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The Queer Take: Our bodies, our selves — navigating corporeal conundrums about visibility

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

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More than a decade ago, I attended a Body Care workshop at the prodding of a lesbian friend, then my flatmate. (I’m not very good at being in group activities but I’m grateful for the times that I do step out of my comfort zone.) It was put together by a Bengaluru-based organisation that seeks to engage, educate and empower rural youth while also helping them build bridges with the urban. Over three days, we experienced a combination of exercises to explore the self, movement sessions and writing exercises, as well as listened to panelists speaking on various personal and philosophical conceptualisations of the human body.

While details of all of these proceedings are hazy, I remember two things as clear as they happened yesterday. First, after the ice-breaker session, we – the participants – were given a box of crayons and a large sheet of paper to draw out our naked body. The facilitator instructed us to highlight our flaws and our favourite body parts in this drawing. My drawing wasn’t very good (I’m a writer!) but I remember even on my naked body I had drawn on my stack of silver bangles, my floral earrings and the beginnings of my dreadlocks. I also remember that I didn’t draw my private parts. I’m sure that I gave a flippant, funny reason for these additions and omissions, but truth be told, I was, and still am, completely sure about my motivation on that day.

 The Queer Take: Our bodies, our selves — navigating corporeal conundrums about visibility

Illustration courtesy Satwik Gade

The other thing that has stayed with me was one of the panelists who spoke; her session just wasn’t long enough. While I had already unabashedly gone around calling her my friend, during that session she transformed completely into a very wise one. She’s a teacher and has been one forever. She’s also a breast cancer survivor. She spoke about the everyday-ness of living with, within and without her body. She allowed me to imagine that the body frustrates, frees, focusses and at times, it does everything at the same time. She left me with the question: “What happens when your body becomes your enemy but it is your only one?”

Another illumination she made possible during her session, was that we can be more than our bodies. We don’t have to, but we can be. She’s got a way of funnelling facts through the funny – calls of concern are turned into her being concerned about me. In that session, she reminded us that women’s bodies are policed even at the times that their own bodies might be killing them. Her doctor didn’t approve of her having a double mastectomy. Majority of doctors don’t. She talked about the emotional and physical weight of wearing prosthetics on a daily basis and the joy of removing them. She sits down at the end of the day on her sofa without them, even then, she is a woman but a more comfortable one.

My heart always breaks at these scenes of private joy. I hope she’ll forgive my queer imagination. I tend to hone in and dwell on such moments. I see her streaming the latest television show with a strong female lead, I see her expressionless but attentive. I see her fall asleep to the soundscape of Catherine Baranski’s voice on some nights like me. I imagine all of this because I understand this need for a one-on-one tryst with oneself – I crave, desire and want for it. And I always feel like I’m stealing it. Having been perpetually watched over but never really seen for the people we might be, our queer bodies haven’t been allowed private joy, and to tack on the words of a transman friend of mine, “we aren’t even allowed the right to be cowards either”. Everything that we do to, with, about our bodies is rendered as “brave”. It is seen as something done for “public acceptance”, these extremely personal choices are only seen as modes of gaining “visibility”.

Our queer bodies, while endlessly shamed, are also the spectacle that brings all the allies to the yard. So it must be done, right?

I didn’t want to draw my private parts that day because I’m shy. If you meet me, you’ll think I’m lying. I didn’t draw them because I’m tired of confirming, denying or entertaining the seminal joke around being of African descent. My junk didn’t feature in my drawing because I’m still working through my own ingrained Christian views around shame, sex and satisfaction. But everyday, I’m applauded for being “visible”, for walking down the street, for buying groceries, and going about my day like anyone else. Someone or other, mostly from my own social class, will stop me in my tracks to say: Oh, you are so brave. I want to scream out: I’m not brave, I’m super smart and also superficial. And I love shiny silver jewellery and traditional hand-woven weaves. Yes, I’m broke with expensive taste. Thanks for checking in.

I’d love to leave you with these impressionistic moments, allowing you to use your own sense of desire, discipline and decorum to digest them, but I’m a writer yo! So, here goes: When I’m not raging and then shrinking away from these hollow accolades, I want to calmly say these things. I fully understand that this is a privilege – being annoyed for being visible. On most days, in the words of my transman friend, “We don’t want to be your inspo-porn,” but on the other days, I’m still not sure. I know that I’d like to be seen but also want permission to be unseen. I’d rather not be brave. I want to spend all day un-kohled, un-bangled, unbathed, crafting my feelings and opinions into threads on Twitter, just like the rest of you. So brave of you all, ya! Just so brave!

I want to say, it is more important, for you, those of you who love our queer bodies to become “visible” and to be “brave”. We need you to step up, to claim us, to tear down the systems that keep all of us silent and in the dark. And until then, if queer bodies want to be invisible, let them be.

Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 10:49:46 IST