Pride Matters | My life as a young queer person in small-town India

Published on Jun 30, 2022 08:59 PM IST

The time is different now than it was a decade ago because we’re rethinking gender. But as a young queer person in my small hometown of Jabalpur, things were a lot harder. Here is my story:

A queer India — where there are different voices, and every voice is unique. (AFP) PREMIUM
A queer India — where there are different voices, and every voice is unique. (AFP)

Growing up eccentric in non-metropolitan India was particularly challenging for me. Just as a child knows their mother’s face, I knew my queer self. There wasn’t a point in my life when I had to come to the truth of my existence. However, as I grew up, I was able to articulate it in words. I was expressive and flamboyant, and still am today. In an effort to put me in a box, people often subjected me to a complex slew of names, identities, and gestures. This barred me from growing up as my authentic self. I grew up playing variations of myself to minimise humiliation and prejudice.

My childhood was especially tough, as was (and continues to be) the norm for most children in the queer community. I was horrifically bullied throughout my schooling. While other children made new friends, I stood in the corridor, by myself being hit, kicked, and pinched. There were even times when the kids would spit on me. When I confronted a teacher regarding my situation, she asserted that it was my fault, and that I should “act like a man”. Later, what started in school trickled into a horrific reality that I was forced into as an adult. From bullies in my school to random strangers in public, there was no end to this harassment.

Having navigated through my queerness from the young age of 13 and growing up in the underground homosexual community culture in my small hometown of Jabalpur for nearly a decade — even at a time when homosexuality was punishable with up to 10 years in prison — I experienced the fair share of glory and pain of being openly queer in a small town. It’s the case for most LGBTQIA+ Indians in non-urban spaces who grow up without the idea of what queerness can be. But I found my way early in life.

As I grew up, I was able to articulate the truth of my existence in words. I was expressive and flamboyant, and still am today. (Aditya Tiwari)
As I grew up, I was able to articulate the truth of my existence in words. I was expressive and flamboyant, and still am today. (Aditya Tiwari)

As I was beginning to comprehend, and dive deeper into, my queerness in India, I looked for safe spaces to explore my identity, and stumbled upon one I found surprising back then: A neighbourhood public park, which doubled up as a gay hotspot. Out of curiosity, I found my way to the park, which was just an enclosed patch of unkempt grass next to a noisy road. At first, I watched from a distance, how around sundown, a dozen or so men I’d later call “queens” would gather. As I mustered the confidence to approach them over the next few days, I realised that this is where they’d meet to offload their daily stress, talk about their lives, or just hook up. For a teenager who’d recently thought that no one would ever understand him, this is where I first sought solace.

Queer lives in small-town India are not visible enough for anyone to take notice. Therefore, nobody knows what our stories look like. Pre-377, queer life for us in small towns existed in a parallel universe, in the dark. It was only in the shadows, in places where our identities were concealed from the heteronormative world, that we could find solace and be our true selves. As a 15 to 16-year-old, I witnessed everything, from police brutality to people being beaten and mugged.

Unfortunately, even now, after the historic 2018 verdict scrapping Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, not much has changed. The harsh reality is that the system constantly fails us, and the very potential of LGBTQIA+ Indians is still suppressed in Indian society. Though it is a different time now than a decade ago, the world does not make it easy for people like me. I came forward in the dire hope that maybe others who have been victims will also get the confidence to speak up. When brown queer people come out and claim spaces, they make the world safer for other queer people. It is for us to lift each other up.

Since the beginning of the lockdown in March 2020, it has been even tougher for queer people in small towns, since they’ve lost whatever little sense of community they had. Today, queer culture is scattered across India. However, the voices of those "marginalised within the marginalised" are still finding it elusive to gain momentum. And thanks to the pandemic, the plight has become worse. The LGBTQIA+ movement in India is currently urban-centric, making it difficult for those from other parts of the country to be represented and seen, and their stories heard.

Growing up, there weren’t a lot of voices like mine in magazines and I used to think to myself, "Why not I become the perspective I wanted to read?" And so I did.

I have found strength in myself even when it felt out of reach. I am immensely proud of the person I am today. (Aditya Tiwari)
I have found strength in myself even when it felt out of reach. I am immensely proud of the person I am today. (Aditya Tiwari)

Over the years, I have developed a voice that can no longer be silenced or shunned. I use my platform to amplify the discourse and issues that surround LGBTQIA+ people outside metropolitan cities like Delhi, Bombay, or Kolkata. I published my first book of poems at 20 to international acclaim, which Parmesh Shahani, author of Queeristan, called A brilliant new debut. At a time, when Indian queer publishing, is often being pushed back into the closet, I have not lost hope and have come together with a new book of poems. The words and voices of queer Indians become like bits of Play-Doh in other people’s hands.

I have found strength in myself even when it felt out of reach. I am immensely proud of the person I am today; my experiences make me who I am, and the person I used to be played a significant role in the voice I have. The acknowledgement of non-metropolitan forms of queerness is even crucial and the LGBTQ+ community narrative shouldn’t be held hostage to only the big city narrative.

The idea of who is queer in India cannot be limited to those who speak English, live in cities, and have an urban lifestyle, because this is far from the truth. Queer culture is on the rise all across India, and queerness is not bound by geography. The future of India is more vibrant, diverse, and inclusive.

A queer India — where there are different voices, and every voice is unique.

Aditya Tiwari is an award-winning Indian writer and gay rights activist. He tweets at:

@aprilislush

This is part of a special HT Premium series, spanning personal essays, reportage and analyses, to mark Pride Month

The views expressed are personal

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