Within days, Pride 2023 will be upon us. A day of celebration and hope across the globe. This time of the year finds me reminiscing about the birth of my desolation.
It was a lonely period, a darkness that would linger for a long time and cast a permanent shadow. Growing up in India in the nineties, there was no Pride month, nor Pride parades and certainly no pride in being who I was : a sensitive preteen in a world which didn’t tolerate difference, conflating it with deviance. Later in the 2000s, as a queer, closeted adolescent I was brimming with questions and sexual curiosity, cloistered within a heteronormative, conservative, and patriarchal macho-man society. Dogma dictated : Boys didn’t cry, they didn’t need to help at home (but my sister was expected to), boys were meant to play sports, dress as they wished (my sister couldn’t even wear shorts at our grandparents’ home) and be entitled brutes. Religious orthodoxy superimposed a layer on a culture that often demands one-sided “respect for elders and tradition” and, invariably, pushes many into silence.
As a susceptible, empathetic soul, my identity was at odds with my environment. The dissonance between my inner world and my life was crushing. I do not wish anyone the self-loathing and fear I experienced back then. Lost and confused, rainbows in the sky meant nothing to me. In fact, until quite recently India had limited, if any, authentic LGBTQIA+ representation in mainstream media. Hurtful caricatures in the form of flamboyant or camp stock characters in the past only engendered a great deal of stigma and misplaced hatred. There was a glaring lack of diversity and visibility which meant people like me had no vocabulary of self growing up. These were times before the internet, before slow dial-up connections would introduce us to email and websites and, definitely, long before social media would appear on the scene with its positivity and self-help revolution. Before the world came to our desktops, where was a gay kid supposed to look for self-worth and feel hallowed pride? I had no answer.
When I moved abroad, at the age of 20, toward so-called “liberal” western cultures, I had a radical awakening. In some ways, my sexuality felt normalised and this was a step forward. Yet there too, none of the gay celebrities or pop culture icons looked anything like me. None of the queer students I encountered at international universities were from the subcontinent. Meanwhile, there I was — a skinny, nerdy, bespectacled brown South-Asian boy, forever feeling invisible amidst a crowd — only this time the ostracism and othering came in a cold foreign land. That boy quietly internalized a great deal of shame and his solitude festered into something more sinister.
I recall those bouts of alienation as being particularly insidious: I could not really share the core of my despair with close friends, most of whom were heterosexual or back home in India. So our brown boy stopped loving himself and his core was damaged through a hateful, racist, superficial discourse within a deeply bigoted gay community. Even within the egalitarian, white, western LGBTQIA+ world, I felt and continue to feel like a misfit. Mine is a story like that of many others who are made to look on from outside. In the confetti, euphoria and jubilation of ‘Pride’, we drown the silent voices of many underrepresented LGBTQIA+ folks, people of color, trans individuals, people with disability or any form of divergence from the idealized, dominant queer identity.
Bruised and isolated, I learned to grapple with politics of sexual and structural racism by doing what I’ve always done: read. I educated myself through the words of James Baldwin, a literary hero who was also queer. Decolonial works in French by Aimé Césaire made me feel empowered. I read to find answers, to learn about my own history, to unearth the roots of racism, to glean counter-arguments against narrow mindedness whenever I was made to feel like I don’t belong in the meeting room or gay app. To occupy space and stand in my own truth, isn’t that the kernel of pride? Regrettably late in life, I also embarked on a mental health journey to heal, to reconstruct my own identity.
Recovery and self-love are part of a long process as most queer folks know; I am still learning. Along the way I have met inspiring people of colour abroad and online, through activist associations and NGOs that provide safe spaces to minorities within the LGBTQIA+ community. I continue to read social commentators, poets and writers of colour and alternative sexualities who have engaged meaningfully with themes of sexuality, identity, race, decolonialism, social justice and mental health. Toni Morrison, Reni-Eddo Lodge, Angela Davis, Robin Di Angelo and queer icons like Virginia Woolf are just some of my heroes.
Through self-education and inner work, I realise how often anger, anxiety and hurt reflect internalised racism, fomenting a sense of inferiority. None of us are fully immune to hate. In fact, body shaming, toxic masculinity, class elitism and racial profiling are tropes peddled so callously and nonchalantly within the wider gay community. You only need to log into Grindr or Tinder to see easy hate in profile bios that declare “No blacks, no Asians, no Browns, no fat nor femme.”
When I discovered the French Instagram account ‘Personnes Racisées Vs Grindr’ (People of Colour Versus Grindr) that captures real racist conversations via screenshots on the popular app, I was not appalled. Some of my white acquaintances in Paris were; they had naively and comfortably assumed, “It can’t be so bad! Racism doesn’t really exist in 2023!”. This unchecked ignorance is also a privilege. Instead, seeing the many screenshots, I felt vindicated and, once more, profoundly hurt and somewhat triggered and angry. So many people spew bigotry from behind their screens. The comfort of online anonymity only divulges the truth — it doesn’t invent monsters, it merely grants them impunity. That activist Instagram account proved my experience on such platforms was not an exception to the rule.
In India, given the recent Marriage Equality petitions, we might burnish a veneer of being united and emancipated as long as we identify as queer and have access to social media to voice our opinions. But deep down, how many of us stop to ask: who’s being left behind in this conversation? Who is not invited to the table? Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The apathy of many queer folks to intersectionality and social justice helps while upholding harmful stereotypes helps none of us.
Unpopular or cynical as my opinion might appear, I continually struggle to feel pride in belonging to a hypocritical “community” that asks for equality from the world while perpetuating discrimination based on body types, beauty, race, caste and other petty criteria. We often overlook our own privileges, rarely hold ourselves accountable for the wrongdoings within the community (I include myself in these oversights). We say ‘Love is Love’ and, simultaneously, we hide behind our blind spots, proclaiming defiantly: “Everyone is allowed to have some preferences.” The line between prejudice and preference can turn into a convenient escapist refuge, one that needs constant interrogation if we are to achieve true equality of thought and action.
Despite these critiques, I am not a fatalist, nor pessimist. I do experience solidarity standing for and with a flag that represents, ideally, all kinds of love, all the diverse colors of a rainbow. I am grateful and cognizant of the sacrifices others have made to lead us to where we are today, on this long march. I feel brave, compared to the boy I was. The courage to share my story arises from empathy, from my own intersectional, triple-minority experience as a non-white, immigrant, gay individual. Even so, I acknowledge my privilege of being an urban, educated, able bodied, cis-male with access to and ability to contribute to international worldviews. The goal is not shame or proselytize, it is to champion others who aren’t being seen and heard.
In a world obsessed with raising walls, empathy is imperative. In a majority group, most individuals lack experiences of marginalization that nurture compassion for those on the fringes. Empathy and vulnerability demand courage to speak our own truths. The march isn’t over until we take everyone on board. For us in India, this includes trans, non-binary, Dalit, asexual, single people and all other hues of our vibrant community.
Wanda Sykes, an outspoken Black lesbian comedian says in her Netflix special: “We are not all the same. No, we are all different but we are all worthy of love and respect”. Queer kids need to hear this, early on. Perhaps, the peoples, governments and Supreme Courts of the world need to learn this too. Today, I wish I could hold that self-effacing, lonely teenager in my arms & tell him: do not let others’ opinions chip away at your self-esteem. If he’d heard it sooner maybe he would have learnt to love himself the way he can love others. Maybe someone else reading this needs to know that they are loved just the way they are.
Indeed, few people ever fully understand us — that is the predicament of the human condition. Even fewer care about our stories but we still deserve to tell them. To me, therein lies the beginning of true pride. A humble, sincere and gentle pride: of occupying space and self-affirmation. Even from the unseen hinterlands of a glittering, ostensibly homogenous minority.
Today, in India, numerous social media accounts, media platforms, authors, volunteer groups on the ground are working towards equality. Not acceptance, nor tolerance — no one goes around accepting left handed people or blondes, so why “accept” queer folk? This is not a fatuous analogy; the language of our struggle should be wary of the implicit heteronormative power dynamics in popular discourse. We are here, we are more than enough so we don’t want just crumbs. We exist as equals, that is the whole and simple truth. As I see the landscape of representation and activism evolve in our country, I am heartened. There is increasing scope for cohesion, taking in myriad voices into our fold, engaging with our differences. So this time of the year, I’m also filled with vibrant, glittering queer hope.
As for that scared brown boy who made himself smaller, I say: you’re going to be okay. You’re more than okay even when you don’t feel like it. Sure, you’ll be ignored and made to feel invisible, unworthy and misunderstood. The people who invalidate you don’t matter, even if rejection and ignorance always hurt. Education is strength, vulnerability is a super power and community is a work-in-progress. We have to hold on to the dream of one big, chosen family.
I know now that we have to love ourselves, even the broken, wounded, unsatisfactory parts of us. We have to find those who mirror our light. And like my attempt here, we have to keep speaking our truth.
We got each other and we will make it through.
And we will stand proud.