Who am I? I think all of us must’ve asked this question to ourselves at some point in our lives. Our lives and experiences are shaped not only by how we see ourselves but also by how others see us, which means that this struggle for identity is universal and very significant.
I come from Darjeeling, a town in north Bengal. I have a vagina, hence I was assigned female at birth, and I identify as “definitely not straight”.
I grew up in a fairly religious Catholic household. And given the views on homosexuality in the Bible, I have had my share of alienation owing to my ‘non-straightness’. I remember being 14 and asking the nun who taught us Catechism whether members of the then-popular ‘lesbian’ band called t.A.T.u would get into heaven, given that they make music and music makes people happy. I was told categorically that all their good would pale because of their one quality: being homosexuals. Even though I knew that there was something wrong with this narrative, I couldn’t fight the system then.
I went to an all-girls’ convent school, so for the longest time, I thought I was attracted to girls just because of the absence of boys around me. Now I know how problematic this thought was—homosexuality isn't the rejection of the other, it's just the preference for one. But I wasn’t comfortable with the label of a ‘lesbian’ either—I had a boyfriend at the time. It was only when I moved to Delhi in 2007 to study in a co-ed college when I realised I was still getting attracted to girls. It was also then that I got access to the internet, and discovered the word “bisexual” exists. And I was like, “Ya that's me!”
I had found the word to describe a facet of who I was, but it wasn't like I could have a casual conversation about it. About two months into college, I saw a poster for an LGBT film screening and told a few classmates with whom I’d become good friends with, that we should go for it. One of them asked me, “What's LGBT?” I explained and their faces turned red. And then one of them said, “Eww, I hate homosexuals, they disgust me.” That, right there. That stopped me from coming out even to myself. Which is why, even though I had two very serious relationships with women at this age, those relationships crumbled because it couldn't stand the pressure of society’s scrutiny. There was too much disgust for having these feelings in the first place. We could not admit to each other that the relationship was more than just friendship even though it was. Things got so bad in one of these relationships that it turned into something that was borderline abusive. I lost all enthusiasm for life and I wished I simply did not exist.
In 2011, I left Delhi, to get away from my ex. I moved to Mumbai to study journalism and mass communication. It was a new city, a clean slate. Nobody knew me here, so I thought, “Let me try and see what happens if I come out.” Worst case scenario: I could always move back to Delhi and back inside the closet. What helped though was a classmate of mine who was a gay boy. He was witty, funny and everyone in the class loved him. He was so unapologetically himself, and it made my journey of coming out that much easier.
I told my friends, made a declaration that I’m a bisexual and that I wasn’t ashamed. Suddenly, it felt like a huge burden had been lifted off my chest. I felt like screaming and telling everybody. I even came out to random people! Coming out is a life-long process. I got involved with Queer Azaadi Mumbai which organises the Pride Month and Pride Walk in Mumbai. I became a core member of Yaariyan, a queer youth group started by The Humsafar Trust, along with their LBT support group called Umang. I had found my tribe.
Growing up, there was nothing even remotely homosexual around me—our ads, movies, magazines were all heterosexual. This lack of positive representation of your desires can make a queer person feel like there's something wrong with them. It can be isolating. Simple things like not being able to discuss your crushes, or changing the gender of your same-sex partner while speaking to others, can feel like you’re living a lie. Interacting with other queer people in Mumbai helped because it felt like I was not alone. It was out of this process of healing that Pictures Against Prejudice was born. It is an Indian queer art exhibition that I started in 2012 as part of Mumbai’s Pride Month celebrations. The idea was to fill the void of positive representation of homosexuality in the Indian context. So that those who come after me, know that there are others like them.
All was good for a while, till I started noticing that there is discrimination even within the community. Since the LGBT community, too, is part of the larger society, it is not immune to divides of gender, class, caste, education, political and religious views, and as such, this can’t be held against it. But my concern is the divide within the community; transphobia and biphobia exist even here. I recently read about a study that was done on the mental health realities in the community. Turns out, trans and/or bisexuals are twice as more likely to be depressed and have suicidal tendencies.
In my own personal experience, bisexuals are treated with suspicion. We’re seen as people who are either lying about our sexuality or going through a phase; that we’re not capable of committed relationships; that we’re confused or just plain greedy for sex. This hurts because all humans want to be believed when they say something rather than being cross-questioned. Instead, people make up their mind about me, assign me a role and trap me in that role. If I’m a bisexual woman dating a woman, then I’m a lesbian. And if I’m with a man, being with a woman was just a phase and I’m a “hasbian”—a has-been lesbian. Men think that being with a bisexual woman will mean they will get to have a threesome—not that I’m against it but don’t expect it by default. An ex-girlfriend once told me that she didn’t have a problem with me seeing other girls but wouldn’t even touch me if I got physical with my boyfriend (I am polyamorous too, but that’s another conversation). Her reasoning was that men carried more STDs. It’s sad that women’s sexuality has been curbed so much that it gives way to such myths. ‘Gaywashing’ (when bisexuals are called gay, an active denying of their bisexual facet) is so rampant in the community.
This kind of biphobia is something that the community has to have nuanced conversations about. A community that stands for inclusivity cannot call itself so if it continues to discriminate members from within their own. My lived experience of loving people regardless of their gender is the truth and a valid one. No one can take that away from me. I want to live an honest life, an authentic life, and be accepted for who I am. I have reached this level of self-acceptance after a long hard struggle. I will continue to speak and live my truth.
Bjork had once said, “I think choosing between men and women is like choosing between cake and ice cream. You'd be daft not to try both when there are so many different flavors.” Love, which is just another word for total acceptance, is rare, and when it comes along, how does it matter what's between their legs?
Prashansa Gurung is a photographer-filmmaker from Darjeeling based in Mumbai.