Friday, June 13, 2014

Qatha: An adventurer speaks

People, Jun '14
By Paramita Banerjee

Varta brings you the ‘Queer Kolkata Oral History Project’, an initiative to document five decades of queer lives in Kolkata (1960-2000). Our aim in this project is to go back in time and bring forward diverse queer voices through a series of interviews, which will provide a landmark to Kolkata city's queer history. Typically, the focus will be on the queer scenario in Kolkata during the growing up years of each interviewee – how it was to be queer in Kolkata in different decades since the 1960s till more recent times. The effort will be to bring forward a mix of the well known and the lesser known voices. Apart from the excerpts published here, the project also aims to publish a collection of the interviews in different formats. All interviews are based on informed consent and where requested, all markers of identity have been removed for reasons of confidentiality.

In this issue we bring you an interview with a bisexual woman, who is in her early 40s, lives in Kolkata and works in the disability sector. She is not comfortable disclosing her name as she fears it might have an adverse impact on her work in the disability sector, which is not necessarily open to sexual diversities yet.

The interview was conducted by Paramita Banerjee in September 2013 and revised with the interviewee in May 2014. It was transcribed by Paramita Banerjee.

For the interviewer, this narrative is of particular importance since this is from a bisexual woman and bisexuality continues to be one of the least understood phenomena even within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and other queer communities. Bisexuals are variously described as ‘opportunists’, ‘confused’, ‘indecisive’, and other such not-so-complimentary terms. Bisexuality, though, offers one of the greatest challenges to patriarchy by transcending both hetero-normativity and homo-normativity. However, bisexuality, like other strands in the queer rainbow, is not homogeneous and is experienced differently by different people. Some, like this interviewee, experience it as attraction towards the more androgynous of both men and women, thereby challenging the gender binary of the masculine and the feminine. But there are others who feel attracted to the ‘most feminine’ and the ‘most masculine’, both categories being defined by stereotypical patriarchal notions of femininity and masculinity. Hopefully, this interview will help the readers gain some insight into the journey of a woman who needed to cross many roads before understanding her bisexuality, along with insights into the many nuances of being a bisexual woman in spaces that are often woman-unfriendly, not to speak of women who have transgressed the norm by being bisexual among other things.

Another important point to note is the interviewee’s assumption about the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which on the face of it criminalizes non penile-vaginal sexual acts practiced by anyone, but, in actual impact, criminalizes LGBT people. Asked about the December 2013 verdict in May 2014, she mentioned that the verdict was a setback in one sense, but she also believed that it would add fillip to the queer rights movement by taking it more to the streets beyond the confines of court rooms.

Paramita: Thank you for consenting to this interview and I assure you that I’ll respect your need for confidentiality. This interview will not be published without running the transcription through you first. Will you please start by telling me something about your growing up years?

Photo credit: Paramita Banerjee
Interviewee: My growing up actually started with the first act of defiance that I committed – leaving home at 16 to marry a man 19 years my older. It was not even as if I was madly in love with him or anything of the sort. He was the maternal uncle of a friend of mine, whom I met when he came to collect my friend after the school farewell. Met him afterwards for a few times at my friend’s place, not by my design – but maybe by his. I do not know. He soon proposed to me and I just asked him to go and talk to my parents. I still had no idea about the full significance of marriage. I had not even indulged in any acts of sexual exploration and was quite uninitiated about even my own sexuality. Anyway, when he did approach my parents, his proposal was naturally turned down immediately. Why would any sensible parents want to marry off their 16-year old daughter who had just completed her ICSE, to a 35 year old man? But that refusal changed my life forever. My parents did not bother to explain the reason for their refusal to me and that’s why I felt that I have to challenge their decision. So, I simply left home and went off to marry this man.

My sexual encounters began with him and I used to feel uncomfortable if he tried anything other than what I had read about being ‘normal’ among women and men. That is funny, because I have indulged in similar acts later with other male sexual partners and enjoyed them, too – but with him, my sexual initiation must have started on the wrong foot. And, I also got pregnant at 17 and was a mother before I had attended legal adulthood. Anyway, motherhood helped me create a sexual distance with my husband since I was determined to continue my studies and therefore stayed with my parents with my son more than I stayed at his house.

I had my first same-sex experience towards the end of my first year in college and remained confused about my sexuality. In retrospect, though, I can see that my same-sex attraction was there since pre-puberty years, for I had a lot of attraction towards some of my lady teachers in school. Anyway, within a couple of years, I realised that I can enjoy erotic exchanges with both women and men. I would say that by the early 1990s, I had understood that I am bisexual in my orientation. There is one interesting thing, though. As far as women are concerned, proposals have come from their side and I have had many erotic women partners, but only one serious emotional relationship that I had imagined to be some kind of a couple relationship. As far as men are concerned, I have had no problems in falling in love with them and have had many short-term relationships . . . You had asked me about my growing up years, and I have spoken about half my life!

Photo credit: Interviewee
Paramita: That’s fine. I would have probed anyway. In fact, why don’t you elaborate a little more about your marital life?

Interviewee: What should I say? Can’t say he is an uncaring man, but as I’ve already mentioned – I was never sexually comfortable with him. So, his pressures to be physical with him were very disturbing. In fact, so much so that I had actually moved out in 2002 and returned only after he assured me that I would have a separate bedroom and he would not force me to get into bed with him. Soon after that, I escaped out of the country with a fellowship and truly discovered my true spirit. I could realise how adventurous I am in everything – in exploring new places, in experimenting with unknown food habits, in participating in adventurous sports. Those four years away from the country were of tremendous enjoyment to me. I also had sexual encounters with both women and men, though no relationships. In fact, I think I have an inherent fear against any committed relationship.

Paramita: Why is that? Could you explain?

Interviewee: I think it stems primarily from my unhappy marital experience. But I also think that my son acts as a barrier in my mind. I’m afraid that a committed relationship with anyone might demand more attention from me that I can afford to, because my commitment to my son is very high. I’m not ready to compromise on that front.

Paramita: Is there any concrete trigger for this second fear?

Interviewee: Well, as far as my only committed relationship with another woman is concerned – about which I mentioned before – my engagement with my son was one of the factors that contributed to the breakup. And, it was very tough for me. I had to transcend my fear of commitment to get into this relationship. I had trimmed down my usual practice of casual erotic encounters very seriously so as not to hurt her. It was very difficult for me to accept that she actually told me of a parallel relation after she had been in that relationship for some time. I was the one who believed in open relationships and I changed that to remain in one committed relationship since that was what she wanted. It’s been tough for me and I haven’t gotten over it really. Maybe I should have been more pragmatic, for she at times used to call me an opportunist because of my bisexuality. How do you feel if that’s how your partner refers to your sexual orientation? It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Makes you feel helpless [the interviewee was in tears during this part of the interview].

Paramita: Well, I am sorry to hear that. But tell me something. Since you identify as bisexual, have you ever considered joining any LGBT group or becoming an active member of the LGBT rights movement?

Photo credit: Interviewee
Interviewee: Not really, if by activism you mean being attached to any particular group. My sexuality is only one of my many identities and I don’t like making that my only identity. Also, I don’t like the idea of labelling myself bisexual, because even the sky or a mountain at times evokes erotic feelings inside me. I don’t know if that is the marker of a bisexual, but it is certainly a feature of my own sexuality. However, I consider myself part of the rights movement. I have been participating in LGBT pride walks and other events since 2002. I have many friends from LGBT communities. Most importantly, my son is aware of my sexual orientation and is comfortable with that. He is totally comfortable with same sex orientation and participates with me in pride marches and other events. Many of my younger LGBT friends are more his friends actually. I think this is one important contribution I have been able to make.

Paramita: What are your plans for the future? Also, how do you perceive the future for LGBT communities in India?

Interviewee: As far as I am concerned, I am not sure I want to get into any committed relationship ever again. My commitment as a mother is important to me and I don’t want comparisons between the ratio of attention I give to my son and my partner. As for the future of LGBT communities in this country, I think the situation has improved well beyond what it was during my adolescence. I think today’s adolescents and youth are more exposed to alternative sexualities and at least in urban areas, more ready to accept same-sex oriented people and relationships. The Delhi High Court judgement on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has also been a major milestone in the right direction. Once the Supreme Court verdict sanctifies that judgement, I think the process of social acceptance will be further expedited [the interview was conducted before the Supreme Court belied expectations in December 2013, reversed the Delhi High Court’s reading down of Section 377 in July 2009, and reinstated the law as it was originally].

Paramita: Thanks so much! I’ll run the transcription through you before it is published.

Paramita Banerjee is a black coffee-loving, living-in-the-moment, do-it-yourself social activist and writer.

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