A queer person’s road to acceptance is a long and frustrating one, influenced (quite obviously) by family, society and self. Some people’s journeys start at a very young age, and some discover themselves at later stages of life. Regardless, the environment one grew up in holds a lot of importance in the same.
Try to remember the first time you encountered queerness or were introduced to queerness. Was it through a minor fictional character in a book, movie, series, etc.? Through the taunts aimed at certain kids in class? Or through a crush? Through an article? Through a snide comment passed in a family gathering? Or through a social media page?
I read about the lgbtqia+ community in the newspaper, in an article about queer rights in 5th grade, to which I attribute my initial allyship and subsequent self-discovery that was thankfully devoid of internalised homophobia. A lot of peers found out about the community through other classmates, or through ill-intended jokes in mainstream media, which shows when they say they’re not being homophobic but insult others by calling them ‘gay-like’, or straight-up slurs.
This begs the question - what is it like growing up not cishet in India?
Almost every person’s exposure to life outside of family begins at school. Ideally, school is supposed to help kids learn how to socialize and form bonds with people, be tolerant listeners towards other peoples’ opinions while supporting their own beliefs, and form their own identities. In reality, some of these existing or developing identities are mocked and excluded throughout school life, regardless of whether the class is studying early humans or diversity. Students are ridiculed on the basis of their appearance, their ‘way of speaking, their behaviour or for anything that steps out of the gender roles they’re assigned at birth. Once labelled something (girly/tomboy/gay/lesbo, etc.), these ‘jokes’ stick around for a long time, brought up frequently in a disgusting tone as insults and enjoyed by classmates and teachers alike (“Virat Kohli ne kya mara? Ch**ka'' and the class guffaws). There is no dearth of queerphobic incidents resulting in the victims feeling depressed, harming themselves and/or committing suicide, ranging from the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities, from ripe teenage to early young adulthood.
Schools also prove to be suffocating for trans kids, with their heavily gendered way of conducting everything - from uniforms to sports to activities. “One line for boys and one line for girls” makes no room for individuals with a gender identity transcending the socially acceptable binary. A school in Kerala enforced pants as a gender-neutral option, which caused many people to raise the question of why pants and not skirts are viewed as gender-neutral. Some other schools have chosen to be fluid with their uniforms, letting students pick pants or skirts. Regardless, the hues of a classroom stay limited to pinks and blues, forcing the many other shades of gender into an uncomfortable corner where ridicule disguised as banter takes the form of irreversible hurt that haunts the receiver for their entire life.
The internet here comes as a saviour, an escape route. All forms of media - movies, books, shows, and music have a lasting influence on teenagers looking to validate their identity. As Prarthana, known on Instagram and youtube as @shorthairedbrownqueer, says “ The internet was honestly what I think saved me because it’s awesome when you find a community of people who get it. Watching queer YouTubers live their lives and be with their significant others made my identity feel normal for me, it made a huge impact on how I perceived it.”
But media lacks in fulfilling these expectations quite often, luring queer viewers to consume content by using a clip suggesting a character’s miscellaneous sexuality and then shunning them for making fanart and fanfics that use these hints, thus invalidating their identity by mocking the idea that a fictional character could be anything but cishet. This is termed as ‘queerbaiting’, and takes various forms, from a character’s sexuality being revealed after the media has been released and consumed (notorious TERF JK Rowling made Dumbledore gay in an interview) to actors saying they ‘interpreted’ a character as identifying as something other than cisgender heterosexuality (Zoe Kravitz interpreted Catwoman as bisexual).
And as for Indian media, where to start?
Mainstream Indian media barely has films or tv shows that represent sexual and gender identities in a commendable way. Old films either had cringe-worthy stereotypical characters who were implied to be homosexual through their effeminate attributes or homosexuality as comic relief (Dostana, etc.). Now we have a total of three commercial films made that tackle the subject of homosexuality, and one film representing transgender people (in Bollywood)- all in the comedy/drama genre with the leads being as heterosexual and cisgender as Indian society aspires. Only short films or independent films like Sheer Qorma, Bombay Talkies, etc. properly showcase the various aspects of being queer, other films are either overlooked or shadowed by the controversies surrounding them. Most queer entertainment remains locked behind OTT platforms. Indian literature is in a similar state - one has to truly dig deep to find queer stories in a language apart from English or other foreign languages. Such obscure mentions of identities other than heterosexual make it hard for someone with scarce resources to feel seen and normal in their own society.
Everything seems bleak but there’s still hope. Now, queer Indian influencers from all walks of life are paving the way to a more inclusive future, where young kids have people who look like them and are from the same background who can reassure them that their existence isn’t a sin and they will lead a life as normal human beings that they are. Various NGOs and support groups across states provide emotional, educational, social and financial help for people of the LGBTQIA+ community(linked below). We have started with baby steps on the journey of understanding and accepting the LGBTQIA+ community very late into our existence as a society, but can do so much more than sit and wait for other figures to do something about its perception in society. Although we claim to accept transgender people, claiming they have the power to bestow blessings, we remain dismissive of trans rights and hesitate to talk about trans welfare in the country. We cite holy books and ancient traditions to sustain a heteronormative culture in society, ignoring the various incidents in Indian mythology that affirm human sexuality and gender identity as fluid. One way to bring change, as a common citizen, is to converse. To talk to elders and youngsters alike about what it means to not be straight and why it seems to be such an unnatural state to be in. Happy pride and be kind!
Link for NGOs and support groups - https://lgbtqindiaresource.in/lbgtq-ngos-and-collectives/