Why I Call Myself Queer
A reflection on my identity
I look into the mirror and grin widely. A small face with sparkling black eyes covered in soapy lather smiles back at me. Dadu, my grandfather, glances at me from his chair. “What are you doing?”
“I’m shaaaaaaving,” I sing back.
He shakes his head at me, amused. He takes the blade out of his razor and lets me fake-shave every day.
“I am going to have a beard like you and shave. Like real shave shave.”
“Okay. We’ll see. Now hurry up!”
After finishing my facial grooming, I wear the clothes I carefully chose for today’s outing into the streets and bazaars of my native Kolkata. Red shirt and my favourite pants with the belt Dadu fashioned out of his old belt. I comb my hair the exact way I’d seen Dadu do it.
I look at myself in the mirror.
I step out of the room and come face to face with, of all people, my mother.
“Oh, God! What did you wear again? How many times have I told you you are trying to be something you will never be. You’ll wear this and go out like a clown, and how will I show face to people? I won’t be able to tell anyone you are my daughter if you go out like this!”
I push out my lower lip and try to reply firmly as my voice threatens to quiver. “I WANT to wear this. These are my favourite clothes!”
“You don’t know how to choose clothes properly. Listen to Ma. She will make you all pretty.”
I shake my head and stomp my feet. “But I don’t want to look pretty!” Tears prickle my eyes.
I knew this would happen if she saw me. That’s why I was hoping she’d be busy and I would be able to slip out without her noticing.
For some reason, Ma refuses to understand I don’t want to always dress in pretty frocks and colourful hair clips. I like it when people think I am a boy. Ma hates it. Her face would go dark as thunder as she’d stiffly declare that I’m a girl.
This time is no different. As I try to run away from her, she grabs hold of me and makes me change into a skirt and top. She makes me sit in front of the mirror and twists two small pigtails into my hair.
“See? You look so beautiful! Now go out and have fun with Dadu.”
I nod and try to clean my tear-stained face, heart heavy with sadness. I don’t want to go out like this but there’s nothing I can do, so I shuffle my feet and go to Dadu’s side.
He gives me a helpless smile as he holds my hand. There’s nothing he can do either.
And at that moment, I realise I’m different. To people, I’m this alien, this weird girl who behaves like a boy — an anomaly of nature.
Queer is and Queer does
Cambridge dictionary gives these two definitions of queer:
1. strange, unusual, or not expected
2. not fitting traditional ideas about gender or sexuality, especially the idea that everyone is either male or female or that people should only have sexual relationships with the opposite sex
For my urban, educated Indian mother, queerness is the sign of “them”. It is something you learn you never should be, something you should always keep under cover so nobody can suspect you are different. LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream media and public reception about queer issues have taught her that being queer is something to be ashamed of.
And it’s not just my mother; the word queer has been historically used as a slur to degrade LGBTQ+people. It is a word that has been associated with so much hate and bigotry in the past and even now.
Words hold so much meaning
Especially the ones you use to describe yourself. As a non-native English speaker, I was fortunate enough not to have this vitriolic word directed at me when I was a small child.
Sure I have seen people’s lips curl up in distaste when they say queer, but my friends were more aware of the words “gay” and “hijra”(an intersex and transgender community common to South Asia). An effeminate man is often called a hijra as an insult. I’m sure a lot of people have been advised not to act gay at some point in their lives. And almost never have these words been spoken in a positive light.
I have been called both.
Often times I just tell people I’m queer or I’m gay.
My gender presentation mostly leans to the masculine spectrum. Sometimes I jokingly say I straddle the line between a butch woman and an effeminate man. I have been attracted to both men and women in the past. The people around me are more acquainted with the word gay than any other word. So rather than explain all the nuances of my gender identity and sexuality, it’s convenient to just tell people I’m gay.
Growing up, I was a weird kid
I looked like a boy and walked like one. (I didn’t know that was a thing before my mother tried to correct it. Like, seriously?) The only solace for my mother, who constantly tried putting me in colourful hairbands so people didn’t assume her dearest daughter was a boy, was that I would sometimes choose to wear dresses and sarees — clothes that are widely seen as feminine.
Even now, I don’t snugly fit in traditional boxes. Most days I present in a more masculine way (when I’m given the chance to express myself), but some days I just want to wear a gown and be happy about it.
Whispers behind my back are nothing new to me
I feel done with it. There is nothing more I can do to appease people. I’ll always be the kid who dresses up weird, walks weird, the kid who stims and can’t stand loud noise. At this point, it seems the only step forward is to just embrace my identity as a whole.
I wish to have a word that rejects the conventional norms, a word I can reclaim from its usage as a slur just to show a middle finger to my not-so-well-wishers, a word that describes all of me. I want a word that can hold me without constricting my growth as a person as I try to navigate the confusing waters of life.
Right now, for this brown-skinned, gender nonconforming, neurodivergent person, the word “queer” holds all those meanings.
And that’s why I proudly call myself queer these days.
Artemis Shishir(they/he) is a queer, transmasculine university student who lives in Kolkata and Hyderabad. When they aren’t fighting their mother about how to dress, they’re a writer on queer and South Asian issues and an editor for Prism & Pen.