Walking Into The Closet
For a country where arranged marriages continue to be a norm and ‘love marriages’ scandalous stories that are kept within the families, India seems to have an unhealthy obsession with love stories. From folklore to contemporary cinema, our media is saturated with stories that glorify love as an unstoppable force, and an inevitable fact of life.
What’s more, all of these stories are about two individuals - most certainly a boy/man/ mard overloaded with mardaangi (masculinity ) and a girl/woman/ nari with no backbone – who against all odds (and logic) prove that nothing is impossible when you’re in love.
So, it is hardly surprising that much like everyone else in the nineties, I also grew up with some Bollywood-ified ideas about love – this Raj also wanted his Simran!
But, here’s what no one ever told me – ‘love’ is not like they show it in the movies (in fact, it rarely is) and that it’s okay if you don’t like Simran, but are more interested in her brother.
Unfortunately, I had to learn both these things the hard way.
As soon as puberty kicked in, all my conversations with friends became about sex – a concept totally alien to us before the age of 13 (and, to be entirely honest, for a while after) – and everyone had something to say about it. “Sex is what people do when they want babies”; “Anyone who has sex before marriage goes straight to hell”; “Masturbation is a sin, and nightfall a disease”.
Clearly, no one really knew anything. And since we were too shy (or perhaps, too afraid) to ask our older siblings or parents, we turned towards what we thought was the most reliable source of information at our disposal – Pornography.
Needless to say, this was not the best idea.
There I was, a confused 14-year-old, amongst a group of horny teenagers who would not stop talking about the girls on their computer screen, and I was too afraid to say what was on my mind. See, porn, I liked; girls, not so much. But it was a secret no one could know – not even my closest friends. I had seen how everyone bullied a slightly effeminate boy in our class, and I had decided to prioritise my peers’ approval over my own personal happiness.
For years, I tried to repress these “unnatural” feelings. My thoughts cycled between anger at myself (“Why am I so weird?”, There has to be something wrong with me!”), paranoia about others finding out my secret, (“I hope he didn’t see me looking at that senior boy”), and bleak hope (“Maybe I’ll find my Simran when the time is right, and everything will be fine”).
But life had different plans for me.
In my first semester in college, some of the boys from my class and I were huddled around the teacher’s table, when I felt someone’s arm on my shoulder. It was one of my classmates trying to peep over the crowd – not too tall, slightly dark, and unconventionally handsome. As I became aware of his warm breath on my neck, I think I felt aroused for the first time. My heart raced, my breathing became heavy, and my fists clenched – clenched, because I wanted to resist this new-found feeling. I didn’t want to feel nice – I didn’t think I deserved it.
I cried that entire night, and many nights after that.
In an attempt to make myself feel “normal”, I forced myself into a relationship with a girl – a decision I regret to this day. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t last very long. What was I thinking?!
It just didn’t feel right.
Nothing felt right.
For a while, I believed that this Raj was destined to be alone. But, around the same time, the internet became more easily accessible, and suddenly everyone around me was talking about western shows they were watching.
Carol, Ross Geller’s first wife on the TV show Friends, was the first non-stereotypical homosexual character I ever saw on television. And when she got married to a woman, I couldn’t believe it. Was being homosexual okay? I wondered. Why didn’t her parents take her to a doctor? Maybe this is one of those ‘western culture’ things that my family elders are constantly warning me about.
But with that first thought, began a whole new phase of my life. I started looking for media that had homosexual characters. There weren’t too many, but there were enough. I read as many articles as I could on sexuality and specifically on homosexuality, I watched whatever documentaries I could find, and began following the LGBT movements across the world. I began to understand the politics and stigma around sexuality, and to see my personal experiences as a small-scale reflection of this.
Slowly, over time, I was able to accept myself for who I am. And I couldn’t have been happier when I walked into that “closet” everyone keeps talking about.
Maybe if there wasn’t as much stigma around sex while I was growing up, this would have been a different story. Maybe if I had been exposed to all kinds of information, I wouldn’t be writing this. Maybe there would have been less self-criticism, fewer sleepless nights and no self-harm.
If, between all the Raj-Simrans, Heer-Ranjhas, and Romeo-Juliets in my life, there had been just one Jack Twist-Ennis Del Mar, I wouldn’t have grown up hating myself.
Harsh Chauhan is a queer feminist. He is currently working as a Programme Associate under TYPF's Udaan project, which works on sexual and reproductive health in Rajasthan. He holds a Master’s degree in Food Technology and was a fellow under the India Fellow program, aimed at building social leadership.