Believe it or not, I knew I was queer since I was three years old. One of my earliest memories was closely observing a girl at my playschool in Pondicherry who would wear the dreamiest outfits, and the article of clothing I remember most vividly – her lacy socks. There I was in my “serviceable” frock and brown leather sandals. We had a beach day at school and all parents were instructed to pack an extra set of clothes, knowing the kids would be wet and sandy by the end of it. A brown banyan and a pair of rust red shorts were packed for me, with a big hat to finish off the look. That was the chosen outfit for the day, and it’s now part of one of my fondest early childhood memories. There is even a picture of me, skipping down the road with my hat on and straw basket in hand, happy as can be.
As a teen, I felt a sense of fear attached to my seeming conformity to the feminine. The shift in the way people – men – perceived me was alarming, and seemingly happened overnight. 11-year-olds preoccupied and uncomfortable with their bodies understand the politics of gender far more than we give them credit for. The more I adopted the fashion norms I saw around me, the more validated I was by my peers. I wore my cute halter neck tops underneath big baggy t-shirts – a pink tee with a big glittery Snoopy – till I got to my destination and was ‘safe’. The girls in my class who didn’t fall in line were often bullied or mocked into submission. It was a deeply incongruent experience of wanting to hide myself and my body while still feeling the strong urge to ‘fit in’ to survive. I dressed for the male gaze for all those years because I knew no other way and no other way felt acceptable. And so, for 10 years I succumbed to this lack of control and discomfort.
When one feels discomfort strongly enough, one is bound to go looking for an explanation or a means to understand an experience better. Language is powerful; to be able to describe a felt sense with authority and thus move it from the ambiguous to the real helps to organise one’s world. For all those years till high school, compulsory heteronormativity made me believe that something must be wrong with me for not being attracted to the boys around me. Without really knowing the term, I believed I must be asexual, because never could I just be gay. These clouds lifted when I came across the term “Bisexual”. My experience had a name, and the name afforded me a part of my identity. I distinctly remember googling “how to dress Bi” with search results of flannel shirts and septum rings (which I promptly got and hid from my parents for the better part of a year).
Feminism as a theory and a language was taught to me when I was 18. Until then it was just what I saw and understood implicitly while observing my sister and mother navigate the big bad world of Delhi. A professor at Delhi University, affectionately named after a variety of namkeen, told us “Gender is a social construct.” He went on to give us examples of how tacitly this socialisation works, the colours we assign genders being the simplest instance. Enraged, I went home and immediately confronted my mother as to why I had been given Barbies growing up and how this had contributed to me liking the colour pink so much (I still do, unapologetically). After listening to my spiel, she told me categorically, “We dressed you in yellows and whites, the pink and the Barbies were all you.”
I feel fortunate to have been raised by women who were non-conformist in their own way: my mother, hardened by the demands of raising two daughters by herself for the better part of four years and being one to eschew the overly feminine in clothing and in personhood, and my sister whose effortless androgyny became my guidepost years later. Despite this, I never truly understood my style. As clear as I was about my sexuality, I was just as unclear about how I wanted to look and what felt good.
A few months ago, I went to attend a gig with my partner. I’d been gifted a gorgeous strappy top and it was styled with a black A-line skirt with a slit. Despite having the sweetest Valentine’s Day date, it ended with me feeling incredibly uncomfortable, partly dysphoric, and on the verge of tears the whole walk home. The skirt was too much, and I knew I was being perceived as high femme. Femininity becomes me (and I become “it”) when I get to control how I am being perceived. Unfortunately, we don’t yet live in an ungendered simulacra.
In a world that loves oversimplification and neat labels, how do you feel certain in your personhood when you occupy complex intersections in the Venn diagram of gender identity and expression? I’m a pansexual, ciswoman with long hair who now likes to butch it up and play with androgyny. I’ve been told that for me to be perceived that way, I would have to give up my long hair. Just this one trait is seen as inherently feminine regardless of how I might choose to dress or identify.
Our bodies and choices are policed in myriad ways, and granted that there is immense privilege in being a ciswoman in urban India, the boundaries of this play with nonconformity are far wider for me than it would be for a cisman trying to play with femininity as these traits have come to be regarded as inferior or weak, often inviting immense hostility and consequently harm and violence. I wish for a world where we wouldn’t be captive or beholden to these norms.
When you are made to feel like an anomaly, what do you hold onto for certitude? It’s increasingly been my growing collection of shirts and simultaneously embracing the idea of androgyny not being restricted to my choice of clothing. Gender is an ever-expansive experience that morphs and shifts, ebbs and flows. Fluidity is a perspective and a lens through which one experiences the world, to look beyond these binaries that confine us and are far too simplified to explain the depth of experiences we share. As my uncle once told my sister when she was 12 years old, “Androgyny is a quality of the mind” – and that’s what feels most comfortable. So for now, the lace can be saved for later.