By Pema Gyalchen Tamang Queer voices in the Hills have mostly been silenced and rendered invisible to uphold the values of an ‘ideal’ society, which in itself speaks a lot about the homophobia that is inherent to this value system. This ‘ideal’ society has often sanctioned different forms of otherings, something that we choose to look away from rather than confront. Such semblance of normalcy is just another way of making this system of oppression and marginalisation fully functional. Before we attempt to learn about these experiences, an important thing that needs to be questioned is the understanding of homosexuality in the Hills under a singular bracket. The categorisation of anything that does not fit the ‘normal’ as ‘chakka’ is a big problem. This is just a testimony of the fact that a basic understanding of the difference between sexual identity and gender identity is absent in the Hills. Moreover, other forms of sexualities and gender identities are also all clubbed under one problematic concept of ‘chakka’. While the word itself is derogatory, it is more important to have a basic idea about these identities to break the heteronormative way of thinking. In also using terms such as chakka, hijra and even aimei as abusive terminology to shame, humiliate and subject individuals to mockery is further reflective of the gender regime that treats the ‘feminine’ as inferior.
Here we document three powerful cis-male and genderfluid queer voices below, from the Hills of North Bengal and Sikkim, who have shared with us their experiences allowing us a reflection on the stigma attached to sexual minorities in the region.
Abhigyan Tamang, 18, is a resident of Darjeeling. He shared with us some of his experiences growing up in an all-boys school and the marked influence of it in his life.
“Growing up I had to go through a few things especially in my school. I studied in an all-boys school till the 10th standard. During my primary school days, I literally had no friends. Class three-four-five…no one to talk to… no one to eat my lunch with… I was aware of the fact that the parents of other students used to tell their kids that if they hung out with me ‘tele tolai bigarcha’ just because I was feminine.”
Research and surveys conducted in various schools have concluded that LGBTQ+ students often have an isolated childhood which later leads them to lose confidence which badly affects their overall development. This is mainly because they are pushed away by this vicious idea of not being ‘normal’ like other kids of their age. The fear that parents of other students have, that these kids are going to influence their children into becoming like them, stems from the homophobic values deeply ingrained into the psyche of the society that we live in. Such practices of intolerance towards young kids showing ‘different’ and ‘abnormal’ traits in schools by both parents and the administration are a normalised affair.
“In class six, washroom was the biggest problem. Eklai washroom janu bhane ko tah malai maut ko kua ma goko jati ko nai thyo. School washroom was not a safe place for me. All the harassment, teasing, bullying…spanking… started from the washroom. Eklai washroom tah na goem hunthyo. So in class six, I became friends with a few seniors who were like me. I could relate to them. I started having lunch and playing with them. We used to go to the washroom as one whole group. If one of us entered the booth we would guard outside.”
It is both alarming and heartbreaking that a simple act of relieving yourself is a daunting task for these young kids. Rather than living in a sense of denial, it is high time that he presence of sexual minorities is acknowledged as normal and safe spaces be created in institutional and public spaces. Young children, youths and adults alike are subjected to serious incidents of sexual harassment and violence, most of these incidents which will never see the light of the day. Confined to the strict binaries of HIS/HER and accepting it as the only normal gender regime mirrors the gendered realities of the hill societies where the visible presence of the LGBTIQ+ community is yet to be rendered visible, accepted and acknowledged.
Some of the teachers were nice but most of them were in a way homophobic. This teacher in class six…she used to teach us geography… had the last period once a week…She was very rude to us. She used to talk about us in front of the entire class. ‘Timharu kina esto bhako’… ‘Why are you walking like this…you can’t walk straight?’ She used to call me in front of the class and make me walk…and then go on to taunt me in front of everybody, ‘Why are you moving your hips’…and this was not only with me. This used to happen to all my senior friends also. ‘Walk straight’ ta usko mukh mai jhundeko hunthyo. It was in class seven that my parents were called to the school. The coordinator told my parents that ‘Tapai ko chora esari nai basyo…change bhayena bhane uhlai school bata nikaldinu…ewta jagah cha hijra huru lai parawne…tinharlai society bara taroh rakhcha…tai haldinu’. My parents were worried because getting admission at my school is considered difficult and prestigious. They didn’t want me to lose the opportunity of studying in this school. My parents told me to stay away from the seniors who were like me.”
Schools play a definitive role in shaping up our later years and teachers likewise have a profound role to play in either shaping or damaging the young minds. Embedded in the value system of a society that is intolerant towards the sexual minorities, it is not shocking that the teaching community themselves participate in bullying these young children. We would expect a rational level of maturity on the part of our readers for it is obvious that we are not blaming all the teachers teaching and all the schools present in the hills, but the ones who have participated in such rhetoric and action. Rather than providing counselling and advice when teachers participate in such a culture of bullying and shaming young children themselves struggling with their experiences at such a young age, it leaves a permanent scar in their lives. It is high time we begin to speak about sexuality as real rather than pretend to disguise our visible discomfort with the subject
“Class nine was the time I faced a lot of bullying in school. At times it used to get violent. With me, it was just once or twice but my other friends had to go through even worse. Once I was punched very badly in the face by a fellow classmate. When I asked him why he did it, he said he just wanted to. I could not understand. I was very helpful and nice to my classmates. I used to even complete their assignments and it was so weird that when I helped them they were nice to me and as soon as the work was over it was almost like I was nothing. I complained to the authorities about the violence and he was punished. However, verbal bullying and harassments were happening every day. I was called names…the obvious ones. They used to spit khainee inside my bag, put chewing gum in my desk and a lot of other things…some of which, I now realise was sexual abuse. Unless it was physical violence the school authorities did not take any action. It only motivated others to further bully me. It was one of the traumatising parts of my life that I can never forget. My parents were scared of my future. I even once thought about running away from home. I did not return from school… I don’t know what went through my head that time. My father found me later that evening. I shouldn’t have done that. But I was very frustrated with everything around me. Even the people in my area used to complain to my parents if I was hanging out with my friends, who were feminine like me, in town. At school, I was bullied. I didn’t know what to do. I came out to my mother and in a way she understood. But it was very difficult to explain to my father…I kept on trying and I think they have accepted me in some ways…Now that I look back I love my school and am grateful for all the education and exposure it gave me. I’ve created memories that I will always cherish but those traumatising incidents will always stay with me. Some teachers were very nice to me and did not judge me for who I was. It is just sad that due to certain individuals I had to go through all that.”
What is even more disturbing is that such bullying has been normalised by the society we live in. Words like ‘chakka’ are passed down by generations as a means of othering the identity, but the repercussions of being subjected to such slurs, that affect the mind of adolescent teenage boys, who are trying to figure out their own sexuality, can be very traumatising. Other than that the sexual implication that surrounds them is a problematic one that is somehow ignored completely; bizarre arguments like “keta haru ko beech ma esto joke tah bhai bascha” in response is very common. This argument of homophobic bullying in the garb of humour is a perfect instance of institutional oppression.
The manner in which the teachers and the students respond to these LGBTQ+ students has a big part to play in making these students feel that the fault lies in them. In order to fit in, they try to do things that would make them acceptable and feel included. Often these young people choose to not behave like themselves but in a manner that will help them avoid the kind of discrimination, humiliation and prejudice that is thrown at them. Restricting them from being themselves also leads them to never discover who they really are. Numerous cases of suicides due to homophobic bullying in schools have been reported in the news time and again. Schools and parents in the hills need to re-evaluate their system and make these places safer and inclusive before cases of sexual violence and suicides become a reality here. This brushing-everythingunder-the-carpet to maintain reputation at the cost of these kids has to stop and efforts need to be made by school authorities and parents to improve such spaces and to understand the voices of LGBTQ+ people.
“I don’t identify myself as a non-cis person but I love crossdressing. I am aware that I am feminine and I like to be around feminine people because in a way I can relate to them. I don’t want to talk about my sexual identity because I myself do not know where I fit in and I think that needs to be respected as well.’
Abhigyan’s journey in understanding his own gender and sexual identity in spite of everything has led him to channel his voice through fashion and art. Below are some of his works which he describes as, “celebration of womanhood and femininity in every form”.
“This look was inspired by Navneet Waiba’s Nepali folk song Dhankutai ko Darai Dara. The song captures the wistful reality of a lahure. In the 19th century, the Gurkha recruit of the British Army were sent to a cantonment in Lahore for training (the name lahure has stuck since). For those left behind in villages, they were a symbol of valour. Their heroic deeds were a source of pride to all. The song speaks of his wife who has been left behind and the postman who walked the hills of Dhankuta in Nepal as the harbinger of news and gift. I want to research on our Nepali culture and present it through my looks”
“The other look was inspired by another original Nepali folk song Dhiki Kuti by the same musician. The song relates to almost every girl/woman who has gone through various seasons in her life. I portrayed myself as a woman- a nonbiological woman (worthy enough of respect like any other biological woman) in an off minty blue saree draped as lehenga and adorned in silver Nepali jewellery (which isn't very common) and in bold eyes without obvious expressions. In addition to that, I put up frames of Hindu deities - Goddess Laxmi (women bring prosperity), Saraswati (our mothers and grandmothers are our first teacher, our 'ज्ञान को सागर') and Kali (when the time comes she can take the 'raudra' form of Durga Kali to protect her family) and Lord Ganesha (because mothers and women are 'Vighnahartas', demolisher of obstacles)”
Animesh Gautam (Mesh), 26, was born and raised in Gangtok. He shares his struggles with respect to his gender fluid non-binary identity and about what it means to be queer in the hills. He also tells us about queer spaces in Gangtok. Animesh is currently pursuing his Masters in Tourism, Society and Environment from Wageningen University & Research, Netherlands.
"Growing up queer in the hills was a big struggle…it still is…ever since I can remember, I was always made to ‘feel’ different. In school it felt like even the teachers would bully me and at home everybody would try to correct my ‘expressions’ and stuff it with some ‘masculinity’. Today I know that ‘gay’ isn’t the only label I needed to reclaim, what I needed to reclaim was being a gender fluid nonbinary. I remember distinctly those moments as a child when I was made to feel extremely ashamed… all this while those memories remained with me as scars but reclaiming these labels makes me OWN them so they heal from being scars at some point. Being queer changes everything… the way I see the world feels so much more liberating.
The masculine idea of how a man should behave not only tries to restrict a person’s individual identity with a series of to-dos and not-to-dos which leads to shaming culture that society as a whole participates in. This toxic masculinity not only affects queer men but also straight men; into associating the idea of ‘being a man’ with being tough and aggressive, and often results them in becoming emotionally unavailable and insensitive. It also, in a way, sees femininity as something weak and thus they often try to run away from being associated with it. Often queer men are feminine in nature which makes straight cis-male individuals look down upon these individuals because of this very reason. It is very common to see that while voicing support for the LGBTQ+ rights we see more straight women than straight men. This is clearly because of the insecurity, a result of toxic masculinity, that supporting the LGBTQ+ individuals would bring them shame amongst their peers. This is a very irrational and toxic trait but sadly a reality that cannot be denied and must be changed.
“To me, being queer in Gangtok means existing freely with utmost queer joy only in the underbelly/fringes of the city… dark frowned-upon night clubs, ‘shady’ karaoke or cabin restaurants with sticky table cloths, cruising in lal bazaar rooftop… in other words existing in invisible spaces where cis hets don’t get to tell me how gay I should be…"
It is clear that the homophobic oppression is restricting these individuals to the margins. In case of Gangtok, it is the cabin restaurants, the night clubs and so on. While straight couples can freely hold hands and spend quality time with their partners in public, these queer individuals have to meet in secrecy, safe spaces and the freedom to love is but a distant reality. A simple act of affection like holding hands will not only be frowned upon in public but also result in physical violence. We as individuals are failing to live up to all those posts we make on social networking sites about equality, humanity, mental health and suicide. We choose to ignore the homophobic bullying, in our own schools, workplaces and family, which has everlasting consequences. These individuals are then forced to be themselves, only in confined spaces, and the blame is not on a single individual but the entire society.
“The struggle to come out and be openly and equally accepted by society sounds next to impossible, especially when you come from a small town like Darjeeling where these things are considered as taboo. I was very young when I realised I was attracted to boys. Growing up I never thought I was different than any other kid in my locality, until they made me feel like I was. I knew what was happening but I guess I just didn't know what to label myself as because I was always surrounded by images, comments, and information that contradicted what I felt inside. I was told to behave like a ‘man’ and I clearly did not and that led me to trouble most of the times. Even before I realised my sexual orientation I was bullied, called out with names like “chakka”, “hijra” etc. At that age I was supposed to be on cloud nine with no worries of the world… instead I was crying, hating myself for being who I was. As I grew older I started to learn about LGBTQ+ terms…It's not a choice, it never was. All the hate had made me this angry kid who could not cope with the world filled with people having narrow mindset. Thankfully I grew out of it , but the bullying never stops.”, shares Ajay Limbu.
Ajay, 21, is a student from Darjeeling who shared with us his own experiences of homophobia as a child and how it changed him as a person. Ajay is currently doing his Bachelors in Hotel Management at Siliguri Institute of Technology, Siliguri. He uses modelling and art to express himself and to assert his identity.
The idea of coming out needs to be re-imagined, as a choice and not a necessity for sexuality is not something one needs to wear on their sleeves. Acceptance of queer identities in the Hills has a long way to go but it must begin by first acknowledging the significant and real presence of sexual minorities as ONE of us. Growing allies will contribute to the normalisation of the LGBTQ+ community in the Hills. What is more important is to be respectful towards the community, if we want to be true allies. Using their identities as a matter of humour and invalidating their fluidity by calling it a ‘phase’ is wrong. Asking someone about their sexual orientation is disrespectful, and sharing someone else’s sexuality to others (even if the ones you are sharing it with, belong to the same queer community) is also wrong. We need to unlearn a lot of stereotypical notions— wanting a gay best friend, expecting lesbian women to be masculine and gay men to be feminine, and so on. Straight people are not expected to ‘come out’. A person’s sexuality is a personal thing and expecting queer people to come out as a sign of coming to terms with themselves works in othering them further, away from the idea of ‘normal’.
We hope through this story necessary conversations to improve the state of our peers in the hills will be initiated and that our readers will not only open their eyes to this
reality but also stand up against the homophobia that defines the foundation of our ‘ideal’ society.
Interpretation of the Meiti Manipuri woman by Abhigyan Tamang
Sari Not Only for Nari by Abhigyan Tamang
Pema Gyalchen Tamang is currently pursuing his Masters in English at Jadavpur University.
Disclaimer: We recognise that while coming out is a choice the history of sexual minorities is one filled with violent repression. We, therefore, acknowledge, support and respect sexual minorities and their right to come out or not as a personal choice.