The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
One of the most magical things about being a queer body in this world: We get to change our bodies and the world. We get to make it our own. We get to sneak backstage. We get to destroy. We get to do these things in a way that other bodies who haven’t been beaten, broken and bullied into figuring it out for themselves don’t do. And one of the many tools in our belt is imagination, ingenuity and industry. In my own life, at the times I’ve needed to escape, turning to my favourite femme fatales has helped bring a new perspective to dealing with even the worst situations. (I’d ask myself: What would Rekha from Khoon Bhari Maang or Meena Kumari from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam do?) While as a child, it meant waiting for rooms to empty before I could embody these enchantresses, it has changed over these years. Now I wait for a fuller audience. It has stepped outside of the realm of the mind mostly into the material. It doesn’t just linger in the magical, it manifests in the mundane most.
While fantasy and fiction form the finest adamantium skeleton of the queer body, it is clothes and accessories that are its flesh and skin. While I believed that my eyes alone could lead, leash and love men, it wasn’t until a delicately draped dupatta covered my hair that I was sure. It wasn’t so much the putting on that mattered, it was the little constructed actions that went into wearing it in that manner that I loved. I was moved by the nimble actions of my own body – the way my hands sliced and spread out the voluminous chiffon. If I was rough with it, it didn’t obey. I needed to be tender but firm with it. I learned quite quickly, even grace takes grit. Soon, any and all yardage from saris to sarongs to shawls from my grandmother’s Godrej was tried, tested and traipsed around in. But even before these teenage years of secret experimenting with clothes, I had experienced this same tingle of desire and delight before.
My Nepali grandmother, in an effort to commemorate her late daughter – my mother – decided to photograph a six-year-old me in one of her dresses. It was an off-white short, cotton dress with the most dainty lace trimming along the hem, sleeves and neckline. It was paired with chunky, clip-on pearl earrings – they had both belonged to my mother at the same age I was then. My hair was combed out into an Afro to look like a Byzantine halo. (While the exercise of taking this type of photograph isn’t unique in the Indian subcontinent, I have seen thousands of my straight male friends frozen in time as their parents’ darling daughters.) In my photograph, much like the similar ones of my other queer friends, there’s something else that radiates from out of these studio shots. While that something else in my photo could be seen in that ever-so-gently bent knee, the slight tilt and twist in the neck, the glint in the eye and the coy smile, in similar photographs of my queer friends, there are other signifiers of that something else, that ease. In the words of N, my gay guide, friend and sounding-board, “You look most like a girl”. In saying that, even then I understood, N wasn’t subscribing to the born-in-the-wrong-body narrative but rather he was attesting my ability to cut-copy-and-paste the littlest gestures of girliness onto myself.
I imagine that growing comfort with my own body has meant that switching between these binary codes has become less important, and therefore, I’ve become terrible at it. So, while the swish in my wrist, the sway in my hip and the sting in my laugh is assumed as femme, I’d like to imagine myself as a male disrupting the idea of ‘the male’ itself. In a way, hoping straight men will be more than the things they were told they can be. Just like I was.
This task of being more than you were told you can be is an extremely difficult one. It’s made even harder because one has no cheerleaders to help you along. It needs a blind belief in the unnatural, in the artificial, in the fake. I’m always amazed at the ability of other femme gay boys, the dykes and the transfolk to continue to pursue this project of transformation in the face of such adversity, and I draw strength from them to carry on.
It is no wonder that fashion isn’t frivolous to us. We don’t see it as a static, commercial noun, but rather a dynamic, communal verb. Since we can see the codes clearly, we can exaggerate, embroider and excise with ease, and in doing so we create corpora, clothes and codes that are all our own. We don’t make it up, we borrow and remix it. And everyday, we get mocked for it. (Yet, we dust ourselves off and try again, try again.) At this edition of the MET Gala, there was an attempt to celebrate this evolved aesthetic with the theme – Camp: Notes on Fashion. It was a beautiful disaster, it was spectacularly enjoyable to watch the tables turned on the straights, I scrolled through the slideshow gleefully giggling at the fashion world stumble and fall at trying to figure out this concept that doesn’t come naturally to them. It’s like finally, the truth is out there: Nothing comes naturally to any of us.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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Updated Date: May 19, 2019 11:00:31 IST