“Homosexuality is not natural.” It’s a very hazy memory from a decade ago. But I remember it was on my way to my undergraduate class when I casually said these words. The metro train pulled in and my friend and I stepped into the compartment as if nothing out of the ordinary was said. We went to the class on medieval history, ate something fairly unhealthy in the college cafe afterwards as part of our daily routine, and went back to our hostel. An overall unremarkable day, right?
Ten years later, this episode makes me recoil, partly with shame over my own ignorance, and partly with horror at having said these words myself, considering how 'woke' I’ve believed I always have been. In fact, I said it again to a good friend a few months later in a post-class discussion. This time, I added an “Eww” and a "I hate homosexuals". She (let’s call her G)—I didn’t know it then—was struggling to come out back then. Years later, G told me that these very words—said and then repeated on another occasion—had stopped her from coming out for a very long time, even to herself. Up until last year, when the Indian government finally decriminalised gay sex and set the LGBTQ+ community free from a vast history of oppression and bias, it was perhaps easier for people like me to get away with such slurs.
And yet, till late in my teens, I had never even thought about whether my standpoint was problematic at all, and had automatically assumed that we should live in a world where only cis-gendered hetero identity was ‘normal’. At that point, it was funny (as in haha funny and not weird funny) to call someone ‘gay' if a man was effeminate, or a woman not feminine enough. The only queer people we saw were in movies, and those were always comedic and OTT, meant for you to laugh at. It was only years later that I learned to put a label on what I had: internalised homophobia.
India is a strange country to live in, and if you want to map your internalised homophobia (an involuntary bias and hatred towards the LGBTQ community), you wouldn’t actually know where exactly it stems from. For me, growing up in a military environment in remote parts of the country meant that:
(a) gender norms were strict and
(b) you didn’t know what was happening outside your bubble of a tiny militarised station, waiting for months for your father to come back from conflict posting.
It also didn’t help that I grew up with almost no satellite television.
From an early age, I’ve been taught that girls are meant to be quiet and disciplined, while boys are expected to be, well, rebels. I faced my first instance of bullying when, as a kid, my mother’s decision to keep my hair extremely short to tame my curls, led to me being mistaken for a boy pretty often. This confusion was perhaps my first encounter and discomfort with what I understood as gender identity, and the kind of fixed ideas of what people of a particular sex are supposed to look like and behave as. In retrospect, a wee bit of information on ‘androgyny’ and ‘fluidity’ would have saved me from what would later develop into my own share of body dysmorphia. But those words were not even part of our language yet.
And perhaps this is how most cases of internalised homophobia work too. It draws from an individual’s own incomplete (and often hate-filled) sense of self, and is fuelled further by the extreme environment of stigma and shame Indians already live in. I grew up in secluded and militarised stations where LGBTQ+ representation was zero—missing in real life and also on television. We now know that the military is synonymous with hypermasculinity, a hostile space for non-masculine entities and transgressive sexualities. And in this closed-off world and gendered mindset, homophobia becomes the norm rather than the exception.
It took me a huge dosage of LGBTQ-affirmative literature and world cinema, along with participation at pride parades and interaction with the LGBTQ+ community, to open myself up to other sexualities and genders. It wasn’t a conscious effort, though, neither was it a path to redemption—it just happened to be part of my job as a young trainee with a newspaper. Sure, everytime I learnt something new, I was compelled to look within and realise that my individual act of ignorance could possibly have just added to the larger, pervasive stigma and oppression in the country. But at the same time, those were also the moments I learnt something new about myself. I slowly learnt that sexuality and gender are not static; they’re fluid and constantly evolving. And the more you explore them, the more you understand that no one is completely feminine or masculine. And in those shades of grey, you find your own little rainbow.
Years later, when G finally came out to me, she asked me if I would still be her friend. I was surprised to hear this because, by then, I’d forgotten about my past conduct as a homophobe. I didn’t realise why she asked me this until very recently, when G reminded me of the incident. “Why did you continue to be my friend despite me saying something clearly so homophobic?” I asked her. She replied, “Maybe I had become comfortable with the trauma of being a queer person by then.” This, right here, was a reminder that a seemingly fleeting act of hate can diminish someone else’s complete sense of worth. And that it’s never too late to take a step back and accept the problem, even if you didn’t recognise it back then. Start a new day, today.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.