Growing up as a Meitei kid in the 90’s in the urban and semi-urban areas of Manipur, childhood was idyllic, filled with games such as telanga paibi (kite-flying), keku lotpi (hide and seek), chegai chongbi (hopscotch), marbon (marbles)and yumsaabi (house-house). Summer vacations were spent swimming in the local community pond or at the nearby river, and playing all sorts of games –cricket, football etc –and practicing athletics at the local playground. The boys and girls were often naked while swimming in the community pond or while taking a bath at the water hand-pump. Some boys would joke about the size of their penis,without any sense of shame or offence in such casual remarks. During winter breaks, kids everywhere would be playing marbon (marbles), paying no heed to their parents’ repeated calls for food and a daily bath. And the last part of the winter break was usually spent on telanga paibi (kite-flying), because the windy days of asit-awantha (autumn) was perfect for such a sport. Boys and girls mingled with each other quite freely, without much apparent inhibition.
These myriad experiences came to partially exemplify the childhood of many kids growing up in the late 90s in Manipur. And today, while reminiscing all over again from the viewpoint of a sexually aware and identity-conscious queer subject, one can recognise the occasional sexual tensions, the experiments with and consequent exploration of identities that these games offered, the games being a platform where play and performance mixed. From there, one can attempt to recollect the ways in which taboos around sexuality and gender came to be socially recognised and further inflicted on one’s body and personhood.
It all started with the slang ‘homo’. Though mostly used for gender non-conforming boys, the slang would become not just a word but a marker of a consciousness of stigma and shame for any act of gender non-conformity. In a society where sex negativity prevails, and sex and gender are mostly confused as the same, ‘homo’ would also often seek to conspire and construct a reality of sexually ‘deviant’ individuals as well. While these games and spaces form the base of cultural conditioning and socialisation of young boys, they also form the first few experience of social inclusion and exclusion on the basis of gender and sexuality and contribute to the construction of the social category – ‘homo’.
A mainland enthusiast may often find it interesting and surprising that an English suffix is what is used to identify homosexuals in one of the remotest ‘underdeveloped’ parts of the country. But on the contrary, it is very telling. The lack of an affirmative public discourse on sexual identity is clearly evident. In fact the region’s sex negativity is so prominent that there is an overarching silence on sex and sexuality itself. However there is a lot of stigma and social and moral policing against gender non-conformity. The first telling that one is queer often comes from one’s own family. They will scold an ‘effeminate’ boy to stop ‘acting like a girl’ or tell a tomboyish girl to ‘behave like a girl’. While one’s body language is a major element over which the battle of gender and sex will be played out, one’s intonation and style of speech will also be put under tough scrutiny. One of the frequent corrections my mom often made was between using the two phrases – talli and ngammoi. Whenever I was asked to do a chore, the phrase I would use in order to decline it would be – ngammoi which means “I can’t”. Mom would often correct me and ask me to use, talli which meant “I don’t want to”. She told me that ngammoi is a women’s phrase and shows passivity, while as a boy I should use talli, which is more about having agency and refusing something out of one’s own choice. Often people in my family would use the word ‘homo’ to scare me. They would say, “If you don’t behave you will become a ‘homo’”. Homo wasn’t a word that represented a certain type of human, it rather represented the myriads of abuses, social ostracism, public shaming and moral policing that homosexuality brings upon one. It was a constant warning against becoming a social other. The word ‘homo’ became popular during the 80s and the 90s when the HIV and AIDS intervention among MSM (men who have sex with men) became widely known, as the region had one of thehighest registered cases of HIV-positive people in the country. The word was then used as an umbrella term for transwomen, and society behaved as if it had finally identified a nomenclature and an illustrative example of the gender non-conforming and sexually ‘deviant’. Gender non-conformity and homosexuality then became popularly known as homo-chuba, i.e. a state or process of being ‘afflicted’ with homosexuality.
One of the most natural things kids do, is to imitate. Growing up in neighbourhoods where playing with other kids was an everyday affair, older people were the first ones to call out ‘effeminate boys’ and ‘tomboyish girls’,‘homo’ or homo-chuba. Before that, none of the kids probably knew the existence of such words. But soon the kids in the group picked up these words, started using them against their friends and hence the social ostracism and othering of the gender non-conforming and sexually ‘deviant’became a normal affair. Games and sports places in particular became more geared towards a show of masculinity and aggression, so much so that there was no room left for any gender non-conforming behaviour and expression. Any soft-spoken boy who couldn’t speak in a deep voice and maintain a certain standard of strength and aggression would be ridiculed or pushed aside. Any boy who ever used the word oi imao (O mother!) in exclamation during the game would be called a ‘homo’, for oi imao is considered a ‘feminine phrase’. If a boy screeched in a shrill voice in exhaustion or anger, he would be called‘homo’ again. In either of the two cases above, the boy would be considered nupa-thokte, not ‘manly’ or ‘manly enough’, a socially defined judgment against his gender performance. With time, girls would take a backseat in such spaces,as they realised that it was a space for hyper-masculinity and aggression, and ‘effeminacy’ of any kind wouldn’t be tolerated at all. Even the boys often called out for their ‘effeminacy’, would start to withdraw and disengage from such hyper-masculine spaces, which hadbecome unsafe and insensitive.
Ironically, for the girls, sports spaces have a different atmosphere altogether. Girls who play sports are considered tough and strong, strong enough to challenge boys if confronted. Yet, they are also often desexualised. Boys often remark “sports sannaba nupise bit kaade”, which can be loosely translated as “girls who play sports are not sexually arousing”. This especially applies to the ‘tomboyish’ girls who usually have short hair and a ‘masculine’ gait and body language, as opposed to the prettier and softer girls with long hair and a certain femininity in their gender expression. In any case, the spaces are comparatively safer as compared to other social spaces though instances of bullying, stalking and harassment are still expected. After all, it is still not an ideal and equal world. Nevertheless, one must recognise the stark difference between a girl transitioning to a ‘masculine’ identity and a boy transitioning or veering towards a more ‘feminine’ subject. The former is often likely to get less harassment compared to the latter precisely because in most societies masculinity has always received more respect than femininity. However, the desexualisation of ‘tomboyish’ girls remains a prevailing attitude. This brings us to the case of ‘effeminate’ boys who are targets of sexual advances from their peers. Even if they are ridiculed and despised in social spaces, they are also the soft targets of sexual predators, the so-called ‘masculine’ boys and men. It comes as no surprise when phrases like “homo sidi fudat kadabane” or“homo sidi nathok kadabane” loosely translated as “homo should be beaten up” or “homo should be fucked” become part of the social imagination. And such imaginations are often translated into actions that continue to be tolerated.
The Meitei queer’s tussle with sexuality continues to be a struggle jarred with discrimination, negation and moral policing through language. There is hardly any social space that is free of such linguistic prejudices. In the last few years, new terms like gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual may have seeped into the vocabulary of the Facebook and Grindr generation youth even in this part of the world, but the older generation still finds it hard to catch up. Either way, society is clearly caught between the reality of sexual diversity and the heteronormative value system that continues to churn the language of prejudice towards sexually diverse and gender-non conforming people.
Cover Image: (CC BY-SA 2.0)