When speaking about LGBTQ+ related topics in my country, the first word that comes to mind is “forbidden.”
I am Shumi—a bisexual writer and artist—and I live in Kolkata, India, a predominantly conservative country where orthodox older people set cultural norms. The rules are simple: blend in, be normal; and if you happen to not fit into the molds of society, God forbid if you even dare breathe a word about it. There used to be no pride parades here, but recently the queer youth of our generation have been trying to break the stigma and oppressive rules by organizing and participating in pride parades. But still, if you walk down the busy streets of India, the only rainbow-colored items you would see would be lollipops and umbrella commercials and balloons amidst the bustling concrete jungle. It’s sad, considering how our country was one of the oldest communities to include homosexual and transgender people. It was explicitly written in many Indian mythological documents and in the famous book Kama Sutra, too, but the purists (Brahmins, of the Hindu community) saw it as abnormal and regarded them—us—as alien and subhuman.
I am not normal. Well, not the kind of normal my culture believes I am and insists that I be.
I am queer, and if there’s anything I have learned from living here for the past decade, it’s that my country hates the very essence of who I am, and has been trying its hardest to convince me that I’m not who I believe I am.
I was raised in a strict environment: rules were followed to a tee and rule-breakers punished to make a point. The first time I heard about queerness, I didn’t feel relieved or free—I felt weirded out. I was 14 or 15 at that time, staring at the picture of a girl despite being in a relationship with a boy. It was confusing. It was scary. But there was also this “Oh” moment where for one painfully clear moment, I realized that I might be bisexual.
I was always raised to put the opinions of others before my own; my parents and those I was surrounded with growing up had ingrained the collectivistic values of my culture within me, guiding me to tread the waters of society carefully for fear of the judgment of others. It was always about other people—what would they say? What would they think? They. Never me. Never us. Perhaps at some point, I grew tired of it. Perhaps a dormant part of me had long begun fighting back, had begun saying “enough” when met with oppression before I even realized it. Regardless, I was fortunate to have my best friend, who came out to me not long after I had my big realization, and together we navigated the trenches of what it truly means to be queer in a country that tries its hardest to erase our existence.
Being bisexual in my country is hard. There is no easy way of putting it. It’s limiting and it’s frustrating because the only sources of information and support I could access were from my clandestine dives into sites and online forums created by people living lives I could only dream of having: The Trevor Project, AVEN, and Stonewall Community Foundation have pages that have propelled my journey of self-discovery to greater heights. Not only that, supportive queer communities on Instagram and shows like Heartstopper have also validated my identity and given me the information as well as the confidence I needed to embrace my queerness.
I couldn’t talk to anyone in my life about it—not my parents, not my mentors. I had a couple of friends who were queer, but the Internet was really my sole confidante and support, especially during the pandemic. Don’t get me wrong; I love my queer friends, and we support one another in the best way we could, but there was always this… pressure, I suppose, and that looming fear of opening up because of society’s expectations for us to fit into neat little boxes that others from more liberal countries simply do not have to face. I guess that’s what I’m the most envious about and what frustrates me the most living in India: my inability to show who I am on the inside to the outside world.
I am a writer at heart; I mentioned this at the beginning. I find a newfound freedom and solace in my writing, something I do not always feel in regards to my identity. As a writer, I explore topics I’m afraid of voicing, experiences I could only put into words on paper rather than speak out loud. Every character I write contains a piece of me, and every incident is a reflection of my life, too. I am inherently fearless while writing, even more so because I know I’m not going to publish it in my country—I can’t. But deep down, I hope that the newer generation in my country might somehow find and relate to my pieces. I hope that my words can reach them despite the hurdles and remind them that they’re not alone; that together we can break the generational trauma our community faces and build a new, warm, more inclusive home for ourselves.
My country views queerness as an anomaly. In our culture, we are regarded as “homo,” a slur, kind of similar to the derogative word “faggot.” “Chakka, hijra, Shokhi”: all these words are largely used to insult the transgender community. Any man acting relatively effeminate is told, “Oh, go, why are you acting like this? Which girl will marry you, then?” A girl trying to be masculine would receive the same treatment. Personally, I always kept my hair short—even now. I always used to play the “boy character” whenever I had any dance or acting performances from my childhood. Some people used to ask me, “When will you grow out your hair? How will boys find you attractive otherwise?” It used to bother me a lot, but my parents are pretty laid back in this regard, as they let me choose how I want to be.
To this day, I continue to have the dilemma of whether I’m actually queer or just “faking it,” largely because even though I’ve had romantic attraction toward boys, I’ve found it hard to get romantically attracted to girls, even more so when my best friend started telling me about the new girl she was having a crush on. Thankfully, as always, the Internet saved me by assuring me that bisexuality doesn’t necessarily mean to have all kinds of attraction—any kind of attraction can work. Accounts like @yesweexist and many other queer and sex education platforms have helped me to gain new knowledge and know more about myself.
I guess at the end of the day, my point is that while the situation in my country remains complicated, I do believe that if the younger generation becomes more vocal regarding their thoughts and beliefs, we might be able to make positive changes in the way we as a community are viewed by the general public. It will be no easy feat, and it will take a lot of time and effort to raise awareness.
In closing, to readers living in similar situations: this is for you: it’s okay to be scared. It’s okay if you’re confused. You don’t need to know everything from the get-go. Life is full of ups and downs, and you don’t need to fix a deadline for something you’re uncomfortable with. Take your time, explore yourself, talk to people you trust. You can do it. I believe in you. I love you.
We, the queer community, love you. Welcome home.
Shumi (she/they) is a student in Kolkata currently studying in Grade 12.