It makes her look at Margot differently.
“Are you okay, by the way? What are you doing out here?” Margot asks, after a few seconds of silence. Her voice is low and a little rough.
“I needed to get out of the house,” Arya replies, a small sigh escaping her lips.
A smile tugs at the corner of Margot’s, “Well, you didn’t get very far, did you?”
It surprises a laugh out of Arya. Margot takes another drag of her cigarette, watching contentedly as the smoke escapes her lips.
“I would offer you a cigarette, but I don’t think you’d smoke it,” she tells Arya.
Arya wonders, for a bit, if she should feel offended by the presumption. In the end, she decides against it. “I would never,” she answers and Margot smiles, looking satisfied.
“So? What is it? Do you miss home?”
Arya sighs again, “I do. But it’s not just that, you know. It’s suddenly just exhausting to be around people. Everyone else seems to be having fun, and then there’s me. I can barely get out of bed these days and it’s just… it’s never been this bad before.”
Margot puts her cigarette out as Arya speaks before turning towards her again, looking sympathetic, “I’m pretty sure that anyone who looks like they’re having a good time right now is just pretending. I know I am. It’s all shit right now, but it will get better, and I keep reminding myself that.”
“You’re not having fun?”
“I mean, I like talking to you.”
“Thanks, um. But no, I—do you feel like that sometimes? Like, you want to do things and experience life, but it’s just so much effort that everything seems impossible? I don’t know, I mean I’m here, oceans away from home, and I’m still the same person I used to be, if not worse.”
Margot’s shaking her head, “No, but that’s the thing, though. You’re here, aren’t you? You wanted to experience more, so you took a chance. You had no idea what it would be like here, but you still decided to come. And you may feel like a worse version of yourself right now, but you’re still learning something.
Your limits, if nothing else. Besides, you’re not here forever. A few months, and you’ll be out, whether you like it or not.”
“I just—I expected I’d change completely, I guess. That I’d suddenly be cooler and spend my nights partying or something. I’d have my life together.”
Margot chuckles, “Really? You thought you’d go partying in what’s probably the tiniest town in all of the world? Wow. And also, if it helps, Arya, I think you’re pretty cool already.”
Arya fights a smile, succeeds, “Right, yeah. Maybe it’s time to go back inside.”
“But you don’t feel any better, do you? Sorry, I’m the worst at comforting people.”
Arya shrugs. The truth is she did feel calmer: she hadn’t talked to anyone like this in a while, hadn’t found someone to listen to her quietly before they answered her.
“Okay, I do have one sure way to help you feel better.”
When Arya looks at Margot, she has a mischievous sort of glint in her eyes.
“Do you like popsicles?”
“There’s an ice-cream shop about ten minutes away. It’s open all night. And the lemon popsicle is so good it made me cry.”
Arya only realises she has been holding her breath when she exhales, “I’d love to, but I really can’t. I’m so broke.”
Margot snorts, looking at Arya like she said something stupid, “Arya.”
Arya looks back at Margot, and this time, she fails to fight a smile. The look on Margot’s face can only mean one thing: the popsicle is obviously on her.
On Tuesday, with nothing else to do, Arya finds herself sending a text message to Margot: hi, do you want to do something today?
The sun sinks, darkness falls.
The message goes unanswered.
Tom and Arya decide to go shopping in the city on Friday, and it is between bites of cold pizza that Tom tells Arya that Margot and him have been dating for over a month now.
He sounds nervous and a little bit enamoured when he talks about her, and Arya gets it. She also gets that they’re trying to keep it quiet at the moment. After all, Margot only moved here about two months ago, just a few days before Arya herself.
It’s surprising because until a week ago, Arya didn’t even know that Tom and Margot spent time together at all—and now, this. But it’s exciting, all the same.
Grey clouds loom over their heads threateningly when they walk out into the open later. It begins to rain five minutes later, and Arya is soaked, dripping from head to toe, by the time she gets home.
Her head is spinning, body buzzing with the warmth of too much alcohol, and if she stands up, she knows she will fall.
Arya tries to look like none of this is happening, but she doesn’t think she’s pulling it off.
An invitation to a house party, a bunch of people she doesn’t fit in with, a night that seems never-ending and a brain that never stops working. Add some alcohol in the mix, and suddenly everything is easier.
But then, there is the downside of feeling even lonelier than she usually does.
From the corner of her eye, she can see Tom and Margot whispering sweet nothings to each other. Arya rolls her eyes at them, and that is the exact moment Margot chooses to make eye contact with her, suddenly bursting into laughter.
“Are you okay there?” she calls out, eyes crinkled, and Arya nods, sheepish at being caught.
Margot’s eyes narrow, then, and she murmurs something to Tom before standing up. In a flash, she’s seated next to Arya, leaning in to ask: “Are you drunk, Arya?”
“I just—I just need to eat something. I didn’t eat anything before getting here.”
Margot nods, “We’re leaving in a while, can Tom and I stay at yours for the night? I’ll make you pasta.” +
The next morning, Arya wakes up with a groan, to a hurting stomach. Her throat is parched, a dull ache beginning to form there too.
A bottle of water sits on the table next to her bed, and she pounces on it like it’s the answer to every problem in the world. She recalls Margot leaving it there, telling Arya she’ll be grateful in the morning.
With that one vague memory, the events of the entire night suddenly come back to her.
Arya remembers being unable to walk, her entire body weight against Margot as they stumbled home. She had been loud and had laughed at several of her own jokes, none of which she can recollect, thankfully. Margot, true to her word, had made surprisingly good pasta, and Arya had sat at the table and eaten it by herself while Tom and Margot made out on the couch behind her.
After last night, their relationship strikes Arya as strange for a lot of reasons: Margot behaves like a different person around Tom. She’s more giggly and feminine, agrees to everything Tom says and doesn’t seem interested in talking to anyone else. If there’s one thing Arya has always thought about Margot, it is that she’s independent and clever, but around Tom, Margot pretends like she isn’t any of those things.
When fifteen minutes later, Arya finally makes it out of her bedroom, she finds Margot seated on the couch, watching television.
“Oh—I. Good morning?” Arya says, taking a step back.
Margot looks up, muting the television. She turns towards Arya, half-smiling.
“I see you’re finally up.”
“What time is it?”
“It’s past noon. Tom left a while ago, and I thought I’d stay because I didn’t know if you have hangovers.”
“I don’t,” Arya says, proudly, “I have stomach aches, but not the traditional ‘my head is pounding and I want to die’ hangovers. I mean, I always want to die, so—”
Arya trails off, bashful. Margot looks amused.
“So, what are you watching?”
Margot snorts, “27 Dresses. But I’m bored anyway. Do you want to do something else?”
The beach is isolated, and it’s not the best place to be. There are sharp rocks jutting out of the ground at every step, and the sea is choppy. Small cliffs surround them, and heavy grey clouds line up above them.
Arya is instantly in love.
“I found this place while exploring in my second week here,” Margot tells her, smiling nervously, “It’s dangerous if you go near the sea.”
“Do you come here often?”
“Only when I need to be alone.”
They end up sitting a fair distance from the sea, and Arya finds herself unable to look away from the cliffs looming over them.
“I always expect to come here and find the beach full of people, for some reason,” Margot says, “I’m scared they’re all suddenly going to realise what they’re missing out on, and it won’t be just my place anymore.”
“Or you might just find me sitting here like I own the place, and regret that you ever showed it to me.” Margot snorts, “Nah, it’s you. I think we’re good.”
Arya trails a finger across the sand, beginning to work on the drawing of a flower. Margot reaches for the bag next to her, pulling out a can of beer. She opens it before holding it out for Arya.
Arya shakes her head, “I don’t really like beer.”
“You could’ve said that before we bought two cans,” Margot says. She rolls her eyes, but Arya knows she’s not really upset because there is the trace of a smile on her face.
“Oh. I thought they were both for you.”
Margot simply rolls her eyes again.
They sit there for a while in complete silence, apart from the crashing of the waves. Margot finishes her beer just as the sun comes out unexpectedly. She puts her empty can away in the bag they brought, then stretches.
Arya feels awkward for a few moments, not knowing what to say or do. She finds herself fidgeting, and clenches her fists to stop. She’s aware, a minute later, of Margot saying something, but can’t bring herself to focus on what is being said.
Arya opens her mouth to ask Margot to repeat herself, but stops when she turns to face Margot. She blinks.
Margot is holding up a pretty shell she just found, showing it to Arya, looking keen. That’s not what throws Arya off, though: it’s Margot’s eyes, in the sun it looks somewhere between golden and green and grey. It’s not a colour Arya can describe, at least not in that moment. All she knows is that it takes her a few seconds to gather herself back together, and actually look at the shell.
It’s a sudden realization: the thought of Margot as a potential romantic interest. She doesn’t feel anything now, but she can see herself liking Margot in the future, as more than just a friend.
The revelation hits her like a truck, and she wishes she could make the thought of it disappear. This is where bisexuality always gets her: Arya can never tell if she’s attracted to a girl, or simply wants to be friends. When the epiphany comes, it comes in full force and in moments that involve the sun and eyes that are three different colours.
“Oh, it’s, uh, really pretty.”
“Do you want to keep it?”
When Arya nods, the first drop of rain hits her face.
The text from Margot arrives at seven in the morning, but Arya only sees it four hours later when she wakes up, fumbling for her phone.
It has been three days since she last saw Margot, and though they haven’t talked at all since then, Arya’s potential crush has managed to turn into a real crush over this time.
Arya’s not too worried– she knows she’s got it all under control, she’s not in too deep yet.
Margot | 7:02am
Margot | 7:02am
Margot | 7:03am
are you awake?
Arya frowns, puzzled. It’s not common for Margot to text her, or anyone, for that matter, or at least that’s what she’s learnt of her over the past few days. Even managing to get a reply from Margot is noteworthy– this, a conversation initiated by her, is unheard of.
Arya | 11:08am
i am now, sorry
Arya | 11:09am
Arya waits with bated breath.
The day flies by again, with no answer from Margot.
I remember everyone being so happy when we got to know that I ranked first in my class when I was in class I (one), including me, of course. And I think that’s when it all started: the inspiration porn, the ridiculously high expectations from family members, relatives, teachers, and even myself. I started believing that I must prove my worth in order to be treated as a “normal” person and that it’s only possible through academic achievements.
To be very honest, I wanted to be famous for being able to achieve great things “despite my disability”. I remember having a nasty emotional meltdown at school in class VIII (eight) when I was all alone in the classroom, trying to complete my notes from an English lesson about Evelyn Glennie, while the other kids were out for physical education class, because I felt absolutely worthless compared to the deaf percussionist in my book.
Because as I grew older, things became more complicated, answers became lengthier and my grades started dropping. I couldn’t keep up with the able-bodied kids and started losing my motivation because it felt like no matter how hard I tried, I could never control my body as properly as them and write lengthy answers in a short amount of time.
And it was all the more hurtful as I wasn’t told what my disability exactly is.
I nearly killed myself once, when my mother told me that she was absolutely disappointed with how I was getting less and less focused on my studies because I felt like I had lost the only thing that I was actually good at doing without anyone else’s help.
But then the pandemic happened, and during the lockdowns, I could get a much-needed break from school and actually started to learn about myself and my disability. Things finally started making sense as I got to know what my disability really is and how it affects my body.
And finally, it was time for me to give my HSLC exams, also known as the Matric examination, which I’ve always felt to be overhyped by every other adult that I know. They make it sound like the most important element of a student’s life and the high expectations from the people around me weren’t helping me feel better either, even though I understand that it was just their way of motivating me to do better. I almost cried during an exam upon remembering one of my close relatives, who had passed away due to COVID, because of how firmly he used to believe that I’d get a pretty high score in my Matric exam.
I had multiple tutors, who charged a hefty fee, which I felt a bit uncomfortable about, just for coming to our house for the classes, so that I could get their undivided attention. But for some reason, a couple of them stopped coming for classes without even finishing the course and another one stopped coming because I had an emotional meltdown and walked out of his class when he kept on demanding that I stop giving short replies, even though I told him multiple times that I don’t like speaking vocally because of my disabled speech. In the end, I just had to do all the work on my own.
After going from office to office collecting documents to “prove” the fact that I’m disabled, I realised that I wouldn’t get a scribe to help me during the exams; because according to the able body-minded people who have no idea what it’s like to be disabled, I wasn’t “disabled enough” to be eligible for getting a scribe. Although they agreed to increase the amount of time by an hour during the exams, they completely ignored me when I tried to tell them that I’d be exhausted, both mentally and physically, if I were to write for four hours. And very unsurprisingly, my family members and teachers just told me to eat more and do exercise in order to improve my stamina, as if it were that simple.
Without much choice, I tried my hardest to momentarily forget about everything else and focus on my studies and just gave my all in the exams. Because despite being exhausted, we have to continue fighting for our rights in this world which isn’t designed for people like me.
Sometimes I wonder if hook up culture and sex positivity have done anything to sexually liberate us as they claim. As conversations surrounding sex and sexuality have found place in online spheres and liberal circles in cosmopolitan cities, it makes me think if anything has been done to truly talk about sex audaciously or as freely. There is so much more to sex than just consent, pleasure and fun. Why do we not talk about the ugly parts of it?
“Consent is sexy” is a phrase that is rampantly thrown around on social media nowadays to get the message across that yes, consent is essential; however there is something extremely horrific about such taglines. Are people inept to understand something as bare minimum as consent without attaching sex and desirability to it? Why should we glorify consent so much? Glorifying something like consent only makes it seem like it is unachievable. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that talking about consent is integral, and we need to include it in our sex education curriculum. I just believe that it should be done in a way that makes consent seem achievable for each and every person. This can start with teaching consent as a concept without attaching anything sexual to it and making sure its something everyone can relate to.
On the other hand, I do think that there is more to consent than just simple “yes” or “no”. When there are talks about consent surrounding sex, it is often overly simplified, while ignoring the nuances of it. There is more to consent than just asking if the other person wants to proceed and waiting for them to respond with a “yes” or “no”. We barely talk about sex beyond pleasure: about painful sex, vaginismus, and how sex like everything else in life can be messy too.
Similarly, a lot of sex talk in the mainstream rarely highlights the experiences of queer people. For the longest time, as a queer person I had zero idea about how sex works in settings besides P-in-V interactions. Most of what I read in magazines always centred around heteronormative sex. Although lesbian sex was a popular category on porn websites, the way it was fetishized by the cis male gaze, made me distance myself from it.
Growing up was a confusing time, it was even more confusing when I hit puberty. The boys in class had started watching porn and people were slowly beginning to talk about the “s” word. I still remember people in class looking it up in the dictionary and laughing amongst themselves when they read the definition of “it”. As someone going through so many changes in my body – both physically and mentally, I didn’t know how I was supposed to react to all this. Even till my late teens I was somewhat of a prude, the idea of sex scared me because of my own self-esteem and body issues. It was only later when I graduated from high school that I started to explore my sexuality. Even then, I was certain that I did not quite enjoy the idea of sex. The funny thing here is that I really had no one to talk to about all this. Its true that sex talks at large were not common, but the dissonance here was the fact that we did talk about sex among peer groups – the only difference is that sex was still something very scandalous. It wasn’t something that just existed, it was talked about in hushed whispers, or as something that was a big deal. People talked about who finally did “it”, who were the first ones to do “it” from the batch and what not. So typically, there were two sides of this coin – one where sex was something completely invisibilized from our lives, while also being associated with something immoral. On the other side of the coin was how sex was talked about while boasting about one’s escapades and by introducing an element of scandal to it. Both sides of the coin prevented me from viewing sex for what it really is for me and instead tainted my views about it.
I think the reason that made sex so scary for me was also because of the way I saw guys in my peer groups talking about having sex and “scoring” girls. It was hard to not have trust issues after hearing boys in class talk about getting laid with so much pride. My fragile self-esteem was already in the gutter when I used to overhear them talking about women’s bodies, rating them according to how sexually desirable they were etc.
When I finally stepped out of my fear of having sex and dating in general, life did feel good, but the aspect of penetrative sex used to make me nervous. I couldn’t date a particular person for a long time because of me being apprehensive about sex and sexual things. It was hard to differentiate if it was because I truly did not like sex or if I was avoiding it because of other issues. It’s not like I had a problem with sexual things, the penetrative aspect however would keep me away. Each time a man would try to penetrate me, it felt like my vagina didn’t want the penis to go inside it. This made me even more scared. It made me question if I’m built differently or if my vaginal anatomy was different and needed some kind of a “fixing”. Only later did I find out that the condition that I had was vaginismus. Upon learning about vaginismus, I tried to do everything in my capacity to overcome this fear of having something inserted in me, like trying to masturbate more often and be more in control of my body.
Vaginismus refers to the muscles of a vagina contracting when something is trying to enter it. The intensity depends on person to person and can range from mildly uncomfortable to painful. This is especially apparent when vaginal penetration is being attempted.
After learning more about where my vaginismus stems from (trauma, anxiety and apprehension), it made me question why “penetration” was the most important aspect of sex. Why was there this pressure to end sex with penetration to the point that the other person is uncomfortable and pressured. While I found ways to deal with vaginismus, I also found out that it wouldn’t just go away so quickly. On the other hand, sex and dating dynamics with a fellow queer person was a lot easier and fun, and my whole idea of sex also became more fluid after such experiences. Sex with cis-men on the other hand was still a hit or a miss.
Therefore, I keep thinking about consent beyond a simple yes or no binary. Defining consent like that can often pressurize the person to go ahead despite feeling uncomfortable. We don’t talk enough about how sex can be painful and there is more to sex than just pleasure. Sometimes, boundaries are also not maintained. It should be a given that the people involved in the act make sure that the other person is comfortable, like ensuring if they want to go ahead or just stop and asking if they are feeling good while at i. It is about time we stop thinking that sex only exists to be pleasurable because in many such harrowing incidents it is traumatizing. We have romanticized the idea of hook ups so much to the point that we have internalized the kind of violations we face during sex under the guise of “sex positivity”. These conversations need to go beyond the idea of just pleasure and we need more conversations about consent, boundaries, dealing with pain during intercourse and practicing bodily autonomy. We need to create and foster an environment where sex just exists, as a choice.
Everything you wanted to know about preventing STIs and how to know if you have one.
Since the most mainstream understanding of sex is defined by cis-heteronormative norms, penis-in-vagina is widely equated with the entirety of sexual intercourse. By extension, there is also a widespread misconception that penetrative sex is the only way that an STI can be transmitted.
One of the earliest such claims that I came across as an adolescent was by Sharon Stone, who, besides her mesmerizing on-screen persona, is also a well-known HIV awareness advocate in the limelight.
Thanks to a lack of sex-ed in our education system, I was well into my 20s before I could even consider that various non-penetrative ways of showing affection or desire could also fall under the umbrella of sexual intercourse.
“Oral sex can also spread STIs like herpes. STIs can spread if you have engaged in oral, vaginal, or anal sex, or genital touching,” says Dr. Pragati, who practices at Proactive for Her.
Sharing sex toys (or any massagers/thingamajigs that you may use to stimulate erogenous zones, that have been used directly on the skin) carry the risk of transmitting STIs as well. They must be properly sterilized and can also be used with barrier protections.
The 3 common types of barrier protection are provided by:
– external condoms (often used to cover the shaft of the penis)
– internal condoms (often inserted into the vagina a.k.a. front hole)
– dental dams (sheets used as a barrier between the mouth and the front or back holes a.k.a. butt-hole)
Setting a boundary with a sexual partner to limit transmission of STIs can sound like:
“Hey, I’m really enjoying this and want to keep going. But before we go any further, could we make sure that we grab a condom/dental dam. I want to make sure that we explore each other’s bodies mindfully and safely.”
“Babe, I find myself wanting to make out with you, but before we go there, how do you feel about getting tested for STDs together? That way we could also get a couple’s discount on the STI test at Proactive for Her!”
[TW: sexual abuse, sexual trauma, violation of consent]
“My previous partner and I would often engage in unprotected sex with me. They would often take advantage about my lack of knowledge about STIs and sex in general. I’m concerned that I may have contracted an STI from them and do not want to expose you to it without seeking treatment and medical advice on how we can ensure each other’s safety. I’m going to get tested this weekend. It’s a simple test and they’ll send someone home to collect our blood samples. Will you give me moral support and get tested along with me?”
Preventing sexually-transmitted infections is closely linked to harm reduction methods.
Harm reduction is a public health strategy used to reduce the negative physical and emotional consequences of substance use.
“Sharing needles or any other kinds of injection equipment can put you at the risk of STI,” cautions Dr. Pragati.
Besides certain narcotic drugs (which are widely banned for recreational use), other usage of injection equipment include:
– Getting vaccinated
– Getting permanent tattoos
Ensure that new and disposable injections are used for every sitting, in these circumstances.
The most common symptom of STIs is no external symptom at all!
Having said that, they sometimes manifest as:
Foul-smelling or bloody discharge
Excessive itchiness in the groin region that doesn’t go away with a shower or change of underwear
Lower belly pain
Pain during penetrative sex
Pain or burning sensation while passing urine
Spotting or bleeding that is not coinciding with/unlike menstrual cycle
Testicular or scrotal pain
Swollen or painful lymph nodes in the groin area
Sudden warts on or around the genitals
DID YOU KNOW?
1 It is an act of sexual abuse if you do not share any STIs you may have, or suspect, or whose symptoms you may be experiencing, to a potential sexual partner.
2. It is valid to set boundaries around sex due to concerns about transmission of STIs. These boundaries can be with respect to using protective equipment, contraceptives, certain acts of intercourse/positions, and asking to be tested. If somebody violates or tries to persuade you to forego these boundaries, it is a violation of your consent to the interaction. Tricking someone into having sex is not ok.
3. Most STIs can be cured.
The right medication/medical treatment can clear up many common STIs, including:
Chlamydia in 1 to 2 weeks.
Gonorrhea in 1 to 2 weeks.
Syphillis, which can be treated with an anti-biotic course lasting anywhere between 14 to 28 days, depending on how long it has been left untreated in your system. 1-3 penicillin shots, can also help treat it, and must be accessed under medical supervision.
You can seek help with testing, diagnosis, and treatment at Proactive For Her >>>
Proactive For Her is a digital platform for women’s health, offering accessible, personalized and confidential healthcare solutions.
Proactive for Her helps people of all genders with STI Testing, so you can take charge of your sexual health!
The platform offers a free consultation with a Sexual Health specialist or Gynaecologist, before you book the STI test. Get your sample collected at home or visit a collection centre. The results are shared in easy-to-understand reports with actionable information.
Hello, I am here to tell you something; sorry for invading your personal space. I should have informed you beforehand about my visit and this letter.
See, I am learning and evolving because of you, and I want to take a moment to appreciate you. I know you are struggling somewhere still, inside the confined spaces of your imaginations, but know this, I see you. I am witnessing all the scars you bravely took to love people, please them, and express your pretended best self for their acceptance.
I know it is hurtful. I know you have been feeling this pain for a very long time. I know it through my own core because I still carry it inside me. But listen, it is nowhere a burden. As a mark of revolution, we carry it as resistance. As living proof that you have had your lessons, teachings from the people. And now you have walked ahead a long way. You have shed every unhealthy bearing of people. You have made room for me to learn and grow into someone who knows kindness more dearly.
I am not sure if I should say this, but for you, I always take a stroll at the places that had haunted us when he left. I know they are places you hold very dear, and for only that, I visit them sometimes. But you know the best thing about visiting them? I don’t feel sad or anxious. I walk on the same road where you have smelled him and I keep falling for him more and more.
Everything from the memories you have of these places has changed a lot. And so have you; you have become me, and I am sorry to tell you, but I can’t become you. I can’t go back to being you because you believed in a love that didn’t even love you back. I am sorry if this sounds harsh, but you were the most patient person I had ever met, I am in awe of you, but frankly, I have become someone who wants to believe in not years, but in moments. In the ongoing present and people’s actions, and not their mere, hollow words.
You have made me this, you have changed me, people have forced you to shed the sorrow and be open to the serene side of life. I am thankful to you for not letting people down you and putting you in the shell. I am glad I got the chance to breathe.
I will write to you soon, again. Until then, I hope you live inside me, with peace and acceptance.
Let me start off by stating that I understand that BL a.k.a Boy Love movies and shows can be a guilty pleasure for a lot of viewers. It starts and encourages conversations about the cis-gendered gay community specifically, however, it does not come without its faults. Those cannot be ignored and nor should we brush them under the carpet. Criticism and opinions are a critical part of the art world and it makes it such a popular medium of expression because different people perceive the same thing in their own unique way.
History of BL
What is BL? Boy Love concept shows usually revolve around two cis-gendered males who fall in love and have a romantic and sometimes comedic storyline. While the tv shows tend to be more light-hearted, the movies tend to take on a heavier approach – dealing with social stigma and the struggles men may face being gay.
It first emerged in the 1960s in Japan, where homoerotic manga and novels took precedence with a large female readership. It soon saw a shift with female authors taking over in the late 60s, post-world war II, and it was commercialized in the 90s. Due to the lack of social standing women had in society in the latter half of the 20th century, depicting male-centered characters instead of female-centered characters in an erotic way gave these artists and writers more freedom of expression. These writers often wrote stories they themselves wished they could read and oftentimes were not much older than the audience themselves. These comics came to be known as yaoi which was erotic and shonen-ai which focused more on the emotional connection between the characters. Shonen-ai are adolescent boy’s stories, presented in mangas catered for girls where the characters would have strong bonds and erotic encounters.
Once commercialized, this genre spread its readership overseas into other East Asian nations with increased demand for translated works. Animes, television dramas, and video games were created with the BL genre at its center. Currently, Thailand takes the crown for the most number of BL tv shows and since 2016, has a growing international audience. Taiwan and China aren’t far behind, with South Korea recently joining the craze.
What’s the problem with BLs?
Problem #1: BLs can give a very problematic view of the queer community as a whole and of gay men specifically. The genre is mainly aimed at a young straight female audience and the storylines cater to them. Additionally, conventionally attractive and often straight men portray these characters which tend to draw a lot of criticism. Oftentimes, unknown or new actors are cast in these shows. If the show does well, it brings them brand deals and a company they can sign onto for more commercial projects. It makes them popular on social media, with zero to no contribution to the gay community that they clearly have profited off of. My theory as to why specifically straight men are hired to play these roles is because even today, straight men are considered to be more attractive and ‘masculine’ as compared to gay men.
Problem #2: In quite a few shows, there is absolutely no concept of consent. So many stories start off with assault and coercion which results in the character ‘becoming’ gay and accepting that this is okay. The character exerting force is portrayed to be so in love and unwilling to give up, that they can barely control themselves, as though that justifies any action. Romantic and comical music is played in the background, ensuring the audience that this is all in good jest. Of course, this is a common trope in romantic tv shows in general, however, I believe an uproar would take place if we normalized assault in a show with straight people in 2022. Assault can never be funny or deemed okay. It’s not sexy, it’s not cute, and certainly never justified. It cannot be excused just because it is a show ‘representing’ the gay community – no representation is better than bad representation.
I would like to add, that I am not going to detail out how bad the acting and writing in BL dramas is, because that isn’t specific to this genre, it is unanimous with movies and shows across the world. We see the same stories and character tropes played out over and over again. The difference with this genre is that the story is almost completely fanservice. The story rarely adds up or makes sense, solutions, and resolutions arrive suddenly and almost abruptly.
Quite often in the story’s universe, the show is set in, almost everyone is supportive of the two leads. Additionally, there are rarely any female characters which take us to Problem #3. If they are any female characters, they are reduced to cliches as being annoying women or seductresses who are trying to tempt a gay man.
My biggest PROBLEM (#4) with BLs: It caters to a straight audience made by straight people starring straight people who profit majorly from this. It doesn’t create awareness the way the LGBT community majorly needs and deserves.
Problem #5: Most of the characters are macho, muscular, and attractive, who just happen to like other macho, muscular men. Since these are written by straight cis women it caters to their stereotypical fantasy. Fem presenting men are usually used as side characters or are there for jokes and jests which completely defeats the purpose of a BL. They are made to come across as gossipy, ugly, trying to tempt the lead character, they want ‘manly-men’ or they serve no purpose. There is zero acceptance of bisexuality or it is done poorly. Of course, without a doubt, masculine gay men exist and it’s great it breaks barriers and prejudices that you cannot tell who is gay or not by just looking at them, although it shouldn’t come at the cost of exploiting people who fit within society’s stereotype.
What do gay men think about BLs?
While I do not have a statistic on how many people from the LGBTQ+ community watch this, the ground-level situation and reality in which these shows are made are quite different. While Taiwan has the most liberal laws benefitting the community, South Korea doesn’t have any anti-discrimination laws in place as yet. Therefore, these fairytale stories that are told, might not be relatable to a lot of these men. However, the entertainment industry is here to provide relief from our reality, so I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing having these cute-cheesy stories exist.
Why do I still watch it?
I am a queer person. Some days, I just wanna watch some queer stories, and I’ll take anything that I can get. In times like these, I’ll hit the spacebar to the first drama that I come across and watch it until I lose interest in the storyline or complete the entire series. Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of really incredible shows out there, Thailand’sI Told Sunset About You, which is my all-time favorite, South Korea’sThe Tasty Florida which is cute and cringy in parts but makes for a rather light-hearted watch and Semantic Error which is adorable and hearfelt. Movies like Japan’s His being incredibly groundbreaking for me on a personal level and lastly, Taiwan’sYour Name Engraved Herein which made me feel seen and understood.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that this genre has a very interesting and exciting history. Something that started as a sexual liberation movement for women to see relationships which they would otherwise want and like to have or see in a man they want to be with to a genre that has a fan base across the world. The BL genre is a phenomenon, which is here to stay and probably will grow drastically in the years to come. They have a long way to go in terms of representation, and these stories are often more embraced on screen than in person, which is disheartening but it could bring about some form of change if told properly and people from the community are given more space.
The cold wind brushed across his chest. He felt his areolae, dark-brown hued, shrink; the mound of his nipple erect. He wetted his finger on his lips and touched the nipple, rimming it, imagining a tongue taking a survey of that tiny outcropped flesh. The drizzle hadn’t stopped.
A bird was quietly sitting on a branch of the berry tree, across his house. The tree, or more like an overgrown shrub, would generally be crowded with bees, moths, insects, birds and bats. Little children would dance around, jumping up and down, belabouring to pluck the dark-pink berries, sweet and plump. The thicket of rain droplets swayed with the wind, like an amorphous fog covering the whole town. He touched his lips with his thumb, wetted it again with his saliva, rimmed other nipple. He thought of the fog, scented with the newly flowered mango trees, sprawled across the window, of his class-room, two decades ago. He almost dozed off, in his afternoon reverie, when his phone rang. The music of the ring tone rose from an andante con moto to a soft crescendo, and died down. The phone rang again. He
picked up, still weary from his daydreams.
“Hi, Am I speaking with Mr. K?”
“Yes, this is him speaking.”
“Hello Mr. K. I am calling from Insurance Inc. And before we go any further, I must inform you that this call is being recorded for monitoring and quality purpose.”
“Sure,” said K, standing up to lean over the balustrade, looking over the moist world in front of him.
“Mr. K, Congratulations, your phone number has been chosen for our exclusive offer. This limited time offer is only for selected people..”
“I am sorry but I am not looking for any new insurance scheme or anything at the moment,” He said abruptly, interrupting the conversation on the phone.
“Sure, Mr. K. But would you like to hear more about this before making up your mind? Plus you don’t have to pay anything for this for a year or later. In fact, for you specially, the fee that we charge after a year, would be discounted to hundred percent.”
What’s the catch here, K thought. “Alright, please tell me more.”
“Great! Mr. K, as you know, the pandemic is already wreaking havoc around the world. And the many waves of the infections have made a lot of people deprived of their sense of smell..”
Wait a minute, I was just thinking about the memory of that smell, of the fog and the mango flowers. Have these companies become so intrusive that they can now read our minds? K thought, with a slight annoyance at the idea of the private enclosures of his mind turning into a museum for the marketers and salespersons.
The voice over the phone continued, “… and this has become the worst nightmare of the Pandemic. How could one be a human without the ability to smell anything? Doesn’t it drive everything – from our sexual attraction to the very basic necessity of the food? In fact, our first sensory experience is of smell. It is the most fundamental quality of being a human.”
Don’t many animals, and mammals, also have the sense of smell as their basic instinct, K said. But it seemed the person on the other side of the phone did not hear him amid their continuous babble.
“What we are offering is a lifetime opportunity to you with our Insurance scheme not only to keep your sensory experience safe with us in the event of you losing it, but also the Insurance cover if that happens.”
“And how are you going to do it?” K asked impatiently.
“Yes, Mr. K. I am going to explain you more. What this process involves is that we are going to map and make a copy of a memory of yours that is strongly associated with an odour, or a scent. It would be safely kept in our systems. And could be restored back to you once our Research team make more progress on that front. Once it is brought back to you, you would be able to regain your sense of smell, and could feel like a full human again.”
“I have stopped feeling like a human long ago,” K said to himself.
“What?” the voice asked.
“Nothing. Please go on.”
“Sure, as I was explaining to you about this offer, and that there is no fees involved in this. Your number was selected from a lucky draw, and you are selected from that chosen lot.”
K was flattered. “How does it work?” he asked.
“It is a very simple process, and won’t take any time. If you are free now, we can go ahead with it.”
He was free, sitting comfortably in his chair, feeling up his chest under his shirt. “I am free,” he said to the voice on the phone.
“Great! Our conversation is almost over, please stay on the call after we are finished. You would hear a beep. Press number 3 on your phone. This would start the sensors in your phone and it would then connect to your brain wirelessly. The sensors are designed in such a way that they could map the memory that you would be recollecting, and translate and store it digitally. Once you are done with the remembrance, the process will automatically stop and you would hear the beep again. You can disconnect the call after that. Meanwhile, I will send you the Account details and other information in your email.”
“Alright,” he was both intrigued and nervous. He prepared himself for the next moments to follow.
The brief beep pierced his ear. He pressed the number 3 on his phone dial pad.
It was a cold morning. The roads were moist. The thick fog hung like an impregnable solid. He moved through it, entered the building, climbing up to six floors. There was nobody, yet, in the class. He was a tad bit early. He went to the window, the morning breeze scraped his cheeks. He breathed the air infused with the scent of the flowers that speckled the branches of the Mango trees across. The trees would bear the sweet fruits in few months. He heard a noise, S had just entered. S made a joke about him. He ignored it, and continued looking out of the window. He felt the warmth of a hand, of S. Their hands tangled for a bit, cold palms transpiring the heat between them. He turned to kiss S…
“I could not kiss him. Someone had come in the classroom. He never looked at me again that way. He never talked about it. I desired for his hands, his lips, his warmth, and his words. The moment was gone, it seems, for S,” K said over the phone, but nobody was listening. There was a beep again, which meant the process has stopped. The call was over now. He felt a pang in his chest, of the cravings that he had had many years ago. He felt annoyed at the call that was now over, and at that unfinished kiss. He wished for closure. He closed his eyes again. His hands fumbled on his chest, feeling up all the contours of his skin and shape. He pinched, circled around his nipples, as if turning a knob to open up somewhere.
He felt cold, not the rain cold, but a chilly cold of a winter morning. The faint smell reached him, from faraway, the sweet scent of the nectar. He saw the Mango tree draped with the greenish-yellow tiny flowers, on the branches wet with the fog. The warm breath on the back of his neck gave him goosebumps. S was behind him, embracing him, nibbling his earlobes. He turned to look at S, few inches taller, a handsome face, with a pair of juicy, thick lips. He sniffed his shoulders, the arms, the pits. He could smell the traces of perspiration on S, soaking his shirt and under his sweater. He put his hand inside S’s shirt, looking for a hint of hair on his smooth chest. He played with his nipples. S moaned. They kissed, and exchanged warmth, fluids, and love. In that desolate room, on a wintery morning, in a world engulfed in the blanket of the fog, the subtle odour of their bodies mixed with the sweet aroma of the flowers of probable fruits.
Disney’s Encanto is generating a lot of discussion, whether it’s around representation, memory studies or the cost of ensuring futurity. However, a theme that stuck with me is navigating familial love and generational trauma as a queer person. As we grow up, we find different desires and forms of love. One of the first spaces where we find love is our family, but that love is far from perfect in any way. We are always pretending that it’s perfect and the best that there can be. Too often, the patriarchs and matriarchs of families rule with an iron fist to ensure conformity within the family to stay together. They have a noble motive of saving the family from the trauma they suffered. But in doing so, they inadvertently carry forward the vestiges of the same trauma, inflicting it upon others and putting pressure on them.
As queer people, familial love is perhaps the most difficult of all types of love to comprehend. It stems from a place where many face rejection, betrayal and mistrust. At the same time, it’s rooted in structures of patriarchy, monogamy, queerphobia, cisheteronormativity, and love in a very narrow-minded, traditional, exclusionary sense. I know many queer people who have ‘chosen families’ but don’t make any familial relations like muh bola bhai or behen. There’s so much rigidity in such a type of love that it’s ultimately difficult to find solace within it. Disney movies and Disney animated movies have been built on the stepping stone of ‘family first’ as a primary theme. Movies like Coco and Encanto discuss the importance of having families, but Encanto does what no other Disney movie has done so far. It addresses family toxicity, generational trauma and challenges the idea that elders are always right.
In a culture like ours, elders are treated with the utmost respect, and they can never be wrong. Their opinion is almost as strong as that of god. Their rigidity makes it difficult to feel any sense of flexibility in doing one’s family roles in familial spaces. As mentioned earlier, they also rule with an iron fist, much like Alma Madrigal in Disney’s Encanto. She does so to protect her family from the horrific trauma she suffered when she lost her husband in an armed conflict. And that trauma is carried through generations and never spoken about, much like the trauma that’s taken from generation to generation in Indian families. She’s also given a miracle that bestows a magical gift upon her children and grandchildren, skipping her granddaughter Mirabel, who doesn’t find a place within the family quickly.
Mirabel and her uncle Bruno are the two outcasts in the family and the only people willing to have an open conversation regarding what’s happening in the family. When the miracle is dying in the movie, all fingers are pointed at Mirabel because of Bruno’s vision. Alma blames Mirabel for breaking the family as everyone starts losing their magical powers. Until this moment in the movie, it’s a typical family drama, dinner table trouble, and violent confrontation that leads to someone leaving the family, breaking it apart. What sets Disney’s Encanto unique is what happens after this.
As everyone takes care of each other, their house Casita – which also holds magic – breaks down completely; Mirabelruns away after telling Alma that she’s the one who doesn’t love her family. The miracle is dying because of her. Here we get a scene that genuinely illustrates familial love’s power for healing when familial toxicity and violence through protectionism are addressed. We later see Alma go to Mirabel and say these words, “And I am so sorry. You never hurt our family Mirabel. We are broken…because of me.” This is an unconditional apology, pointed out by Schaffrillas Productions. It’s an unconditional apology coming from the person who inflicted the trauma or hurt the other person. And this apology isn’t hiding behind any sort of wall or an excuse or a half-held explanation. This is something most members of Indian families are incapable of. There is so much love in our families, but they’re not willing to acknowledge that they have caused the hurt as well while loving. Encanto offers the willingness to change and the power of forgiveness in dealing with generational traumas.
In the movie, then, we see perhaps one of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenes in animated movies where Alma embraces Mirabel. But in the end, it’s just a movie. And I have seen elderly family members who became so bitter with not accepting the truth that they took it to their graves. I don’t understand what purpose such love serves other than making every family member despise each other. Our families have unresolved traumas passed on through a wheel that needs to be broken. Our elders are extra-protective of us and keep us within fixed boundaries in the name of familial love, which I now recognise as the most toxic kind of love that can be. So many Indian movies, traditions, and rituals emphasise the importance of the love that makes the family stay together, but what about when the same love also makes us hate each other.
I do not deny the existence of happy families where love prospers, and growth is possible. But there is something very wrong with no space for expressing ourselves within our families with a generation gap filled with trauma and not kindness, care, and warmth. The inability to recognise the violence and toxicity of keeping the family together leaves no space to have a decent conversation about it. It just keeps on degrading the bonds so much so that family members don’t even talk to each other for decades and break away like the Casita that falls apart, crack by crack, in the movie. And if you’re queer, then this is just hell for you.
Disney’s Encanto, however fantastic it is, is a movie based in magical realism that addresses some rare themes that need to be discussed at our dinner tables in a confrontational manner. But it’s us who have the space and the power to either have this conversation and mould a different kind of familial love or just break away – breaking the wheel of trauma and not carrying it forward to another generation, which is what most of us do. And sometimes, we don’t get a miracle to reduce the weight of the traumas we shoulder. It’s just us with our broken selves where care for self is primary and radical, platonic, and where newer ways of being and loving (like through friendships) take precedence over family. At the same time, there’s hope and power in forgiveness that can break the cycles of generational trauma.
Late last year, Netflix India released the trailer of ‘Cobalt Blue’, a film adaptation of the eponymous novel, written and directed by Sachin Kundalkar. Expectations ran high, with good reason. The movie, which released on Saturday starred Prateik Babbar as the unnamed paying guest, Neelay Mehendale as Tanay, and Anjali Sivaraman as Anuja. The fact Kundalkar, two-time National Film Award winner and the man behind the story, would be translating his words onto the celluloid was also a source of comfort.
As with every adaptation, Cobalt Blue too will face the ultimate question: does the movie live up to the book? Interestingly enough, the movie sets the stage for the debate in a scene, where the characters discuss novels and plays that have been adapted. It is fair to say that the movie is able to address important moments in the book, but also leaves behind some other significant plotlines.
The crux of the movie remains the same. As in Kundalkar’s book, the plot of the movie is a riveting tale about two siblings who fell in love with the same man. In the span of a few hundred pages, (or in the case of the movie, 1h 52m) Kundalkar explores the politics of gender, sexual identity and family. The concepts of sexuality, desire, the pain of heartbreak and loss feature prominently in the book. The movie, in fact, begins with death, the most universal kind of loss there is. However, the emotions that run during the scenes of the loss is heavily contrasted with the agony the two characters deal with during a heartbreak. While the siblings try to stake claim over the room, which goes on to take the centerstage in the movie, after the death, they both leave their homes behind after the heartbreak.
To set the context, the movie takes place in 1996 in Fort Kochi, a choice I am still not sure of. It lends to the aesthetics, with green ponds and lakes, spice warehouses that have been converted into art galleries, and houses overlooking the water. However, outside of this, it does not add to the plotline in any interesting or important way. Except, maybe, it plays a role in the loneliness that Tanay experiences. The idea comes later on, when Tanay’s college professor (Neil Bhoopalam) tells him that he was craving from companionship, because he was finding it impossible to find friendship in Kochi, much less sex. However, is that a predicament of a gay man in Kochi, or an outsider in Kochi, or just the lived experience of a gay person in the 90s India?
The only logical conclusion I could come up was that the movie was trying to recreate the aesthetic sensibilities of Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar winning Call Me By Your Name. By setting the movie in Kerala they are able to replicate the scene of a house guest arriving in a idyllic coastal town to make space for himself in a family house.
Tanay’s gaze throughout the movie raises a certain level of discomfort because it seems charged with sexual desire, be it with strangers playing football on the streets, the barber, his professor and even the star of the plotline, the paying guest. Well, the heavy sexualization is made easy with Vincenzo Condorelli’s camera lens as it is with the fact that the character for some reason is constantly shirtless.
The movie does get it right in a lot of places. The scenes of Tanay and the unnamed guest’s physical and emotional intimacy is captured tastefully. Interspersed with scenes of nature and hands gripping each other, they also manage to show the bodies of men intertwined and writhing with pleasure. In a particular scene, once again reminiscent of Call Me By Your Name, a character crushes an orange in a moment of climax.
The paying guest then elopes with Tanay’s sister, Anuja. Now, up until the point of this elopement, Anuja has maybe two or three interactions with him. Their first interaction is extremely odd. The unnamed guest picks up a bra and asks some girls who lives in the neighbouring house if it belongs to them. Embarrassed, the run inside, and the character takes this as a cue to swing the bra around his hand, which in all honesty is an absolutely odd thing to do. Anuja, who meets him for the first time, snatches it from him and scolds him.
The next few interactions are also of annoyance. Now, the lack of interaction is not surprising, because this is exactly how it plays out in the book as well. However, what the book does, and the movie fails to, is fill in the gap. Kundalkar’s novel is divided into two halves. In the second half of the novel we are able to understand Anuja’s side of the story. We are given insight into how the relationship blooms, as we are into Anuja’s mental status. In the movie, Dr. Khanwilkar, Anuja’s therapist, does not exist. Instead, we are given Mary, a nun and confidant of Anuja. You can’t wonder if the choice of a nun was because the movie is set in Kerala. Mary has a past, we are not entirely privy to, but it is this past, where she was forced to become a nun, is what drives her to help Anuja.
The movie does not do much justice to Anuja’s story. Her entire relationship is summed up in a few scenes and dialogues. The most prominent one being when her father tries to convince her to file rape charges against and him and she refuses. “He introduced me to my own body,” she tells her father and reminds him that he was the reason why she felt like she had to run away. After Anuja returns home, the family begins taming the shew. Hair extensions are clipped on and she is forced to drape a sari, and she is left almost unrecognizable. Throughout the movie she is depicted as a tomboy, who does not subscribe to the ideas of femineity. And the movie makes a rather forced attempt to depict this. For example, Tanay uses Ponds, which is describes as “girl’s cream” and is okay with spending time in the kitchen. When their mother asks Anuja to help, she declares that she is not going to do any work around the kitchen. Later, she asks Tanay to show her how to use cream and deodorant, which seems to be pushing the trope a little too far.
The silent grief and isolation of Tanay versus the public affair that is Anuja’s heartbreak, is poignant. The politics of family and gender is rife here. Tanay is constantly shown as treading the waters and as trying to engage in sexual activities in public spaces. Tanay enjoys free access to the guest’s room and no one raises their eyes about the fact that they spend so much day and time together. Anuja, on the other hand, is constantly shown as begging to see his room but she is constantly forbidden. Their love story would have had to bloom in spaces outside the house.
“Love is a habit. The habit ends, you die”, Tanay offers as an explanation to Anuja when she uses why the grandmother died on the same day as her abusive husband. In some sense, this serves as an foreboding to what is to come. The departure of the paying guest pushes them to assert their own needs and shed the shackles that were holding them back; in a way, their old selves die.
However, the movie ends a little too neatly. Sure, there are questions about the painter who disappeared overnight. But, in the novel his nature and past is acknowledged in a way where we understand his need to leave. The memories of the siblings alone make it clear that the departure was inevitable. However, the movie does not achieve this. Tanay becomes a writer and Anuja leaves to become a hockey coach and we assume she will thrive and survive. In a ditch effort to hurt her, Tanay, who comes across a petulant child more often than not, makes her aware of his relationship with the man. For this and many other reasons, unlike in the book, I found myself rooting for Anuja.
Surprisingly, Kundalkar is not given director’s credit in the film. In fact, director’s credit does not appear in the fil. However, he is given credits as the author for story and for writing the screenplay and dialogues. But, his choice to distance himself from the movie raises more questions. Maybe, the parts that don’t sit well were parts that he wanted to distance himself from. But, that will remain yet another unanswered question that the movie brings up.
Some of these movies are popular, while others, not so much. Most of them show disabled young folx as people with aspirations, dreams, and agency just like anybody else. These stories have told through a lens of curiosity about persons with disabilities, instead of stereotyping them, and that’s why we think they are worth a watch.
Loop is an 8-minute short film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released in 2020. The film focuses on 2 protagonists, Renee and Marcus, who are kids attending a canoe camp. The camp counselor pairs them together for a trip in the canoe and although reluctant, Marcus sets off with Renee across the lake. Renee is autistic and non-verbal and so everyone sees her as this weird kid who doesn’t talk.
I liked this film because although Marcus has no idea about how to interact with Renee and is used to conventional patterns of socialising like talking and goofing around the lake on the canoe and being loud, he is willing to learn from Renee on how to communicate with her. He quickly learns that intense rocking on the canoe makes her uncomfortable. Instead, he rows the canoe back and forth near a patch of reed because Renee enjoyed the sensation of the reeds. He also learns that she likes to play a certain tune on her phone while she’s happily stimming to show that she’s enjoying herself. When Renee is overwhelmed by the sounds of the motorboat and has a meltdown, Marcus grabs a piece of reed and sets it where she can reach it and gives her space and privacy so she can feel better.
Marcus and Renee become friends and Marcus tries to actively learn from her about how to be her friend instead of telling her what she should be doing. There is an equal measure of give-and-take in their friendship instead of Marcus making Renee feel bad and forcing her into masking her true self. In my opinion, this short film should’ve been nominated for the Golden Globes instead. The short film is available on Disney+ (and torrents are always available!).
Ian is another 9-minute long short film produced by MundoLoco (Animation Studio in Latin America) based on the story of a real boy named Ian who was born with cerebral palsy. It started with Ian’s mother trying to educate her son’s bullies on the playground, urging them to let him play as well. She goes on to found Fundación Ian (Foundation Ian) to help educate people about disabilities on a larger scale.
Artistically, Ian is a stop motion and CGI film and is filled with bright and happy colours. Ian is in a wheelchair and is seen peeking into a park from the other side of the fence. He dreams of joining the other kids in the park with his toys and playing with them on the slide and the awnings, but every day, his fantasy ends with the kids making fun of him or giving him weird stares because he is in a wheelchair. However, towards the end, the children learn to accept Ian and invite him to the playground as well.
Taare Zameen Par is a 2007 movie directed by Aamir Khan. It centres around a boy named Ishaan, who is dyslexic and is constantly criticized and bullied because of his poor academic performance and writing skills. His peers call him names, his teachers think that he won’t have a future, and his parents think that he’s just being lazy and pretending to not understand things in school. And he’s only about 9-10 years old.
This movie is pretty hard to watch and can be triggering because of the insulting language that is used and the systemic disregard towards children who are even just a little different from ableist expectations. There is a heavy emphasis on schooling and grades and ranks and I think this movie shows how institutions deliberately create hierarchies and differences among children in the name of competition and grades even though they might be harming the children.
Ishaan is then sent to a boarding school where he meets Ram Shankar Nikumbh (played by Amir Khan), who is also dyslexic and helps Ishaan to improve his reading and writing. The thing about Ram Shankar’s character is that he appears to be a saviour for Ishaan by helping him nurture his artistic and academic talents, but the movie still takes away agency from the child himself. It shows that the adults and the parents always know what’s best, even though they are the ones who can cause harm. Not once was Ishaan asked what he wants to do or how he wants to learn or what he needs that will make him more comfortable in his role as a student. The decisions were made for him: that he needs to be sent away or that he needs to be saved by a teacher.
While the movie highlights how every child is different and special, there is also an emphasis on how some children have “special needs” (children with learning disorders or neurodivergent children), when the point is that every child has a special need and the point of education institutions is to remove the aspect of competition and grades to help each child reach their fullest potential as a kind human being capable of navigating their lives and relationships in a secure manner.
Margarita With A Straw
Margarita with a Straw is a 2015 movie starring Kalki Koechlin. It follows the story of Laila, a young college student with cerebral palsy. Being physically restricted doesn’t stop Laila from having fun with her friends, making music for her college band and enjoying creative writing.
Laila doesn’t restrict herself from living her life and having fun. She is open to trying new things and also exploring her sexuality. She has a friends-with-benefit relationship with Druv while she’s studying at DU, whom she breaks up with for Nima, a boy in her band. When Nima rejects her, her mother encourages her to go to NYU for a creative writing program (reflecting the privileges of one’s socio-economic location even when one is disabled) where she meets Khanum, a blind Pakistani girl. They meet at an anti-racist rally and have to flee the scene when the cops show up. They later get to know each other and get involved in a relationship and even move in together. Later in the movie, she sleeps with Jared, her friend and writing assistant, which causes Laila and Khanum to drift apart.
When she was studying at DU and her band won a contest, the judges admit that the only reason they won was that Laila had a special condition and if she would like to respond to that. On stage. In front of everyone. Laila gets angry and shows them the finger and leaves the room. Laila has a very supportive mother who ensures that Laila knows that she can fight against society’s toxic and ableist standards and live as she feels best for herself. What I don’t really like in this movie is that Laila and her mother never fully talk about Laila’s bisexuality. She tries coming out to her mother, but Shubhangi (the mother) gets very upset and doesn’t understand her daughter. But Laila learns that Shubhangi is sick with cancer and passes away. So although Laila has the agency to discover and experiment with her sexuality, I wish she would’ve had a proper conversation with her mother about her sexuality. But I guess, it also shows how parents could react in an unsupportive manner to their child’s queerness regardless of their disability. Maybe if Shubhangi had more time, she could come around to understanding her daughter.
A Silent Voice
TW- bullying, gaslighting, suicide
A Silent Voice is a Japanese animated movie produced by Kyoto Animation. It is a psychological coming-of-age drama film that follows the story of Nishimiya Shouko, a girl with a hearing impairment, and Ishida Shoya.
When Nishimiya changes schools as an elementary student, her classmates bully her because of her disability. They call her names and steal 8 pairs of her hearing aids. One time, Ishida accidentally rips her ear as well. Her mother is livid and transfers Nishimiya to another school. The movie intends to show a redemption arc for the characters, especially Ishida.
While I appreciate the intention, I think the execution was more elusive. Ishida and Nishimiya meet after years, and Ishida regrets that he bullied her and tries to apologise to her. They start hanging out and become friends again, but the rest of the group from elementary school still bullies her. Especially Naoka Ueno. They continue to bully her and repeatedly tell her that she is worthless. Ishida apologises to her once, and somehow expects her to forgive him and everything that happened. Ishida was bullied in elementary school too and I think it was a situation where one kid who was bullied, further bullies someone else, but Ishida never received an apology from his bullies.
When the rest of their group sees how Ishida has changed, Nishimiya is still blamed for ruining his life and their friendship, especially by Ueno. Nishimiya is manipulated and is constantly apologising for something that isn’t her fault at all and she’s constantly expected to be nice to them and forgive them. She doesn’t have a safe space where she can process what she’s feeling or how she wants to respond to the situation or if she even wants to be friends with her ex-bullies.
At one point, Nishimiya tries to kill herself because she’s made to feel so worthless and terrible, but Ishida is there to save her, injuring himself in the process. In the end, they end up becoming friends, but Nishimiya is somehow still forced into it, rather than having agency to choose for herself whether or not she wants to be friends with them.
The Way He Looks
TW- bullying, homophobia
The Way He Looks is a 2014 Portugese film directed by Daniel Ribero and is based on the short film, I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone. The protagonist, Leonardo, is a blind high school student. He has a best friend, Giovana, who accompanies him back home everyday. One day, Gabriel, a new student arrives at the school and is made benchmates with Leonardo. Soon, Gabriel, Leonardo and Giovana become a trio and Gabriels joins them to walk Leonardo home.
The movie is about the normal life of a Leo as a high school student, his desire to be independent, plans for college, wanting to explore romantic and sexual encounters, finishing assignments, attending parties and so on.
There’s another classmate Karina, who is attracted to Gabriel, but he rejects her at a party. Gabriel is paired with Leo for a project and through the course of the assignment, he realises he likes Leo and wants to date him. The bullies at school also make homophobic remarks at how close Leo and Gabriel seem, but they mostly ignore them.
There is also a misunderstanding between the 3, since Giovana thought that Leo no longer cares for her and that Gabriel has replaced her in his life, but Leo and Giovana make up when Leo confesses that he’s in love with Gabriel. Giovana encourages Gabriel to go see Leo where they confess their feelings for one another and get together. Although Fabio (one of the bullies) continues to tease Leo and Gabriel, they no longer want to hide their relationship and proudly hold hands and walk home with Giovana.
Throughout the movie, Leo is also trying to establish his independence and his boundaries, especially to his overprotective parents who do not want him to go anywhere alone and ensure that he’s always with someone. Leo also wants to go abroad for his college and live a life where he is free to do what he wants, but his parents outright disapprove of him going so far away without them.
Overall, it’s a cute movie, while also being a comfort watch. There are no major plot lines or suspense-filled climax scenes. It is about two boys learning that they love each other and wanting to be together while also trying to figure out what they want to do in the future.
Throughout these movies, we see patterns of disabled folx being bullied by their peers, overprotectiveness expressed by parents and adults in general, and the protagonist trying to be independent and live their life as they please. In most parts of the world, any person with some sort of disability is assumed to be incapable of making decisions for themselves, especially as children. They are thought of as naive and innocent people who need to be protected every minute of every day, even when this sentiment is precisely what is harming them. As a society, we deliberately and actively create differences and hierarchies among people with divergent neural and physical abilities and then proceed to shame and control them for it. This goes to show that it is society that is disabling and ableist to live in for people who are mentally or physically disabled.
TW: Mentions and description of queerphobic bullying
Universities across the country have begun to reopen for in-person classes, which means that students have started returning to their campuses. Social media is abuzz with pictures of everybody’s first day back in class and stories of newfound independence. However, college doesn’t look the same for everyone.
“I am scared of going back,” said a 4th year student at a law school when asked what they think about their university reopening. Akanksh* is a 21-year-old gay man pursuing their degree from a college in a small town. While describing their first and second year in the college she says “It was full of harassment and bullying. I was still presenting as a gay guy back then. I was constantly cornered and groped. People used to call me names like ‘chakka’. This one time I was forced to dress in makeup and dance in front of the whole boys’ hostel.” recalls Akanksh. “When I went to college for the first time I expected it to be an opportunity where I could come out as who I was and do regular college things, you know? Go out with people and find my little college romance. Instead my college experience forced me to go further back into my shell. I stopped going out of my room or talking to people. I kept to myself. Honestly, the lockdown was a blessing for me. I felt safe at home despite not being out. I found online communities to engage with and I had those tiny things that I had wanted, at least for a brief period of time. College reopening is a nightmare for me. I cannot imagine having to go through the humiliation and pain again. All of my classmates are happy and celebrating and I just want to disappear into thin air.”
Akanksh is not the only student with this problem. Many queer students in small towns face similar issues with respect to returning to campuses. Their college experience is riddled with abuse, bullying, and humiliation. They cannot approach the administration for complaints because they know that they’d either be met with apathy or hostility. Most colleges still don’t see queerphobia as a serious issue that solicits a response.
Many trans students are also apprehensive about going back to campuses. The reasons range from something as basic as them not being assigned the correct hostels based on their gender to extreme abuse and harassment at the hands of their peers and, sometimes, also teachers.
This is not just an issue with campuses in smaller towns; a student in HCU revealed stories of administrative neglect. “A transgender sub committee was formed by the administration to suggest changes to better accommodate us on campus. The subcommittee suggested what we had been urging for – creation of gender-neutral hostels and washrooms. The administration rejected the suggestion and passed a circular saying it had done so to ‘not cause a disturbance in discipline’ of the hostel spaces.” When asked how they feel about returning to the campus and the hostel they said: “Returning would have to mean that I have to stay in a boys hostel. That would not only trigger my dysphoria but could also be potentially violent for me. It makes me feel unsafe and vulnerable.”
Another non-binary student in a separate Hyderabad campus feels the same way about returning. “The college apparently has this rule that people have to be in their own building after curfew. But lots of people go to their friend’s building (same gender) and spend the night there. I did that once and they told me not to do it again. I feel like they started implementing the rule more strictly after I did it.” When asked if xe think it’s because of xem being queer, xe responded saying that it was possible.
Something to be noted here is that across these 3 campuses, only HCU had a transgender sub committee and even there, the subcommittee had no power over administrative decisions. This reveals administration’s fundamental mistrust of queer people. Queer people are not seen as individuals trying to lead a life in accordance with what makes them feel comfortable but as trespassers in the university space who must be treated with suspicion and scrutinised constantly to ensure ‘safety’ and ‘order’ on campus.
This forces us to question if forcing everyone to go back to campuses is even safe when the campuses are clearly not prepared to host students. Currently, a miniscule number of campuses have gender-neutral hostels and washrooms. This is 8 years after the NALSA judgment, which called for creation of gender neutral spaces across universities. Most of these campuses are also casteist and inaccessible to a large demographic of the country, by design. Several campuses do not even have a student’s collective to provide a platform to voice the concerns of queer students, let alone an administrative body formed to address complaints systemically. With colleges returning to offline mode, going back to campus is a re-traumatizing event for several queer students whose abusers roam free in the university space. This gets even more daunting when you consider that most of these students also face abuse at home.
Queer students in the country still remain in a limbo where they have to pick one sort of abuse over the other in order to go on with their lives.
There’s a lot of speculation that arises when trying to understand non-monogamy: Is it ethical? Is it a 21st century concept? Is it an underground phenomenon reserved for sex addicts?
Most non-monogamous people are likely to ponder over the definition themselves because an intrinsic feature of non-monogamy is deconstructing relationships as we understand them. As a consequence, they see monogamous relationships as a choice rather than the default.
What is Non-Monogamy?
The American Psychological Association (APA) offers a simple idea to familiarise ourselves with non-monogamy. The APA fact sheet on consensual non-monogamy describes “all relationships as agreements that partners decide upon”. While monogamy is typically an agreement where people may agree to be sexually and emotionally exclusive to a single person, consensual non-monogamy is “an umbrella term for relationships in which all partners give explicit consent to engage in romantic, intimate, and/or sexual relationships with multiple people.” The nuances and details of these agreements vary according to the type of non-monogamous relationships that partners are engaged in as well as the socio-cultural factors that shape the preferences and power relations at play.
What forms can Non-Monogamy take?
Although non-monogamous relationships can be broadly distinguished into particular forms, each relationship takes shape according to the partners that make them. Once we understand this fundamental attribute of non-monogamous relationships, it helps to be acquainted with its different types so we have a blueprint of an arrangement that most closely matches our needs, values and desires.
In her book Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Monogamy (2020), Jessica Fern, a psychotherapist plots the main relationship structures within consensual non-monogamy along the dimensions of emotional exclusivity and sexual exclusivity. This gives rise to a graph that highlights these forms of consensual non-monogamous relationships. Note: As Jessica points out, these two dimensions are only one way of looking at consensual non-monogamous relationships and there could be many more ways of understanding its different forms. She is also careful to explain that the points at which the different types of relationships are plotted could vary from person to person, depending on their own conceptions.
Getting with the Non-Mono Lingo
Language is an agent of change and paints our perception of the world. Unsurprisingly, most communities that are marginalised evolve with their own vocabulary. In TheEthical Slut (1997), a book that has been described as “helping launch the modern non-monogamy movement”, the authors describe their hesitancy with even using the term ‘non-monogamy’ as it implies that monogamy is the norm and is a monogamy-centric way of understanding relationships.
When using the term non-monogamy, most advocates of ethical non-monogamy choose to describe it as ‘ethical non-monogamy’ or ‘consensual non-monogamy’ to strongly voice their call for healthy communication about aspects like forming secure attachments, navigating emotions like jealousy and discussing safe sex practices while engaging in non-monogamy. This usage of terms also helps dispel the misconception that non-monogamy is inherently unethical or less ethical than monogamy.
Here are some other terms that are commonly used in non-monogamous communities that could help you put your non-mono feelings and experiences into words, explore conversations with a partner or be better engaged when communicating with a friend who is poly:
1. Anchor Partner: A partner whom one considers to be a central figure in their life, a stable “anchor” to lean on. They are emotionally supportive and help one feel grounded. Often used as the equivalent of a primary partner in a non-hierarchical polycule.
2. Birthday Party Poly/Garden Party Poly: A relationship style where partners may not interact frequently (as in Kitchen Party Poly), but are comfortable being together in the same space for an event such as a birthday party of a common partner.
3. Closed Relationship/Closed Polycule/Polyfidelitous Relationship: A polycule where partners have agreed to not see anyone outside their existing relational networks.
4. Compersion/Frubble: The joy and pleasure one feels from knowing that their partner is having a happy and satisfying experience with another.
5. Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT): An arrangement where partners have consented to seeing other people but do not want information about their partner’s other relationships. The details of what information is to be shared and what is not, have been agreed to by the partners.
6. Dyad: Any form of relationship between two people. A dyad may be monogamous or non-monogamous.
7. Fluid Bonded: When partners agree to going barrier-free sexually. They may or may not be fluid bonded with other partners in the polycule. There must be conversations about contraceptive use with all partners so that each partner is able to give their informed consent and ensure safe sex practices in the polycule.
8. Hierarchical Relationship: A polycule structure where certain partners are prioritised over others. This may be influenced by factors like the duration of the relationship, having children together, or emotions like excitement that is felt with New Relationship Energy.
9. Hinge: When one person is involved with two partners who are not each other’s partners.
10. Kitchen Table Poly (KTP): A relationship style where all partners in a polycule are comfortable sitting at the kitchen table and sharing a meal together. The metamours want to have warm relationships with each other and may see each other as being part of a chosen family.
11. Metamour: One’s partner’s other partner. Often abbreviated as ‘meta’. ‘Metamorsel’ is used to describe a metamour that one finds particularly attractive.
12. New Relationship Energy (NRE): The euphoria experienced at the beginning of a new relationship.
13. Nesting Partner: A partner/s that one lives and may share financial responsibility of the home with. They may or may not be one’s primary partner.
14. Non-hierarchical relationships: A relationship type where partners do not observe a hierarchy and do not rank partners as primary, secondary and so on.
15. Old relationship energy/Existing or established Relationship Energy: The comfortable and safe feeling shared between partners that has been cultivated from being in a long-standing relationship.
16. One Penis Policy: An arrangement wherein a woman has multiple partners but can be involved with only one penis-having partner (typically a cis male). This situation is often looked down upon by people because it may be the consequence of a man sexually policing his partner. However, this may not always be the case and the woman may of her own choice decide to see one penis-having partner.
17. Parallel Polyamory: A relationship style where metamours may not be closely involved with each other and each partnership exists independently to a large degree. Often considered to be the opposite of Kitchen Table Polyamory.
18. Paramour: An alternate term for one’s partner.
19. Polycule: A relationship network of non-monogamous partners who are connected by their partners, metamours and telemours. The portmanteau of “poly” + “molecule”, highlights the diverse possible configurations of a polycule.
20. Polyfamily: When partners in a polycule see each other as family.
21. Polysaturated: When one feels that they are engaged with the most number of possible partners based on their bandwidth in terms of resources like emotions, time and finances. The number at which one feels they are polysaturated can vary from person to person as well as may be different for the same person from time to time based on their experiences.
22. Primary Partner: In a hierarchical non-monogamous arrangement, a primary partner is one who is prioritised over other partners. They may receive the most attention and other resources from their partner. They may also be able to exercise veto power to have a final say on decisions made in the polycule. Two partners may or may not be each other’s primary.
23. Relationship Escalator: The socially expected evolution of a relationship. “Real” relationships are believed to follow an order: dating, becoming sexually and emotionally exclusive, labelling the relationship, moving in together, getting married and so it goes. Often comes with heteronormative and monocentric standards which aren’t desirable to or attainable by everyone. ‘Escaping the escalator’ is a conversation that is often spoken about in polyamorous communities where it is encouraged to be authentic and consciously design relationship structures and milestones for oneself and one’s partners as opposed to going with the established norms of what society mandates from a relationship.
24. Solo-Poly: When one considers themselves to be their primary and so prioritise themselves over their partners. They may have meaningful and deep connections with their partners but may not necessarily want to use the label of being in a “relationship” or cohabitate with their partner/s.
25. Telemour: One’s metamour’s other partner.
26. Triad: A form of relationship including three people who are all involved with each other.
27. Vee/V: A relationship where two metamours are dating a common partner or the hinge partner but not each other.
28. Veto Power: Generally used to describe when one’s partner (usually the primary partner) has the power to decide if their partner can or cannot be involved with another particular partner or place boundaries on the type of relationship they can pursue with this other partner.
29. Quad: A relationship that includes four people who are all involved with each other.
30. Wibble: Moments of fear and insecurity one may experience when thinking about or seeing their partner with another.
Note: The meaning of these terms can vary and this list is to serve as a reference point rather than a definitive directory.
I am more out about my queerness than I am about my mental health conditions. A lot of my cis-het friends know that I am queer but only few of them know about my suffering with depression, anxiety and OCD over the past two years. This is not for lack of want. In fact I rather wish I could tell them about it; it would save me a lot of time and effort than making excuses about my absence or infallibilities. It would also make it easier for me to seek support and company. But unfortunately, I can’t do that. There are a lot of reasons that make me, and honestly many other people, wary and shy to talk about it. The deeply rooted stigma towards bad mental health, in the society as well as in the individual psyche, is a major one. For me though, I’d say that one of the reasons is my queerness.
There’s this deeply internalized stigma in my own mind that poor mental health conditions allude to ‘weakness and incapability’. Even so, I know this understanding is deeply flawed and ableist; having grown up in an environment where your worth is only measured on the scale of productivity and performance, it is still a conscious and constant process for me to reject these internalizations and look beyond the lens of worthiness. The easiest way for me to do so, has been to treat myself as someone else. I’ve always found, at least for myself, that it is easier to be kind to people other than my own self.
This stigma also gets emboldened by the common mind-body dualism idea where the mind is perceived to be controlling the body, and hence is much more in our control. Added to the mix are the ideals of stoicism that essentially ascribes one’s inability to control their mind to meet the neurotypical ‘normality’ to a personality flaw (Editor’s Remark: Sounds a lot like a personality disorder diagnosis, doesn’t it?). This is where my queerness and mental health woes intersect. I feel this unsaid responsibility over myself to present as ‘normal’ as I can to establish the legitimacy of my queerness. Underlining it is obviously the internalization that queerness is something I’m doing or being, and that I have to be deserving of being able to live as a queer person. I acknowledge the fallacy of this line. Queerness is not a choice, and anyway, no-one has to be deserving or anything to be accepted as ‘cis-het’, so why should it be that way with us?
However, despite knowing and understanding it, I can’t shake this fear that if people get to know how bad I’m doing mentally, they are going to blame it on my queerness. I know people from the community are always more in need of help and support as they generally have lots of trauma and hardships from just surviving in the society; the society that is very much designed to marginalize us. But I doubt that everyone would see it this way.
Much of the fear also stems from the belief that my queerness is a choice. I don’t know if it’s true or not i.e., if I’m choosing to be this way or whether I was born queer. I understand I shouldn’t have to know it. Whether by choice or trauma or birth, one’s queerness shouldn’t be questioned. But growing up in a space where choice remains a luxury and is seen as a privilege afforded by only very few, it feels like, by ‘choosing to be’ queer, I’m exercising a privilege and a ‘bad mental health’ is the price I knew I had to pay while choosing it, hence I shouldn’t be complaining. Or at the least I should be able to deal with it ‘stably’. So, there comes an extra layer of insecurity while telling my cis-het friends that I’m not doing fine mental health-wise, as I worry about them judging it based on my queerness?
Apart from these insecurities, I also experience a lot of grief on the account that I can’t talk about my anxiety disorders to my family. This grief hit me last month when I was staying at home and had a really bad nightmare of me having multiple breakdowns. A scene I still clearly remember from the nightmare was of me breaking down in front of my mother while telling her about how badly I had been suffering with my mental health for past two years.
That scene still brings me to tears, as I’m very close to my mother emotionally. She is the one person in whose presence, I’ve never felt ‘oversensitive’ and till date she treats me the most tenderly. But the cultural difference is such that I cannot tell her how hard the past two years have been as it is in the context of my mental health. This makes me ache. This was especially poignant as I had run out of my anxiety meds while at home and I could not access them there, which made my condition worse. Ironically, I felt getting the typhoid fever at the same time was my saving grace, for then I had an excuse for why I can’t get out of bed.
Besides the cultural difference, the major thing I fear with my family with regards to mental health is the same as that with friends. What if down the line, they find out I’m queer and blame all of my difficulties on my queerness; except the repercussions would be more severe with family. They might want to or try to ‘cure’ my queerness and force on me ‘conversion therapy’ to get my mind to ‘work right’. So, I tread very consciously to present as mentally ‘normal’ as I can.
I don’t know how much easier it would have been to seek support and resources for my mental health if it wasn’t for my queerness, but the latter does makes it harder. Since I first started seeking treatment and help, I’ve had some really bad experiences with particular psychiatrists and therapists. I’ve also have had long gaps in treatment due to financial and other challenges. What I do know is that support from my family and people around me would have definitely made my experience easier. I wouldn’t be still struggling with the internalization of guilt, shame, and self-loathing for not being ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’.
So yes, in my experience the intersection of queerness and mental illnesses does present some unique and amplified challenges. But I also want to acknowledge that the community also helps. Some of the most helpful support I’ve found is amongst queer support groups, queer peer counselors and from the queer people around me. They have helped me emotionally, financially and also affirmatively in validating my experiences and challenges. Or maybe it’s the shared trauma of the community that manifests in our connectedness to each other, wherein we find some healing. Or maybe it’s just me trying to constantly convince others, but mostly myself, that my mental health wouldn’t have been better if I was not queer. All I know is that I am queer, I am mentally ill, and I’m still left wondering if it gets any better.
“She’s just a Katy Perry dyke,” was a phrase Aman*– my closest friend at the time – bandied about when I was in college. He was who I looked to to understand the queerverse because, back in 2008, I was simply a straight girl that sometimes thought other girls were cute. But I’d never dare tell him about it; all his friends were queer. And to him, there were straight girls, queer girls, and girls that kissed other girls for attention – i.e; the ‘Katy Perry dyke’, a direct remnant of the year’s pop hit I Kissed A Girl And I Liked it that plumbed a woman’s attraction to another woman from the POV of the male gaze, reducing it to a party trick.
I grew up with exposure to queer groups and queer culture. I was going to queer film festivals by my second year of college, reading queer lit in local libraries, and, as many ‘woke’ folks like to say (and would have tattoed on their foreheads if they could), ‘I had a lot of queer friends.’ I had the luxury of having it in my life in a significant way versus people that grow up with queerness as this vague, distant thing.
The downside was that, to a very unsure 19 year old, it was the most daunting of arenas. At that time, I thought of myself as a cis-het woman who was curious, sure–but aren’t we all? And as that inquisitive cis-het woman, I felt… judged.
I remember the first time I hung out with Aman’s friends, at one of Bangalore’s oldest coffee houses that had been crumbling since my childhood. It was where they often convened for strong filter coffee and conversations that I found deeply alienating. There was a code to this culture, one I couldn’t access as a ‘straight’. It was laced with shared experience, similarly-held political views, a deep knowledge of the community and its nuances. And it held – at its nexus – a cardinal trait that was common to each member, that terrified me the most: an Unshakeable Confidence.
It was a theme that I continued to see as I left college and moved through a masters in film to working at a fashion magazine. Fashion is as inherently queer as a space can be, and I continued to be surrounded by fabulous gay men who made no bones about who they were – from their dramatic dressing to their camp carriage. But nowhere in the myriad queer men (and far, far fewer queer women) that I encountered did I descry an iota of self-doubt. I don’t doubt that it had been a defining part of their journey; it was just never there for the world to see.
Amidst that sea of mettle and pluck, it was easier to tuck my thoughts away in the corners of my mind as curiosity. It’s always an easier route than rigorous self-exploration, than asking yourself questions you’re not sure you want the answers to. And if everyone who was queer had known it – so innately, so unwaveringly – all through their lives, then perhaps I simply wasn’t? I liked men, very much. I had always had boyfriends, never a girlfriend. I hadn’t once felt even the tiniest bit uncomfortable in my straight relationships – it was a full and complete happiness (in the context of sexuality, at least). If I look like a straight, talk like a straight and walk like a straight, then… Am I even really bi?
The only trouble was, it didn’t feel that neat of a compartmentalisation. It didn’t explain why I had had feelings for a girl doing an MBA at college, or why I was drawn to both Dan Humphrey and Serena Van Der Woodsen on Gossip Girl growing up. I had never acted on any of these feelings – save for a few drunken moments in my early twenties that were easy to guise as ‘youthful misconduct’. The big question I asked myself was – if I had only ever been with men, did I even qualify?
It was a big, looming question; one that kept me on the precipice of ‘straightness’ for several years. Feelings are just feelings, right? You can feel sad without being depressed, or feel jittery without having an anxiety disorder. It seemed too overarching a claim to make with no ‘experience’ to really back it up. I had just about convinced myself that I simply had a case of the ‘I wonder’s – and that was that. All the evidence pointed to straightness. Open and shut.
It was only when I chanced upon a Reddit forum that I finally began to prod at that neatly packed away decision about my sexuality. It was inundated with women and men just as confused as me, with questions that had only half-formed in my head articulated to perfection. And a stream of comments that voiced the many variations of thought that usually followed in my head soon afterward.
Some of it was cerebral; folded expertly and steam-ironed in perfect parcels of thought. But most of the thoughts and ideas lay in a comforting, tumbled heap, like unsorted laundry. ‘I had a crush on a boy in high school.. But I haven’t since,’ said a 29 year old man. ‘I think I mostly prefer women, but I do like the odd guy,’ said a girl who’d been in a serious relationship with her girlfriend since 2016. ‘I’m afraid to tell my friend I have a thing for her because she has a boyfriend,’ said a 17 year old. ‘I think I’m mostly straight, but I’ve kissed a few guys – is that weird?’ said a man with an Eric Cartman photo for a profile picture.
And it was in that swirl of uncertainty that I found home. There were no clean lines, no definitions. The feelings were varicoloured, shape-shifting. Changing course, causing disquiet, bubbling latently, charging forward confidently. There were no right answers; just the soothing reassurance that there were no wrong ones. Sexuality was simply a journey, with many bewildering turns and unlabelled passages. And it was completely okay to get lost, as long as you enjoyed the ride. It really didn’t matter where you ended up. It only mattered that you kept going.
I found it unaesthetic to stand with my sculpted statues but that day in the gallery of Jodhpur House, I could not find an excuse to escape the event. I had to meet you. But what did I know about that? Do you remember the name of the exhibition, Cartography of our Bodies? Of course, you do. You know of all the addresses bodies are capable of hosting. When I was called on the stage to explain my work, I froze. I thought I was the stupidest man on the face of the earth. I could not say anything about my own makings. You liked my embarrassing silence. I liked that you liked it. Now, look at this, how absurd it sounds in words. You sidled me and lightly patted my hand saying that it is not up to an artist to comment on their work. You established something beyond definitions between us that day.
You asked me to share a bite and I again resorted to my nervous silence. I wanted to say no. There was an attraction in you that called out to me from a distant place. It stumped my senses and I could not say anything. Language did not allow me an opportunity to respond. Your eyes gleamed with a magical light. If not for your eyes, you would have been a statue, a very beautiful one. I often think how you, who were sculpted so finely, fell in my destiny. How do you expect a sculptor to exercise restraint in your presence? I wanted to touch and study every feature of yours. You spoke so much as we ate. About painting and sculpting. About the art market and art politics. About subaltern history and marginalised cultures. About interpretations and against interpretations. After settling the check, you pressed my palm and invited me to your guest house. I took you to my studio instead. The aesthete in me wanted a better arrangement for the memory of the present. You placed your head on my shoulder in the car. I flinched. You moved close to the car window and unbuttoned two buttons of your shirt. Breeze looked good on you.
When you entered my studio, I alternated between admiring you and looking at my studio from the corner of my eyes. It was a homecoming described lavishly in Sufi songs. You inspected my tools and half-finished statues. You pointed at the shalbhanjikas and asked something about them. I bawled tearfully in response. You wiped my tear-stained cheeks on your white shirt. I caved in your chest and wept for long. You held me tightly as if determined to break my composition. How could I remain the same after meeting you? Even now I often ponder upon the significance of tears in the definition of crying.
Wounds of Wind
One of the great causes of my breakdown was my lover. My lover loved trees. She read satirical poetry. Hullad Moradabadi was one of her favourite poets. She had read Maila Anchal every year since she was fourteen. When a play based on Gunahon ka Devta was performed in college, she had played the part of Sudha. Sudha had a diploma in acting from drama school. When we were younger, Sudha could not speak English. She sat aloof in the class in meditative silence. When the teacher asked her any question, she wept because she could not speak English. Her name on the class sheet carried many black stars of ignominy.
Sudha’s sister-in-law visited every day during the lunch break. She would feed Sudha idli-sambhar with her hands. Then she borrowed my notebooks and copied notes for Sudha sitting under a big neem tree. Sudha became my friend. She started visiting my house to complete her notes. I had beautiful handwriting and I sat on the second bench in school. She started sitting next to me. But her village was far away. Her cousins brought her to Delhi. They loved her too much. Gradually she started thinking lowly about her parents and siblings and they drifted away from her life. But I was annexed to her. One day, she went to Mumbai to become an actor. We remained together for some time and then she sent me a letter-like WhatsApp message:
“Bombay is an exhausting city. The luxury of loving from a distance does not exist here. Living is too much hard work, how does one squeeze love into this life. Right now, I am only a pawn of the metropolitan. When I find my own city here, then I would consider. Remember aunty used to say, “Where even wind leaves wounds, there I would suffocate in a man’s embrace”.”
Later, she fell in love with a big actor.
Letter to a Lover’s Lover
My lover’s lover,
I hope this letter finds you well.
I hope you are well.
Hope you are in good health.
It is heartening to know that my lover loves you. The fact that you love her is also gratifying. But I regret that she doesn’t desire me anymore. Not that you are responsible for my neurosis. My grief is what it is but why impose morality on it. I hear that you are going to be the father of my lover’s child, many hearty congratulations! You are a big man. You live in a big house. The newspapers are full of your photos. You can give my lover all she wants. But I do feel the need to inform you of this one thing. My lover doesn’t play in the political fields, she walks on the boundaries. She often falls here or there. Please remember this.
Your lover’s lover
The Metropolitan was Pale in Taste
When Sudha and I were growing up, we were often left in the care of my Ammi’s friend. She was a strange person but also our best friend. We had byhearted many of her poems. When she died, she left all her property, including her copyrights, in my name. From love to pain, we learnt all these feelings from her poems. When my lover fell in love with this man, she yearned to express her affection in those very words. Like all these uber urban fools, her lover did not understand Hindi. To woo her lover, she translated my dead aunt’s poems into English. With my permission, she got her translations published. She was on a career high. The actress who rubbed the masala of Hindi on English tongues!
She did it while carrying a little baby in her womb. Her lover, the same one who could not keep Hindi on his tongue and a condom on his dick, started waning in her heart. I had sent her a small sculpture titled “Desire of Immortality”. Those days she was looking for her identity. When her daughter was born, she named her Maithili. However, it concerned her that for the daughter of a rich, English father, this name would only be a label. How would she get initiated in Sattu sherbet and dahi chooda? She started missing her parents and relatives. She left her lover after making her daughter lick honey. She was now getting closer to her politics.
Names of the Calls
My beloved now fell in love with another actor. He was not a hero and had at least fifteen years over her. They were attracted to each other’s displacement. Being refugees was their address. Her new lover mourned the separation from Shalimar Bagh and Sudha cried for her mother working in paddy fields. They fell in love very quickly. He often told her the story of his friend who had given him a paperboat to cross Jhelum and Sudha. Sudha’s real name is Suniti. Suniti told him that she was named by a Member of the Legislative Assembly during a public visit. Suniti, as we learnt in our Hindi class in VII standard, meant good policy.
Su (good) +Niti (policy) = SuNiti (Good policy)
Su was abbreviated form of a Sanskrit word, shobhana.
Shobhana + Niti = Suniti
Anyway, her name did not usher good governance in the state. Her school friends would call her, “Ari, O Sunti,” now she does not remember the names of those calls. Her lover’s friend was killed in an encounter a few months ago, or was he martyred? The same arrow pricked both their hearts.
If you weren’t you, you would have been a messiah of stone
When Sudha had flirted with all kinds of love, you came to my exhibition. I understood only stones. Michelangelo said that he saw angels in stones. I met you while carving some stones. If I try to understand how I made you, I would go mad. Qais did not become majnun to marry Laila, that love in itself is maddening. I had to break stones to keep myself from going mad. If you had not arrived, I would have been turned into a stone. Now you talk in the day and question at night. We often roam in the wilderness of Tughlaqabad and you point at random domes and break their histories down. That’s Bijai-Mandal, the highest point. The curse of Nizamuddin made this city a desolation. I think my favourite Tughlaq city is Firozabad, besides the Firoz Shah Kotla Stadium, yes, I will not refer to it as Arun Jaitley Stadium. You fill my studio with your voice and eclectic snacks. Soya Wasabi. Cheese Flavoured Puffed Bajra. Black Sesame Chikki. Jamun Papad. Fried Mango Seeds. We walk forth in these stone ways. You keep on sowing imagination in my hands. I often think that you would be exhausted from wiping my tears. My mourning would someday become unpalatable for you. Or someday we would be scared of being men. Loving would be our fatal flaw. How would we justify living together without walking in marches? Someday your hands will forget the map of my body. How terrible that we would die one day!
 Aap Agar Aap Na Hote. Gulzar. Griha Pravesh. 1979.
 “kitnī dilkash ho tum kitnā dil-jū huuñ maiñ , kyā sitam hai ki ham log mar jā.eñge”. Jaun Eliya.
It felt eerily relatable when I read The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells in school. The novel’s central theme of society reacting violently to something or someone they don’t understand felt close to me as a queer teen. The invisible man in the novel was “different” from society and, quite literally and metamorphically, hidden – a universal experience of queer people in some ways. While the book was primarily from the ‘sci-fi’ genre, there were horror elements akin to that in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Growing up, I found similar narratives of relatability in the broader horror genre, mainly through the work of Mike Flanagan. Horror movies and series are replete with mysterious, dark, unnatural, and unexplainable things, which offers ways to cater to the grief of being closeted while growing up. The elements of horror movies parallel what I remember of my childhood – a lot of gloom. There were no rainbows. It’s a dark, lonely, almost unnatural way of reflecting upon the absence felt in my formative years – the absence of love, care, and warmth.
Our world is a privileged, straight man’s world, with all the heteronormativity. This doesn’t leave enough space to process painful emotions that come with the struggle of growing up actively resisting these structures, with the absence of any supportive community. The person or entity presented as “different” in horror movies rebels against their world. In an interpretive manner, queerness in straight man’s world can be seen as a similar struggle. Today, some horror movies incorporate queer characters and plotsor see a cult-like phenomenon of reclamation of their central figures like Babadook or Pennywise, both of whom are considered gay icons today.
While homosexualisation of villains and queer-coded antagonists neatly ties in with how the history of horror is also the history of queerness, there is more to unearth in terms of reclamation and emotional affirmation. Horror movies for a long time have been using queer subtexts and themes, visible mostly during Halloween. While these themes are around reclamation and the rejection of what is considered “normal,” it’s conflicting. The stereotyping of queer people as monsters, or queerness as inherently evil, contributes to the stigma against queer people.
Grief as the by-product of the Violence of Heteronormativity
Today, the media has more developed queer characters within the horror genre. We have queer women as protagonists in the Fear Street Trilogy and The Hanting of Bly Manor or as minor characters significant to the story in The Haunting of Hill House. In the latter shows, both by Mike Flanagan, we have the characters of Dani and Nell, respectively. With a closer look, one can easily see that both these characters are always the quiet ones – as if they understand everything that’s going around them – but are taking time to think and resist, almost as if they’re silenced. When Dani says in the episode Two Storms of The Haunting of Hill House, “I was here. I was right here. I was right here, and I was screaming and shouting, and none of you could see me. Why couldn’t you see me?” that felt like a stake to the heart. That’s how I felt about being invisible, as I couldn’t express my queer self or desire for most of my teenage years.
Talking to a friend about this, we see these peculiar characters as almost poetic, drowning in their sadness. Any queer person can tell you they felt similarly growing up. I can almost sense this grief when I look at these characters on the screen, and the first instinct is to hug them and tell them everything is going to be alright. And isn’t this what we wish we could say to our younger selves? These stories are far from homosexualisation and queer-coding; here, queer people are at the helm of the story. For me, there’s a sense of reclamation and subversion here. Horror movies for a long time have worked with queer characters through stereotypes. While I admired their camp style and rampage against normativity, they are stereotypes at the end of the day.
In Flanagan’s work, we see something peculiar when queer people with complex emotions around their identity are a significant part of the plot and not just part of the story’s queer aesthetics or bloody optics. While it’s not groundbreaking, these are indeed stories whose various points seemed reflective of my own experiences. Queer people have been used as bait or mere tropes to reveal monsters or serial killers (when they’re not the serial killers themselves). Movies like Hellbent and It Chapter Two featured brutal murders of gay people for ‘shock value.’ And then there are works by the likes of Flanagan, with informed queer characters, who explore their nuanced experiences.
The Rejection of Family
Horror movies, in general, reject our normative idea of families. They often show the structure of the family as a failing one, slowly rotting away, that causes the violence and grief. The family as evil (or evil mothers even) has been a trope and a stereotype, that subtly asks if these structures are viable in the first place. In Ari Aster’s Midsommar, we see the violence that family and relationships put on us. Going against them, finding love in a different community than family, is a form of queerness. I am not supporting the literal violence within these movies, but looking at it as the emotional measurement of visibly sharp pain. Hereditary explores similar themes: how families can be the site of all evil, the site of pain and trauma.
The terrifying aspect of these shows isn’t the gory violence or angered spirits’ vengeance. The actual violence is the grief, the mental anguish, the absolute terror, and the emotional trauma that the failure to adhere to structures like family or cisheteronormativity causes. These shows and their peculiar characters are situated within narratives that initially seem isolated. In the Haunting anthology series by Flanagan, we see how the family is the root cause of the violence all the characters are going through – more so, the failure of the structure of the family.
And in the end, in all these movies and shows, the family unit doesn’t persist.
But love does, in fragile yet warm and melancholic ways, even though it’s borne out of fear. And that’s one way to look forward to life. When I think of grief and how the horror genre holds an emotionally affirmative space, I know that love lasts even though it’s a journey through grief – similar to queerness.
The Madhuri Dixit-led series, ‘The Fame game’ has been topping the charts on Netflix, so I assume that everyone is familiar with the general crux of the storyline. But in case you are like me (allowing instant hits and chart-toppers to sit on the back burner for months or even years until no one is talking about it so you can enjoy it in peace), let me fill you in. The series follows Anamika Anand – a Bollywood star in her prime despite being in the industry for 20 years (how refreshing!), who is but driven by the more humane parts of her “perfect life”. Anamika disappears, and what ensues is the search for her. The show is interspersed with flashbacks going back to events from 6 months ago before the disappearance. Now, whether the show lives up to the hype or not is a decision I would leave you to make.
While LGBTQIA+ representation in mainstream shows and movies is an issue that is far from being resolved, it has been heartening to see more queer characters on screen. This show, for that matter, has three. For me, how they chose to represent each of them was interesting.
The first is Billy, who plays the role of Anamika’s stylist. Now, save for one line that maybe hints at sexuality, there is no real discussion about his queerness. His sexuality is inconsequential to the plotline and therefore does not warrant any screentime, which to be honest, is once again, what I would consider a refreshing change of pace. It is obvious from the get-go that Billy is gay, but his role is of being a stylist, a friend, and confidant to Anamika, up until the point he betrays that trust. At that moment, he is just like any opportunistic person in Bollywood trying to make some money. And, maybe one could argue that Billy’s character falls too close to the old Sissy villain trope, but I would disagree. Billy is by no measure showcased as effeminate or flamboyant, which could have been done quite easily since he is a stylist and we have seen quite a few fashionable flamboyant gay stylists in our lifetimes. I would also not call him the villain of the show; he is simply someone who made a wrong, selfish move. His guilt over it and his genuine affection for Anamika are evident in how he sets on the journey to find her. In fact, the ease with which his death is forgotten makes you wonder if he was simply just trying to make some bucks in a world he knew wouldn’t have much to fall back on. And that, to me, is not evil – simply human.
Playing a more critical role in the show is the character of Shobha Trivedi (Rajshri Deshpande), the ACP in charge of finding Anamika. Shobha is a lesbian, and this is a fact that is addressed in a few scenes. By virtue of being a woman in the force, she deals with her fair share of casual sexism, right from being asked if she can handle such a high-profile case when she has family issues. However, Shobha is a no-nonsense woman and stands her ground and reminds her surperiors that her alternative, Saxena, has two kids and hence, probably double the responsibility. However, the need to continue to prove herself runs throughout the course of the show. As Shobha tries to solve the case, she also deals with some personal crises. Her partner, Sheila, has a son. Sheila’s ex-husband, who Shobha points out is simply slighted by the fact that he was left for a woman, decides to fight her for custody. The mediator advises them to settle the case out of court because “judges are harsh about same-sex parenting”.
Shobha is not a woman who cares about putting up pretenses. This is made clear when she questions a suspect in the case who attempts to blackmail her using her identity. Shobha, who remains unfazed, announces that the matters of her personal life are neither juicy nor secret.
In fact, her comfort with her identity plays an integral role in pushing the storyline. At a certain moment of the investigation, it becomes clear to Shobha that Anamika’s son Avinash (Lakshvir Singh Saran) knows something that could help solve the case. “It is tough to stand alone and speak your truth, but I have never lied to anyone,” she says. This is what drives Avi to speak up, which is important in more ways than one.
Avi, from the get-go, is portrayed as someone who is moody and struggling with life. Intuitively, it seems from the outset that he’s struggling with his sexuality. It is not so much what is said or done, but somehow the presence of Avi’s childhood best friend Samar, Avi’s attempt at suicide which Anamika rightfully reads as a cry for help gives to the sense of his struggle and even his visit to the dance bar seems indicative of this. Avi’s plotline follows a very different thread. Here is a boy simply struggling to not just come out, but accept his identity himself. In an effort to maybe convince himself that he is not gay, he goes to a dance bar. It is very obvious that he is not comfortable, but even as he says he doesn’t “need to prove anything” to the woman who dances for him, we know he is lying. His mother – who learns of his whereabouts – doesn’t really chastise him for going to a dance bar, but rather for not having the decency of showing the woman enough respect to even ask her name (I won’t lie, I especially loved the scene).
Ultimately, he comes out. Well, not entirely on his own. His mother, after a difficult night, asks him how he feels and responds, “I just feel ashamed”. We know instantly that he is not simply talking about the events. “Life becomes difficult when we start lying to ourselves. How long will you hide your feelings?” asks Anamika. Avi’s scared to confess. He cries as he nods and goes on to apologize. What follows in a coming-out story we all hope becomes the norm. Anamika hugs him and assures him. “You are my everything. I love you. Nothing can change that. And you have nothing to be ashamed of. Never think of yourself as alone. I am with you. Forever,” she says.
She even tries to get Avi the help he needs and goes to a therapist with him. Once again, it is Anamika who has to let the therapist know that Avi is gay. But Avi remains far from being ready to accept the truth. His fear that his sexuality will become all that people see about him and his fear of disappointing his loved ones keeps him from being honest, not just with the world, but with himself. Even when Avi’s best friend, Samar, opens up about his feelings, Avi is so caught up in his fear that he can’t reciprocate. Once again, it is Anamika who offers him the courage he needs. People judge, she agrees, but true love doesn’t come again. “You are the best part of me,” he confesses finally to Samar.
Unlike Anamika, Avi’s father, Nikhil More (Sanjay Kapoor) does not really find out about his son’s sexuality until he finds Avi and Samar in bed together. Nikhil reacts by physically assaulting Samar. I don’t think the reaction was entirely homophobic. Nikhil is a controlling man who has been at odds with Avi from the start. The tension was simply intensified by an unrelated secret that was revealed to Nikhil, just moments before he catches them together. Avi and Samar were simply easy targets to vent his frustration at. Obviously, his actions are wrong, but the fact that he decides to not share the truth with Avi and continue to support him can be considered evidence of the fact that it was maybe a case of bad timing.
Whether this is one of the better cases of queer representation… is up for review. I won’t claim that this one is the best yet. The show seems to finally bring to the table something many have craved to see for years: queer characters whose queerness is only one aspect of them. None of them are characters driven by their sexuality. Even though Avi’s queerness is an integral aspect of the plotline, Avi’s character is more than that. I also appreciate having queer characters who have reached different levels of comfort with their sexuality just as they are in different stages of their lives. Their problems are different, and so are their needs, and so are their stories. Let’s hope they keep this up should there be a second season.
TW: thoughts that romanticise abuse, feelings of worthlessness, internalized ableism
In all my years of studying psychology, I’ve never come across a text that analyses identity, neurodivergence and attachments. With inputs from the wider disability community, this article seeks to reflect such diverse voices on the topic of relational attachment.
What is an “ideal” neurodivergent person anyway?
My attachment history test (don’t ask me if it’s standardised or not) on the internet told me that I tend to suffocate people with love. This, in a world where the knowledge-production of psychology has been exposed to a very limited dataset and demographic (presumably white, cishet, able-bodied) of attachment styles. In an ableist world where neurodivergent attachment styles are criminally under-researched, I’m seen as too eager, too people-pleasing, too loving, too trusting, and too genuine. My disabled friends often tell me the same: They can’t help but people-please – be agreeable, be too scared to upset others and it frustrates them because they want to be their authentic self, they want to put their actual opinions across – they don’t want to be dependent or at the mercy of others for their safety: they want to live a life of agency.
Lived experiences from within the community:
Nu, a non-binary disabled queer person says, “In actuality, it’s not my fault that I’m anxiously attached. My physical disability has made me perceive myself as disposable and easily replaceable to my friends. I view myself as a weakness, as not capable of holding someone’s affection, or being attractive enough to do so. It gets frustrating because I need constant reassurance that others hold affection for me and that I am loved – but then again this is not my fault. I was raised in a world where being “too” attached and dependent on others is seen as a weakness. I am proud to be neurodivergent and needy.”
A dalit queer woman with a physical disability shared: “I simply cannot “let go” of an abusive relationship. A thousand questions are always running (well, limping) on my mind : “What if after this I’m all alone? Even if he’s abusive, he accepts my disabled ugly self. Maybe my body was made to endure abuse. If this is what it takes to be loved, so be it. I cannot break up with him.”
Where moving on is concerned, Tenja, a trans neurodivergent woman says that she would react differently to a breakup if she was an able-bodied woman. “Seeking out someone new after a big breakup, getting the same amount of acceptance and commitment that I received from my ex partner, finding a rebound and moving on is definitely a privilege. What even is moving on? I don’t think I’ve ever moved on. I think I’ve accepted myself and my disabled body’s alone-ness in the world, and somehow that is enough.
How do I carry all the grief in my body after another partner or friend leaves? How do I deal with abandonment: A kind of abandonment that is so present, a kind of abandonment that I feel in my disabled bones. I’m already quite physically disabled and move with laboured breath – how do I move carrying my disability and the grief of all my ex-relationships and friendships? How do I move to carry all their secrets, their quirks, their habits, their fears of the people who aren’t in my life anymore? All I can say is, I wish people came with tone indicators in real life.”
Anna says, “It’s only been a year since I’ve learnt and identified myself as being neurodivergent and disabled. 2021 put me through the worst period of my mental health. The silver lining that got me through it and made it an important year nevertheless, was finding the disabled community. It’s also taught me that most of what I’ve been doing in social interactions is masking and that it’s okay for me to unmask and be my proud neurodivergent self. However, this conformity to masking, which in other words could very well be described as people-pleasing, is hard to let go of. I look at my neurodivergent siblings and it’s evident that they’ve had it tougher because they didn’t mask as much. Ableism doesn’t reward the neurodivergent, it punishes us. So I breathe a sigh of relief when I realise that I’ve been able to get by so far because of my adeptness at masking. But in the process, I feel my authentic self crumble. I feel my mind body tire with the toll it takes. This isn’t people-pleasing, it’s people-pleading. A death wish that you’ll let us be if we pretend to be you, and lose ourselves in the process. This is painting the white roses red so that you don’t cut off our heads. And let’s not even get started about how when I unmask, you accuse me of “faking it” and somewhere my people-pleasing self is still wondering if I can perform my disability in a manner that fits your idea of it.”
Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Badhaai Do comes across as a new and refreshing story from the Hindi film industry where the limits to marriage, having children, family response and social acceptability are all questioned and bent down to making two homosexual characters exist in a society. There is humour, pain, desire, romance, growth of characters into self-acceptance, which ultimately strings along with their overpowering presence in the society. However, it seems like there can’t be a queer story without caste-heteronorms being stuffed into it.
Heterosexual marriage as the only getaway
The queer community still debates over the central importance given to marriage and how it shapes queer relationships as neatly fitting into the caste-based heterosexual mould. The centrality given to marriage here ropes in families but does not even invest in the process of them coming to terms with their children’s sexuality, which completely defeats the purpose of taking the marriage and social acceptance route. We do get to see Shardul’s (Raj Kumar Rao) mother hugging him in empathy for having to hide such an important thing about himself all his life. Sumi’s father however suddenly transitions from “mere ghar me hi kyu? (why in my house?)” to asking Rimjhim (Chum Darang) to sit next to Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar) at the childbirth ritual as “Maa ka hona zaruri hota hai”. How that transition happens is something we are clueless about, thereby not really helping families (in the audience) to understand the process of acceptance.
What if Shardul and Sumi never get married and yet become companions in their journeys of social acceptance? Can single women not adopt children? Do they have to really come out about their sexual orientation at the adoption centre? Since the story is more about coming out, the erasure of marriage wouldn’t have changed much in the plot. Rimjhim still won’t have any right over the child. Sumi and Shardul would still be living dual lives as single people and later coming out about their sexuality.
Having marital partners is offensive to us unmarried folks as the married partner gets all social and legal rights. If Rimjhim is uncomfortable with Shardul publicly romancing with Sumi, how does she get comfortable with having a child with them whose social and legal rights will inevitably belong to the father? The film does not address this issue at all.
The last scene where Sumi and Shardul are sitting at the ceremony with their partners beside them is especially irksome as if offering a reminder that it’s the marriage that sustains them together, and makes the adoption possible. The adoption will gain validation only through Brahminical rituals of the caste Hindu family. This is rather heart-breaking for a lot of single women like me who choose to not marry but want to have a child, and for Ambedkarite women who do not want a Brahminical ritual to validate my child. The scene triggered me, reminding me of the everyday discussions my family pushes on me about how I can’t socially have a child without getting married. And marrying a gay man would mean sharing my parental rights with him, which my partner and I may not want. So, you can deal with heteronormativity, but not with patriarchy that dictates that you need a man, of not lower than your own caste, to have a child with social sanction.
All love is not the same
“Love is love” goes the promise of the film and so it successfully delivers. However, the direction in which the film takes queer politics in the mainstream domain, which is not unusual, is that of reducing queerness to a mere difference. It’s not surprising then that we got to see no difference between heterosexual and queer relationships in the film. Aren’t same-sex friendships any different? Or does gender not matter at all in how relationships take shape? Queer love is not only about difference of orientation. And it’s a feminist act to build companionship with your women (and people of all other genders) folks, be it sexual or not. It has the capacity to question and redefine love and relationships.
You talk about marginalization by challenging the dominant. However, the idea of heterosexual marriage remains completely unquestioned here (because the entire film industry thrives on it), as if both can exist simultaneously and peacefully without any friction. Queerness is about breaking the gender binary and questioning the heteronorm, which the film completely fails to do.
The film gives us a series of beautiful and somewhat unconventional romantic scenes and soundtracks to feel the love in the air which they failed to develop in the plot. All we have is two romances paralleling the relationship that builds between Sumi and Shardul. Rather, more effort has been put into building their relationship than the ones they have with their romantic partners. We get to know nothing more about the partners other than their occupations, which nearly reduces them to cardboard characters. We only get to see glimpses of their charm as romantic interests. The characters in their families are more developed in comparison. Dwelling more into their romantic relationships would have given us more reasons to believe that Rimjhim actually wants to be a part of Sumi’s compromised heterosexual family and parent the child despite no legal rights of a parent.
It’s all about coming out
Why does coming out have to be central plot of all mainstream films on queerness, especially with dominant caste characters for whom coming out itself can lead to life threatening consequences? Queer stories are not all about coming out. That’s only a part of our journey that one may or may not choose to do, or may do it selectively. The only purpose of social acceptance that coming out can serve is also not dealt with extensively and needs more research.
For compromising gays and lesbians only!
The story of Badhaai Do could work only for upper-caste gays and lesbians who want to marry other cis-gendered people and have children. One of the pride parade’s slogans “Legalize adoption for gays and lesbians” also reinstates this. The exclusion of an entire umbrella of categories within the LGBTQIA+ community goes without saying, except for their obvious presence at the parade. The diversity of the community could have been shown through resocialization of the central characters into the queer community.
The compromised marriage works as a social ‘fix’ to the much larger problem of heteronormativity, leaving us with the only possibilities of parallel and linear relationships as the film portrays. It’s time that we open up to multiple narrative possibilities in queer relationships where one doesn’t have to stick to this linearity. Queer stories need more deep diving into queer lives by leaving the conventional heterosexual plot of attraction-‘love’-marriage-children behind.
TW: Mention of suicide, sexual assault, description of systemic ableism,
“This school has killed me. Specially higher authorities… tell ninna and bade papa about my sexuality and whatever happened with me. And please try to handle them… You are wonderful, strong, beautiful and amazing. Don’t care what relatives say…” reads a suicide note written by a 16-year-old student of DPS Faridabad. The student succumbed to homophobic harassment and ableism he had been facing for a while at school on Wednesday. The note describes several incidents of the school overlooking incidents such as a science teacher refusing assistance and academic aid he needed to perform well, given his dyslexia.
Student’s mother has since pointed out that her child was also sexually assaulted on the school campus.
Social media has been abuzz since the news came out with people demanding action by the school. Several users also call out the government’s failures in being able to foster an affirming environment for queer children. People point out how dropping the sensitisation manual from the curriculum by NCERT was a step in the wrong direction.
The school authority’s response has been less than satisfactory. They claim that no harassment happened in the school and term every complaint mentioned in the suicide note as a personal issue of the late student.
The response does not even address the incident of ableist harassment perpetuated by a teacher and instead says that the student merely struggled to get a scribe.
The ableism faced by the student has mostly gone unnoticed by everyone, including those expressing their outrage online. Studies have shown that adolescents with dyslexia are three times more likely to try killing themselves than their peers. The note says that the child was trying to seek help with numericals in his science paper from his teacher when she accused him of unfairly leveraging his disability. This narrative has been long used to gaslight disabled people asking for bare minimum assistance in order to perform basic tasks in day-to-day life.
The incident is part of a long line of issues raised about the Indian schooling system, wherein it has failed a capable student full of life, simply because they didn’t fit the existing norm and the school authorities couldn’t be bothered to make educational spaces livable for them.
How many chances would you ask for to save a life, and a prized relationship that has somehow soured over time? Savi is miraculously given 3.
Looop Lapeta adapts the theme of the 1998 time-loop thriller Run Lola Run. The film interweaves the legend of Savitri and Satyavan in an attempt to Indianise it and is quite successful. So much so that the names of the romantic leads, Savi and Satya, are a play on the names of the mythical duo. It is surely not a copy-paste remake and takes on a very different path in character development and style, when compared to the German classic. While both the movies are thrillers, Looop Lapeta takes a slightly different approach to thrill. Besides the conspicuous choice of setting in Goa, the film utilizes paced editing, psychedelic-inspired dim lighting, and a hip colour palette to lend quirkiness.
The story unfurls when Satya’s proclivity to skate on thin ice lands him on the wrong side of a local ganglord. He loses his money, a lot of money. They must return it before the turkey is cooked or pay with his life. At this precipice of tragedy, they must make choices and make them quick. Savi and Satya scramble for money and cross paths with people who influence how each iteration of the time loop plays out.
Unlike its inspiration, this film is not shrewd with time. The screenplay chaperones us to various secondary plots. Appu and Gappu are two gawky brothers trying to rob the same jewellery store Satya has his eye on. This detour serves little to the main story and sometimes tries too hard to conjure hilarity. On a quest to save Satya’s life Savi happens upon a forlorn Jacob, a cabbie madly in love with Julia who is to be someone else’s bride. A vacillating Julia delivers a monologue which helps articulate the trepidation Savi might have about her relationship with her feckless boyfriend.
The other dynamic that rounds Savi’s character is her relationship with her father. Atul Borkar runs a boxing gym. He had high ambitions for his daughter’s athletic career. Savi dreamed of becoming a star athlete as well. The despair of not having realized these dreams is palpable in their eyes. Savi resents her father for “thopo-ing” (shoving) his dreams on her and Atul thinks her daughter needs to get her life back together. The conflict remains unresolved for the significant part of the film when these two characters share screen. But despite this strife it is evident that they care much for each other and their relationship. Kudos to the actors for portraying this sentiment on screen with such tenderness.
It is clear at the outset that Savi maintains a distant relationship with her father. She only reaches out when she needs help with money.
On one such occasion Atul says: “Tumhare dreams ke liye meine apni reality chhupai” (I hid my reality for your dreams). He believes he had to hide his identity as a gay man to save his daughter from embarrassment. Savi holds the memory of her dead mother close to her heart. She shrouds her discomfort with her father’s sexuality as jealousy for her mother. Although her father’s boyfriend, Yash, extends a hand towards Savi, she brushes it aside curtly every time.
What sets Looop Lapeta apart from other Bollywood films in terms of giving space to queer characters is its treatment of the subject with relative nonchalance. Atul is confident in who he is but is aware of his daughter’s discomfort. He does not force her to accept him or his boyfriend right away and lets her make that journey herself. Even before this revelation, we see a rainbow mug on Atul’s desk which warms our hearts. There are no preachy monologues that reek of righteous bravado. This has largely been the approach with the new wave of films on the subject of queerness: to teach. This film shows, which is praiseworthy. Looop Lapeta does not sanitize its characters of their flaws. It manages to deeply humanize Savi and Atul Borkar with its laid-back style of storytelling.
It is long overdue that the film industry realizes that queer folks are not some paltry side characters who appear only for comic relief. Bollywood might have mostly moved away from the effeminate funny gay man in the name of representation, but it still has a long, long way to go. Gender is a spectrum and there are myriad sexualities. Popular cinema does help bring the discourse to a wider table and so it must push boundaries. We must explore stories other than those of gay men. At this point a cis-gay character in an ensemble does feel repetitive and tokenistic. The dearth of queer talent on screen also calls to sound an alarm. Maybe if we had ample queer actors playing all sorts of roles, watching a straight person play a gay role would not be an issue. But since that is not the case it becomes essential to cast queer actors in roles that represent them.
Representation matters on- and off-screen and we are happy to see Jay Anand lend his voice to the spunky title track of Looop Lapeta. It might be his debut song in Bollywood but the musician, singer and songwriter has been putting out music independently for a while now. His first album, Faces of Love, came out in 2017 followed by singles: Fool To Want You and Come Home.
Jay graduated from Musicians Institute, Hollywood with a performing arts degree (Guitar) in addition to minoring in songwriting. Jay, a trans man, has been playing music since the age of four and gradually developed his passion for music. He eventually went on to formally train in music. Jay has not only been creating music but also imparting musical knowledge for almost a decade through his music institute.
On his experience of working in Bollywood as a trans man, he says: ”I have been privileged that I have come across some amazing human beings who only cared about the talent. I came from a place of inhibition in the beginning because of the stereotypes. I am dressing a certain way; I’m talking a certain way.”
Jay remains active on Instagram and shares his experiences as a trans person in his reels. “LGBTQIA+ is a spectrum anyway. Being one element of this group doesn’t make me an expert to speak on everything. I can only speak from my experiences which are unique to me.”
“I don’t want my work to be heard because I’m a trans musician. I want to be heard because I’m a musician and because people relate to my story.” Jay is looking forward to writing new music and continues to perform. He is keen on working as a singer-songwriter in the industry as well as independently.
Looop Lapeta released on 4 Feb 2022 and is available on Netflix.
Valentine’s day is just as much about lack of love as it is about the abundance of it.
It is not a day that meant something to me for most of my life. I think it has been a day that made me project more of my internal fears than acknowledge my external relationships. Unlike a lot of people, I have mostly been indifferent about this day, partly because I didn’t want to be a cliche who celebrated or yearned to celebrate being in love. I know it might sound like a lonely experience but it didn’t feel like one, and it feels even less so after coming out.
I attended my first Pride a few years ago. I had to make excuses for dressing up and staying at “college” till later than usual (it was very unlike me to do either of those things). I remember the sense of community, love and happiness that took over and surrounded me. It felt like it was the first time I could breathe in a long, long time. I showed up to the event alone, and yet I had never actually felt so seen. It was the first time I think I even understood the word love because it was the first time I actually experienced its diversity. It was more than flowers and chocolates and wanting to grow old together. It was loud, it was unconditional, it was safe and warm and colourful. I actually fell in love with the freedom that came with being in a space where I could be embraced, where my self-expression wasn’t just empowering but valuable.
It was unlike me to crave hugs and warmth before then. For the first time ever, I felt like I was missing out. To be honest, there was a sense of relief in missing out. Like at least I now know that I was missing out. I don’t think I left the event that day the same person. Every single queer person present in that ground demanding the right to love and be loved, for the first time ever, put things in perspective for me; that’s what it is like to be celebrated.
After several relationships, a considerable amount of introspection, and learning to embrace my identity, I think the value of Valentine’s Day has changed for me now. It’s been three years since I attended my first Pride parade. The energy of the place still makes me feel safe in my heart. I would have never understood or valued love if I didn’t vicariously feel it that one day. As I woke up on 14th Feb this year, the first post I saw was a reel celebrating queer couples and it all came rushing back to me like the memory of the only person whose touch ever meant anything to me. Would I have known that love was supposed to feel way more than being wanted? Would I have realised that love meant feeling valued, respected and safe?
I know that someone out there relates to my feeling of loneliness, whether it is from being closeted, or just being single. But it is a relief to know that whenever I decide to go to my next Pride parade, I will receive all the unconditional love like I did the first time.
And as for being a cliche, I think if I was in love, I would too embrace any excuse I got to celebrate my partner right now. So, (belated) Happy Valentine’s Day to every queer person reading this. This is me, celebrating you.
“I’m just saying, you might be into dudes but also demisexual, which means you need emotional connection to feel sexual attraction. Or you might be demiromantic or graysexual or – “
He cringes. “I don’t know if the specific label is important to me.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” she says, “and you’re not obligated to figure it out, or come out, or explain yourself to anyone, ever. But also” – she drops her hands from their spectrum and tucks an arm around his shoulder – “labels can be nice sometimes. They can give us a language to understand ourselves and our hearts better. And they can help us find a community and develop a sense of belonging. I mean, if you didn’t have the correct label for your OCD, you wouldn’t be able to get the treatment you need, right?”
I saw a meme the other day on a subreddit dedicated to demisexuality, which showed two columns titled ‘Coming Out as Gay’ and ‘Coming Out as Demisexual,’ respectively. While the former included a one-liner confession, the latter preceded a lengthy paragraph. It do be like that, I thought out loud and got back to reading Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive – a queer rom-com Bookstagram inspired me to read.
About the book
The Charm Offensive is premised around a reality dating show called Ever After, where one man dates a group of women for several weeks to find his true love (almost like The Bachelor). Except this man is one of our protagonists, Charlie Winshaw, who falls for his handler, Dev Deshpande, instead of the twenty women on the show. The most successful producer in the show’s history, Dev is a hopeless romantic who has spent the last six years of his career turning his fairy-tale passion into the perfect love stories for national television. On the other hand, though extremely handsome, Charlie is anything but the romantic lead Ever After’s team needs to run the show. He’s had no luck with love in the past, is super awkward in front of the cameras, and only agreed to the role so he could get back his reputation and work in tech again.
Why, you ask?
Because he was labelled crazy on account of his ‘little quirks’ and fired from his own company upon suffering a panic attack during a meeting (Yes, I know we all want to give Charlie a hug already). As the story progresses, we learn that he has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and belongs somewhere on the asexuality spectrum. In short, Alison Cochrun’s debut novel has not only a quality representation of queerness but also that of mental health.
“Sexuality isn’t always a straight line from closeted to out-of-the-closet. You can take time to explore and evolve and figure out exactly what kind of queer you are, if that even matters to you.”
Charlie and Dev
As I flipped through the last pages of the book, my thoughts went back to the meme and I wondered how being queer was more than just crouching inside a box with a label. Charlie Winshaw bounces from one labelled box to another, navigating his life as an asexual neurodivergent. Whether it’s the reason his colleagues fire him from his company or the perfect man the camera compels him to portray, Charlie is always forced back into the box he tries so hard to come out of. Since childhood, he has been deprived of any opportunity to understand himself in a safe environment, which should otherwise have assured him that he was worthy of love no matter what label he chose. As a result, he ends up being far from broken. He, instead, fixes himself to be the pseudo-Charlie people want him to be.
Enter Dev who was brought up in a happy household, has a relatively better work-life and is more aware of his mental health than Charlie. Cochrun starts building him up as Charlie’s caretaker (both on and off set) from the very first meet-cute. Dev is the only one who actually listens to him and takes the time to sanitise his hands when Charlie says he doesn’t like to be touched (though he obviously wasn’t referring to germs). There is something so gentle about this gesture; you just know Dev is the one. Except, he’s not the only one who does all the saving.
“Most of the time, Dev is like a human bonfire walking around generously warming everyone with his presence. But burning that bright and that fiercely must be exhausting; no one can sustain it forever. Charlie wishes he could tell Dev it’s okay to flicker out sometimes. It’s okay to tend to his own flame, to keep himself warm. He doesn’t have to be everything for everyone else all the time.”
The most beautiful part of their growth as a couple is how Charlie uses all the self-awareness he gains as a result of Dev’s loving, to make the latter realise that he is worthy of love as well. In fact, when Dev is having a hard time, Charlie paraphrases his own words back to him, and we can’t help but sob along with Dev upon hearing them: “I don’t love you despite those things, I love you because of those things.” I so desperately wanted to insert Charlie’s entire monologue here, but you have got to experience it within the moment!
More reasons to pick up this book
The mushy parts of the romance align perfectly with the intense exploration of mental health – almost everyone can find a piece of themselves represented in the novel. Many readers may find the representation of Dev as an Indian-American character to be underwhelming, it’s not necessary for every multicultural book to place ethnicity at the centre of conflict. Sometimes, it’s okay to let diverse characters just take up space without constantly foregrounding their otherness.
Apart from the romance, it’s also fun to see what goes on behind the scenes of a reality TV show. Charlie’s interactions with his Ever After co-stars make up most of these scenes and complement the development of his bond with Dev. Even the secondary characters Parisa, Jules, Skylar, and Ryan are likeable as individuals and have some crucial scenes with the protagonists.
I’d just like to thank the author and tell them that this book helped me alleviate some of my late-night intrusive thoughts. In a heteronormative, sex-driven world where so many asexuals may be expected to engage in uncomfortable situations to prove their love for someone, The Charm Offensive gave me a thousand hugs and whispered to me that I’m not alone. It reassured me that whatever label I choose for myself is valid and showed me that a rainbow of happily-ever-afters exists in this universe. I just have to be brave enough to choose one for myself.
“I don’t think happily ever after is something that happens to you, Dev. I think it’s something you choose to do for yourself.”
When I saw the trailer of ‘Badhaai Do’, I was skeptical. I had tucked it away in the corner of my mind marked, “Don’t bother”. So when I was asked to review the movie, I wasn’t all that thrilled. When we combine Bollywood, comedy, and homosexuality, the result has always been nothing short of upsetting. And, I think, the expectations were not very different this time either, and Bengaluru traffic did not aid much in assuaging things. I arrived 15 minutes into the movie and sank into my cushy seat at the point when Shardul (Rajkumar Roa) convinces his family the co-worker he was interested in had gotten married because his family took too long to accept her (and not because he’s, you know, gay). It didn’t take many brain cells to piece things together.
There is a lot to like about the movie. While it relies on some stereotypes, such as the trope of the lesbian PT teacher, its effort to drive the conversation beyond this is commendable. Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar) is not someone you would peg as a “tomboy”. Shardul, on the other hand, is a macho policeman, who falls prey to most patriarchal thought-processes. They both live in Dehradun, and their paths cross when Sumi, who decided to find herself a partner through a dating app, is catfished by an incel who attempts to blackmail a lesbian woman into having sex with him. Horrific. Sumi decides to register a complaint, and there meets the hero and heroine. However, we know from the get-go this is not a typical love story. Shardul, who realises Sumi is a lesbian, decides to stalk her until she confronts him. He then lays down his ‘proposal’. What follows is the decision to get married so they both finally have the opportunity to live their lives.
I do believe that the movie – the first one in a series of Bollywood movies about some aspect of queerness – is able to dig a little deeper. The movie manages to address the isolation of being queer, the suffocation of hiding one’s identity, and the fear of being outed. On a date, Rimjhim (Chum Darang) talks about being estranged from her family for revealing the truth. And Sumi empathizes, “No one understands… they think we are perverts.” Her fear is actualised at a later point when her younger brother calls her a pervert after finding out the truth about her. The fear plays in different ways for both characters. While Sumi’s identity is a secret, she is more confident about it. She is a lesbian and she is looking for love. While she doesn’t proclaim it, she does not seem like she is running away from her reality. Shardul, on the other hand, does not seem to have fully come to terms with his identity. Forced to become a policeman, Shardul finds himself under pressure to hide his identity. On their “honeymoon”, Shardul even says, “I am more afraid of the policemen than I am of the thieves.”
At the time of their wedding, Shardul and Sumi are barely friends. On their honeymoon, Sumi is not entirely comfortable with him, but also feels a certain sense of fondness for him. However, like any couple, the problems begin as soon as the honeymoon ends. They hardly get along. They try to establish boundaries as roommates and keep each other at arm’s length. However, over the course of the film, their relationship evolves and becomes a sort of support space for each other. There is a lot of laughter that couches the moments of pain.
The second half of the movie raises the conflict: they are married for almost a year and have no children, which quickly takes us to the resolution (better editing could have helped make the storyline much more crisp). Shardul’s entire family takes it upon themselves to ensure that the couple become parents. Everyone has advice, comments, questions that their noses could not be deeper into their lives. They use the plotline to attempt to talk about adoption and the lack of laws that allow the LGBTQIA+ community to have a family. The movie merely touches upon it through a placard and two pieces of dialogue.
There are many things that did not sit right with me, starting with Shardul Takur’s obsession with knowing people’s “title” (read: caste, or as Shardul so subtly puts it, “surname”). His disdain for Rimjhim and calling her “Timtim” does not sit well. And well there is the obvious fact: why are there no queer actors. While the scenes of Pride and a gay wedding are refreshing to see on screen, it is far from enough. Allowing for representation of queer people only in the scenes that are “loud” and depict Pride is shallow. It makes you wonder when there will be a space for the community to have a say in the stories that Bollywood chooses to tell. Simply brushing it off as an actor playing a role is disingenuous. Yes, a queer actor could play a heterosexual character, but the converse (even for the most spectacular performance) is not equivalent. The most obvious reason being that there are very few rounded queer characters that ever make it on screen. It just seemed like a huge, wasted opportunity.
At the end of the day, ‘Badhaai Do’, with all its flaws, manages to open the door for a conversation about something important. And let’s be honest, it’s about time.
[Editor’s Note – This year, Gaysi is hosting Crippletine’s Day, a project by @revivaldisabilitymag that is rooted in the belief that all kinds of love should be celebrated, because love itself is a disabled and queer revolution.
The theme of Crippletine’s Day this year is what disabled women, trans and enby folx think of pleasure and how it has changed during the pandemic. It touches upon themes of coping with loneliness, isolation as well as companionship. These narratives are stories of lived experiences of queerness, intimacy, disability, and pleasure.]
A rush A glance A touch A dance A look in somebody’s eyes To light up the skies To open the world and send it reeling A voice that says, I’ll be here And you’ll be alright
City of Stars, La La Land
At night, I dream of living together with my queer partner in a small pastel apartment, cuddling with each other in a fluffy weighted blanket by a window with our adopted pet cat just trudging around us like they own the place. Reading a book, holding hands, sharing soft intimate touches, nothing sexual or romantic but not entirely platonic either. Intimately communicating through those touches, glances and occasionally words. Growing up as an autistic person, I rarely communicated. I talked to people but seldom expressed or felt that they understood my words; neither did I get theirs. Thus, communicating and sharing deep connections have become my most craved intimate moments. And I ended up looking for those in whatever relationship I had till now but never really managed to establish them in any of the connections.
I had never wanted or felt the need for having a romantic or sexual relationship. I tried it several times but failed to instill in myself any enthusiasm or interest in continuing those. But I had intimacy needs, especially for emotional connection and understanding, which frequently got fulfilled through friendships. However this type of arrangement lacked stability. Friends would eventually move on with their own romantic relationships, and the connection you had got, if not completely severed, then weak.
I desired warmth, an expression of love which is neither sexual nor romantic but is indeed queer love. Then I stumbled upon the concept of Queer Platonic relationships and discovered that this is what I had always wanted, something that could not be put inside the silos of friendship OR romance.
I explored this journey of understanding and wanting Queer Platonic relationship through one of my special interests, KPop. It’s because I, as an autistic person, understand most of the societal norms and concepts in the language of my special interest. I have adored and enjoyed KPop for so many reasons, and one of them is the bond that members of the KPop group share. I would spend hours watching videos of them interacting with each other and the chemistry they portrayed. I felt it was more than friendship but not quite romantic, and I craved that more than anything. There was something queer in those interactions, and I, as an aro-ace person, wanted to experience it. I would then go on a rampage, reading books one after another, hoping to share similar feelings and relationships. In other people’s stories, I searched for love, not romantic, not sexual, but a very queer disabled love.
The Pandora’s box opened when one of my friends introduced me to fan-fiction. In the pages of these fan-fictions, I got to experience the extension of what I felt while binging on those KPop behind-the-scenes videos. Some of these beautifully written and amazingly crafted fan-fictions gave me a taste of what queerplatonic relationships could look like, which I was and am still scared to test out in the real world.
Traditional relationships have lots of explicitly undefined rules that are ambiguous and presumed to be known by people. As an autistic person who cannot decipher these rules, I have always found it incredibly infuriating to explore these relationships. Queer Platonic relationships exist outside these heteronormative, ableist rules, allowing those in it to make their own rules and define their own boundaries. Every rule or lack thereof is explicitly stated, which is a significant relief for me as an autistic person.
I knew that I was on the aro-ace spectrum for a long time. Still, I also knew that I wanted an intimate relationship of some kind because surviving alone as an autistic person in a neurotypical world is hard. You are frequently misunderstood, isolated and forced to mask, which is exhausting.
You sit there exhausted with a cup of coffee, just waiting for someone to give you a slight push to actually get started on work, to constantly keep motivating you, organising the stuff and breaking down the chores for you. If possible, make all the critical life decisions on your behalf (just kidding, or am I?) – after consulting you, of course! And hoping to be the same or something more to that person.
Being in a queer platonic relationship helps both me and my partner avoid the feeling of loneliness and meets our intimacy needs. It allows us to be our unmasked selves, make our own rules in the relationship, co-habit, and raise a family without venturing into a romantic or sexual relationship. It’s like a tailor-made relationship that accommodates our disabled queer needs and desires.
Going back to those vivid dreams, this Valentine’s day, I really hope that I do not succumb to the pressure of these heteronormative, ableist rules in the future and can turn my dreams into reality.
[Editor’s Note – This year, Gaysi is hosting Crippletine’s Day, a project by @revivaldisabilitymag that is rooted in the belief that all kinds of love should be celebrated, because love itself is a disabled and queer revolution.
The theme of Crippletine’s Day this year is what disabled women, trans and enby folx think of pleasure and how it has changed during the pandemic. It touches upon themes of coping with loneliness, isolation as well as companionship. These narratives are stories of lived experiences of queerness, intimacy, disability, and pleasure.]
If someone had told me that speech therapy was important not only for clear enunciation but also for kissing and giving blowies, I would have done it in more earnestness. And that, dear reader, was one of the great realisations I had while trying to apologise to a boy in pain, whose dick I almost bit off because my mouth doesn’t open wide enough for the job. Here’s how it happened: I went from first to fourth base in a matter of four hours with my first boyfriend whom I’d been dating for four days. I would later make note of this episode as “first …” with the date, in my List of Firsts on my phone that I use to celebrate my physical accomplishments. Other entries on the list were relatively ‘simpler’, like “cut with a scissor”, “sawed open a lock”, “sat on the stairs” etc.
And here I was, hungry for neither this boy’s body nor love. I just needed to know if it was physically possible for me to have sex in the first place. My parents had been concerned, you know; after all, beti ki shaadi kaise hogi? (Translated from Hindi: How will we get our daughter married?)
It was my dad who first told me (and rather awkwardly at that), that I may not be a ‘virgin’ because when the hospital folks once inserted a catheter into my pee-hole as a child, there was bleeding apparently. This story always confused me because firstly, the vagina is a different hole, and secondly, I never understood why this information was important enough to share, and thirdly, what was I supposed to do with this ‘fun fact’ anyway? So before the boy and I went at it, I dutifully confessed my ‘non-virgin’ state and as expected, the boy didn’t quite know what to make of that information either. We jointly decided it didn’t matter.
It was his first time too and he was trembling as he kissed up my neck. When he finally got to my lips, I was ready. I had seen enough movies and read enough erotica to know that true kissing was French kissing and that involved tongue. His lips on mine felt like skin on skin… un-explosive. My tongue sprung to action and would dart out (like a snake’s) in its limited capacity to hopefully add more excitement to this boring activity. And this was the first among many things that didn’t pan out like what I had watched on blocked websites that require VPN access.
Now for the undressing—there was quite some oomph-ing and aah-ing, grunts and sighs. I wish I could say that these were my moans of pleasure but most were shrieks of pain and indications of discomfort as the boy struggled to get my clothes off, learning as he went along, which parts of my body were tight, which caused pain, and how to work around them. We were both panting by the end of this exercise and I admit, I was slightly annoyed at the swift ease with which he removed his own clothes. And so, lying naked on my bed, I suddenly felt obliged to let this lovely boy know that he shouldn’t expect bras, sexy lingerie or figure-hugging clothes unless he was willing to put it on me for the pleasure of taking it off (if that was even a pleasure at all at this point). There would be no shaving either because the process was exhausting and required more intense positions to reach the right spots than even sex itself.
He understood the assignment and what followed was a whole lotta awkwardness and figuring out how two bodies can work together beyond physical restrictions, tiredness, and muscle weakness. The light was switched off to lessen the embarrassment and so, verbal communication—some that were articulate words and some others that were incoherent sounds—became most important. But I must say, it wasn’t the most enjoyable experience. In fact, by the end of it I was quite convinced I was asexual, but the boy promised me it would ‘get better’ with time. I called him over again the next day anyway, not because I believed him but because I found sex to be a much more interesting form of physiotherapy and I frankly, had no qualms about using this someone’s body and love for my selfish purposes. I strategized further: if I could hold on to this person’s love, I would get an assistant/caregiver for ‘free’ and asking for his help would make me feel less obligated than when asking a friend because now I could return the favour in sex, bad as it may be. The perfect transaction.
And so, I was surprised when I choked on my own emotions when he tenderly put my crippled fingers in his warm, moist mouth. I never realised how this simple act could be such a supreme form of respect. Fingers that had frustrated me so much for their inability, were now being sucked on like they were filled with life-giving nectar. For all my practicality and strategy, I never realised how attention to another’s body, down to its simplest and most imperfect parts, can be so powerful an act of respect and thereby, love.
I cannot claim to know exactly when this boy wormed his way into my heart and taught me to love my own body slowly with his mouth, or when his body became my most comfortable mattress, or how effortless I found body-against-body could become. Years since, he can throw me around and I can ride him with (relative) ease. He tells me with pride which muscles of mine have gotten stronger, and frowns in concern when he finds some bone suddenly sticking out more than it should. He takes off my AFOs (Ankle Foot Orthosis) and massages my feet when they are tired, dresses and undresses me for fun. He delights when my awkward limbs dance and I delight when he awkwardly dances with me.
Some exceptional works were published last year that not only shifted the narratives that centered the LGBTQIA+ community, but also transformed the notion of which narratives should take precedence over the others. Below is a (not-so-definitive) list of books that are expected to make 2022 a marvellous year in terms of queer publishing (and reading).
American writer of Bengali descent, Sen, who won the James Beard Award—“Oscar of the food world”—in 2018, is out with his first book Taste Makers. Sen, who has been credited with the ‘reinventor’ tag in food writing, also teaches food journalism at New York University.
The Prophecy, The Key, and The Shadow (Talking Club, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger) by Payal Dhar
Journalist, writer, and editor Payal Dhar’s “edge-of-the-seat fantasy adventure trilogy” will be published by Speaking Tiger. Last year, Dhar’s It Has No Name, a YA-novel touching upon themes that she has dabbled with in the past, was published by Context.
Waiting for a queer-themed novel set against the COVID-19 pandemic? Then here it is. Moore tells a story of a “queer disabled woman,” who takes to the locked-down streets of the New York City looking for the “first women she fell in love with, who broke her heart.”
Emezi describes themself as an artist and writer based in liminal spaces. Their writing prowess is widely celebrated as they churn out one bestseller after another. This year, the National Book Award finalist has come out with a “companion novel to the critically acclaimed PET that explores both the importance and cost of social revolution – and how youth lead the way.”
This second novel by celebrated poet Blake, is a post-apocalyptic science fiction, while it also “probes motherhood, grief, control, and choice.” Pushing the literary imagination up by a notch, this page-turning mystery is an unmissable read in this post-COVID world.
Featuring stories by Wasima Badghisi, Batool Haidari, Manizha Bakhtari among others, Under the Kabul Sky is a collection of twelve short stories that “dive deep into imaginary worlds where everyday life is marked and marred by war.” Originally published by Éditions Le Soupirail in 2019, this was the first volume of short fiction stories by Afghan women to release in France.
This book brings to surface the multiple histories that have been conveniently erased for they were championed by queer, anti-capitalist, feminists of colour at the grassroots. It brings to life, abolition “as a politic and a practice”, through the eyes of the authors, who are pioneering activists in their own rights. Each of them believe that “abolition is our best response to endemic forms of state and interpersonal gender and sexual violence.”
Jennifer Huang’s “thrumming debut teaches us how history harrows and heals, often with the same hand.” This collection of poetry, which was awarded the 2021 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, is also the Rumpus Poetry Book Club’s selection for January 2022.
Shraya has donned many hats, that of an artist, performer, musician, writer, model, and teacher, in People Change, where “she reflects on the origins of this impulse, tracing it to childhood influences from Hinduism to Madonna. What emerges a meditation is on change itself: why we fear it, why we’re drawn to it, what motivates us to change, and what traps us in place.”
Story of two young Taiwanese American women navigating “friendship, sexuality, identity, and heartbreak over two decades,” Jean Chen Ho’s Fiona and Jane is equally a story of Asian women “who dare to stake a claim on joy in a changing, contemporary America.”
Florida-born, with roots in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico, Edgar Gomez’s book “traces a touching and often hilarious spiralic path to embracing a gay, Latinx identity against a culture of machismo—from a cockfighting ring in Nicaragua to cities across the US—and the bath houses, night clubs, and drag queens who help redefine pride.”
Already being praised as being “as good as War and Peace,” Booker-shortlisted Yanagihara’s latest To Paradise offers an “alternate version of 1893 America” and tells a story set in 1993’s AIDS epidemic before ending with the plague-ridden world in 2093.
Journalist and editor Krantz, who is also a recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Investigative Reporters and Editors Radio Award, is exploring whether one can “have both freedom and love,” “comfort and lust” in her debut memoir Open, where she is “chronicling her first open relationship with unflinching candour.”
In their debut short-story collection, Thomas proffers Southern queer and genderqueer characters, tracing “deceit and violence through Southern tall tales and their own pasts” and journeys. “Winding between reinvention and remembrance, transition and transcendence, these origin stories resound across centuries.”
A memoir and a masterclass at the same time, Febos draws “on her own path from aspiring writer to acclaimed author and writing professor – via addiction and recovery, sex work and academia.” Body Work will not only “empower readers and writers alike” but will also offer ideas “(and occasional notes of caution) to anyone who has ever hoped to see themselves in a story.”
Violets (The Feminist Press) by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur
Shin is not only the first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 but also a widely-celebrated Korean writer. Translated by Hur, her latest novel is a story of a “neglected woman [who] experiences the violence and isolation of contemporary Korean society.”
Young Mungo (Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan) by Douglas Stuart
The Booker Prize-winning author is back with his second novel in which he is“imbuing in the everyday world of its characters with rich lyricism,” and exploring the “meaning of masculinity, the push and pull of family, the violence faced by so many queer people, and the dangers of loving someone too much.”
As years morph in recognition that surviving as a neurodivergent, queer person and parent of queer children, is absolutely tiring, I sit here at the cusp of a new year, this arbitrary timeline, to figure out how it is that I must toil to find safety and thriving in my heart, mind, and community.
Beginnings of a year are legendarily seen with such keen intention. With brimming hope that one may achieve all sorts of things, from weight loss to love match, from new career prospects to a fruitful education. If you are particularly keen on investing in the capitalist vision of who you are, then you will, regardless of your age, freak out about becoming older with no sign of success in achieving marriage, successful employment or some such thing.
And don’t get me wrong, it helps to reset in some ways, to reorient, to infuse hope in life. I am not sure though if we do enough grieving too. As a queer, neurodivergent person, a parent and a holder of community spaces, my heart aches more profoundly as the year ends and a new one begins. It is a reminder of a world that has forgotten to care. A world that spread out the red carpet for developmental milestones to be achieved for children, one which expects our drive for achievement and success to align with hustle culture and one where our romantic needs match the triumph and glory of Bollywood’s sap and patriarchy, while unanimously deciding to burn the witches; they don’t fit.
It is now, as I approach my 40s, that I realise the reason I have always felt incredible stress, constantly showing up in my body and mind is a result of believing that hustle was fun and fun felt like stress. That this incredible stress I was carrying just needed some mindfulness to help me reset, refresh and continue. I have pushed to live at the helm of multitasking. Little did I realise, I function best when I have stability, plan, and routine. What hustler goes after such static/boring things as routines?! Only now am I able to embrace that I needed to say many no’s, I needed to draw many boundaries, I needed to honour how I wanted to use my skill without stretching myself too thin. Is this a cause for celebration as the new year begins?
As queer folks, when we make lists and revive our goals for the year to come, I wonder if we do them to achieve a certain level of survivability? Do our lists contain: How much of me do I share this year in this political and social climate? How much of me do I live out this year to ensure everyone’s else’s needs are met so I can continue to have a little space and recognition as human? How many no’s shall I give myself permission to exercise with each of the relationships I have? How do I navigate conversations to make it clear that ‘dating’, ‘moving in’, ‘marriage’ don’t mean the same things for me as other people I am conversing with? Honestly, this is not what we were trained to write in our to-do lists for the new year. If I don’t make new year intentions anymore, this is precisely why; this manoeuvring to survive is an everyday endeavour.
In raising queer children, I think about what honesty looks like as a parent. In a world that easily brushes aside emotions, that believes that playful taunts and happy boisterousness are healthy for those assigned male at birth while not expecting much with respect to outward financial achievements from those assigned female at birth. Creating a space for care, respectful love and gentle forward movement seems to confront and challenge a system of schooling, peer-ing and community building. Honesty is a daily practice. Safety making an everyday endeavor.
With a world that’s speeding past you with neurotypical, patriarchal, caste-based, cis and straight privilege, I’d like to say this is most queer people’s everyday life. Tiring ourselves out trying to figure out what is the way to walk back to oneself. My grieving comes from the losses I must traverse through on this road back to myself. There is no other way really. If hope were something nice to have, queer hope, queer disabled hope is one that is stitched into the fabric of our existence. It is stitched into living through and embracing grief of a life I cannot have in order to live a life I will truly thrive in. My attempts at honesty, at saying the many no’s I need to, of surviving in safety and thriving within this safety is what having a queer year looks like, year after year.
When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to be a boy.
All the stories I heard and read showed men standing tall and strong, protecting people, fighting battles, and asking questions.
Women were at best pretty young people to be protected, or matronly and motherly women to be revered or at worst, spiteful, vengeful people who hurt everyone. As the Malayalam saying went: ‘Asooyakkum Kushumbinum Kayyun Kalum vachatanu pennu.’ (If envy and spite are given hands and legs, that would be a woman.)
Malayalam films of the 1980s and 1990s – the decades when I was growing up – quite frequently showed uppity women being slapped into submission.
Can anyone be blamed for not wanting to be associated with such a role?
The indicators that society had attached to people with the female form and aesthetic – such as dressing up to look pretty, the nurturing and caring persona, or the perfect wife – never enticed me. I preferred the straightforwardness and bravery associated with ‘men’ to the coyness and baffling manners associated with ‘women.’
Am I trans? No. What I wanted was to see myself in the stories of a society that refused to, for the most part, see me or understand me. And I did not want to be defined by qualities that, for whatever reason, society had chosen to associate with my body type, when these qualities did not feel very familiar to me.
Such were the 80s and 90s, folks.
Things of course got more complicated when I became a teen and got emotional crushes on girls my age. My escape was to construct romantic stories in my head, where I of course was a boy and the girl in question, remained a girl. I had only the vaguest notions about sex but understood romance thanks to Hindi films. And with those tools, I constructed a world that satisfied me.
Homosexuality was not a thing that I had heard about or understood. In our 12th standard Biology curriculum, we had a chapter on diseases that included AIDS. I remember going about asking people what exactly homosexuality meant because the chapter said that homosexuals and promiscuous people often contracted it. Nobody seemed to know the answer, while our teacher was on leave.
I did not know much about sex either. We learnt about mitosis and meiosis, and the stages of the foetus in school and how Darwin had figured out evolution but not what the physical act of sex entailed. It took me until my second year of engineering to finally figure out the details of sex.
No, I did not check the internet because the internet of the time was 52kbps and we had to compete with our peers and seniors to get time at the Computer Lab. I checked Guyton and Hall (medical textbook) after a visiting professor of life sciences (an MBBS) told us that sex is sin, so we should feel free to do the lesser sin of masturbation to keep ourselves from committing the greater sin.
In case you were wondering, the description of the mechanics of sex in Guyton did not impress me. But it did somewhat dispel the idea that I had inherited from watching Hindi films: that two people lying together side-by-side led to the accidental creation of babies.
If you consider going to an engineering college, I recommend taking a humanities course first (given the news, yes, even now).
Post engineering college, the next adventure awaited. Arranged marriage.
“Why not marry since I have to do it someday?” This was the refrain I heard through the last year of Bachelor’s. Given that the narratives, culture, and education I was exposed to had given me no reason to understand the possibilities of life or sexuality or gender along with having had no faith in ever falling in love with a guy, I agreed. But after a few excruciating months living in said marriage and some sessions of therapy, where the therapist suggested that I find a way to make the marriage work (because what else is there to life?), I decided to call it quits.
Oh, but that is not all.
While going through anxiety about my less-than-perfect marriage, I managed to fancy myself in love with a guy without having the faintest idea of what romantic love entailed; probably buoyed by the notion that such love is inevitable because that is what not just Hindi films and campus culture but the Jane Austens, Nancy Drews, Erich Segals, and Jeffrey Archers told me. Fortunately, I did soon figure out that it was neither love nor attraction, but an appreciation for being talked to with respect and kindness (though it felt like it took eons for this realization to dawn, at the time).
If you want to confuse a person about love, feel free to inundate their socio-cultural world with romantic/parental love as the epitome of all love, while also keeping the rather satisfying worlds of sibling relationships, friendships, comradery, and mentorship out by limiting it mostly to the world of those deemed men. If you also hint that sex is the highest form of pleasure to people who can neither experience said ‘pleasure’ nor imagine it and thus would somehow consider themselves flawed, you are doing a great job.
After divorce, I stayed away from imagining love for a while. I had learnt by then about homosexuality, but it seemed all about sex, and since I did not have much inclination for it, I did not think of myself as gay. Besides, sadly, there were no women in the picture. Stories there were but reimaginations involving fictional characters. It was somewhere in the making of those stories, set in the female-centric world of British boarding-school fiction, that I considered the possibility of being gay.
Fast forward to 2011, and I stumbled up on a whole world of anglophone f/f stories, mostly located in the US. It was still limited (and there was no Kindle), but it did give me an idea about a gay love that was romance, and not sex, though sex featured rather prominently in all but Young Adult fiction.
As I was slowly learning to think of myself as gay, the Supreme Court of India decided that the part of Indian Penal Code that criminalised same-sex activity did not affect all that many people in India and hence, should be reinstated (an absurd reasoning if there ever was one, but our SC is great at such noteworthy performances of logic). In defiance, I came out to a few friends and family members. All I can say about that experience is that nobody disowned me.
Still. Self-acceptance. Yay!
Unfortunately, to my consternation, I soon realised that the experience detailed in all these women-loving-women fiction and features is not quite at par with my experience. I rarely felt all these body reactions that they regularly mentioned, and never could at a glance tell if a woman is ‘hot’ or not. I found the intimate encounters detailed in these works boring and preferred slow developing emotional relationships to anything physical. Not to mention that they were mostly white and anglophone.
After a brief sense of belonging, I was back to deeming myself a misfit.
Yes, dear reader. I am blaming the narratives. Again.
It was somewhere in 2016 that I finally came up on asexuality as a thing that some humans experienced. Asexuality is a spectrum, and you could be gay or demisexual ace or any other combination of identities. So, I could continue building romantic stories about women in my mind, without having to deal with or worry about sex. Plus, I could give equal validity to aromantic love.
Folks, I had found my label, or rather my community. This time, on Tumblr.
Well, part of my label.
The other label was found in gender studies and twitter, where agender and non-binary were coming into public parlance. Free of all shackles or expectations from having my body. Or such the word agender seems to me.
And thus, I knew myself (somewhat).
And lived happily ever after. (Not really.)
What a tedious and convoluted journey, isn’t it?
A journey that might not have been quite as painfully lonely, confusing, or meandering if there were more narratives and stories about people like me. Stories of cis/trans women, transmen and agendered people with agency, same-sex love, female friendships, asexual love, and gender/body non-conformity, set in all the variety of contexts and idioms and cultural and religious symbols that this world of ours sees and has seen.
As Junot Diaz once said: monsters do not cast reflections. Thus, if you want to make someone feel like a monster, then give them no cultural reflection.
However, as Dr Sunny Singh, author of Hotel Arcadia, has explained on twitter, it is more.
A people that sees only itself in the mirror also become monsters. If a dominant class is not exposed to stories that reflect people, realities, and experiences that are not theirs, they become intransigent and narrow-minded individuals who otherize those different from them, eventually contemplating genocide of these ‘Others.’ As we have been seeing in the experiences of Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, and Indigenous Tribes, and lately, Christians and other minoritized populations in our country.
If you see only your reflection in the mirror, then your view becomes distorted. You might become a monster.
Representation matters. Stories and narratives matter. Of all peoples. In all genres. In all walks of life. For everyone.
Living in a country where LGBTQ+ rights are hardly recognised leaves queer people facing discrimination everyday. While on most days we have no choice but to fight the norms of society and our own personal battles, it’s comforting to have a group of people by your side to help you through these challenges. Many NGOs and communities on Instagram have been extending support to the LGBTQ+ community over the years. Whether it’s politics, healthcare, activism or identity, these folks have you covered. Here’s a list of 20 such organisations and groups that are impacting LGBTQ+ rights everyday.
AIQA is a feminist, socialist and Ambedkerite non-profit organisation founded by Meghna Mehra after their experience with discrimination as an activist in Delhi university. It supports people from various social groups. Before the pandemic, they facilitated many workshops and events across Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and other places to raise awareness about sexual and mental health issues. Since 2020, they have established a distinct online footing by creating fundraisers, hosting online open-mic sessions and panel discussions. Currently, they also provide affordable therapy options by queer-affirming therapists. Mehra shared with Gaysi, “Through our Empower the Queer project, we were able to help many community members across the country. It wouldn’t be possible without those who donated in our fundraisers during the pandemic.”
Founded in 2010, Yaariyan is an initiative by Humsafar Trust – the oldest community based organisation working to safeguard the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Yaariyan is one of the foremost youth lead LGBTQ+ initiatives based in Mumbai. Yaariyan holds online contests, Instagram live sessions, film screenings, HIV and STI awareness sessions and other friendly and educative events to start a dialogue about the different issues that queer folks might experience. “Yaariyan discussions have provided a safe space for LGBTQ youth to address larger issues that may pertain to their sexuality.”
Led by Shweta Sudhakar, a trans woman, Born2Win works towards empowering the transgender community in Tamil Nadu. They work to educate and provide employment to the community in an environmentally-conscious manner. Every year, they hold the Trans Achievers Awards to actively create role models within the community and encourage other community members. They also held many food donation drives for the trans community during the pandemic-induced lockdowns. They also have various projects on self-awareness, gender advocacy, education and employment. In an interview on their YouTube channel, Sudhakar said they “have given job opportunity for 87 trans people and we’ve seen a lot of success as well as failures because a lot of mainstream jobs support transgender persons for a month or two, but not after that. Even after that, when members of the community ask us for employment, we are working to provide the same.”
Queer Nilayam is a support group for LGBTQ+ individuals in Hyderabad. Co-founded by five passionate individuals in 2021, Queer Nilayam seeks to find solutions for various issues faced by the community and encourage socialisation between queer people. They also launched ‘Queernama’, Telangana’s first LGBTQ+ magazine. Every week they hold meetings for LGBTQ+ folks where they discuss mental health, sexual health and gender. Additionally their hope is to provide a safe space for individuals to connect and socialise. They shared with Gaysi, “We have folks talk about their exploring stories and we have folks who are from the older generation talk about their experiences – younger generations get to learn a lot from them.”
Ya_All is a United-Nations-recognised youth organisation based in Imphal and working in other parts of North-East India. They aim to equip and empower the LGBTQ+ community and its allies through research on health and education. In 2018, they started the ‘Queer Games’ – an annual sports event which was instrumental in mainstreaming the queer community in North East. They also hold training and capacity building workshops for the youth and the queer community. Currently, they are gearing up for Ya_All Fest, where artists from North-East perform to build shelter homes for LGBTQ+ community. “One of our main objectives is to strengthen the peer support system of young people and LGBTI community to disseminate information, access services and voice their rights.”
Aravani Art Project is a collaborative public and wall art project that raises awareness about the transgender community, as well as celebrates friendships between trans women and cis women. Their artworks highlight themes like equality, health and sanitation, language, regional diversity and celebration of gender. They have implemented projects in metropolitan cities and small towns in collaboration with companies, as well as universities and NGOs. If you wish to volunteer with them in any way, you can reach out to them via their website.
They believe “the streets are a particularly important place to do our work, as it is in these public spaces that the bodies of Transgender identifying people attract violence, harassment, social negligence and pressure.”
Transgender Welfare Equity and Empowerment Trust (TWEET) Foundation is an organisation working towards the social and cultural upliftment of trans persons through education, healthcare and legal support. In 2020, during the first wave of Covid-19, they established a shelter for trans men in Delhi. During the second-wave-lockdown they curated a list of various fundraisers and started a shelter home, ‘Garima Grih’, in Mumbai to support transgender people. TWEET Foundation is also actively involved in various cultural events like street plays, drag queen events, talent competitions and sports activities like rugby training workshops and cricket events for trans men. “We provide relief to transgender people living in poverty, and advance and support government schemes and programmes which are transgender-friendly and that seek to uplift the socioeconomic level of trans persons.”
Sonzal Welfare Trust is a non-governmental organisation based in Kashmir, founded by LGBTQ+ activist, author and academician Aijaz Ahmad Bund. Started in 2017, the organisation advocates for the rights of the transgender community who are further repressed in the conflict zone. For legal recognition of trans rights, they have filed various PILs to provide relief and shelter to the community. They have set up Self-help groups and made mental and sexual health services more accessible to the community. In an earlier interview with Gaysi, Bund said, “In my experience, mental health remains an unattended issue. That is why Sonzal’s goal was to prioritise mental health and make it accessible. We integrate our mental health interventions with our rehabilitation programs to encourage holistic psycho-social development.”
Sappho for Equality is a forum based in Kolkata that challenges the patriarchal and hetronormative systems of society. They provide counselling services, helpline numbers, library facilities as well as internships and research provisions to the LBT community. They run sensitisation and awareness programs with students, police and medical practitioners. Their resource library, ‘Chetana’, allows students to access a repository of books and films on gender and sexuality. In September 2020, they established shelter homes for LBT people who were victims of domestic violence. Sappho for Equality also holds ‘DIALOGUES’, an international video and film festival annually. It focuses on themes of equality, justice and identity within the LGBTQ+ community. “DIALOGUES believes that cultural activism is just another tool in the larger struggle that, many of us are in, towards justice and dignity.”
Born out of the lack of queer spaces in Gujarat, Queerabad is an Ahmedabad-based community space for queer folks founded by Anahita Sarabhai and Shamini Kothari. Before the pandemic, they facilitated in-person ‘Ask What You Will’ sessions once a month. It became a space where queer people could anonomusly ask questions about coming out, societal acceptance, sexual well-being, homophobia and the like. In 2021, they started ‘Queertine Friday’ sessions where they discuss pandemic anxieties, the Trans Bill, queer poetry, queer parenting, privilege and other topics. QueerAbad released their own eccentric zine called ‘Tilt’ featuring poems, artwork and photographs exploring the themes of menstruation, identity and queer experiences in small towns. In an interview with Verve magazine, Anahita Sarabhai – the co-founder of QueerAbad – shared, “This platform also helps the community to interact with each other in interesting ways and share experiences that are starkly different or disturbingly similar across the board. There is a severe lack of representation in mainstream media.”
Founded after the strike-down of Section 377 in 2018, Keshavsuri Foundation hopes to create an equal and discrimination-free society for the queer community. They work to create avenuues for the queer community by empowering them through job opportunities, holding sensitisation sessions with companies and enabling discussions on emotional well-being. The organisation is actively associated with ‘It Gets Better India’;together they hold cultural events and create a space for queer folks to share their stories. The group also launched ‘Kitty Su’ – an LGBTQ friendly night club which has been instrumental in cultivating drag culture in India.
The founder, Keshav Suri, shared with Gaysi that “in the last three years, the foundation has made strides with our various initiatives and programs such as livelihood building, access to education through scholarships and fellowships, making mental health services available for the communities, and creating workspaces diverse & inclusive. We hope to continue and expand our areas of work to uplift these communities across the country.”
If you are an ace person living in India, you’ve probably noticed there are very few spaces where you can connect with individuals of the same identity. In 2014, ‘Indian Aces’ was launched as a facebook page by Dr Pragati Singh to provide a platform to the asexual Indian community. Over the years, the reach of the group has grown beyond Facebook posts. They hold workshops, group discussions and crash courses on topics related to gender and sexuality. They also launched ‘Platonicity’, a speed-dating event for asexual and aromantic people to find potentail partners. During ‘Asexual Awareness Week in 2021, they fascilitated ‘Pan-ACEa’ – a conference on asexuality within the context of Asian countries.
“Indian Aces has changed the landscape of the Indian queer community by radically but gently introducing asexual idenitities into the purview. We have impacted lakhs of people indirectly and thousands of them directly. The A in the LGBTQIA+ has been mainstreamed after years of hardwork and perseverance.”
‘Naazariya: QFRG’ is a non-profit organisation based in Delhi that supports queer women and trans persons. They sensitise organaisations about gender and sexuality-based discrimination and provide them with resources that enable them to create safe spaces for the LBT community. They have a varied collection of resources focused on breaking stereotypes about the queer community and providing ways to make spaces more inclusive. They also run a helpline, provide free counselling, run a skilling centre for trans persons and do advocacy and casework for the LBT community who face violence within and outside their homes. “There are only a few mental health practitioners who are queer and trans* friendly. Even during pre-pandemic times we felt the constant need to connect with each other, listen to, express our loneliness, fear, anxieties, losses and the pandemic has only exacerbated this need. We run a peer-counselling helpline and provide professional mental health support to people across the LGBT*QIA+ spectrum.”
Nazariya LGBT is a Youth Group founded in 2017 by students from Delhi University that brings together the LGBTQ+ community and straight allies to create safe spaces on college campuses. The group holds workshops, sensitisation campaigns across their social media platforms and participate in on- ground events and protests. Post pandemic, they facilitated a Queer Art Fest, Gay-lentine’s Day and Virtual Pride March. “We believe that in order to achieve justice and equality, the queer movement needs to be a lot more inclusive and accessible. We must provide a platform for the religious minorities, intersex, gender non-conforming, tribals, Dalits, disabled, and many others who are often erased or overlooked by the mainstream queer movement.”
Founded in 2007, ‘Sahodari Foundation’ is one of the oldest Tamil-Nadu-based organisations working with the transgender and non-binary communities. They provide scholarships, counselling sessions and skill development programs that economically empower the community. The ‘Thoorikai Project’ and the ‘Red Wall Project’ are two art projects launched by the foundation to cultivate a space for the community to process and express their struggles. The art exhibition sensitises the society to acknowledge the trans and non-binary communities, and the funds raised from the sales can financially support them. “The aim of the project [The Red Wall Project] is to give a voice to the victims, encourage them to speak about the injustice done to them, seek justice for the victims by bringing their testimonials to the public and media and protest against violence against transgender people.”
Founded by Vishal Pinjani, ‘Abhimaan’ is Kolhapur’s first LGBTQ+ support group. They initiated social media campaigns, raised awareness about HIV and safe-sex practices, facilitated discussions on body image and even started a virtual job fair for the community. A lot of their content is in Marathi and Hindi, making the space more accessible to people from the community. They also collaborate with other LGBTQ+ organisations like ‘Humsafar Trust’, ‘Indian Aces’ and the like to cultivate a space of support for the community in Kolhapur. “Abhimaan is an organisation in the city of Kolhapur, Maharashtra geared towards empowering the LGBTQIA+ community and providing emotional support to people struggling with their sexuality or gender identity. We welcome people regardless of where they fall on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. The organisation was established by a group of like minded community members who were and will always be dedicated towards securing a better future for the Rainbow people.”
Sweekar was founded in 2017 by parents of queer folks who have accepted their children’s identity. They hope to support other parents who are struggling with acceptance. Coming out to the family can be challenging for many individuals – not many feel accepted instantly. This journey can be smoother if parents find a space to talk about their questions, fears and anxieties without fear of judgement. Sweekar holds workshops with parents to familiarise them with the different shades of their child’s queerness. After the pandemic, their events have shifted to the virtual space which has allowed more parents to join the support group. “Sweekar also engages in various other activities regarding diversity and inclusion, such as giving interviews and writing articles in press; taking part in TV debates; talking at mainstream institutions etc. to help dispel prejudice. The group also participates in events of LGBTQIA+ community, like the Pride Marches, seminars acceptance meets, Film Festivals and in PILs against injustice meted out to the community, thereby expressing support and solidarity and inspiring children as well as parents to come out.”
Founded in 1996, Vikalp Women’s Group is one of the oldest Gujarat-based NGOs working in rural and urban areas to support the queer community. Initially, the organisation was specifically working for women’s rights, but with increasing government interventions in the domain of sexual health and the protests that followed the release of the film ‘Fire’, the organisation decided to include gender identity and sexuality in their domain of work. They started a postbox where people who identified as queer could write anonymous letters to them and, through it, find other folks they identified with. Currently, they are working on issues of gender dysphoria and acceptance of sexuality, creating small economic support groups, providing shelter to same-sex couples who have eloped, starting a sensitisation dialogue with the family of queer people and advocating for the Transgender Protection Act. Maya Sharma, who has been working with the organisation for over two decades, said, “Abhi jo TG protection act bana hai uske teheat bhi bohot saara kaam kar rahe hai — facilitate the whole process of getting your TG card and then move on to getting your male gender card or non-binary card; that also involves doing a lot of advocacy, awareness raising work within the community and with the officials concern.”
‘Umang’ is an LBT support group under ‘The Humsafar Trust’, based in Mumbai. They provide legal aid and counselling sessions and hold various events for the community like Queer Premier League and Palentine’s Day. They run a helpline and also facilitate ‘Pankh’, an LGBTQ+ themed film festival. They also partner with other organisations across the city to promote and participate in the events facilitated by ‘The Humsafar Trust’. “Our services include mental health counselling, legal support, community support and events. Umang organises monthly events for the LBT community. We have workshops, social events, get togethers and games – called ‘Chill Outs’ – meetings with no agenda!”
Mumbai Seenagers is a group founded by Dr. Prashad Dhandekar to support homosexual men over the age of fifty. While there are many spaces for young LGBTQ+ individuals to navigate their sexuality with the support of a community, that is not the case with older gay men. Many of these men identify as bisexual, gay or asexual and have not fully come to terms with their sexuality, are often married and/or feel extreamly alienated. A group like this, where you’re safe to voice your struggles or experiences, becomes extremely significant. Mumbai Seenagers holds workshops, participates in pride events across the city, and holds informal online and offline meet-ups. In an earlier interview with Hindustan Times, Dr. Prashad Dhandekar said, “It is wonderful to see a large number of online and offline avenues for young gay men opening up in Mumbai. However, older gay men have their own battles to fight and most of the time, they are fighting alone.”
Portions from an Interview with the Accused. Date: xx October 20yy
Interviewer: Do you remember what happened that night?
The Accused: We met that night for the first time. I took him to the Teela, the mound, in my car. We climbed and sat on top of the mound. The air was heavy with the sweet cold of October. He said the place looked a little spooky, no trees around, the water in the nearby canal twinkling. He swore he saw something in the water.
The Accused: He was just trying to scare me. We kissed. I told him a story my Nani once told me when I was a kid: one dark night, Nana was returning to the village on his bicycle. Near the Teela, he heard the sound, ‘mmmmeeeehhh’. He saw a goat bleating its heart out. The goat must have strayed away from the village. He thought of returning it to its owner. He lifted the goat, put it on his back and started cycling. He felt the legs of the goat growing, and tightening on his legs. He threw the goat off from his back. He saw a thing falling into the canal. He cycled away for his life.
A. laughed. He played Danse Macabre on his phone to set the ‘mood’. He unbuttoned my shirt, unzipped my pants. And I removed his. He ate my ass, the grass prickled my back. We did a 69. He moaned. The moonlight faintly showed a few grey hairs on his cheeks, wet with my saliva…
Interviewer: You think I am stupid. Repeating this sleazy story every day and wasting our time.
[the voices overlapped.]
The Accused: He suddenly shouted, what the fuck, what is this goat doing here. I got annoyed. I stopped my tongue-job. And then I saw, a goat, bleating, ‘mmmeeeehhhh’-ing, pooping the dark pellets. It tried to bite his face. A. screamed.
Interviewer (Angry tone): Tell me what happened to A.
A flash of whiteness in the dark, almost like a yank through the cosmos, and yet Sara had seen it. She had caught the figure in her tar coloured eyes, only for a moment, fleeing across the throng of night green.
She pushed the blanket aside quietly, careful not to disturb Mathai, and slowly got off the floor. She considered waking him up and asking if he’d like to come along but decided against it. He wasn’t as brave as her and he was a boy after all. What if she decided to take him? Or hurt him? It was best to do this on her own. It would have to be a solitary adventure.
She had to be quick too, or the figure would be lost forever. As softly as she could, she unlatched the wooden door and pushed it open. She was sure its moaning creak would wake both Mathai and Ammooma, but they lay motionless, deep in sleep. Sara thanked the old gods; she was going to make it. One last look at them to make sure they were still asleep, and Sara rushed towards the kitchen at the back of her house.
Another latch pulled back, the timber screamed into the void, and Sara stepped out into the back veranda. Chinnu was sprawled out on the parapet wall, a remnant of the flash in the dark. Sara eyed the banana leaves swaying in the night breeze, scanning them intently for a clue. Maybe there would be another flash of light, a reflection off her. The only guide at present was the full moon, as uninhibited as her. She stared past the cow shed, with pregnant Rani as unbothered as Mathai and Ammooma in it, and into the horde of cricket noises, trying not to be fooled by the moon’s tricks.
She thought back to the legend, the story that had built it for her, to the words that Ammooma had so often obliged to recite to Mathai and herself.
“These are the old gods,” her grandmother had always said. “The ones of this land. Not the ones like your parents now pray to, foreigners – a mockery.”
She would always whisper towards the end so as not to anger Sara’s father. He let Ammooma indulge his kids through her stories, or as he put it, her delusions. He loved her just as any other son would but found it hard to reconcile with her beliefs – prayers and thoughts – he shared with her until he had found the new god. “Tell them what you want,” he would say, “but they are only stories, not the truth.”
Sara found it hard to side with her father. She believed the words that Ammooma said. She could sense the belonging of those stories, they were just as much of her country as she was, irrespective of the changing world around her.
“The old gods are like us, they don’t claim to be perfect,” Ammooma would say. “They made mistakes just like us, oh, so many mistakes. It’s only for us to learn from though, only for us to know that mistakes are meant to be made.”
Mathai would always nod aggressively, eagerly lapping up every word while Sara observed intently, only her eyes moving in rhythm to the words of the legends.
“They can be good, and they can be bad. Sometimes, extremely bad. Those are lessons too. Those are the gods that teach us the most of them all. The ones that make the biggest mistakes, the ones that act without concern. They are the ones that show the truth of the world, like Moha, the abandoned goddess.”
Mathai would always perk up like Chinnu, their eager cat, at this moment, knowing well that Ammooma was about to indulge them in another one of the stories from her roster. Moha’s was one they had heard many times, one that Ammooma especially loved retelling.
“Moha was Goddess Sneha’s sister, the Goddess of Love,” Ammooma would say. “Moha’s realm was like that of her sister’s but divergent. She was the Goddess of Passion. The Goddess of everything that burns inside you, the essence of everything that drives you”
Mathai’s nods would at this point get even more rigorous. “Like how I love Chinnu,” he’d say, as he squished their old, white cat.
“Yes,” Ammooma would agree, “but also much more.”
“Much more,” Mathai would respond.
“Incidentally, Goddess Moha was God Ona’s partner, the God of Desire and well, uh, other things,” Ammooma would say, always seeming to leave out a little piece of the information.
“What other things?” Sara would ask.
“Things in relation to your body, things that your body needs to thrive.”
“Yes, and more.”
“That’s another story, not this one,” Ammooma would always say, ending the interrogation. “Now, since Ona was the God of Desire, he could have anything he wanted in the universe. Anything he could dream of was his, except another’s desire for him. That is not something you can demand. It must be fostered, nurtured through love and time. This is what he desired most though, another being’s desire for him”
“Didn’t he love Goddess Moha?” Mathai would question innocently, even though he knew the gruesome end that awaited her.
“Oh yes he did,” Ammooma would say, “but he wanted another, desired him more than anything else.”
“Who?” Sara and Mathai would utter in unison.
“Bharatha,” Ammooma would declare, “All he cared for was Bharatha, a human, an ordinary, unattainable human. Tragically, Bharatha was already married to and in love with another, Mira. God Ona knew there was nothing he could do for or ask of Bharatha that would make him want to be with the God of Desire, for his heart was with Mira. So, he hatched a scheme, one where he offered Mira a boon. He tempted her with a wish, one where she could ask for anything she desired, and it would be hers. In return, he wanted Bharatha to spend every night of the full moon with him and want to do so.”
“Did Bharatha agree?” Mathai would whisper. “And what did Mira wish for?”
“Mira was just as in love with Bharatha, as he was with her. She feared that if she denied the God’s offer, he would cause trouble for them both. She knew what had to be done. She convinced Bharatha to make good with God Ona’s offer and in return demanded that for every night that he spent with the God, he would get to ask for one thing in return. Mira didn’t want anything for herself, she only wanted to ensure Bharatha’s safety. So, after the first full moon night that Bharatha spent with God Ona, as per Mira’s direction, he wished for the God of Desire to protect him from any harm that could befall him from the Goddess of Passion. He wished for security from the wrath of Goddess Moha, if she was to ever know of the illicit affair. Ona granted his wish and Bharatha returned to Mira.”
“It’s almost like Mira knew what was going to happen next,” Mathai would exclaim.
“Almost,” Ammooma would say. “She was cautious but not enough for herself. As Mira had feared, Goddess Moha saw Bharatha leave her partner’s abode after the second full moon. She was furious, for she knew Ona was prone to decisions based on want, and not honesty. She confronted him immediately and sadly for her, he denied nothing. Goddess Moha threatened to kill Bharatha, but Ona made it clear that he was bound to protect him; that she would have to get through him to lay a finger on Bharatha. Humiliated and heart broken, Moha left, vowing to herself that she would get revenge one way or the other.”
“It’s not her fault,” Sara would say. “She’s in the right and yet she’s the one who gets banished.”
“You’re jumping ahead, darling,” Ammooma would say. “The story isn’t really about right and wrong but how we have to live with our decisions. Once we set out to do something, we need to be ready to meet all the monsters along our path. Sometimes, like in the case of Goddess Moha, it can lead to cataclysmic repercussions. She knew there was nothing she could do to Bharatha as he was well protected. There was only one other thing she could think of. Bharatha had stolen Ona from her, even if it was for only once every full moon night. She was gong to take something of Bharatha’s.”
Mathai would exclaim out loud, knowing well enough what was coming next.
“Bharatha had saved his second wish as per Mira’s request. He was to save all the remaining ones until the right time. The third time the full moon rose, Bharatha said his goodbye and left to meet Ona. When he returned, all he found was Mira’s lifeless body. Goddess Moha had exacted her revenge. She had taken Bharatha’s heart.”
Chinnu would grow tired of Mathai’s love at some point during the retelling and meow loudly, escaping into the swarm of green outside the veranda.
“Distraught, Bharatha went to the God of Desire, pleading to him to bring Mira back to life. Ona told him that it wasn’t something he could do. He wasn’t a god with that kind of power. Bharatha even tried demanding it as his second wish, but Ona reminded him that he could only grant him things within his power. Driven by anger and resolution, Bharatha demanded to know who had committed the heinous act. Ona had no option but to reveal to him that it was Goddess Moha that had killed Mira. Bharatha knew he had one last wish left and so he made it.”
Mathai and Sara would huddle closer at this point, getting ready to hear the culmination of everyone’s fates.
“Ona had to help Bharatha, he had to keep his word. Late night, after Goddess Moha had fallen asleep, he let Bharatha into her home. He had given Bharatha a magical knife, one that could end a god’s breath. He had left out a single detail though, one that Bharatha hadn’t known – you can never truly kill a god, not in completion. You can only take away their current form, their present life force, which would surely manifest itself in some other way once extinguished. Bharatha, oblivious to this, shoved the knife deep into Moha’s heart and watched the light disappear from her eyes. She lay motionless, her beauty transcending death. Then, to ensure Ona would cause no more pain to any of them again, Bharatha took his own life.”
“It should have ended there,” Sara would say. Mathai would nod in agreement.
“Ona’s omission bore truth. Moha’s spirit reincarnated into Ekshi, the white clad hunter. She was just as beautiful as before, but now driven by her hunger for vengeance. Realising what had happened to her, and subsequently Bharatha, she marched into Ona’s dwelling. She asked him to repent and he did, more so out of fear than love. Ekshi could sense the horror within Ona, born out of dread for himself over anything else. She walked up to him and opened her arms. Ona moved into her embrace with a smile, albeit cautiously. They stood in embrace for what seemed like an eternity and a moment, as time sped and stood still. Then Ekhsi’s fangs slid out without a sound and drained Ona of his being.”
Mathai and Sara would stare at Ammooma then, their eyes gleaming with amazement. No matter how many times they had heard the story, she always made it special.
“Since Ekshi had taken Ona’s life force, his soul was in limbo. Neither was he gone, nor could he come back. He was caught within his schemes, his lust and within Ekshi. She refused to let him go, promising to forever hold him captive. No amount of convincing from the other gods, including her sister Sneha, could convince her to do otherwise. They convened and decided to banish her to the mortal realm. They sympathised with her, but knew that a decision had to be made.”
“It really isn’t fair,” Sara would whimper.
“To this day, Ekshi is said to roam our lands every full moon night seeking out men like Ona. Men who thrive on lies and deceit. Once she finds them, she drains them too and adds them to her collection of trapped souls. As for Ona, he still hasn’t reincarnated and there is no one to guide us through our desires. There is no being to govern our wishes and wants, which is why they cause us the most pain in life. Our lives our still affected by his mistakes and compounded by our own.”
Sara had almost fallen asleep in the veranda, lost in her thoughts, until Chinnu noticed something amongst the trees. She stood up, alert and ready to pounce. For a while, nothing happened and then, as suddenly as before, there was a flash of light. Chinnu darted into the darkness and Sara followed her.
She cursed herself for not having brought one of the torches with her. As soon as she was out of the field of dull light emitting from the cow shed, there was nothing but the moonlight to guide her. Chinnu soon disappeared into the mass of dark green but Sara kept moving forward. These fields of grass weren’t alien to her. She knew every tree and flower that stood there. She crept through the darkness, determined to catch at least a glimpse of Ekshi.
Sara tread through the thickening bushes, resolute in her belief that if she could catch hold of Chinnu, she most probably would get a sight of Ekshi as well. She scanned ahead to see if any of the tall grass was moving against the breeze, if any of the flowers were trampled by old paws.
There it was again, right in front of her. The dash of lightning sped past her, a tiny mouse, glowing in the darkness. It was unlike any other that Sara had seen, white as snow and eyes the colour of the ocean. Though she saw it only for a moment, the image was stamped into her mind. She stared at it in disbelief, only to be startled again by Chinnu who was chasing the gush of light.
Was this what she had seen through her window?
A glowing mouse, a freak of nature wandering through the field?
Sara decided to chase behind them and in haste missed to see a broken branch in front of her. She tripped over it and landed on the grass, sending a swarm of insects flying out of her way. Sara knew the chase was lost again. It would require luck once more to catch hold of the mouse or Chinnu. The chances of her seeing Ekshi seemed bleak too, like the fantasy of a child.
She pushed herself off the ground and debated whether to return home.
Sara heard the leaves crumble under something heavy. She turned around to see the silhouette of a tall figure behind her, clad in something darker than the night. The only feature she could make out were the heavy, round glasses perched on their long nose. The spectacles were so big that they seemed to cover most of the person’s face, the glass reflecting the moonlight.
Sara felt unease creep into her. She readied herself to bolt through the bush.
The light off the glasses somehow reflected onto the person’s mouth as it curved into a grin, bordered by a thin moustache.
Sara turned as fast as she could, her legs speeding back towards the back veranda.
Somewhere along the journey back she felt the fangs pierce her neck.
The last thing she saw was the dull light coming from the cow shed. She could hear Rani crying out in pain. Her moo was the last thing that Sara heard.
And then there was only the night, white with the moonlight.