A friend and I were having a conversation about how we perceive gender and its performance in our everyday lives. This friend identifies as a gender-fluid, non-binary trans person. I passed them a cigarette the tip of which was little wet, we began talking about how this would be considered a ‘kiss’ and they said in response, “It has been years since a girl flirted with me”. I smiled in response, appreciating that they received my action as ‘flirting’. “So, do you identify as a girl? You just did!” they said. “I do, at this moment. Gender is fluid and right now, I choose to perform ‘feminity’ in this conversation”.
It has been a journey for me to become acquainted with these words around gender and sexuality. Knowing the vocabulary has made conversation on university campus easier and has helped me locate my self in relation to my gender identity, gender expression and sexuality. My friends and I are also learning that we’ve been fooled by the idea of the gender binary and the norms of heteronormativity that dominate our aspirations of love and relationships. But the journey has not been easy. There are people out there, including my younger self, who lacked the understanding and the vocabulary to identify themselves, but have always been who they are. That’s where I’m at right now: realising I’m bisexual.
Growing up as bisexual person in heteronormative society of a small town.
I was living in a state (Bihar) with the least resources and high up on the illiteracy index of India, a third world country. Those were the days when access to Internet or a phone was not available to me. I met another student, a girl, at my school. We lived in a hostel. She and I had different schooling background. I had a slight upper hand in English as a language due to my school sponsored education from the ICSE board. She had finished her class 10th from the Bihar state board. Yes, the same state board which was mocked in 2016 all over the news websites and channels. She (I will now assume a name for her, Priti) was a hard working person, a wizard of mathematics. We used to study together. It was a symbiotic partnership; she made mathematics easier for me, I would help her with the science textbooks as they were all written in English. Priti was a quick learner. I admired her a lot, actually I admired her journey a lot. She was going to school everyday, out of her parents’ home, in a different city. Although her elder brother was sent out to the city, he always had access to relatively better schooling and college. Being a man/male child, he was able to come out of that resource-less state, where good education is still a reason why students migrate in large numbers to Delhi, Kolakata, Kota, depending on the subject. I had never met his brother, but 16 year old me felt so annoyed everytime Priti would mention her brother or how much he cares for her! “He never fought for you, did he?” I would murmur.
My intimacy with Priti was emotional, it took us time to understand that our journeys were different. We never belittled or accused each other for anything one of us got and the other could not in our past lives. It was an organically developed understanding between us. The physical sense of comfort we shared was often a topic of gossip for our hostel-mates. “Aishwarya aur Priti ka kuch chal rha hai” (something is cooking between them), they would say. It was not an understanding or non-judgemental statement. It was often making a joke of our equation, to make invisible the possibility of any such relationship we might have shared. My gender expression was what they famously called ‘tomboyish’ and Priti was more feminine. These rumours could also be seen as how people are conditioned to ‘other’ even young girls who don’t fit enough into heteronormative gender expressions, assuming (and yet not accepting) someone’s sexuality based on their gender expression.
I was then dating a boy from the same school. It was a typical small town, toxic-for-the-girl heteronormtivel relationship. I never knew I could have anything apart from emotional intimacy with Priti or any girl/woman. I also had no realisation that this emotional intimacy we shared was not just ‘girls being friendly with each other’ but possibly had certain romantic aspects. I was the perfect example of a small town queer teenager living in denial not because they wanted to, but because they did not know that what they feel is valid, normal, acceptable. No one has told them that. They have never seen or heard of anything apart from the heteronormal households and relationships. The so-called prestigious ICSE board classroom failed me and no media house mocked them!
One night, we did our usual thing. We studied till late while our other hostel-mates slept. I had no idea that the night was going to be documented for good in my memory forever. I had no idea what time it was, but I woke up from my sleep realising that I’d just been kissed! It took less than a few seconds to realise that it was Priti. We kissed again. I say ‘we’ because if my younger self had felt uncomfortable, she would have had immediately withdrawn. My eyes were open, her eyes were closed. Although we both knew what was happening, she didn’t feel comfortable enough to look into my eyes while we kissed. Maybe her heteronormative conditioning didn’t allow her to! Or maybe she liked/likes to kiss with her eyes closed?! Who knew/knows!
We never spoke about it in the morning.
You might want to feel like questioning her consent to kiss. To which I will say, if two girls, born in middle-class families, navigating how they feel, in a society where they cannot even accept within themselves any emotions of theirs which doesn’t fall within what’s appropriate for their gender, do not know how to take consent and give consent before they kiss, it’s a failure of every institution around them! Family, school, college, society, films, books, anything which shapes the individuals’ comfort and awareness to realise their sexualities.
An end we didn’t deserve
After I moved to Delhi for graduation, I lost touch with her. When we reconnected, I came to know about her marriage. An arranged marriage. We talk sometimes. She tells me about her family, her husband. I have promised to send her silver jhumkas from here, she said she’d like them. I am planning to not fail her this time.
We haven’t spoken of that night still. I avoid doing so on telephonic conversations (the little telephonic conversation we manage to have) since I do not know if she is ready for it, or what practical, everyday, objective difficulties she faces. But there is always an unsaid sense of ‘friendly romance’ (as my vocabulary allows me to say it now) in the air.
I have heard people in the university, who now have read a lot on gender and sexuality, say things like “we have experimented” (in context to dating) or “I am confused about my sexuality because I have this encounter with someone of the same gender and it was good.” I often laugh bitterly. I want to tell them that words like ‘confusion’/’experimentation’ dismisses the comfort you shared in that non-heteronormative space. It is internalised heteronormativity! I smile at the memory of that 16 year old Priti, who was brave enough to act on her desire!