“We’re normal, just not common”: Swinging both ways in India
By Ashitha Nayak, Melton Fellow
At twelve, he had his first guy-crush.
At fourteen, he had his first girl-crush.
At seventeen, he had a dream, of being in bed with another boy.
At nineteen, he had his first girlfriend.
At twenty-three, a married man approached him for sex.
At twenty-four, he decided it was time he reached out to people, and approached his writer-friend.
And as that writer-friend I can tell you, the conversation I had with Arjun* pretty much changed my life forever. Have you ever wondered what it would be like if someone walked up to you and said you weren’t ‘allowed’ to have four limbs? That you would have to either hide or fight something you were born with? We have all read about people who are differently oriented, could be lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender and so on. But to witness someone’s journey, to see their struggles, is a different story altogether.
Welcome to Arjun’s life. Arjun is bisexual, and that simply means he is attracted to both men and women. It does not mean he is a freak, it does not mean he is confused, and it definitely does not mean he is half-gay, half-straight. It means he is blessed with the ability to appreciate human beauty in every form. Here’s what no one tells you about bisexuality. Here’s what happens when the lights go out and the masks come off.
What are your initial memories of discovering your sexuality? What convinced you that you were bisexual?
Arjun : I think I was about twelve or fourteen, when I first started feeling attracted to anyone. My initial crush was on a girl, and I genuinely liked her, it was not because of convention. During my high school years, I would get attracted to boys too, but I simply would never act on it. Especially in a country like India, you are always afraid of word reaching your family, relatives and friends. I would always tell myself, since I liked both boys and girls, I should just do the conventional thing and date girls. But I do remember this one time when we had a family of mother and son, living in our house for over a year. And the boy and I were around the same age and we struck a friendship very fast. When we watched movies together, he would get emotional and would just place his arm around my shoulder or sit closer to me. I would crave these moments, I would suggest we watch a movie on the couch. He did have a girlfriend and it bothered me quite a lot. I never accepted it and always hoped he would feel attracted to me too. I think that was when it first hit me that I can’t live my life pretending to be straight. I was fifteen at the time.
What are the some of the first things you notice about someone you might be attracted to?
Arjun : You’d be surprised how similar the beginnings are. Whether I’m attracted to a man or a woman, the first few things I notice are the same. I observe mannerisms, the way they tell their stories, their personality in general. I am immediately drawn to people who have powerful stories, people who are opinionated. Obviously the physical aspects are different, but for me, the personality stands out the most. Hand-writings are a turn on, I’ve met people who think that’s shallow, but I like to think it’s cute. Haha.
Are you more attracted to men or women?
Arjun: For me, being bisexual means blurring gender lines. The human being comes first. Their gender comes into picture only once I’m sure that I’m drawn to them. But yes, there are times when I need to be with a woman, and times when I need a man. In my experience so far, with women it’s been emotional, with men it’s been mostly physical. Having said that, I recently met a guy who changed everything. All the conventions I was so sure of went out the window after the first night we spent together. That night I thought I was falling in love with him.
(At this point, I wanted to ask him how it happened, what happened, and a million other things, and all that came out of my mouth was, “Err, umm… so yeah, when… you know”. I was lost for words, and after a couple of minutes of awkward silence, I asked him a rather bold question.)
When straight people seek a partner, they don’t ever have to feel , “Ah, thank god I found someone straight.” But in your case, finding someone with the same sexual orientation as you is a quest in itself. How easy or difficult is it to find love?
Arjun: For this very reason, I feel like the plight of the LGBT community in India is horrible. Over the last six months, I have been meeting a lot of gay people in India and they make such a conscious effort to hide who they are. Not all gay men are sleek, super hot or well-groomed. I’ve met men who are engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and some of them in their fifties with a wife and kids. These people work in conservative environments, and if they reveal their sexual identity, their livelihood is at risk. So they don’t.
To answer your question on how easy or difficult it is to find love, I have been approached by married men for sex. Directly, to my face. Just imagine the number of lives that’s destroying.
“If a man finds it easier to go outside his marriage and jeopardise his family over accepting his identity, that for me is society’s failure. Not only is the LGBT community a minority in our country, it is a suppressed minority.”
Most of the young educated members of the LGBT community use online dating sites or apps like ‘Grindr’ to meet people. But what’s sad is that, for most people, meeting someone with the same sexual orientation translates only into sex. For straight people, falling in love is a great happy adventure. But for the LGBT community, it’s almost like committing a crime. It comes with so many consequences and baggage, and that’s why seven out of ten times it’s ‘Fuck and forget’. They are so forlorn, and tired of hiding who they are, that when they meet someone, they only want sex. Most don’t want the burden of the emotional connection or the risk of people finding out. It’s mostly one-night stands and hook-ups. There are gay men who have directly asked me, “Hey, sex tonight. Interested? Top or bottom?” That is how desperate you become when you can’t satisfy that primal desire for intimacy. And there are people as young as seventeen or eighteen, and people in their sixties too, going through this ordeal everyday. So when I meet a gay couple with a kid, or a lesbian couple having a home, I can relate to how much they’ve been through.
When you say you have been interacting with a lot of LBGT people recently, how do you meet them? Does it all happen online?
Well, most of those people are looking for a hook-up, a relationship, or sometimes just someone to share their stories with.
“I’ve met people from rural India who have told me what they are going through without even realising that they are lesbian or gay. When they don’t have access to the Internet, when they don’t even know the words, the identity crisis is surreal. They don’t know what they are feeling or why they are feeling that way.”
There are middle-aged women, housewives, working women, who are lesbian or bisexual and just dismissing their thoughts as ‘hormones’. This gap cannot be filled by legality, it has to filled by awareness and acceptance.
(This kind of shook me up. I was just blankly staring at him, having forgotten that my phone was recording everything we were saying. I imagined farmers, masons, vegetable vendors, who could be gay, lesbian or anything else, and I felt a chill run down my spine. How can we ever bring normalcy to a situation like this? Arjun could tell I was disturbed. He placed his hand on mine, smiled and said, ‘Hey okay, let’s talk about that time when I went to gay bar in Colombia.’ And so we did.)
Arjun: When you walk into a gay bar, it’s like walking into an alternate dimension. Here the roles are reversed, the straight people are the minority. I saw an old lesbian couple dirty-dancing, a gay couple approached me for a threesome, and so on. Everyone there seemed to have let go of their insecurities.
(I could see the shy smile on his face. I thought to myself, the world doesn’t have to turn into a gay bar. If we could create a space safe for all types of people, thousands of Arjuns would always smile.)
What’s your take on the legal prospects of the LGBT community? Is India ready for complete legalisation?
Arjun: All I know is, for a lot of people watching , it was just a piece of news. But for people like me, my heart was pounding the entire day when the proceedings on Section 377 were taking place. The fact that the Supreme Court decided to merely review Section 377, made me cry like a child. It’s a beginning. India is diverse and change will come. It might take generations, but the change will happen.
How supportive is your family? Have you ‘come out’ to them?
Arjun: First of all, I despise that word. I don’t have to ‘come out’. I am who I am. My family is a typical Indian Punjabi family. I told my sister, and she said she knew all along. I haven’t told my parents yet, but I’m hoping that they’ll understand. I think friends and family are the biggest make or break for anyone from the LGBT community. I have been blessed with terrific friends who have supported and understood me all along.
(It all made sense to me. Here was a brave boy, sharing his story without any hesitation or self-doubt. It had to be because of all the support he had.
I suddenly remembered those times in school. If a boy used lip balm, or hated P.E classes, or cried when the teacher yelled, everyone would call him gay. If there were two girls who always dressed similarly or went to the washroom together, others would point and laugh, tag them as lesbians. When a boy would shave and come to class in high school, he would hear cat calls, ‘Abey Chakke!’ and he wouldn’t show up until his facial hair grew back. We didn’t realise it, but we probably broke a few people.
I wiped my eyes dry, and asked Arjun one last question.)
Is there a message you’d like to give? To people from the LGBTQI community or society in general?
(He only said one line, and I felt like someone had lodged a stone into my heart. He said,)
“People like me, WE ARE NORMAL. JUST NOT COMMON.”
We must remember to treat all the Arjuns we meet with respect, if not love and affection. If this concept seems too unnatural to you or your family, you don’t have to invite it into your life. But you sure as hell can’t condemn it. Like it or not, the world is changing. This is Arjun’s personal story. Every person’s story is different, and we must accept that. If you have the courage in you, be that support. Bring that change. Don’t forget that straight or not, in the end we are all on the look out for love.
You can get in touch with the Melton Foundation to help us work on LGBTQI empowerment, working with a global project team called “Unchaining Gender” where LGBTQI community issues in different parts of the world are addressed. You are more than welcome to collaborate with us.
*Name changed for anonymity. This post first appeared at the Ask Ashi blog.