By Nangsel Sherpa and Yawan Sharma
‘How queer subjects, for example, construct and display identities is not just about experiences, not just about the products available to us through which we ‘consume’ our identities, but also about how the meanings of such products come to inform and construct our identities and how these identities become mapped out through the products available to us.’— (Holliday 2000: 509)
The word queer is imbued with variation with the different embodied meanings, the meaning making happens through digressions, understanding and transgressing binaries, while also understanding ones feelings and emotions. The lives of queer individuals would mean unlearning - compulsory heterosexuality, heteronormative biases, and internalised homophobia while learning anew a different perspective to understand the mores of our society. These interviews which are par of a larger project provides glimpses into the lives of five individuals from Darjeeling Hills, They share their experiences of rediscovering themselves and finding their community, kinship and intimacy in unfathomable ways.
This essay explores the lives and multiple meanings of representation through in-depth semi-structured interviews with five individuals. The conversations have led us to look at the multiple facets that occupy their existence as well as questions on how they navigate social and intimate spaces.A starting point to think about this project was though the question of —how do we queer public narratives within the town? What does representation mean to queer individuals in the hills? This statement rings true in how our intimate, and personal selves surpass words. It is the moment when we share a casual joke in between and the whole act to trust a stranger with their stories and glimpses of their life. The question of agency is paramount in this essay, the choice to tell their stories in their way and the agency to represent themselves visually in the manner that they choose. The essay addresses the questions of representation and queerness through their embodied experiences as lesbians, asexuals, bisexuals and transwomen.
On multiple identities and representation
‘I am against anything that others, the othering, be it even here if there is the othering of the mainlanders here.’ — Prashansa Gurung
Prashansa welcomes us to the headquarters of DarjInc, her independent venture into entrepreneurship. There is pride whenever she mentions DarjInc, her eyes shine with enthusiasm. The sound of the nearby construction, the cat purrs, and then the noise of the locality all fall silent as she captures my attention with her excitement, there is passion in every word and delight in each sentence while talking about the town, her delivery service —Jhola and DarjInc.
A certain dichotomy, personal and private spheres rules our lives and all those interviewed so far have established this. Prashansa, elaborates on how the public vs the private manifests within her household especially when it comes to non-conforming gender and queer identities. “We all have our biases since I got access to good education in elite institutions, it has made me critically think. My family, on the other hand, did not receive that educational training. It, therefore, becomes, my responsibility to check myself and not be too harsh when I'm speaking to them about gender and queer issues.”
As a person with multiple and layered identities—a woman, an intercaste person, a Christian, I ask if she feels burdened by the complexities of her identities. She does not take a second to respond, “No, I don't think burdened is the right word, these identities are a part of me and as for my queerness, I wear my pride on my sleeve.” Prashansa narrates her recent experience of watching a Nepali play after the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. “There was a queer man who stereotypically acted in an effeminate manner. At first, I was offended but then realised that this type of representation is also important in order to normalise different forms of femininity.”
Our conversation is briefly interrupted by the visit from her four-legged furry family, we digress as she describes how the dogs found their way to her home. Prashansa mentions, “Queer rights and sexuality are issues which are not believed to be as important as domestic abuse, hunger, and poverty. I disagree with that opinion because I believe that queer rights are equally important.” Prashansa now keeps busy with her entrepreneurial venture, as she navigates the changing financescapes ¹ of Darjeeling, setting an example on many fronts.
On queerness, queer politics and pride
‘I don't use the word queer even when talking to my friends. I do recognise that I am part of the queer community but at the same time, I don't use it much, often.’ — Rubina Thapa
Queer politics is mired with heterogeneity and Rubina’s stance succinctly encapsulates this. Rubina Thapa is a researcher and identifies as lesbian. ‘Issues of representation are important to anyone interested in the notion of power in the research process’ (Holliday 2000: 504). Rubina’s perspectives allow us to introspect the idea of queer politics and queerness as a noun.
Rubina shares, “When I meet a non-binary person, my identity as a non-binary person can be viewed as a political statement. However, for me, it is just a simple statement.” For Rubina, the representation of themselves in the public sphere is a revelation of their private self. “A lot of the questions when it comes to identifying as someone is about the public recognising you, and accordingly, people will adopt a certain form of self-representation for themselves.”
For Rubina when it comes to representing herself as part of the queer community, “The whole idea of being queer is so vast, what I know can be only the tip of the iceberg. Some people might even have an issue because while I identify as non-binary I also use she/her pronouns.” They were hesitant in discussing queer politics and speaking out when asked, whether queer politics is transgressive in nature. Talking about overt representation Rubina tells us, “During pride month I wore a rainbow mask, for a lot of people, the rainbow mask does not mean anything. But this rainbow mask had a certain meaning for me, it was one of those moments where you would want to be recognised as part of the community and precisely for that reason I wore it.”
Rubina recalls that during one of the community organised pride marches, many individuals were performing the Maruni dance in Chowrastha. “During these marches, we wear tiaras or apply make-up, exaggerating our expressions and representing ourselves is a form of celebration of our identity. This act is also extremely crucial for the queer community in the hills.” Through Rubina, we are able to engage with the idea of the town, representation and queer politics in multiple ways and look at their intertwinements in ways which are crucial for elaborating on the discourse on conscious representation as a part of the queer community.
On gender identity, family and ambitions
Calvin is an 18-year-old high school student who identifies as a trans-woman. She had recently competed in Miss Kalimpong 2021. Calvin was born in an Anglo-Indian household in Kolkata but was raised in Kalimpong at her maternal home. As an eighteen-year-old Calvin confidently asserts her identity, she says, “Transwomen are women, no doubt. There are some women who cannot birth a child, they have alternative options of adoption or surrogacy. Similarly, I'm a woman the only difference is I cannot give birth.”
Calvin talks about her life in Kalimpong and more specifically about her experiences of using a common space like the washroom². Calvin shares how most of her school life she was scared of using the boys’ washrooms for fear of being bullied and harassed for her femininity. “Teachers questioned why I used the girl's washroom and stopped me from using it.” She shares how her school's Canteen Aunty, helped her by allowing Calvin to use her washroom, and watching over her.
Liked many queer teenagers Calvin too explored the world and their identity through the internet, Instagram and Grindr ³. Calvin is hopeful that she will be able to represent her community as she goes ahead, her identity as a part ofthe LGBTQIA+ community is of utmost importance to her. She exclaims how many queer individuals hide due to societal fear and pressure in Kalimpong, she is striving to create and make the world a better place for individuals like herself to live fearlessly. Here is an eighteen-year-old who teaches us about the world and yet gives us hope for the queer community in the hills and elsewhere. She is the bridge to the world we live in and the world we are striving towards.
On being a queer-researcher, ‘Glee’ and representation
It is a herculean task to meet young queer people in the hills, especially when they become aware it's for a visual project. There is much skepticism on how the community will be represented, while also being cautious about not revealing their gender and sexual identities to their families. Anita is the third person we meet and as we begin the conversations it is clear Anita is curious about the project, she suggests that I employ intersectional feminism to structure the project. “I think intersectional feminism collides with the need to be able to structure it better, rather than queer theory, honestly, because that's what I would have done.” To be interview a queer person and a researcher, meant to blur the boundaries of research and personal lived experiences.
Anita identifies herself as an asexual lesbian, and as a researcher she shares that any issue from a queer perspective is very important and it is indeed a political act. “The act of being queer and reclaiming the identity is a political act in itself.” She reflects on how imagining the idea of the traditional family as a lesbian, of marrying and also having kids in the future requires legal caveats with implications for the queer individual.
Through her narrative, we are able to understand how a queer person is different in their hometown. Anita notes two sides for her, one where she is her own autonomous individual and the other as an individual living in Darjeeling, wherein she is known first as her parents’ daughter. “My mother is fine with my identity but she asks me not to advertise my sexuality to my larger family.” Anita mentions that while her immediate family is aware of her queer identity the extended family is not, but says it's an open secret while pointing towards her short hair and clothing. Her cue on stereotypes of lesbians having short hair and dressing in an androgynous fashion.
Before she met her first girlfriend, she mentions how the teenage-musical drama Glee helped her in coming out to her parents. This meant familiarising her parents with the idea of queerness, through Kurt’s, one of the gay character’s, coming out scenes which she made her parents watch. It is no hidden fact felt by many queer individuals, a proper language to communicate with their parents, especially on sexuality and their queerness.
On transgender identity, community and makeup
Sappu was one of the first people who participated in Darjeeling’s first Pride March ⁴ after the reading down of section 377. We talk about the Pride March and especially the broadcast by Himali Channel, Darjeeling’s local news channel. Over the course of our interview, Sappu shared their life story and struggles with her gender identity. Sappu shares that she has officially registered herself as a Third Gender in her Voter’s ID card.
The media representation was of the Pride March was dramatic, the video showcases how one member of the community while sharing the trauma of being abandoned and abused by their family due to their identity, the background is filled with suspenseful music. Most of the transpersons faces are zoomed in, and in a small town where people tend to mind others’ business more than their own, what is left of privacy.
When asked what the media representation of the Pride March meant for her, Sappu shares, that the broadcast led many people to enquire about it. ‘A lot of people who watched that video asked me questions.’ She elaborated that while she is unable to go and talk about LGBT+ issues with each family in Balasun, the broadcast in the TV led the issue to be highlighted amongst the local community.
Sappu recalls, how during her childhood, her parents encouraged her to play football with the other boys in her locality, but she always preferred playing with toys and felt most comfortable with girls her age playing badha kutti (play kitchen).
Sappu has so much to share with us, like Calvin she finds comfort in make-up, as a tool of representation. Sappu is fearless and shares their life story without pulling herself back, she feels no pressure of being politically correct and speaks from her heart. Sappu and Calvin, spill out their life experiences infront of me. There is a sense of urgency— to share, to get their stories out in the world. They were proud of their identities, and of their personal journeys so far, as they emphasised on how they wanted others to know their stories.
Both of them felt strongly to build a community, and representation through clothing and make-up felt empowering to them. These myriad narratives from the hills of Darjeeling emerge from their lived experiences complicated by their other social identities like class, caste or religion. Despite the differences among all the narratives, all of them emphasise on the importance of acceptance of themselves and their identities. After all, it is love and kindness that grounds us to who we ultimately are in this fast-pace and uncertain world.
¹ I have used this term from Arjun Appadurai’s seminal essay, ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy
² Etti Bali, “Trans-people welcome the decision for separate toilets, but need gender-neutral toilets,” Hindustan Times, Feb 23, 2021.
³ Olu Jenzen, “LGBTQ teenagers are creating new online subcultures to combat oppression”, The Conversation, January 31, 2019. <https://theconversation.com/lgbtq-teenagers-are-creating-new-online-subcultures-to-combat-oppression-110848>
⁴ Bhaduri, Tanmoy. “Darjeeling Braves The Cold and Comes Out For its First Pride March.” The Quint, December 10, 2018. <https://www.thequint.com/neon/gender/darjeeling-pride-walk-first>
Ahmed, Sara. “Introduction: Find Your Way.” In Queer Phenomenology, 1-24. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
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Nangsel has recently completed her post-graduate studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is also one of the founding members along with her sisters of The Pomelo (@thepomelo.co), an e-magazine and serves as the co-editor for DeCenter Magazine(@decentermag). Her research interests are gender, migration and minority rights, while looking at it through counter-hegemonic narratives.
Yawan is a local entrepreneur who runs NERDvana Bookstore & Cafe in Darjeeling. He has been practising photography as a medium of self-expression by questioning his experiences and relationship with the world around him.
This blog story is an outcome of the India Foundation for the Arts' Art Research Grant funded project titled Stories from Within (2021).