"Do you like girls?"
My boyfriend asked, staring at me while I struggled to process what he had just said. I was 19, this was 1991 and I was a girl from a conservative Muslim family who had just moved to India from a Muslim-majority country known for its orthodox social structures.
"Like girls, meaning?" I replied, flummoxed.
"No I mean, are you into girls?" he explained.
What? How was that possible? I am a girl myself, how could I possibly be 'into' another girl?
"What does that even mean?" I cried.
A couple of years older than me, he then proceeded to explain what homosexuality was in the simplest possible way — there were, apparently, men who romantically liked men, and women who were attracted to women.
Was I, he asked again, one of those women?
I don't remember feeling any shame or anger at the suggestion, just oodles of confusion.
"No," I assured him, while at the back of my head, nothing that he said made any sense to me. I kept thinking, these things don't happen, at least not to people like us.
While growing up in a conservative Muslim family in the 70s, with limited access to even things like television, homosexuality was so unfamiliar a word that, honestly, I didn't know what to think of it. Nobody spoke about it, nobody mentioned it as a 'joke', nobody dissed it or applauded it — it's as if, homosexuality didn't exist. Be it in school or college or among my friends, nobody had ever mentioned it before my boyfriend did, after I moved to India.
When I asked him why must he think I am attracted to girls, he pointed out a slew of instances when I had put way too much effort, invested emotionally in some friendships with other girls. "I may be wrong but you are very into these girls, you get emotional and care a lot of about them," he said. I dismissed his assumptions as one of those reckless things men say.
When I asked him why must he think I am attracted to girls, he pointed out a slew of instances when I had put way too much effort, invested emotionally in some friendships with other girls.
But deep inside my heart, I knew he wasn't entirely wrong. I had never been as emotionally invested in a guy, till then, like I had been in some of the women friends I had. Only, I assumed that's how friendships work and didn't give any thought or time into processing these conflicting feelings. I went to aspire for what other girls said they wanted, boyfriends being one of them — just something girls do.
None of my female friends ever spoke about homosexuality, even as a fact. I had Hindu friends, orthodox Christian friends, absolutely no one ever mentioned the existence of anything like this. I, too, buried the thought and went about life like that was what it was supposed to feel like. I got married, separated and married again and never realised what was amiss.
I worked in the corporate sector, was bringing up a child and while there were articles about homosexuality in the newspapers, I never had a conversation about it with another person. Even when I read about homosexuality, court cases, I never paid attention to it — 'not something that concerns me' I thought to myself and ignored it.
I came out — to myself — in 2015. In the years leading up to this, I used to read about the legal battle against the law against homosexuality, see pictures of pride, people talking about them coming out, people ranting against the government and I only felt overwhelmed. All of it just seemed vast, loud and too in-your-face for me to process. Of course, I was buried under years of conditioning about what love should be like, who we are allowed to love, what we are allowed to desire.
Then one day, roughly, 5-6 years back, something happened that left me confused and terrified.
Then one day, roughly, 5-6 years back, something happened that left me confused and terrified. I had met a woman for work and in the course of the conversation, I felt this deep, relentless bout of attraction for her. I had never felt anything like that before for anyone. On hindsight, I think I never allowed myself to feel anything for a long, long time.
My mind was racing. It could be just that I find her impressive, right? Swimming in a pool of guilt, I decided to go back doing what I did best — get on with life, as I knew it should be. But this time, I knew what it could be. So I told myself, if this happens again, I will not ignore it. And it did. Again, after a few months, I met someone I felt deeply attracted to and it was a woman. Then it happened again, and again. I realised, this wasn't something I felt with any man before.
After fighting bouts of guilt for a while, the first thing I decided to read up on was if this was a result of some sort of a revulsion for men, following sexual abuse. While searching for methods to heal the effects of child sexual abuse, I had read somewhere that years of abuse may lead women to hate men.
Through childhood and teenage years, I had been sexually abused by male acquaintances and never had the courage to talk about it. Could it be just that, a pent-up revulsion for men? Turns out, a lot of unscientific theory floats around about homosexuality. I read and figured that I did not feel repulsed by the idea of a man, the best friends I have are all men.
I was 45-years-old, had children and women my age and from where I came from, were not comfortable with articulating any form of desire, let alone start exploring their sexuality.
Two years of agonising later, I remember sitting in an empty house and gingerly typing on Google: "40-year-old woman coming out." I took a deep breath before hitting enter and hoped this would put my doubts to rest. I was 45-years-old, had children and women my age and from where I came from, were not comfortable with articulating any form of desire, let alone start exploring their sexuality.
I still thank myself for having run that Google search. Dozens of articles, blogs and videos surfaced. They were all women, they had all been through what I had. This happens, this happens to a lot of people, this is fine! I was giddy and nervous. The days that followed had me poring over scores of articles where married women, separated women, single women born in the 70s and 60s, narrated stories, the same cycle of denial, self-doubt and guilt I had gone through. It was okay, and more importantly, it's normal — I was absolutely fine!
Would the women I met think I am hitting on them? Would they stop working with me? I didn't have the answers.
All the pieces started to fall into place. What was missing in my marriages, what was missing in my life!
One of the first few people I spoke to was my daughter. I had expected the kind of confusion I had faced when someone mentioned homosexuality for the first time, but turns out, she had known for a year. We laughed about it, she taunted me a bit and a huge, huge burden was lifted off my chest.
A few friends suggested I tell everyone I knew, but I didn't. I realised, like I was not ready to face my truth, most people around me were either confused, disinterested or didn't fully understand homosexuality. And all this was very new to me anyway. Then, I had my job to worry about. Would the women I met think I am hitting on them? Would they stop working with me? I didn't have the answers. Will my kids' friends ridicule them? Will anyone at all understand?
Then there was the issue of companionship. I had no clue how to actually date! Then someone suggested OKCupid. The first few weeks, I the only felt weird surfing the site, everyone's so young!
It's been three years since then. I have taken baby steps to live my life and fight social conditioning. It has been a long, torturous process — unlearning everything you believed about life and love, but it's been exhilarating. But one thing's for sure, I will listen to myself before I listened to society first.
(As told to Piyasree Dasgupta)