[The following article is a personal story, containing references to external and internalised queerphobia and references to the absence of faith. This is not meant as a critique of any religion or way of life.]
A couple of days ago, I received a message on my Tumblr blog from a baby desi queer. It was a gushing response to the fact that I was “lgbtq in India and an adult in university” (mostly in all caps to emphasise how wonderful my existence was to the sender), thus attesting to my supposed success in life, as an out and proud specimen of my kind. I suppose I should feel flattered that I have become something of a guru to younger queer people, particularly South Asians, because they frequent my blog in droves to ask me questions: How did you come out? (I didn’t) When did you realise? (The first day of preschool) Have you been in love? (Yes, daily, on multiple dating apps.)
Which, in turn, leads me to the conclusion that I only exist taking up as much space as I do and as loudly as I can, because I spent fourteen years of my life surviving an all girls’ Catholic Convent school, where the only pride you could exhibit was the pride of being loved by Our Father in Heaven. Surviving Catholic school as a queer is very much like surviving a horror film – ‘Was it worth the trauma?,’ you ask yourself, was it worth rolling your socks to ankle-length and singing Christmas carols under the watchful eye of the plastic Jesus figurine in your classroom, and the answer, unequivocally, is not really. If you have seen Derry Girls, you might have a fair idea of how it works. Then again, I’m Bengali, and not even that show can begin to comprehend the layers of gay drama unfolding within the walls of a convent school in Bengal. Believe me, things get juicy.
Chapter One: To All the Girls I Have Loved Before
Picture this: Alo in her single digits, attending primary school, wobbly-kneed and button-eyed. You’d think she would have no game, you’d think primary school and game shouldn’t even be in the same sentence, but you are wrong. Before I knew the multiplication table of six, I was dropping love letters (written in glitter pen, so you know things were intense) into the bags of girls I liked. Not that any of them ever read it. And not that I was very poetic about it, though I think Dear X, I’m sad when you are sad, so don’t be sad has a nice rhythm to it.
There was also the thing about being partnered for music classes, where there was a lot of prince-and-princess role-playing, which needless to say, was quite a lot for a gay six-year old. Once, I was cast as Sleeping Beauty for a school play and a classmate gave me a chaste kiss onstage, as my prince to the rescue, with hoots and applause from the audience, even as the nuns-in-charge gave us withering looks. I still remember the uproar in the class when we were assigned roles as couples attending Cinderella’s ball for the annual musical programme. We would be giggling and blushing when our “princes” walked by, or maybe that was only me, because I am gay and because it is okay sometimes to look at things with rose-gold nostalgia and feel like that was lovely. Years later, when I would watch anime like Sailor Moon or Bloom into You, I would recognize that sweet thrill that comes from intense female friendships formed between schoolgirls with their pleated skirts and braided hair, and think, I lived through it all.
Chapter Two: I heard she’s a lesbo!
Dostana released in 2008, and with it, a plethora of new colloquialisms was unlocked by my classmates. Gay was still okay, something to be looked at with wondrous pity, but lesbians – “lesbos” as we tasted the tang of a new insult – hit too close to home, seemed too potent a threat. In the following years, there was a school ground witch hunt: every single tomboy with short hair who didn’t shave or sat with legs apart was dubbed a lesbo – that omnipotent, ominous word. I had a falling out with my long-time best friend in sixth grade, and soon after I cut my hair short. When I showed up at school with my new haircut, she looked me pointedly in the eyes and said, “You look like a lesbo clown”. I have no idea if the teachers knew about this, if they were simply too uptight to stop the name calling or if they felt, Voldemort-style, that putting a name to the whole affair would be firmly locating it as a lived reality.
Either way, by the end of 2014, our school was – to quote Derry Girls – seemingly ‘wall-to-wall with lesbians’, and not a single one of them seemed to have any clue about it. Or maybe they did. Maybe they enjoyed it. For me, the reckoning was still years away. I dreaded being clubbed in with the tomboys and began presenting aggressively feminine, shaving my unibrow and wearing blinding pink, overcompensating for the fact that Jesus was watching and probably knew that I wanted to kiss girls. I don’t blame Jesus. High school is nightmarish, and shit happens.
I do blame Karan Johar though.
Chapter Three: Lemons are Not the Only Fruit
My gay awakening coincided with the rise of fanfiction culture in the late 2010s, when – Oh, horror for the nuns! Horror for the Catholics! – we discovered sites like Fanfiction.net or Quotev.com and began aggressively searching up inappropriate stories about Harry Potter characters making out or anime couples hooking up in the most seedy spots (broom closets were quite popular). I discovered I enjoyed reading Ginny Weasley x Reader fanfiction a little too much, especially when they were steamy; these pieces were called “lemons” in the jargon of the lesfic writer. I also discovered that many, many of us, were into somewhat questionably homoerotic activities, serenading each other and pretending to kiss under our blazers a la Aditya Roy Kapur and Shraddha Kapoor in Aashiqui 2, holding hands at the back of the classroom, playing “house” with our assigned “wifey” . I look back at it all with the indulgent affection of a jaded adult queer, but also with a certain degree of horror, wondering how the hell I lived through it all.
I know now, years later, that I wasn’t the only queer at my school then; there were others, in the same year as me, who were of the same disposition and had been backed into similar corners under His Watchful Gaze. I know we were not perverts or predatory for the way we desired, and I know our scepticism in the face of Catholic guilt was not because we were degenerate, but because we were essentially playing in a field that was destined to fail us, and I say this as someone who loved her school years. But somehow, despite it all, we survived. We survived the intense religious imposition and the rigorous disciplining and the taunts of our own classmates. We survived the rigid structure of enforced femininity, which punished anybody who wouldn’t abide by its arbitrary rules. To all the baby queers reading this, there is a whole vista of life out there, and it doesn’t end with your Catholic convent upbringing. My message to you would be to let go of your shame and not let the drudgery of schooling affect you into submission. Queer joy will be yours, just wait it out, better days are coming, and it’s not all bad, kids.
Oh, and by the way, don’t try to convince the nuns at your school to host a Pride Party. Speaking from, um, second-hand experience. Just don’t.