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.





Two worlds, three women

25 06 2011

1.
When I was younger I was married for around six or seven years. I remember this as being one of the happiest times of my life, for three reasons. One was because the man concerned was an unusual one -talented, confident and quite comfortable with himself -a rare characteristic as far as Sri Lankan men go. The second thing was that for the first time in my life upto then, I was comfortable with myself. And finally the fact that for the first time in my life upto then, other people were comfortable with me.
Life as a queer woman in Sri Lanka, I find is a completely different experience. I am very used to feeling like the weird person in the room since childhood, since that is how I have always been. But being queer in Sri Lanka is a whole different level of weird. So many doors are closed to you, so many things you don’t say to so many people, (often the ones you’re closest to), and so many, many, many things you just don’t DO.
There are places one avoids, conversations one edits, dreams that one abandons, all because you know that for so many people, knowing exactly what and who you are would be just too much to handle. These are the two worlds that many of us inhabit – straight and queer. And still for its difficulties and trials, I know where I belong.

2.
I had girl friends before and after I had boyfriends. Boy friends were uncomplicated. So uncomplicated that I managed two at a time. I was doubly spoilt, taken out to nice restaurants, shown off and generally proudly paraded to friends and family.
With girl friends it’s always been hidden. Never met the parents, never taken home, never invited to dinner with family and rarely taken out.
Yet if you ask me now why I choose secrecy over acceptance I would say “to be myself”. With women I am me, not pretending to be someone I am not, just to please him or his family or just to save face. With women I can be that dark and dirty secret that lives in a closet – but that closet is my own and dark and dirty can be exciting!

3.
In school, for a long time, I was one of a handful of girls in the class who didn’t have a boyfriend. I would either be surrounded by discussions of how some adolescent male looked, touched, gave letters or arranged a secret meeting on the way to tuition classes with my classmates. Or I would have to listen to prim and snooty comments of ‘we’ were much better than ‘those girls’ who had boyfriends. I didn’t want to be in either group. Then in my early twenties, I had an intensely boring and terribly depressing relationship with a man for too long.
Life was much easier, though. It didn’t even occur to me that there would be a time when I would look wide-eyed at how joyfully people around me would greet news of upcoming weddings. Or that I wouldn’t be able to hold hands in a restaurant with the person I love. Or edit certain parts of my life when talking about myself. Or that half the family – the half that had tedious marriages and lackluster lifestyles – would be talking about me in horrified tones. When you are straight, you take these things for granted. I only had one complaint.
Men just didn’t work for me. Nothing to do with lesbian tendencies in denial. The men I was with blamed it on a home with ‘too much’ independence and an education that was ‘too feminist’. With women, my world fits together nicely.





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!





Pass me the plate with a red herring on it

19 10 2010

I read comments with more interest than the news itself! It happens all the time, like this morning when I read about the GMOA statement that male nurses shouldn’t enter labour rooms and that (female) patients should be able to choose. We don’t seem to have moved far from the time Elizabeth Blackwell tried to become a doctor. Many things about this news article bothered me.

If we ask for gender equality/equity  in employment, male nurses must be as acceptable as female doctors, engineers and mechanics. If one kind of trained employee (i.e. nurse) is not acceptable in a specific setting (i.e. labour room) because they are men, then shouldn’t other trained employees who are men also be asked to exit that setting? How is it ok for as many males to enter the labour room as gynaecologists but not even one male to enter the labour room as a nurse (or heaven forbid, an attendant) ?

It appears to me then, that this is what we must do. Let us allow the more privileged male to enter labour rooms but not the less privileged male. And let us not even point out the heterosexist nature of that discussion that has taken place because the next thing we know, the GMOA will want every nurse – male or female – to report on their sexual behaviour.

And above all, let us not encourage or demand professional behaviour or better systems in place to prevent abuse of patients in case we lose sight of that lovely red herring called ‘women’s dignity’.





Vasopressin shots for ALL lesbians, please!

13 08 2010

I am a little put out. I was reading up on this Casanova gene: the VASOPRESSIN RECEPTOR GENE. Yep. You don’t know what that is? These Casanova dykes are hiding it. That’s why you never heard of it. Here’s what it is: a vasopressin receptor is a cell surface receptor which binds vasopressin, which is a peptide hormone that controls the reabsorption of molecules in the tubules of the kidneys by affecting the tissue’s permeability and affects the central nervous system in such a way that it initiates and sustains activity supporting pair-bonds between sexual partners. Righti-ho.

Translated, it means the vasowhatever is a gene which makes you either stay faithful or fuck around. Men may be influenced by it and voles definitely have it (sounds absolutely perfect, that vole-male connection). Lady voles, on the other hand, have Oxytocin (fondly called OT by scientists) that make them prone to such things as staying with their first love and looking after everyone (i.e. men and babies).

But we need research to be absolutely sure that we humans have it too. So some committed scientists have patiently got hold of a number of Swiss men, unravelled their DNA, asked them and their wives/girlfriends questions like “How often do you kiss your mate?” and “Have you discussed a divorce or separation with a close friend?” and voilà! Link found between the vasowhatever and human stable long-term relationships (as in over 5 years). That’s us baby, humans.

My non-lizzy sisters. Now you know. You thought it was some woman’s short skirt and the famed 64 seduction techniques, but you don’t have to blame it on your fellow women anymore. Neither do you have to castigate yourself for his straying. Some of these poor things have the short end of the gene and it makes them absolutely need to have sex with someone nice that they see. (If you are already with one of them, don’t worry, I think an antidote is being developed).

And this is when it started smelling fishy. For my lesbean self, that is.

Lizzy sisters. Some honesty is in order here. That dyke you said can’t stay with someone for more than a year? And that really hot woman who just had to hit the dance floor to pull a girl (in a straight nightclub, for fuck’s sake!)? What about the lizzy friend you caught making eyes at your girl? Obviously there is a place I can get these vasowhatever shots in our community. Put ‘em on the table, girls! Not fair.





You might as well be straight!

7 08 2010

Strange things flash about your mind while doing the most mundane things. Like when I was toasting bread this morning and remembered me’s cartoon on the butch-o-sphere. And it struck me in one clear line why I dislike butches (and other women but mostly butches) taking butchness too far.

IT IS NOT PLAY

Half the time I can’t say why I am attracted to the women I am attracted to. I don’t know why, but I can say what I like. A woman’s body in men’s clothing. Make up on a butch woman. But when it gets to the point where the lines are too clearly drawn it is not play anymore. ‘Eeek this is girly’ and ‘oh you are wearing flowery prints’ and ‘eewww look at your hairstyle, it’s too femme’ becomes the same as masculine vs feminine becomes the same as male vs female. When you stop playing, you might as well be straight!





Lesbian or straight, here are your permutations

26 07 2010

I sat down once and listed the different kinds of relationships I see around me and was surprised at the size of this list. My surprise is probably because we are brought up with blinkers on to look at the first and last models here (preferably leading from first to last with no digressions in between).

relationship with person one is in love with = generally the stuff that films are made out of and expected to lead to a monogamous long term relationship.

casual relationship = this is when someone tells you “oh we are seeing each other but we are not serious about it”.

casual sex with one person without emotional attachment = you meet this person only for sex – no hanging out – which makes it different from the above.

friends with benefits = primarily friends and not in a romantic relationship with each other, but sex and other ‘benefits’ can be thrown in, i.e. shoulder to cry on, etc.

open relationship with a set number of other partners = other than your primary partner, you have decided who to see and where and there are limitations on this.

open relationship without limitations on partners or encounters = the primary partner is the only constant.

relationship with person you love but not in love with = you may not be in love with this person but there is much deep affection and sexual chemistry.

more than one relationship without consent of all parties = aka ‘having an affaire’. The primary partner either doesn’t know or doesn’t approve.

more than one relationship with consent of all parties = both primary partner and other partner/s know of each other. aka polyamorous relationships.

emotional intensity without relationship = intense emotional attachment but sex is not part of it.

committed monogamous relationship = the two of you and only the two of you and never the twain shall part.





I need you

28 02 2010

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nxq-wCf5G8o

Anyone who’s ever been in love would have used the words ‘I love you’ at some point of their campaign of persuasion. And most people over the age of four would have heard and understood the phrase at some point of their lives.  ‘I love you’ is possibly the most emotionally moving, courageous and meaningful thing anyone can say to another person and it takes precedence over any other claim that a lover especially, might make. ‘I love you’ has the power to remove all doubt, reaffirm one’s faith and even perhaps re-create feelings which might be fading away. ‘I love you’ is magical.

The words ‘I need you’ though, are not half as exciting and are not advertised half as often as ‘I love you’ in popular music and culture – implying as they do a more selfish wanting which is not necessarily a compliment. Unless of course you are of a masochistic turn of mind. And that’s the thing.

People leave relationships for all kinds of reasons. Discoveries of sexual incompatibility, differing life-agendas, infidelity and boredom are some of the common reasons one hears. (There are lots more of course, such as violence, mental trauma and other psychological issues which are more complex). Excessive neediness by one person however, is not really seen as a valid reason for the other to leave a relationship, possibly because it is not often very obvious and can take years to manifest itself to its true maximum potential of horror. Indeed, a person ditching someone for reasons of simple boredom might be astonished by the levels of uncontrolled insecure behaviour they could be forced to witness from a previously calm and stable individual. But how could we not know this about them? Is it an entirely new development in their character? Can we simply blame them and quietly sneak off or do we too have a responsibility for their condition? Why have we spent so many years with someone whose black hole of neediness is now driving us away? Can we honestly claim that we were not attracted to and turned on by this very need? Didn’t it appear to be sweetly vulnerable and didn’t it arouse all our most protective instincts – back then? Before it turned into this monster? Neediness could be the reason so many of us are in co-dependent relationships, that weirdly work if both parties are on the same page but not if one person decides to grow or change.

We all have needs, and these are mostly made manifest in our love relationships. And while we know that the failings of our childhood relationships with our parents almost always drive the flaws within the relationships we have as adults, it is interesting to observe how neediness works across all ages to different degrees. Since many of us have huge insecurities about ourselves, we seek to find the perfect partner. That is, one who will validate our lives, boost our egos and give us unconditional love. This is not easy. Some people spend their entire lives seeking their Soul Mate and most never find them. Most other people, gay or straight, settle for the closest thing and if this means compromising on attributes such as strength of character, will-power or critical analysis skills, then we are usually willing to do it. And some of us find our partner’s failings and flaws very attractive. Their fears, phobias and little white lies might be enchanting at first. In time however, the cost may be high and distressful.

In Sri Lanka as elsewhere, many straight relationships and marriages are founded on common interests, mutual benefit, social acceptance and family values. Gay relationships are not always so clearly defined and certainly do not have the public and private support systems that straight people can access. Sexual attraction is often a primary driving force and other factors may not be considered so important when falling in love, especially in a small queer community such as ours where choices are limited anyway. And neediness manifested appropriately can be the best means by which to attract lovers, especially in lesbian relationships. Many ‘fragile’ femme women’s maternal instincts are aroused by their ‘strong’ butch women’s need for mothering (which can lead to lasting relationships). However it could be that in crisis, the butch identified woman might completely lose the plot while the fragile femme might reveal herself to be the real Schwarzenegger of the two.

It is an interesting paradox. The very characteristics that many of us claim to aspire to and celebrate – independence, strength and unwillingness towards emotional manipulation, are not our most common experiences on the route to finding companionship and love. The refusal to use the weapon of need is rare. In reality the woman whose inner strength is too apparent could be so intimidating that few women and fewer men, would dare approach.

Where lies the difference between one person’s desire for honest intimacy and the other’s desire simply to possess?





Getting married?

21 10 2009

Don’t invite me.

Recently I switched jobs. A colleague at my new work place was getting married and I was invited too. I don’t think I was invited because he particularly liked me but since the rest of my small office were all asked I think he was politely not excluding me. I accepted graciously and joined in the teasing of the soon-to -be groom.

Soon after I received the invitation, the company receptionist started badgering me about what I was going to wear to the wedding: “You must wear a sari, ah” she said very enthusiastically and then began to go on about what time we should go and how we would travel. She also launched a project to collect cash from everyone for a wedding gift. As soon as she started that the rest of the office started other little fund-raisers as well. The driver even came around collecting money for a van we were to hire to travel to the wedding. Meanwhile one girl had her hair cut and coloured. Another rushed off to her tailor to get a blouse adjusted. Even our boss came around to ask the girls for jewelry advice. Wedding preparations had begun in earnest!

I was seething inside. I knew I didn’t want to go to this or any wedding. I hate weddings. I hate the dressing up. I hate the make up. I hate the travel and I hate the sweat that pours off my face taking the make-up with it, leaving stains across my cheeks.

I hate wearing silk in the height of summer. I hate the idea of traveling in a van full of chattering ladies pretending to be enjoying myself. I hate the small talk about their own weddings. And I hate the endless discussion of the bride and how fair she looks (never mind her IQ or personality – as long as she’s ‘fair’ everyone is pleased).

You get the idea. I hate weddings. Period.

And what I hate even more is the pressure to go to weddings from everyone else: “How can you not go men, sin – he has invited you!” said S. T said “He has included you in the numbers to cater for.” L said “Come will you, we’ll have fun, it’s in Panadura!”

Panadura, I thought to myself. That’s a one hour drive in a silk saree…good God, am I to be a masochist?

Finally I decided not to go and to tell everyone this. So I told everyone – “I won’t be coming along because I have no leave – since I only just started working at this new job.”

I also offered to answer the phones while the entire office was away. And so that’s how I spent last Wednesday at work – answering the phone.

The day passed quickly enough and I let out a sigh as 5 o’clock approached, thinking that’s it. I survived.

On Thursday everyone was buzzed and talking incessantly about the lovely wedding. At nine we had our usual staff meeting and horror of all horrors, the boss herself made us sit through a presentation of all the photographs she had taken of the bride and groom! And I had been under the impression I had escaped the worst of it – mustered my resolve and ditched the whole event but here I was, once again being reminded of the joys of marital life – that same old celebration of heterosexuality as the only valid union, complete with scores of relations one mostly dislikes and numerous acquaintances who aren’t really one’s friends but have faithfully come to Celebrate the Wedding.

All this, projected larger than life onscreen for our enforced entertainment. I wanted to scream!

Can we just let it be? Give it a rest? Do we all have to love weddings and everything associated with them? Why do people pressure one to do things one really doesn’t have the slightest inclination to do, just because it would make them happy or because it’s the ‘right thing to do’?

I really hate weddings.





If you love somebody…

18 10 2009

“If you want to keep something precious

You got to lock it up and throw away the key

If you want to hold onto your possession

Don’t even think about me…”

“If you love somebody, set them free”

Sting  (Dream of the blue turtles 1985)

You’ve heard the rest of the track. And you certainly know the end of that quote.

I believe in freedom, independence and giving people the power to choose. I also understand that freedom, independence and the power to choose are all huge concepts and in practice they are necessarily limited by numerous factors – colour, race, religion, income, social rank, geography, environment, genes and personal history. But I still believe that there is a gap between the degree of freedom each of us could have and what we actually dare to embrace. And maybe more importantly – a very clear limit on how much freedom we are willing to give other people in our lives.

By freedom I mean personal space, physical space, an absence of suspicion, jealousy, insecurity and all the anxious and controlling behaviors that seem so common in love relationships. People often seem to require constant attention, interaction and incessant reassuring communication while demanding conformity to accepted norms of behavior. We have a need to change the other person ‘to fit’. Even worse, the absence of this sort of possessive control in one person is often perceived as lack of care by the other.

There are clear boundary lines drawn on every interaction, acceptable opinions, fashion, eating habits and life style. And so partners in both gay and straight relationships often seem to end up with identical political views, religious convictions and sense of humor. Is it why they are together in the first place? Is it just more convenient that way? Or did it all come on over time…as part of that relentless melting of one personality into another that inevitably takes place in most relationships?

People make compromises in life for many reasons, especially when they marry or enter a relationship, however superficial. Reasonable compromise is necessary to maintain any relationship, a sort of oil in the gears – assuming the other factors such as sexual compatibility and affection are already present. But how do we decide what’s worth giving up? Do we gradually become conservative from being a liberal? Do we change our religion – become born again or buddhist? Turn vegetarian? Stop wearing short skirts? Give up our friends? Stop talking to ex-lovers? Change jobs? Get pregnant? Stop working? Move in with the in-laws? Or visit them every Sunday? Do we stop eating sushi? Give away the dog? Start wearing make-up?

Do we chuck our Celine Dion CD’s? Lose weight? Stop reading? Stop smoking? Colour our hair?

What do we have to do and how much are we willing to give up in order to keep that special someone in our otherwise lonely lives?

Someone always gives up something and too often it is a one-sided stream of sacrifice by women on behalf of their men. Observe the patient girlfriends at rugby matches, wandering around car sales or watching league football on tv? Is that ‘sharing’? Or ‘pleasing’? And are the men ‘letting’ them have their little entertainments…girl’s nights out or the spa on Sunday morning?

On the other hand are most women just filling in the time till the right man comes along with Saturday plans for the car sale, rugby and footie? And is the real unseen exchange the Child that virtually every woman seems to need and desire so passionately? In exchange for which the men get an uncomplaining wife and the power to rule unchallenged, as long as they continue to protect and provide?

These quiet manipulations are not necessarily gender biased or dependent on sexual orientation. Queer relationships are often very emotionally manipulative and controlled too. Everyone does it to everyone else all the time to different degrees and in different ways. And often the personality that gets swamped is quite happy to be that way – passive, accepting of guidance and the state of benevolent dictatorship that guarantees the comfort of the relationship. It removes responsibility and the need to make decisions. Often it guarantees that one person (usually the woman) need never have to work for a living again. It takes away the need to think for oneself. It fits into and wins approval from society. And so, in exchange for uncritical support you get a socially acceptable, comparatively peaceful life.

But why can’t we arrive at the same place while accepting or even insisting on our own and the other person’s right to be independent? Surely this is something to aspire to? How can we become fully developed personalities if we get sidetracked on the way by the desperation of our need for love, sex, social acceptance, escape from parental control, maternity or companionship? None of which are available without the accompanying sacrifice of a degree of our thinking selves? How do we become accomplished writers, artists, scientists or musicians – or even simply free-thinking individuals, if we have taken this smooth path to hell?

The alternative is terribly difficult. It requires constant effort to find a balance between necessary compromise and independence of spirit. It is hard work to defend one’s beliefs if your partner does not always agree. The battle for freedom to live in the way that makes you happy can often be fatal to the relationship itself. But this is surely one of the finest efforts in life? If one has the slightest interest in personal development, surely this is the place to start? Neither to bully nor go under but to find a way to live with someone else as two individuals together, different but equal.