Queer is normal – Payal Dhar’s Eternal World

3 07 2011

“Well, irrespective of what anyone says,” said Noah, “Stephen’s family consists of Jan. All right? Stephen and Jan.”
[13 year old] Maya digested that. “Stephen and Jan?” she repeated. “Are you sure? They’re always fighting”.
“Absolutely sure. They’ve been together for twenty-five years or so
[…]
“I mean”, said Maya thoughtfully, “like, are you sure? That’s a funny kind of family.”
Noah shrugged. “There are all sorts of families. Parents and children, husband and wife, brothers and sisters, friends. All sorts.”
“Oh”, said Maya. “I thought you had to be related.”
“You do. You relate through love and responsibility, and a commitment to take care of each other.”
Maya nodded reflectively. “Stephen and Jan” she said. “That’s good. I like them both”.

Now, you may not be one of those people who like to read fantasy fiction. But I am. I read a particular kind of fantasy fiction – mostly written by women and preferably with leading female characters. The kind that has witches and wizards and dragons and enchanted things and different worlds. Nothing gory or bloody. Basically, books that my friends’ children would read.

I read them mostly because I lurve these alternate worlds of magic and colour; it is a kind of utopia for me. But I am also interested in how fantasy fiction is written. And while I read, I keep an eye out for characters that are not resoundingly straight. Recently, I re-read A Shadow in Eternity, The Key of Chaos and The Timeless Land – a set of books written by Payal Dhar – and was again struck by how simply and sweetly she has introduced a gay relationship and a non-homophobic world to her young readers. It is ingenious because there is no sudden and didactic introduction of homosexuality into the story and no admonitions to refrain from stereotypes or name-calling.

Instead, what you find is a gradual unraveling of how Jan shares life and home with Stephen, Maya’s Healing teacher and Noah’s friend. We, along with Maya, see the two men cooking, sharing household responsibilities, arguing about life, and caring about each other and the people around them. It is the only family shown up close – other than Maya’s own – and the most ‘normal’. And Maya gradually (and sometime after the conversation quoted above) understands and is told about the relationship between Stephen and Jan.

Gay characters are not unknown in this genre of writing, though queer female characters are rare. Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician Trilogy are two other instances that come to mind. Maya is an inhabitant of both our world and the Eternal World and there is much interaction between the two worlds. This is different to Le Guin’s and Canavan’s alternate worlds which are very different to our world in geography, climate, customs, etc. The similarity and interaction between our world and the Eternal World normalizes different romantic relationships to the Maya and the reader. The acceptance accorded to queer relationships is highlighted by the questions that Maya asks because of her own realization that it is not possible ‘back home’, which is a successful literary device in this instance. Jan and Stephen stand out for me because they don’t stand out in the story.





Where is Amina?

6 05 2011

One brave blogger has been telling her story of life as an openly gay woman in Damascus, Syria. But now she’s gone underground.

http://damascusgaygirl.blogspot.com/





Coming out…

27 03 2011

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/mar/13/dear-mariella?INTCMP=SRCH

THE DILEMMA:I used to think I was close to my twin sister. However, six months ago she got in touch with me on a social-networking site and said she was a lesbian and didn’t love her husband any more. I flipped out – mainly out of shock, but also anger. She refuses to go to counselling. At Christmas she and her husband “split up” and she moved in with my parents for all of three hours before going back to him. He is a solid guy and knows all about her supposedly being a lesbian, but is standing by her. I guess she still wants to be with him. I feel hurt and feel like I’ve lost my best friend. I’m just wondering how I can ever get my sister back, or do I have to accept she is now a stranger who I perhaps didn’t know anyway?

I read this letter (and the reply) in the Guardian recently and was struck by the issues that are raised when a member of the family decides to come out as gay. All my gay friends have stories about this traditionally life-changing moment and most of their stories are positive….in the end. Over time, most families realize its not going away, and simply give in, either embracing it all or just not talking about it at all.

I remember trying to tell my supposedly liberal and highly educated family of brothers and sisters, that I was a lesbian. One of them immediately blocked it out and pretends even now that she knows nothing about it; one of them tried manfully to talk about it but later started to avoid the topic and the third is now known to have worriedly discussed it with a friend saying “I think something must be wrong with her.” (My parents, fortunately for them perhaps, are dead)

Luckily my siblings and I don’t live in the same countries so I don’t have to deal with their reactions to my lifestyle very often. I know who I am and what I feel and this is not going away to suit anyone. I sometimes wonder how such intelligent people could be so retarded about an issue like this, in this day and age…but that’s how it is.

http://www.oberlinlgbt.org/bechdel/bechdel-1.html





Feeling Queerly this New Year?

2 01 2011

Never do I feel more resentful about heterosexual privileges than on Significant Days. Birthdays, New Year’s Eve, Aluth Avurudu are all designed to make me feel conflicted and low. It is family time and I love spending time with my family. But what enrages me is how difficult this time would be if I want to spend it with a partner – of the same-sex.

All around me, straight cousins and friends spend Significant Days with their spouses or with family, or both. If they don’t turn up at the family event on this Day, they are not asked why. If they do turn up, they are not expected to leave their spouses behind. If you are a straight married female, or even engaged, these are Days when you say ‘I am spending it with him’ and Society smiles fondly.

For those of us in this country who love women, such a scenario is a luxury. Unless you don’t have much to do with your family anymore (all too common in our community) or your family has accepted you just the way you are (I am happy for you. Really.) the day seems far away when we can choose to spend a birthday or Christmas with the woman we love without having to find excuses or feel guilty.

Happy New Year everyone, and here’s hoping you can spend the next New Year queerly!





Having lesbian babies: or looking at the sky through the eye of the needle

17 06 2010

There’s a lot of baby talk going around these days. I thought it was only us here, but there was our sister from lesbian neurotica commenting on the article in Time as well. I like babies in the abstract. Like, I want people to have them only if they want children. Like, it irritates me when people smoke with kids around. Like, it pisses me off when the state messes with the education system. There is all of that. But when the baby is in the room I can only admire from two feet away.

When I was straight, my mouth would set in a mutinous line when the boyfriend talked of children. But as a lesbian I felt I should support my partner if she wanted a baby. If she loved babies at least as much as I loved dogs, it was sad not to be able to have a kid. NOT a comparison. NOT. But. I can’t think of not having dogs in my life. So imagine seeing kids all around you and not being able to have one for yourself because of stupid reasons.

Like having to pretend you are married when you go to a hospital to get information on fertility. Can’t they just imagine you are a loose woman and still give you the correct info??

Like trying to find a gay-friendly gynaecologist who won’t have a fit when a woman walks in and says ‘me want baby without man around’. Needle in haystack, what!

Like not being able to adopt because you are not married to a man. And look at all those idiot families neglecting kids and those other kids who are in orphanages.

Like not being able to be artificially inseminated if you are not married and the husband hasn’t consented. What the fuck? Maybe the hospitals can start off a side business in marriage brokering.

I can’t even begin to say what a froth all this gets me into. But hey, we have our means.

wink





A small moan…

2 03 2010





Coming out

23 02 2010

1.

I don’t have a coming out fetish – I know some people do. They have to come out to everyone. For me it’s not like that. I think it’s important to think about how my coming out affects the other person while I am thinking of the relief (along with the more painful consequences) it may give. Neither can I think of coming out as one side of a binary: out vs not out. Is anyone really completely out or completely closeted? I don’t think so. I think most of us go through life being out to different people and to different degrees. I am out to friends at work, I am out to some cousins and not others, one person in my family is oblivious to my love for women and with another I have a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy!

The first people I came out to were my group of immediate friends. I didn’t have to tell them anything. When I first fell in love with a woman in my late twenties, it was right in front of them. And they surrounded me with a safety net, without being told anything. What would our lives be without our friends! I had such good luck coming out to friends that I thought all my friends would be accepting. I was right. The people who were important to me were accepting. What I didn’t see was that people who were important to the people who were important to me, would find it difficult to deal with. So when my best friend started avoiding me, it was a shock. Obviously, she would put her relationship before her friendship with me, but how could such a wonderful, sensitive, open-minded person be with a conservative prick who thought being friends with a lesbian was bad??

There is nothing I would change about coming out to the people that I have come out to. But that doesn’t mean I have to follow that up with coming out to everyone in my life. You choose who you come out to (when you can choose). You try to think if this person is important to you, if it is important for this person to know this part of your life, how much good or damage it will do to your relationship with this person, and so on and so on. You have much to lose by coming out in our kind of conservative society with taboos against same-sex love, but there is also much to gain. You are yourself! No more pretending that the person you love is a man, no more pretending that you find the penis desirable and best of all, no excuses needed for crying when your ‘friend’ suddenly leaves!

2.

I came out at 13. But not to myself…I just came out to the older girl I was in love with at that age – she was 15. I told her I wanted to be with her forever. I meant it wholeheartedly. Later in life, I married (a man). My childhood sweetheart told me I was making a mistake. The only person who had the balls to tell me that home truth! In my heart I knew she was right, but I never had the courage to act on that knowledge.

I came out again when I was 26. This time to myself and to the girl I was in love with at that time. My mother said “I should have known.” and “Why did I let you marry a man!” There was much drama. Then we broke up and she married – a man!

I was very sad and confused and lonely in those days – I think it lasted at least a year. Nothing could lift me out or up. It was one of the hardest times in my life. Until I finally met a few women like me… dykes! Hallelujah! What bliss… mad, confused, wonderful, strong women – the bravest women in the world. Finding this community was the best thing about coming out.

Since then there has been no turning back.

Of course this is the abridged version. If I were to tell it all like it really was, I could fill a book. But in the end I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Now I can truly say “Been there, done that and now I know what I really want. So there!”

PS: A cardinal rule in life: Be true to yourself first.

3.

I came out very late in life – I must have been around 30 at least and it was sort of involuntary but also very definite. I was married at the time and hadn’t really thought about being a lesbian (I had trouble with the word, even) and certainly was not identifying as such. But nevertheless I ended up having one of the most spectacular coming out stories of all…involving falling in love with my best friend (at the time), while many other people – friends and family – contributed to much general drama and gossip that went on for months, ending in a divorce.

Looking back, the best thing about it was the fact that I was finally forced to deal with the elephant under my bed – the fact that I was a dyke and had plenty of evidence for this from childhood but never really took it on board for all the usual reasons – religious upbringing, family background, social condemnation, guilt, fear and all the rest of it.

The worst thing about it was that I hurt someone I cared about, who had never been anything but good to me, which I regret to this day, although I know I have been forgiven.

What I would have changed: I wish I had had the courage to know myself and come out when I was a teenager, which would have been a much more appropriate time and would probably have caused far less trouble all round. Today I am out to my family and I would be out to my parents if they were around. I am not overtly out at work but neither do I trouble to change anything about myself in order to inhabit that environment.

I have changed so much since then I think I am an entirely different person today. I have this idea that coming out marks the end of one life and the beginning of another. I am proud I took this road and though it has often been painful it has also been the source of the most joy. It is certainly the most real thing in my life. I have never regretted it.





Words of wisdom on sex for…(who knows!)

8 10 2009

Flipping through a book recently, I came across Ward’s words of wisdom for husbands and wives (heavens, not another good wife’s guide!!! I thought).

Sex

Have it first, then get married. But remember that as soon as you get married it’s going to change, because somewhere along the line one of you is going to realize that where once you were having a wholesome sexual relationship with somebody, all of a sudden you’re sleeping with a relative.


And immediately I was struck by a series of questions which I present to you in the order they came to mind:

The first one is, how much does starting to live with the person you are having sex with affect your sexual relationship? I mean, assuming that you now know what she looks like early in the morning before she (or if you are with a man, he) washes her face, assuming you hear her snoring in her sleep, assuming you don’t wear sexy red lingerie every night now, what other changes come along? It’s something I’ve always been curious about and discussed with friends. The most comfortable answer I’ve got is along the lines of ‘yes, the sex loses its intensity but it also brings about a lot of commitment and intimacy which is the good part of living with (or being married to) your partner’. Other answers differ, going from ‘we don’t have sex now but we love each other and sex shouldn’t be such a major part of a serious relationship’ to ‘as the relationship matures, there are other things that are more important’ to ‘oh we still have a lot of sex and use different techniques to keep ourselves interested in each other’.

So fine. But let’s say the sex is not there or disappearing as slowly as the smile of the Cheshire Cat, what is the next step?

Do you immediately call it a halt, part amicably, fall in love (and sex) again and do the cycle again?

Do you let each other veer away towards an open relationship?

Do you state that if you are not having sex, 10 years into the relationship, you are not in a romantic relationship anymore, and go back to step 1?

Do you continue as is because change is difficult and you love each other?

What say you?

-Vak-





What does it mean to be a man?

11 08 2009

There are some dominant characteristics that constitute being a man in south Asia. Being physically strong and attractive, being the protector, the leader, the chief decision maker, being sexually successful and being heterosexual are just some of them. These definitions are commonly referred to as Masculinities. The plural form “masculinities” conveys that there are many definitions for being a man and that these can change over time and from place to place.

These dominant forms of masculinities are instilled in men from birth onwards and perpetuated by men and women, mothers and fathers, in schools and on the streets, throughout a mans life. Once instilled, men are required to constantly prove their manliness. Men are taught from an early age that to be a successful leader you must be ready to put up a fight. Adolescent boys for example think they are proving their manliness by engaging in risky behavior, like driving too fast and too rash, or drinking and driving, or proving them selves to their friends by going through with certain dares. Ragging in universities is a good example of this in Sri Lanka. Some men consider beating their wives an expression of their manliness. Many young men are initiated into sex by their friends. Some are forced to visit sex workers whether they like it or not and rarely refuse for fear they will be considered less of a man.

These aspects of masculinity are encouraged to prevail for a man to be a “real man” and are endorsed by key institutions, such as in business, politics, the military and in sports. Such institutions are structured and designed around these masculine roles making it extremely difficult for women to play a leadership role. We see this from the few number of women in parliament in Sri Lanka for example.

However, these behaviors have a cost to society. Ragging for example has lead to countless closures of our Universities and even to the death of some students, most notably S. Varapragash in 1997. Drunk driving and the resultant injuries and deaths from road related accidents amount to millions of rupees in losses. These are costs that can be easily avoided, lives that can be saved.

What if a man were to develop and take on characteristics that are not those of the dominant man, if he were to become for instance a secretary, or a kinder garden teacher, or a nurse, would that make him less of a man? At least as women we are given the choice today to either wear pants or skirts, to work and pursue a career or to stay home and bear children or both. A young girl can be a tomboy and get away with it, but a boy who is sissy is called a “sothiya” a “ponnaya”, laughed at and taunted. A man who is not naturally aggressive or competitive is forced to pretend to be or face scorn. In fact, “feminized men” are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Studies in our neighboring countries India and Bangladesh show that feminized men are more likely to be abused as adolescents, most often by members of their own family. They are also more likely to harm themselves and commit suicide than their peers. It seems like the worst insult one man can hurl at another is the accusation that a man is like a woman.

One reason for this is that women are less valued than men in our society. We know from the rates of female infanticide across the region that this is true. The girl child is seen more as a burden and liability to the family. When compared to boys, girls are less valued hence less educated, less fed, given less opportunities, confined and treated as less than human in many instances. Our culture and the rituals associated with it celebrate the male child, while a daughter’s arrival is not half as jubilant.

Certain jobs associated with caring and rearing, are considered too demeaning for men to do, almost unclean and dirty.

But no man can possibly live up to the dominant characteristics of being a man all the time and still be human. As a society we expect too much from men. We expect them to be super human; men are looked down upon if they show emotion or if they cry, men are expected to do tough physical jobs, they must succeed at all costs, they are expected to be assertive, to know all about sex and how to perform in bed (in reality young boys get even less sex education that young girls[1])  We place too much pressure on men. And if men cant live up to the pressures we place on them, they turn to other ways to vent their frustrations like drinking, violence, abuse and the like.

As a society we need to redefine what it means to be a man. This will not only allow men to develop deep and rich connections with others, including women and children but also with other men. These connections are what make life full and rewarding, but they require vulnerability. We need to allow men to explore their softer side without being ridiculed and tormented instead of narrowing their emotional range and depth. This will be good, not just for men, but for women too. By redefining what it means to be a man, there will be less violence against women and more harmony between the sexes.


[1] In a recent review of the Millennium Development Goal indicators for young people from 9 countries in Asia, no country reported more than 50percent level of sexual knowledge among boys with some countries reporting as low as 3percent. Redefining AIDS in Asia, 2008