This article was originally published here.
With the exception of the phrase ‘Yes ma’am’, ‘lesbian’ was probably the most-spoken word in school. It was the first word from the LGBTQ+ acronym that I encountered while growing up. It was used as a slur to end petty arguments on the playground. It was magnified as an insult to make fun of someone displaying affection or care towards a friend.
“Why was the international trip cancelled this year? It was finally time for our batch to have fun!”
“I’m not sure, but I heard this rumour that it was because on the last trip a teacher walked in on two lesbians making out.”
“But, how is it our fault?!”
They had done it again. Those damned lesbians that seemed to be one hundred percent responsible for everything that went wrong in our all-girls, missionary school. Why was the night stay cancelled? Because lesbians had snuck into the washroom to kiss. Why were our bags being checked for absolutely no reason? Because lesbians had been caught writing love letters to each other. Why weren’t we allowed to stay in class before the bell rang for assembly? Duh, because lesbians arranged to meet their girlfriends in empty classrooms before school. Every school has a narrative that is completely their own – some have school ghosts and some have controversial founders. Ours had cancellation-causing lesbians. They seemed very task-focused these lesbians, who did not exist otherwise, and seemed to vanish into oblivion until it was time to cost the rest of the school their fun. Frankly, some of these rumours might even have been true. That homophobia was guiding policy-making was a given, and went completely undiscussed. The accepted underlying premise everyone operated from was not that the school was wrong for cancelling things just to keep two particular girls apart; it was that these girls were wrong for existing and inconveniencing everyone else in the process.
With the exception of the phrase ‘Yes ma’am’, ‘lesbian’ was probably the most-spoken word in school. It was the first word from the LGBTQ+ acronym that I encountered while growing up. It was used as a slur to end petty arguments on the playground. It was magnified as an insult to make fun of someone displaying affection or care towards a friend. It was also used to express frustration at the school’s other regressive policies like being made to wear long skirts: “It’s not like there are boys here and we aren’t lesbians who will keep looking at each other’s legs!” And yet, the repetition of this word did not seem to work like a summoning chant for these lesbians. For the kind of havoc that they seemed to cause on a daily basis, you would think that hundreds of them walked through the school’s corridor, just setting everything ablaze with their very existence. However, if you would’ve asked anyone to actually name one lesbian in school, you would’ve received nothing but blank looks.
Of course, one needs to acknowledge that this word did not magically turn up in the vocabularies of the ‘good girls from good families’ that came to a convent school to learn ‘good things’ everyday. The extensively gendered environment which promised to manufacture highly-marriageable ‘young ladies’, aided by the insistence of middle-aged spiteful teachers to absolutely destroy any kind of existence that does not constantly bow it’s pretty, two-plaited head to the heteronormative male gaze, created a suffocatingly toxic atmosphere. The omnipresence of the word ‘lesbian’ was not a coincidence; it was by design – the school wanted us to remember it. Every single utterance seemed to be a new red brick added to the giant wall of institutionalised homophobia which bore a clear message: “We are repeating this over and over again so that you don’t forget, even for a second, that this is what you must absolutely not be.”
This homophobia was preached to the student body both overtly and covertly. While on the one hand there was a very humiliating, public, and hateful example made out of the one senior who actually was queer, on the other hand, there were constant reminders that being married to a man and having babies was the only ‘correct’ thing to do. I still vividly remember a teacher launching into a detailed lecture about how being gay or lesbian is a biological defect (how this coincided with the Economics chapter that we were in the middle of is still a mystery to me). It is important to remember that these are children sitting and listening to an authority figure who is supposed to be imparting lessons to them. Children, some of which, are definitely queer. The entire classroom culture in India is premised on making students one-way sponges that unquestioningly take in every word spoken by their teachers at face value. But in this school, it was so engrained to the point that the question, “Why do you think?”, was one of the most common sentences uttered by a teacher while scolding someone. So while everyone else is busy nodding and taking in this information, the queer kids are surely sitting and thinking, “Everyone in this class thinks there is something fundamentally wrong with me.”
It is also important to understand that the word lesbian was continuously used not just to force queer students to invisibilise themselves, but also to completely deny the existence of any other queer identities. Since finishing school, I have connected with former seniors and juniors, and somehow it has always come up that their queer identity did not make sense to them because the only two words in their vocabulary in connection to sexuality were ‘Lesbian’ and ‘unacceptable’. The immediate instinct, then, was to repress the attraction towards women and completely try to migrate towards ‘acceptable’, because the lesbians in these social narratives, within the boundaries of the school, had been made into people who were so different, so impossible, so unacceptable that one just couldn’t relate to them. Shouldn’t relate to them. So, they would attempt to find alternate explanations or euphemisms for what they were feeling.
The continued revision of the word ‘lesbian’ never took place in contexts that spoke about ‘love’, or ‘affection’ – or even ‘intimacy’. Students experiencing just that with other girls did not understand their reality as being one that reflected being queer. It was invalidating, confusing, and hurtful. But most importantly, it was on purpose. ‘Lesbian’ may have been the first acronym out of ‘LGBTQ+’ that most of us heard, but because of the horrible manner in which it was used, it was the last thing anyone would have acknowledged being. The omnipresence of the word had not normalised the existence of queer people, because just like visibility without representation is meaningless, counting the utterance of words without acknowledging the context in which they are used creates a skewed image of reality. Lesbians and other queer people were invisible within those classrooms not despite the reccurring nature of the word, but completely and utterly because of it.