"Baila." That's the first homophobic slur I remember hearing. It roughly translates to "wuss" or "pansy."
Surprisingly, I first heard this term in my own home. The second time, it was at school. Homophobia is almost ingrained within the fabric of Indian families, forcing several young gay boys and girls like me further into the closet and as a result, develop internalised homophobia. You don’t have much of an adolescence if you’re gay in India. If you think that just because Section 377 was repealed in 2018, everything is hunky-dory, you might want to think again.
Only a few days after the tragic death of a 25-year-old in Myanmar who was bullied by his colleagues, I woke up this morning to the shocking news of the death by suicide of Mumbai-born Avi Patel, who ended his life at the age of 20, in Chennai. His suicide was brought to the limelight because of the heartbreaking post he left on Facebook before taking his life. He wrote the post in Hindi and English, appealing to those reading that he was fed up of people bullying him for being effeminate. In the post, he asks his friends to look after his parents and in the same vein, rebukes his orientation, mentioning that he wonders why God made him gay. We’ve gone so terribly wrong that our damaged youth recourse to social media to call attention to their demise.
At 17, I often wondered if taking my life would be the easiest way to end my misery, and by effect, that of everyone around me. 10th grade was a weird time for me, mainly because I was coming to terms with the fact that I liked boys and it was accompanied by the most random erections. One boy claimed that he saw me look at him and get hard, and for this, I was relentlessly called derogatory terms like "mamu" and "gudwa" – essentially meaning pansy – for months after that. I hated my body for betraying me. This got worse in later years. Once, when I spoke up about this with my local train gang who I commuted with, they physically pushed me out of the compartment at the next station. They claimed I was ruining the moral fabric of their group. And later, when I finally came out in college, I was bullied online by my classmates. Thankfully, alongside all this happening, I also had the support of my friends who got me out of depression, calmed my anxiety and enabled me to laugh at it all. Not everyone is as lucky.
One of the main reasons a lot of queer people are drawn to each other is that despite our public smiles and little victories, we are reminded of the tragic past most of us keep locked inside. Jnanasiddhy—a 31-year-old patent analyst, choir boy and improv artist—opened up to me about the relentless bullying he has witnessed. “Growing up a clueless gay boy in a small town in Andhra Pradesh, I had to quickly figure out what my social currency was," he said. "I wasn’t the looker, or the math genius, but I was a good student who sang and danced and wrote and hence managed to stay under the teacher’s gaze. Not that I wasn’t called a 'chakya', 'kojja', '0.5' or 'eunuch' (terms commonly used in southern India to bully someone who is feminine). Hell, even mom called me a 'kojja' when I was 11, but being a teacher’s pet gave me access to power that kept the bullies away. But once I moved to a hostel, the bullying got intense. Classmates sashayed behind me yelling, 'Catwalk!'. One day, five guys turned up in my room and pushed me onto the bed, and started making fun of me. My best friend once in anger called me a chakya. I was confused and hurt and angry. When I moved to Mumbai, freshly estranged from my family for coming out, my flatmate bullied me so much that I walked around like a zombie for days. The incident still haunts me. I was so lost that sometimes I would forget to shut doors, turn off lights, misplace things. I cried myself to sleep for months.”
His story, like many others, gets stifled or passed around as "kids do it sometimes". The class divide in these cases is also pretty evident. A lot of queer kids are the only breadwinners for their family and find themselves constantly duelling with why their family hates them despite everything they do. While the upper class elite gays are busy tying knots in idyllic locales, the middle class and those below the poverty line are dealing with constant mental anxiety and self-hate. A lot of therapists charge a bomb, making it further difficult for queer persons to find help.
Jnanasiddhy adds, “Being a femme gay is like playing relationship minesweeper everyday. We are the others who seek out chosen families to keep sane, manage our traumas and stay functional in a society that flexes its power a little too happily to police our bodies, actions and existence in general. Dear straight people, I overcame my bullies, but remember that not everybody does.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.