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The Queer Take: Finding ways to be yourself, despite everyday cruelties that enforce conformity

The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.

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Studying at a Jesuit-run, all-boys school that had already been around for more than a hundred years taught me to fear straight boys, and eventually straight men. I don’t have horror stories of being bullied but a classmate from that time, gay now, remembers being locked up in the loo; another told me of a time that he was made to stand in the hot sun and eventually peed his pants while the boys surrounding him kept laughing at him. Yet another was stripped and his clothes hidden till one of the attendants found them.

In my case, any gesture, glance and glimmer that wasn’t acceptable to the pack was viciously punished. When I was younger, whenever I laughed I also clapped. While I’m more than willing to grant that this sort of raucous behaviour might have been annoying at times, instead of being chided, I was shamed for it. One of my classmates — while we were returning from one of our annual after-final-exam-movies — turned around and said to me, “Stop clapping while you laugh — only hijras clap like that. Are you a hijra?” I remember recoiling into stunned silence. Well, I don’t clap while laughing anymore. Like this, I’m not sure of the million little things that I might have let go over the years.

 The Queer Take: Finding ways to be yourself, despite everyday cruelties that enforce conformity

Illustration courtesy Satwik Gade

This isn’t to say that I didn’t navigate school quite excellently. I learned that just because I feared these boys doesn’t mean I can’t deal with them. In some gross way, this constant rejection by my peers turned me into one of those people who use their achievements to silence the crowd — never ever sure if I had also earned their respect. I told myself that if I came first in class, outrun them in the races, took all the lead roles in the plays, thrashed them in debates and so on, then they would have to talk about those things too. I learned that I had to distract them. No, they never stopped calling me “girly” for all of my school years. But now, I was the “girly” beating them at everything. Perhaps, I had grown more comfortable in my skin (I doubt this), or these boys just didn’t feel big anymore (more likely), but in time that sting in their insults stopped finding its target. Or to quote Peter Gabriel, “Do those teeth match the wound?” In a manner of speaking, “girly” might be the word that I most identify with today. I love the fickleness, fun and frolic of saying it. I love that it hints at play, pleasure and pain. It fits me better than gay or queer but I've come to arm myself with these words too.

I’m still forgiving these boys for their cruelties, and this is everyday work.

I’ve come to see that I didn’t find these ways to snuggle into myself because of their shaming but despite their efforts to break me. (Although I’m still angry about some things.) While I was being ostracised by these boys, I also got to observe them. I noticed the intimate quality of straight male friendships, and it has always angered me that I will never be granted this ease around men. (And as a queer man shouldn’t I have ease around men?) Basically, like the white tourist, I ask: Why do Indian men hold hands? And the answer should be, because they can, but the more elaborate version would have to account for homosociality in our culture, the segregation of the sexes, and so on. Through school and college, I saw boys who had friendships that have coloured the blueprint of my own desires in a relationship. They were affectionate yet assertive with each other, they kept score but were willing to compromise, and allowed for the other to have power too. They were pliant with each other. It is no wonder that the poet Hoshang Merchant landed on the word “yaarana”, used to describe close male friendship, as a title for his 1999 anthology of gay writing from India.

Every day, I see straight men across this country, look at, speak with, and hold each other in ways that I was told by them to be ashamed of, and to let go. Just this morning, on a HOPCOMS run, I passed two male cops leaning against a street-light, holding hands, knocking knees and sweetly talking to each other. First off, two gay men, two lesbians, a transwoman with her lover, a transman with his lover would never have that moment in public, and if they did overcome their own fears to express themselves in public in such a manner, then they would be violently punished for it by these same two male cops. At a drag night at the club of a five-star hotel, the main performer — one of the participants of RuPaul’s Drag Race — parroted the public opinion on the LGBTQ community; she said, “We don’t have Section 377 anymore. We have come so far.” And the whole crowd hooted and howled.

Later in the bathroom, after the drag performance, I saw a boy step out of his red stilettos, slither out of his red-sequined dress, I saw him take off his blond wig, wipe off his makeup. He changed into a denim shirt, black skinnies, and put everything else into his tote bag. Just then, his Uber arrived and he left the bathroom. Have we really moved at all? I feel like those boring, bullying boys from school are still winning. And that pisses me off. It makes me want to take a red heel to an eye.

Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2019 19:41:44 IST

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