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.

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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.





Becoming normal

12 06 2011

A friend living in a Scandinavian country recently told me of his difficulties in locating and meeting other gay people to hang out with. It is so normal to be gay in that country, he said, that they are difficult to find.

I found this highly amusing. What would happen, I wondered, if we actually became so normalized that we would disappear into the woodwork? Would we feel less special?

Lost in a crowd

I imagined life where you just walk into a pub with friends, queer or straight or whatever, and just have a ‘normal’ time with no complaints about people staring. Your commitment ceremony or marriage evokes the same tediousness as does your straight friends getting married now. Your queer friends have babies and you forget to visit them till the baby’s first birthday. You hold hands in public with your girlfriend and no one gives a fuck! There are few gay bars and not many gay parties (not secret anymore either), there is no need! Finding out if film stars are gay never occurs to you and coming out is a quaint thing that previous generations used to do.

Somehow, I can’t imagine my community of gay men and women enjoying that much normalization.





Blogging: The fine art of the confessional

11 06 2011

For most of us, the idea of sharing the intimacies
of our life with a stranger would be anathema.
Yet confessional bloggers feel compelled to reveal
everything to everyone. Why do they do it?

And what are the private costs of living a life so publicly?
Plus, three bloggers explain their passion for posting





Groupthink

28 05 2011

Groupthink:
This occurs when a group sacrifices critical thinking (in order to have agreement on everything.) The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking.

I have a big problem with Groupthink. And as far as I can see, it is everywhere. It starts in school, when you’re expected to believe everything you’re being taught, (even, as someone recently pointed out, when they were teaching us the big bang theory in the science class while simultaneously teaching us creationism in the religious knowledge class and no one was allowed to ask why).

Home is where you’re not allowed to cut your hair short and wear that hyper-miniskirt because of what the neighbours might say. Then we grow up and come up against dress codes, marriage rituals, sexual choices, political preferences and religious beliefs that all end up for the most part falling into the same old stereotypical categories because we’re all too scared or thick to examine just why we’ve chosen what we have in our lives.

Richard Dawkins protested about how we tend to automatically categorise children into their parent’s chosen faith.  He observed that feminists have succeeded in arousing widespread embarrassment at the routine use of he instead of she. Similarly, he suggests, a phrase such as “Catholic child” or “Muslim child” should be considered just as socially absurd as, for instance, “Marxist child”: children should not be classified based on their parents’ ideological beliefs. According to Dawkins, there is no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child, as children have about as much capacity to make the decision to become Christians or Muslims as they do to become Marxists (Wikipedia).

Groupthink is how we decide so many things with little or no analysis or critique. It is the brainless worship of the accepted norm, carrying with it the equally brainless sense of exclusivity and exceptionalism. It also helps reinforce prejudices, stereotypes and meaningless ritual which are often cruel, deadly or at the very least thoughtless.

Here in Sri Lanka Groupthink governs a great deal. From childhood to ancient old age we are told repeatedly to conform, to give in, to accept and to say the words ‘what to do’ in the appropriate tone of resignation. Since we have no recourse in most cases this is what we do. The punishment for rebellion is anyway quite severe, involving huge social and personal sacrifice and isolation. You only have to ask a queer person what it means to be gay in this country. Whatever their story, it will involve either persecution, exile or deception. But while the gay community has its own internal issues with Groupthink, it remains one of the bravest icons of rebellion, standing against conformity and mainstream views in this island. Because if you’re gay, you’ve already broken one of the most important rules.  You have broken out. You’ve been thinking for yourself.





The Dish Campaign

25 02 2011

Dear Owner of the Elliptical Reflector Dish,

Congratulations. You must be feeling quite smug now!

I am writing to ask if you can tell us where to buy this Dish? It seems such a good idea!

I am not sure, of course, that we can use it regularly here in Sri Lanka. Our problem is a little different to yours. Most women who have sex with other women can’t make any noise, leave alone a gasp and a screech. Either they are living with their family, in which case, sex is really silent. Or they are boarded in someone else’s house, which is not very different from living at home at the end of the day. Which leaves a few lucky women with their own space who still have to be mindful of the neighbours. And believe me, those neighbours will dislike the screaming for an entirely different reason than you did.

So you can see now why I am asking for information about this Dish. How wonderful it would be to use Elliptical Reflector Dishes, at some pre-arranged time with all the other women who can’t sigh, gasp and scream loudly during sex. We could just flood, flood the country with the noise of women having sex with each other. Sigh.

Sincerely,

Vak





Naming and shaming

29 01 2011

Are we instigating murder?

You may recall, the Sri Lankan media, under the directive of the Police Crimes Division, published photos of men and women who they claimed appeared in porn movies.  Subsequently, these people’s lives have been completely ruined. Some have been expelled from their homes and can never show their faces in society again.

In Uganda, a prominent gay rights activist was murdered in his own home, following a newspaper article that published pictures of several Ugandan homosexuals. The headline that appeared in October 2010, read “100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos” and showed photographs of some of them. David Kato was among them. By the end of January 2011 he was murdered.

In the months in between, David had sued the Rolling Stone newspaper that carried his photograph for defamation. In the meantime The Supreme Court of Uganda ruled that people must stop inciting violence against homosexuals and must respect the right to privacy and human dignity. However, it seemed like no one really paid any attention to Kato’s action of suing, nor to the Supreme Court directive.

This is a lesson for all of us and a lesson for Sri Lanka too. By trying to name and shame people  who are different, either because they sell sex, appear in porn movies or have sex with people of the same sex, we create stigma and discrimination against them and also instigate violence.  In some cases, even death.

Do we want to sleep with blood on our hands?