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Love, identity, reckoning

Voices belonging to the LGBTQ community share their stories of struggle

“I GOT sick of the intense pressure to get married and finally told my mother that I have no interest in girls. You know what her retort was? “Why? Do you like boys then?’”. Today, Deepak chuckles at the memory, recounting how his courage failed him at the last moment, as he was about to admit his queer identity to his mother.

But even self-acceptance has come after a long, arduous struggle for him. If while growing up, the kind of love you feel is painted as an aberration all around you or  is considered a crime — then  existential crises are bound to run deep.

Why is it that the idea of romance has been dominated by the picture of a boy and a girl? Then questions such as “What is love”, and “Who am I?” becomes pressingly urgent, and desperate . Indeed, the anxiety is, at times, overriding – and can claim peace of mind and even lives.

For Deepak, the search for these answers has been his own journey that he shares with us.

Growing up in Jagatpur, a small village in Allahabad, Deepak spent a large chunk of his childhood at his grandmother’s place. It was an all-woman household, and surrounded by girls of his age. He felt at once, inexplicably, at home.

“Since childhood I have always felt more like a girl.” When he returned to his parents’ home, the feelings remained — albeit unanalysed. “As I grew up, I realised I liked looking at boys the same way they liked to look at girls. I had a very close friend in the 12th standard, and we really cared for each other. We ended up hugging and kissing a bit too. It was my first time, but I still couldn’t admit or even realise what  I was really feeling.” His voice falters as memories of confusion and hesitation bubble up.

Deepak goes onto relate an incident at school — the tragic stand-in for sex ed, that is the biology class. “I came across this tiny section on homosexuality in the chapter of reproduction. It was just an after-thought of a mention, like a mandatory line, but I identified strongly. It was the first time I realised that there were probably answers out there that could help me understand myself better. It piqued my curiosity.”

During his medical coaching, he came across the topic again. Finally out of home, studying science in the town, equipped with a phone that gave him internet access — he started researching the topic further. “All my life I had questioned myself — “Why is this happening to me? Why am I like this?”. But  he could finally see that he was not the only one.

Deepak’s research led him to RAQS, an artist-activist organisation that helped him understand himself better. “I didn’t know what transgender meant. I thought it only meant kinnar or the third gender. It was used as an abuse. When I joined RAQS (artists-activists’ collective in Allahabad), the conveners of the group Toshi and Dharmesh explained to me that transgender is a very broad term. They gave me a deeper understanding of the topic, more words to equip myself with. I understood that if I am a girl trapped in a boy’s body, then I am a transgender. I finally understood what I am and I have no problem accepting that now. That is who I am.”

RAQS was started in 2016-17 as a safe platform for the queer and LGBT community in Allahabad. “I realised that there was no platform that allowed us to talk about our identity and sexuality openly,” Toshi, who co-founded the group along with Dharmesh, tells us.

“People would tell me that I am a man, so I shouldn’t act a certain way or move my hands like that, or talk like that. I received a lot of comments on how I danced like a girl. My first response to that harsh criticism was that I gave up dancing, even though I love it.”

Deepak shrugs, as he adds, “Now I know how to handle all the nasty comments that people like to make. They don’t bother me anymore. There have even been times when my mother called me a hijra. In the same way – like an abuse. Yes, when your own mother says something like that…it definitely hurts.”

From slurs, offensive jokes to actual acts of violence, homophobia has been anything but extinct in our culture, manifested most intensively, arguably, in popular North Indian cinema. The fact that the draconian Section 377 (dated 1861) was used to systemically marginalise and persecute the LGBTQ community until just about two years ago, is a case in point.

For decades, the law was used as a means of harassment to blackmail  queer people. Numerous such cases have gone unreported. False cases of kidnapping or theft were often used to break apart queer couples, and male victims of rape found little recourse to justice if the perpetrator was a former partner.

Prior to the law being repealed, victims could only avail legal advice as most people’s socio-economic status wouldn’t permit them to fight legal cases openly. If a case went to trial, it would usually be fought under anonymity. In 2018, the Supreme Court’s historic decision to overturn Section 377, deeming it unconstitutional, finally removed the legal stigma attached to consensual same sex relations between adults.

The social stigma however, is another story. Kishan Maurya, presently a student of Allahabad University (AU), recounts how a queer person in need of housing was recently refused a room on grounds of their sexual orientation. “The landlord said if the Supreme Court has passed some ‘weird’ law, then they should go ask the Supreme Court for a room.”

Deepak’s decision to live his life as honestly as possible is a testament to his courage as well as the support he gets from RAQS. “RAQS has given me the power to be myself,” he beams. Another important ally is his aunt, he tells us, in whom he has found a true confidante, a non-judgemental friend and supporter.

Once, when at home, late night calls with a friend were misinterpreted as a budding romance. But his aunt didn’t mince any words in putting the rumours to rest. “My aunt told my mother that he doesn’t have any interest in girls. I think it really hit my mother hard because she heard it for the first time from someone else.” He rushes to defend his mother’s reaction as someone who knows little of the world out there. “She also has a heart condition. I don’t want to tell her anything that will upset her. So I simply refrain.”

The disdain for the queer community takes many forms. For a woman identifying as lesbian or queer, the common reaction is to label her as suffering from depression, character-less or plain old crazy. “The society has named it kupratha. A deviation from our natural practices”, says Neha, another student from AU we meet while prowling the campus

“But this thinking is not going to change overnight. It’s our responsibility, the duty of our generation to accept every kind of person.  We should fight for equal representation, give them the same liberties as any other citizen and work towards changing the narrow mindset of our society,” she further adds.

“We worship Ardh-Narishwar in Sanatan dharm, and on the other hand, if we actually meet someone who is queer, we make fun of them. The laws have changed but our mindset hasn’t,” says another AU student Satyam Raj Sangharsh, summing up the hypocrisy.

Deepak is all smiles when we ask him about the moment when he found affirmation in his identity, “I actually don’t have the words to express what I felt when I discovered who I truly was. It was as if, until then, I’d been living in the dark.”

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