11:10am, 11th March, 2018
I would love to give you that story. The story where I moved to Great Britain and life was perfect. The story where I moved to Great Britain and the sky cleared up, my skin cleared up and I sprouted a thousand wings. The story where I moved to Great Britain and queerphobia faded like a distant bad dream. But this story is not that story. This story is the truth. It is honest. It is one I have always looked away from. Are you ready?
Wait. Let’s rewind for a second. Who was I before I left? It’s making me cringe a little bit to say this but “the party don’t start till I walk in.” That’s who I was. Vivacious, funny and a bit what they call, “crazy”. I would touch an exposed electrical wire to see if it was live. My first heartbreak was accelerated by the fact that my boyfriend refused to climb a tree with me in the middle of the road. Yes, I know.
At the same time, I was living in lies. I was folding in bits of myself, away from discovery. I have always known I am queer. I have been dreaming of both men and women since I was a kid. But I didn’t know how to hold that truth in my arms. I would always find some half-truth to cover it with. Until I didn’t.
Yes, I came out even before I left. To that first boyfriend. To my sister. To best friends from boarding school. None of those times were easy or particularly pleasant. But I tried. I wanted to be my whole self. And in that the UK helped enormously. I can’t deny that.
In my very first year, I joined the university’s LGBT+ Society. Almost immediately, I became the International Student Representative. It was going to be a great year, I thought. Alas, it was one of the worst years of my life.
You see, when we imagine life abroad, we miss out on a crucial aspect of that experience for people like us: race. We have heard about racism on TV and social media. We seem to be adequately aware of what it means, right? No. We do not know how racism feels or even how it works. We do not know how racism can reside in a wide-eyed stare that makes you recoil. We do not know racism resides in the distance of an arm’s length that makes you shrink. Racism, like the British weather, is a cold you can feel in your bones. A cloud casting its shadow wherever you go. A hand that wipes your name off your mouth.
The UK welcomed me with a racist flatmate who laughed every time I spoke. Because of my Indian accent, get it? Sometimes, she would have friends over and they would laugh at me together. So, I lost my words. My social anxiety rocketed upwards. I wouldn’t go to the kitchen in fear of people. I dropped 10 kgs. That’s a diet plan for you.
Yes, yes, I know. You’re here for my queer story, not my race story. But can you really separate the two? I am a queer brown woman. And my experiences are coloured by all three. When discrimination holds your throat in its fist, can you tell which fingers belong to race, which to gender and which to queerness?
One day, I returned to the flat all happy after painting a closet with the LGBT+ society. My all-white all-British flatmates, surprised by my unusual perkiness, asked where I had been. I told them. Their faces emptied like plates. They had no clue what “LGBT+” stood for. I told them. Silence. The bully was the only one to respond, with a halting “O-kay..?” I had come out without realising it was going to matter. A few weeks later, one of the girls felt it necessary to explain to me that on Facebook she is in a relationship with another girl in the flat, but it’s a joke and they’re just good friends. “We’re not gay,” she clarified.
I do not know if I found a community in the LGBT+ Society. I was one of two people of colour there, in an international university with students from around the globe. Maybe I could have done something about it. But I was a fresher in a foreign land – fast losing my sense of self, with no idea of how to be, how to function. And those in charge didn’t notice the lack of inclusivity or brushed it off as someone else’s inconvenience.
And yet, the Society added a bit of rainbow to my otherwise greying life. It showed me that hey, queer people exist. In hordes. All kinds of queer people. All of L, G, B, T and more. And they can live openly. That made all the difference. So, I emptied my secret onto this page of an LGBT+ Indian blog, and came out to every single person I knew. It was only the beginning.
To this day, I watch young queer students of colour arrive in the country and thank white audiences for accepting them. They talk emotionally about how they are persecuted back home and here, they are not. And the white people in the audience applaud themselves for being welcoming, for saving queer people of colour automatically as they set foot on their soil. Meanwhile, queer people of colour are refused entry to queer clubs for not looking “queer enough”. Queer asylum seekers humiliate themselves to prove their queerness to the Home Office. And people of colour – queer or not – waste away in detention centres. As I’m writing this, there are detainees starving themselves to be treated like humans.
I too – in that first year – saw the rainbow flag unfurl atop my university and believed myself saved. If there was something that did save me that year, it was meeting Lubna. That’s another story for another time.