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Of Identity and Belongings: The Gatekeeping within Queer Spaces

A close-up of chainmesh fencing.

I went to a girls’ high school and for somebody who had spent the last ten years in a co-ed setting, everything was new. I often felt like the odd one out who did not know how to talk to girls or be around them for six hours every day. To give the readers a little background, Patna, the small city I grew up in, was not like Delhi or Bombay at all. We weren’t ‘cool’ or very fashionable; we did not grow up around a community that discussed Deepa Mehta’s Fire. When I look back, I realise that we were unaware, cringeworthy − calling any two girls who held hands ‘lovers’; maybe it was the queer in me that wished we could be lovers.

Two years later, as a student at Delhi University, I saw the Pride flag for the first time and though I wasn’t quite sure what it meant back then, I was simply happy to stop and stare at it. I expected something from this space: a space where I could be fluid, and spectacular. A considerable part of my relationship with sexuality was dependent upon this community, understanding my intimate relationships with women. I did not have a, “Ah! I am queer!” moment; the exclusivity of queer spaces in Delhi was intimidating but thrilling. Somehow, for the seventeen-year-old me, it felt like a space I needed to be worthy of and not the other way around. I had to put my ‘queerness’ on display − the queerness that a few months back did not even have an identity.

No matter how much I wanted to be a part of the rainbow, it felt like the rainbow wanted no part of me. It was an elite space for the exuberant über cool gays, with access, privilege and a vocabulary filled with jargon. I couldn’t even decide if I was ‘gay enough’, let alone deconstruct my experiences, having been brought up in a heteronormative culture.

I think for the longest time, I failed to admit to myself how emotionally taxing and exclusionary these spaces were and continue to be even now. It was like Regina George from Mean Girls telling you she loved your skirt; we all know she found your skirt ugly. Over the course of the next three years, I found every reason to repress the subjectivity of my gender expression. I remember attending the 2018 Delhi pride parade and ten minutes into the parade, the realisation of how much I didn’t fit in hit me and I left. I remember anxiously typing on my way back home, “How to know you are bisexual for sure?” This was a desperate attempt to convince myself that I belonged, that if I learnt the slogans, the buzzwords, next year would be different. It was, perhaps, towards the end of my graduation year in 2019 that I convinced myself that I could not be a Bihari and a bisexual.

As a bisexual woman growing up in Bihar, I always thought that there weren’t necessarily going to be a lot of possibilities for me, there would be certain doors that would never be open for me. Pride was supposed to be that space where I could have big dreams, be spectacular and I always thought I would fit right in. I imagined it to be this space that would be accessible, free of hierarchies. Contrary to my expectations, I was verbally abused, excluded from intimate in-house pride parties, meetings/discussions at expensive coffee-houses. It is difficult for anyone to be a part of these progressive spaces if they do not speak English, have no money and are not friends with a lot of so-called influential people in the community. After witnessing all this I just felt that this acceptance isn’t going to happen for me and that is what I told myself for a long time. For the longest time, I was accused of creating friction in this community of love and was humiliated and even abused several times. I only ever entered these spaces as an outsider looking in, I was subtly told that I lived too far away to have meetings at my place, did not get invited to queer parties/reading circles because they simply assumed I wouldn’t be interested. I built no friendships in queer spaces because they had already deemed me unworthy of being their friend. There were subtle inquiries about my background and the way that I spoke – I was never taken seriously. Once I realised how I felt and what was being done, I realised the importance of acceptance and the necessity to build affirmative spaces that focus on helping queer folks from small towns navigate these elite spaces.

Over the next few years, I did the hard work of accepting my non-conformity. I poked holes in Queer reading groups and made them cognisant of how they held performative inclusive spaces. Why were we, as Indians, hell-bent on equating our queer experiences with those of white queer people? I only ever wanted a space that was closer to home, that celebrated the peculiarity of my small-town queerness. How can love just be love when it dismisses the privileges of class, religion, caste and gender? As a community, we seem to run on one major assumption that all our experiences are the same; the nuances of our experiences are often ignored and dismissed.

In an extremely polarised nation like ours, where queer representation gets increasingly tokenised by capitalism, we cannot build an inclusive community without commemorating the labour of small-town trans sex workers, who have been fighting for visibility in the most public manner. It also becomes important for me to identify here, that as someone who has a Hindu upper-caste background, I had the intellectual as well as cultural capital to navigate the dominance of class in pride marches in metropolitan cities of India. The same privilege is not extended to non-English speaking Dalit/Adivasi/Muslim/disabled queer folks from small towns, and villages. This ultimately alienates a large portion of the community and pushes them into the abyss, reducing them to just surplus bodies for the ‘larger movement’.

There cannot be equitable collaborations unless we find and become true allies for all seasons. How do the ones within the movement ensure allyship isn’t commodified, that inclusivity isn’t just performative? We have to build vocabularies that are not just borrowed from our white English-speaking queer counterparts but one that reflects the vulnerabilities of growing up in conservative Indian small-towns, one that isn’t theoretical but relatable. Our experiences can never be homogenous and queerness won’t change that. I believe pride marches in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata need to create spaces that aren’t incomprehensible to someone from smaller towns. The dissolution of gatekeeping within these spaces becomes equally important because back home, many of us are still closeted and invisible, and visibility often comes at the cost of pain, shame and humiliation.

Till then I will be dreaming of affirmative spaces that feel closer to home, where we could live our truths, and have conversations that do not make us feel small, dejected or confused but rather allow us to heal and celebrate our individual queer journeys.

इस लेख को हिंदी में पढ़ने की लिए यहाँ क्लिक करें।

Cover Image: Photo by Ingrid Martinussen on Unsplash