I am sitting in my class, wondering when the bell will ring. I am moving my legs. My eyes are dancing between the chemical reactions on the board and the watch above my NCERT chemistry text. When the bell finally rings, I swiftly move across the benches, down the stairs and to the cafe. I calculate the money in my hand and repeat the order in my head. There is a person I am deeply fascinated by in section A. I know I like looking at her. I like how she smiles. I like her spectacle frames. I like her clothes, her shoes and how she carries herself. I sometimes meet her at the bus stop, and I feel exhilarated when she smiles at me. I feel shy when I have these thoughts, but I am not sure why. So every day, I calculate my time and manage my schedule so I can see her. She is standing next to me at the café, but I pretend not to have seen her. She orders coffee. I plan to order coffee too. Something in my body does a somersault knowing that we have similar preferences. I later talk to my classmate, who I know is her friend, so I can discover more about her – her hometown, if she is a kind person, what makes her happy, what gives her that shine in her eyes.
This would repeat, at least once every four years, and by the time I was 20, it would be scary because – what if I like girls? What if I find them attractive? It can’t be possible – it should not be possible – so I brush the thought aside with the speed of the wind brushing through my hair as I sit in the window seat of the bus.
When I make some peace with who I am in my twenty-first revolution around the sun, I see people unlike what I am usually exposed to – a man in heels, women with short hair and a world where gendered boundaries were a little blurred. I tried carving myself a a little space to experiment. So I start with painting my hair, loving my body, looking at myself, embodying one queer stereotype after the other, only for someone to say, “You are such a great ally!”
The more I make peace, the more these memories pounce on me – in congruence with my sexuality. Why did I marry my dolls to each other? Why was I so fixated on that girl when we were 9? So many questions. Every once in a while, as I brush my teeth or do my laundry, a thought passes which fits into this questioning of sexuality. Eventually, it all starts to make sense, like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle that you attempt as an adult, like a zoo that becomes easier to navigate in your teens as compared to your childhood. Easier, and less strenuous.
Later, I work with students and children. I think – let us see if we can speak about sexual health. How can we talk about gender? Can I use the word ‘sexuality’? Perhaps not. But we talked about it in a roundabout way.
“What’s your favourite fruit?”
“What vegetable do you dislike?”
“Can you write it down? Take five minutes.”
How many of you immediately knew what your favourite fruit was when I asked you the question? How many of you had to think? How many of you felt elated that you both had the same favourite fruits? How many of you could not pick one? How many of you just didn’t know? Suddenly explaining things was so much easier. They seemed to understand, unlike my nine-year-old self from whom any vocabulary to talk about sexuality was hidden by the world that blanketed me. Sure, vocabulary was not necessary, but maybe someone to look up to, someone to confide in, someone who would comfort me, might have been a good start. Vocabulary, labels and communities, though not necessary can be a way to understand, access and learn better about things we have not been accustomed to otherwise.
My queerness would have been in a box had it not been for Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), even though it happened only in my late teens. The understanding of the expanse of our bodies and selves, how they work and what they need, can be liberating. At the same time, this knowledge about sexuality can put you in a space where you don’t know what to do with it if there is no proper guidance and accurate information. While we proclaim and announce that sexuality is hard to understand, I have often seen people who have never heard of it before understand it through simple discussions. Like a grandparent who doesn’t know what “lesbian” means. Like the support staff at my school who don’t know what queer is. Sometimes they seem to conclude and accept that one should go for one’s happiness, sometimes they don’t. Is it conditioning? Is it reluctance to change? I am unsure. I often wonder what an ounce of comprehensive sexuality education would have done for them.
There is a general notion that people from disadvantaged communities are backward in their understanding of queerness, sexuality and sex education. This is because the capitalistic heteronormative society that we operate in fundamentally tends to gatekeep information that can lead to the liberation of all communities. In elitist societies and urban communities, there is a belief that the so-called “uneducated” people are the ones who tend to be more ignorant and phobic than others. The truth is they are often unable to access the resources, labels or language to express their emotions and thoughts. This nuance is missed when we speak about the understanding of sexuality in urban settings and leads to othering based on identity markers of geography, class, and caste.
It’s rather unfortunate that our educational institutions and systems are so reluctant to understand, or they simply ignore, the importance of providing our youth with CSE that can help erase the shame and crippling self-doubt around sexuality, bodies, reproductive rights and wellness. This resistance to CSE leaves individuals, especially young people, with barely any safe space to engage in conversations about their sexuality without the fear of stigmatisation.
When we take the historical and socio-political context of India, it is a Herculean hope to expect our grandparents, parents, and first-generation learners to be aware of the right words and what bodily autonomy, queerness, reproductive health or sexual health mean. Even people – educated, with access to the Internet and elite institutions – who may have had access to CSE and a chance to unlearn their biases, often do not receive pleasure-affirming and inclusive CSE. While a school may be the best way to learn through CSE, our institutions need to ensure that discussions around CSE do not stop at just stating the facts.
Institutions with CSE in their curriculum tend to stick to the bare minimum. There are challenges on multiple levels. The teachers are often not confident and comfortable while students are not sure how to behave in a classroom where CSE is being discussed. Ensuring that the teachers feel safe and supported by the institution and are in turn able to provide students with a space to ask questions and be themselves is a good first step. I mention this because most of us had the chapter on human reproduction in biology class skipped over and rushed. Schools should also take a stand in ensuring that CSE is inclusive of students of all genders, sexualities and those with disabilities. A fundamental understanding of the POCSO Act and POSH for students in higher grades can be quite useful. If we were to push this a step forward a nuanced approach to looking at this would be how we interact with people in different settings. Do our identities play a role in our sexual or romantic engagements? Do we only interact with people from certain classes, communities, castes or ethnicities? Questioning our biases and conditioning through the media as well as things we might have imbibed culturally is crucial. This might seem uncomfortable to sit with but that is perhaps the first step towards unlearning.
So, at twenty-three, when I make peace with my evolving thoughts about who and what I like, I write them into words to comfort and honour them. I wait for a world, however utopian it may seem, where kids are educated, where they don’t need to do twenty-one revolutions around the sun or cry in the bus to unlearn their internalised phobia and accept all parts of themselves.
Of first times
The first time I liked a girl,
I didn’t know what was happening to me.
We were kids playing, caressing each other’s soft faces and hair
With our checkered uniforms in the sun
And then we stop – feeling this isn’t right
That something is wrong.
We bury it like a poem that you write for a lover and never send
Avoid glances in the verandah,
Smiles at the assembly.
The next time I liked a girl,
I would wait to get into the same bus she did,
the same class she did.
I would get a spectacle frame like hers,
the same haircut – hoping that in the cafeteria when we sip the overpriced Nescafe,
she’ll look at me and say, “We have the same specs!”
And she would smile; a smile that would give me
Enough joy for the day.
I would read Walker, Woolf and Plath.
Never realising this constant need was my love for women,
A glance and I would like a life which was an abomination of heteronormativity.
The first time I loved a girl,
flowers blossomed in the pit of my heart.
I would refrain from taking a shower so that
her fragrance would linger on me like a memory,
an old poem,
a blurred photograph of childhood.
The first time I kissed a girl,
I couldn’t breathe.
My heart sang a thousand songs, my eyes dreamt a million dreams,
I realised why people burnt bridges and fought wars.
I saw the logic behind Keats, Shelly, Dickinson, Browning, Neruda, and Rossetti.
I write these thoughts down and come back to them – once, twice, many times. Every time, my younger self feels comforted and assured. I mentally promise to be someone I did not have for myself. I promise to strive for a safer world for children and queer folks.