A lot of times in India, we live in secret. Some of those secrets are small like drinking only when you’re out of your house, and some of them are bigger, like being gay or polyamorous. My secrets are bigger and so are those of many people, and while some of us learn to have a “real-life” where we don’t have to hide, growing up having had to hide parts of you that you were still learning to understand is not impact-free. I am the loudest person I know, but I’ve hid parts of myself for a long time, there are those parts.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I’ve liked and dated women for a lot longer than most people in my life know about. I say women, but what I really mean is that I have dated people of all genders for a lot longer than I have talked about it. I didn’t think it was a big deal, I didn’t think I needed to “come out” and part of that was because I was raised on a philosophy of “don’t ask don’t tell” like most kids of my generation, but I convinced myself the most important element was that I just didn’t care. I didn’t owe anyone the truth. I wasn’t ashamed, of course not, and I believed that until a woman I was dating refused to go out with me. Here’s what happened, I was young, and in college. I liked her, she liked me. We hooked up. I still liked her, she still liked me. I asked her out to dinner.
And she asked me,
“You mean as friends, right?”
I did not mean as friends. I meant I wanted to hold her hand, buy her flowers, and fight over the cheque. I explained that and she said,
“I’m not bisexual like that, I mean, I enjoy having sex with women but you know, I can’t..date-date women.”
Heteroflexible and heteroromantic. That is what she meant. I know these words now. Back then it felt like she was just telling me that I was a drunken experiment. Regardless, I was young, nothing mattered for too long, I let it go and moved on in life. I didn’t really tell anyone because even though I alluded to dating women to my friends and siblings, it wasn’t like I was really “out”. I figured it was a one-off incident (even though my experience on the “little bit lesbian” spectrum began with an experience that was similar, and more emotional), but it happened again and again. Over and over, I ran into people who were gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual but only at night and in secret. I’m not an idiot, I understand why, I understand that social conditioning is strong and many of us can imagine having sexual relations with more than the one gender but most of us cannot imagine falling in love with those people. I also understand that sexual deviance, as anything less than pure defensive heterosexuality is viewed, is not a choice most people India make, it’s what is going to happen, and anything else you do is wild oats and sin (and quite possibly an insult to your culture).
I am not condemning the people who couldn’t date me out in daylight, but I am saying it had an impact on me. It made me feel objectified. It made me feel like I was a real-life porn category but that wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part is best exemplified by a conversation I had with my mother about six years ago. I had just ended a very serious relationship with a man, one that was definitely heading to marriage, and in the wake of that I was working a lot because I needed the distraction. A lot of my work involved travelling and I travelled with a woman who was two-decades older than me, very experienced and had short hair (this shouldn’t be relevant but it is). One evening my mother called me which is something she rarely does out of the blue so I answered immediately. She sounded serious and said she had to ask me something. She asked if I was sleeping with my boss in order to get more work from her. My boss, despite her “gay hair” and polo neck shirts was heterosexual and not at all soliciting sexual favours from anyone. She’s a wonderful person who was professionally very helpful to me.
My mother was worried because she thought I was skirting the shores of immorality in the name of ambition but what struck me wasn’t her concern, but her concern that a gay-seeming woman was sleeping with her daughter when her daughter was working as a journalist covering stories of rape, gendered violence, crime against women and sexism. She was worried about me sleeping with the one woman I encountered regularly more than the actual criminals I rubbed shoulders with. This isn’t to condemn my mother, like me she has her own upbringing and biases to contend with and through life she has made tremendous strides in the field of tolerance, but it struck me. I told her I wasn’t dating my boss. She told me she just had a feeling that I was seeing someone and since I was spending so much time with my boss she thought it could be her, except she didn’t just think I was dating her, she thought she soliciting favours from me. I told my mother that I was actually seeing someone, and I was, and I hadn’t told her because he was older, going through a divorce and had a child. My mother was extremely relieved.
See in the grand scheme of things my boyfriend’s divorce, age or child shouldn’t have mattered either but let’s get real about India for a second, those things matter a great, great fucking deal. They’re the worst things you can bring home to your parents but my mother was relieved. I’m not saying she wasn’t happy that I was seeing someone I genuinely liked, but she was also happy I wasn’t seeing an older woman. Usually I don’t tell this story like this, I tell it in joke form with a punchline but I just watched Nanette for the third time and Hannah Gadsby is a treasure who taught me something very important: You learn from the part of the story you focus on. Comedy shifts focus from trauma to catharsis, and when I tell this story without the comedy it hurts me. It doesn’t just hurt me that my mother had such a poor opinion of gay women, it hurts me that I have to keep so much of my life from the people in my life.
As far as my roots and my family go, I am notoriously secretive. In fact, my parents probably learn more about me from reading news and feature pieces I wrote that they find on the internet than they do from my mouth which is not to say I am not close to them, it’s just to say that only about 50% of me is real to them. They don’t know the rest. I learnt very early in life that everything I liked and am was shameful. I am a pansexual, polyamorous, sex-positive (as they say, slutty), self-aware masochistic woman with abnormally high testosterone, there is no room for that here except in pornography and cautionary tales, and when I talk about these things, I am immediately sexualized or condemned. No one believes these things are real or to be taken seriously. When you’re a teenager and realising these things about yourself, if you bring them up you’re either trying to get attention or being deliberately “rebellious” and should be beaten or taken to therapy. You learn to hide them and to convince yourself that when you’re old enough you will have a “real life” that is far removed enough from your roots that you don’t have to hide, but you are though, you are still hiding.
But what can you do?
If I tell people that I am polyamorous, what they hear is that I am either cheating or i am some kind of whore who cannot be “satisfied by one man”. What it means to me is that I am endlessly open to love, and I only date people who feel the same way about life, and understand loving more than one person has always been how I have operated. As far as society is concerned, I married a man, I’m done now, anything else I do from this point is extra-marital and wrong. Any bisexuality that may prevail is masturbatory fantasy and should exist only between me and my computer (if even that). People tell me often that relationships such as the ones I theorize never really work out, but I know better than that, I am almost thirty (love saying that), I know how I have conducted my relationships all my life and I know that this configuration brings me immense joy. I don’t believe in a form of love that shackles me (except quite literally). Except I cannot tell people that. I cannot because I never really “came out”. I’m more a proponent of the “slip things in” approach. I talk about my life as it is, and if you gather things about me from that, fine, if not, that’s also fine. I never made any declarations because declarations, I learnt very early, lead to condemnation and after the first time I was accused of “turning someone gay”, I adopted an approach where no more allegations could be made.
But it’s lonely.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a great life, my partner is an outstanding human being, my pets are amazing, my stepson is a budding little feminist and smartmouth, I do great work, I have good friends, I have a workout routine that serves me well, I don’t eat animals, I love my life. I don’t love that I have to censor parts of my life though. I don’t love that when I meet someone new who may have a vagina and I have that giddy feeling in my stomach, I cannot tell most people in my life. I don’t love that I still mostly meet women who are into women only after half a bottle of vodka and till dawn. I don’t love that the structure of my relationship and sexuality is a veritable pornocopia of which even those in the know are waiting for an implosion. I don’t love that I couldn’t just tell my mom that I wasn’t dating my boss not because i am straight but because my boss is (and if she wasn’t I would probably hit that). I don’t love that I have to lie by omission and that makes me seem secretive because in reality I am perhaps the least secretive person in the world. I don’t love that. I don’t love the sexualisation of how I love. I don’t love the association of immorality. I don’t love the intolerance.
Because, I am a good person, yeah? I do my best. I take care of people. I care about animals. I do my best to minimize my carbon footprint. I stand up for social justice even at personal cost. I don’t litter ever. I vote. I pay taxes. I smile at people in the street. I’m alright. Is it really so important then that I sometimes date and love four people at once (all of whom know about each other) and some of them have vaginas? Is it really what matters most?
Let me know, because I’d love to come out of hiding.