Not being able to reveal one’s gender identity curbs one’s freedom to be who one wants to be. And that is most definitely not a good place to be in. However, members of the LGBTQIA+ community face this obstacle on a daily basis, wherein they risk being picked on and bullied if they reveal their sexual orientation. Moreover, what is missing is people who can actually support them and root for them.
The good news is that anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, can lend their support to the LGBTQIA+ community and be their ‘ally’. ‘Ally’ is a popular term used in relation to the LGBTQIA+ community for people who support the community and promise to stick by their side through thick and thin. One of the most important criteria to be an ally of the community is to be willing and prepared to deepen one’s understanding of LGBTQIA+ related issues, their everyday problems and inconveniences, and pledge to stand by them in their times of need. Allyship is also largely about sharing the space and if possible, stepping aside and offering space to those who haven’t had the chance to that space so far.
It is imperative that we point out the importance of allies for LGBTQIA+ conversations to happen so that everybody can actually be free to love. Allies who do not belong to the community but support the community enable the community and make sure that it is seen and, in turn, empowered.
Pride Circle has taken a step ahead in that direction and compiled a book consisting of allies and their stories from different walks of life. The book is called EQUALLY: Stories By FRIENDS Of the Queer World, a first of its kind anthology of powerful personal stories by individuals who have stood up, spoken out and created safe spaces for the LGBT+ community at home, schools, colleges, workplaces and in society. The book released on April 9.
In this interview, Homegrown talks to 3 people from the LGBTQIA+ community (two of whose family members have contributed to EQUALLY) on their journeys of self-acceptance and what they really look for in an ally.
I. Anwesh Sahoo
“I identify as a gay cisgender homosexual man and am someone who has had a really interesting childhood. Owing to my father’s government job, I grew up in a lot of different places in the country. Even though I started off with an engineering degree in Electronics & Communication, professionally, I am a visual designer and an illustrator, currently working with HDFC Bank.
During my B Tech years, there were a lot of boys around me, who were sometimes scared of me. They would even run away from me. I had to make them realise that I am gay, not desperate, and neither do I like every guy out there. Sometimes it was very demeaning as well. There were some boys who would not want to be friends with me just because they knew that I was gay. I chose to tell them my side of the story, so as to not let them feed on their ignorance.
However, it was also during this time that I participated in Mr. Gay India and went on to win the pageant, becoming the youngest person to ever do so. And that got me the little start that I wanted in terms of becoming the illustrator or Visual Designer that I am today, or in exploring my interests in the world of modelling. I even did a few acting gigs here and there, and over the years I have just sort of realised that Visual Designing is something I am really interested in and therefore, I eventually established my niche at the intersection of technology and design. I think, as a queer person of colour, who is at the same time, very artsy and experimental, that’s an interesting place to be in.
I grew up mostly in Odisha, but I eventually moved to Delhi when I was 13 and and my experience growing up as a gay person who also happens to be femme, was a very difficult one, to be honest. I think for the first few years of my life I didn’t want to focus a lot on all the negative experiences in my life. I wanted it to be as positive as possible, but, over the years I realised that the way I am being treated is just wrong. I was heavily bullied for being femme, for the way I talked, and even sometimes for raising my hand the way I did in the classroom. I was a debater, so every time I’d go in for a competition, someone would come to me and make fun of my demeanour. So, I was always someone who was heavily picked on throughout my life. There were times when I would be completely broken and shattered.
In fact, initially, while growing up, I was uncomfortable with being associated with the terms – ‘gay’, ‘trans’ or ‘effeminate’. I was afraid that I would be put in a box and stereotyped as a gay person throughout my life, since that’s the kind of social onslaught most gay people face in a heteronormative society.
However, over the years I wanted to reclaim all of that space which is how I eventually took it upon myself to create my blog, The Effeminare, which grew into something much more valuable to me. Having been always associated with the word, ‘effeminate,’ I wanted to reclaim it in my own stride, and dismantle the stigma associated with it.
I feel ‘femme’ representation of queer people in popular media is only problematic when they are shown as a means to titillate or provide a comic relief to the audience – something which is done routinely in movies and advertisements. In fact, I have faced a lot of negativity from the queer community as well for being femme and skinny and brown.
I wanted to bring in a more positive thought process associated with an effeminate queer man of colour who is skinny, or perhaps not your quintessential masculine-looking boy. But now I feel this is who I am and I’m very proud to be the way I am. I am glad that through my blog, and through my art works I have been able to take a lot of that negativity away from myself and my being.
Having said that, it has definitely been a difficult journey for my parents as well. Internally, my mother cried for a good 2-3 years. It really was a very difficult journey for her, and it was very difficult for her to come to terms with the fact that not only am I gay, but also femme, which is something that she didn’t really care about much when I was young. But, eventually, as I grew up, it became very apparent that I was very different from the other boys around me. I think coming to terms with all these was very difficult for her, because she realised that I was going to have a more difficult life. I didn’t put in much thought before coming out to her, since I felt that this is my reality and someone who is so close to me should and must know about it. I just felt that it was the right thing to do at that point of time, because I could not have kept it within myself any longer.
Since I was in hostel back in those days, it was very difficult for us to have regular conversations. And I think it was good that I was away from them, since I don’t think they would have been able to understand what I was saying at all. I tried a lot, I was very patient and I kept having a lot of conversations with them about what being ‘queer’ meant and how that was my reality. At first my parents were quite frustrated because they had their own aspirations associated to my life, and I understand that. It was a journey for them as well as me to come to terms with my own sexuality. It has been 7 years since I have come out. Now they have become okay with who I am and are also very happy with the work that I am doing. To them, that is more important than my sexuality.
I also ended up making a lot of good friends in college, who were the first set of people who actually got to know about my sexuality. In fact, I’m very much in touch with many of them today. So, I can safely say that my life has been a mixture of both good and bad. Besides my parents and friends, my elder sister, Ankita had also been one of my greatest support systems in this journey of discovery.”
II. Aryan Pasha
“I identify as a transman and am a trans rights activist, as well as a member of the National Council for Transgender Persons . I am based in Delhi and I have done BLS/LLB from Mumbai University.
Having been into different sports since childhood, I have won many national competitions like National Speed Skating competition (before transition, in female category) and National Bodybuilding competition (after transition, in male physique bodybuilding category).
As a kid I didn’t have an all-encompassing idea about gender identity. Gradually, after the onset of puberty, I realised that my body is different from those of other boys. I also felt clueless about why I felt the way I did. Later on all the emotional turmoil turned into depression and I eventually grew suicidal, as my body started changing, and a few of my classmates started bailing on me. From Class II till Class XI no one knew that I was born female. But in Class XII, a few of my friends started bullying me for my demeanour, after which I had to eventually opt for dropping out of school.
I had started my transition at the age of 18, and came out on my 25th birthday to all of my friends. Since for them I was always a man, it was a very emotional journey for them as well. I feel elated after having come out, since there’s nothing holding me back anymore.
In the beginning, my parents thought that it is a phase and I will be ‘normal’ like their other daughter was. But, as I turned 16, my frustration increased. My mother noticed that I was not happy with my own body, so, she had a serious discussion with my dad and explained to him about my situation and the way they could possibly help me. After that my mother told me about gender-affirming surgery and assured me that if I wanted to go for it, they would help me as much as they could. My life only changed for the better after the transition, since both my family and my relatives have accepted me with open arms.
Every now and then, I do get offensive messages on social media, but, they don’t affect me as much as they did before. In fact, I feel bad about those people who have nothing better to do than to hurl abuses on other people.”
III. Pallavi Sharma
“I am Punjabi by heritage, but I don’t identify with one specific place as my ‘hometown’. I have grown up across the country, thanks to my father’s job as a banker. I have lived in 11 different cities and have studied in various schools. I have done my M.A. in English Literature because I wanted to become a writer. But my interest in computers and technology made me change paths and I landed up ‘teaching computers’ – and then Instructional Design (the science of learning) and then finally got into enterprise learning. Outside of work, I love doodling, through which I learnt an artform called ‘zentangle’ – a sort of meditative doodling, where you draw repetitive patterns or tangles. I also love to cook – because I am a purist; I love making recipes from scratch, since it is a big stress buster for me.
Speaking about my sexual identity, it is something that I am still learning about. In fact, it was only a few years ago, I learnt that people who are like me identify as ‘queer’ more than non-binary or gay/lesbian. I have had heterosexual relationships in the past and was even married once. However, when I first met my partner, I had never had same-sex relationships - it was a very confusing and tough time- thinking how can I be in love with the person of the same gender? Now when I look back, it was probably an effect of social conditioning, and nothing else.
I have been very lucky in this regard. Epsilon (where I work) was the first workplace where I came out. Everyone - from my leader to my immediate peer group and my team- were all very supportive; they were curious, but never judgemental. It gave me a lot of confidence to talk more openly about my sexual identity. If people were ignorant, I saw that as an opportunity to educate them.
Our company has just started on the journey of ‘inclusion’, which is a big focus right now, and also one of our key company values. As luck would have it, in 2020, inclusion at Epsilon became one of my key goals. When I proposed that we bring more awareness and sensitization about the LGBTQ+ community to Epsilon, I got a lot of encouragement. We brought in experts to sensitize everyone across the organization through workshops. We also brought in speakers from the community. It was truly an eye opener for a lot of people and everyone walked out richer with more awareness and knowledge.
Again, I feel so privileged talking about this- but my coming out story to my parents will always be a special one. After I had lived with my partner for a year or so, I wanted to share with my parents how special this relationship was to me. I was very nervous to talk to them, so I decided
to write to them instead. I poured my heart out on an email and was a nervous wreck after hitting the send button, thinking about the worst outcomes. Finally, my father wrote back the most heartfelt, sweetest email.
Here is an excerpt:
‘…It is always a matter of perspectives. I find that Happiness is above everything else. While we are in school and college we don’t choose companions based on gender. Parents don’t love their children conditionally and based on their gender. Same should be true of life partners.’
I still tear up reading this email and cannot stop thinking how incredible it is that despite their humble backgrounds and little exposure to the LGBT+ community, they are so supportive, wishing nothing but true happiness for their child. My parents love my partner as their own daughter and the same holds true for my partner’s parents. We have always had immense support from them.
Much like my parents, I underestimated my friends too. In fact, it took me a while to open up to all my friends. They had known me from the time I was in heterosexual relationships and therefore, I thought that they will make fun of me and say that it a ‘phase’. But they surprised me too; they were so happy for me, because I guess I was finally happy with myself. I am still a little wary of sharing my feelings with the older generation because I feel that they will judge me. But, to be honest, I haven’t come across any bad experiences yet. I pray that it stays the same.”
IV. Aritra Kanjilal
I am a Bengali, gay, non-binary, agnostic, food enthusiast who loves his luchi (a deep-fried flatbread made of flour) best with shada alur tarkarai, (Bengali-style potato curry) studied Statistics, loves to bake, hates fish, very passionate about Hindustani Classical Music & Rabindrasangeet and is currently working for NielsenIQ as a Product Leader and PRIDE employee resource group for NielsenIQ South Asia.
Well, to be honest, I did not grow up as a non-binary person. When I was growing up back in the 90s or early 2000s, we never discussed gender identity separately from anatomical sex. So I was kind of conditioned to think that since I have a male body and since I do not feel any discomfort with it (later I would learn that the term is Gender Dysphoria), my gender must also be male. It was much later when I started working on LGBT+ inclusion actively, that I became familiar with the concept of gender identity and how it pivots on your inner feeling. And then I asked myself, ‘what do I feel inside?’, ‘do I feel like a man or a woman or something else?’ ‘What does it mean to feel like a man or a woman or something else?’ The more I asked these questions, the clearer it became to me that I do not feel masculine or feminine or a combination of both, the way I feel, for example, hungry or sleepy. To me, it doesn’t make sense for a feeling or an emotion to be masculine or feminine and hence logically, I must be non-binary. That’s how I figured out my non-binary identity almost a decade after coming out as gay. That said, was I bullied at school and called ‘pansy’, ‘chhakka’, ‘hijra’, ‘shokhi’ etc. - of course I was! And the worst part is that in school, I never found the courage to reach out to someone for help. That is why, I feel, conversations around these topics are necessary at schools, colleges and workplaces, so that people who are being bullied & harassed know that it is not an isolated experience that they are facing and they can always reach out for help.
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