There comes a point in a queer child’s life when he must rein in his flamboyance and be saddled with the rules of masculinity. At that point, the elapsed relics of a homosexual childhood—unused, crusty bottles of nail polish, make-up, and frocks pilfered from cousins—must be tossed out. I parted with my nail polish bottles at least a few decades ago.
And then, last week, one of the last personal frontiers of social media was breached when a (straight) man decided to flaunt his painted nails. A large portion of Indian Instagram collectively gasped atthe sight of comedian Varun Grover’s hands, embellished with sea-green and sky-blue nail polish, resting on his snoozing cat. He gathered the reactions he received on his Insta story and pinned it up on his highlights as a reminder of this cultural moment. The reactions were mostly positive, Grover wrote in his Insta, but there were also many homophobic comments.
“Please tell me that’s not your hand,” beseeched one. “Sir aapne nail polish laga rakhihai (you’ve put nail polish)?” questioned another in disbelief.
I should know the taboo of polish on a man’s nails because growing up gay in the pre-smartphone and social media era, it was a burden I carried on my back like a donkey labouring with a bundle of wet laundry. As an adolescent, all I wanted was tiny bottles of nail polish in different shades—turmeric yellow, apple red, gothic black.
Grover is straight and with it came his agency to stand on relatively safer grounds to paint his nails, in the guise of a social experiment. I say this because if a gay man showed his painted nails on his Insta stories, the reaction would be lukewarm at best. It would conform to the unspoken notion that gay men seek attention perpetually, fuelled by rebelliousness or a compulsion to assert identity or both.
Yet, when I painted my nails as a boy, it was simply a trivial desire to embellish my hands.
I don’t recollect when I first developed an interest in it but as with other ‘homosexual’ affiliations, it started early in my childhood. I was actively discouraged by my parents, and my mother constantly hid my stash of nail polish for fear that I’d be subjected to brutal bullying at school. But I found at least one member in my family who aided my desire—my grandfather.
With a flowing crown of cottony hair and a beard to match, he exuded the aura of a north-Malayali Jesus and was a late-entrant member of the Siddha Samajam—a commune of modern-day hippies who believed in free love and an alternative form of living, among other things. It’s little wonder he indulged my tabooed cosmetic desires. Maybe he saw in me a blossoming homosexual boy who’d soon be trampled over in a world that’d constrict his space and slot him into stifling gender normativity.
On summer vacation visits to my maternal village in north Kerala, I’d plead with my grandfather to take me on our annual nail polish-buying spree. In the sweltering pre-monsoon heat, we’d set out on foot to a store in the town miles away. I’d return home with one or two bottles of cheap nail polish to use over the summer. This was before globalisation: Lakmé was too expensive and Maybelline hadn’t reached India yet so I would get local brands like Apsara and Eyetex.
I never understood why my desire to paint my nails was in direct conflict with the fashion choices deemed acceptable for me as a prepubescent boy.
I never understood why my desire to paint my nails was in direct conflict with the fashion choices deemed acceptable for me as a prepubescent boy. But I knew I had to ball up my fists in social situations to prevent others from seeing my painted nails. I never coloured my toenails because there was no way to curl them and send them into hiding. Before resuming school, I’d scrub away the polish and deflect questions from classmates on why my nails were flecked with colour.
As time went on and puberty took root, the burdens of masculinity weighed heavily on me. I gradually stopped wearing polish and became distanced from the pleasure I’d once felt in the act of painting my nails. I was deep in the quest for normalcy, and as part of the plan, I needed to stop attracting attention to myself. Standing out on account of being gay was bad enough—painted nails weren’t needed.
Besides, colouring my nails had not been an act of rebellion, but one of expression. A cry to assert my homosexual identity, it was definitely not.
Now, as a reasonably accomplished adult gay man, I feel like I waited too long for this nail-polish-on-a-straight-man moment to take hold, just for it to be normalised. What Grover did as a straight man resonated with me. Perhaps, on a smaller scale, we are finally on the cusp of unshackling the burdens of masculinity, which are inhibiting for both gay and straight men.
Flamboyance and gender nonconformity are just novelties in the case of straight men. But it’s a lot worse for gay men. Despite the regular appearances of sari-wearing cisgender gay men at queer prides across the country, we still haven’t shaken off thecollective denial and persistent stigma against queer people in general in India.
What defines masculinity and why is it such a taboo to breach its rigid boundaries? The answer came to me in a rather simplistic analogy in a German show called Der Tatortreiniger (Crime Scene Cleaner) I’ve been watching to improve my language skills. In addition to bolstering my repertoire in German with words for ‘condolences’, ‘grave’, ‘funeral’ and such, the show also provided me with an insight into the gendered rules that bind us.
Schotty, the protagonist, meets a gay man at a crime scene and wonders aloud why gay men are so… extra? Why do they imitate women?
To which the other man responds: “There are only two drawers into which all of humanity is sorted—one for men and another for women. When someone doesn’t fit into the men’s drawer, which is the same for hetero and gay men, then inevitably they’re thrust into the women’s drawer.” Then comes the defining moment of the scene. “I have nothing against drawers, I would like to have one that I’d like to fit into,” he says.
Perhaps therein lies the obvious answer—gender conformity based on social conditioning is stifling.
Long before Grover’s Insta-story broke out, I had been pondering over whether colouring my nails would bring me the same silly joy that it once had. Yet, every time that thought occurred, an uncomfortable feeling would rise in me. It’s the same feeling that stops me from exploring the nail polish section in cosmetic stores. I don’t think it’s a fear of bullies. Instead, it’s a resistance to breaking the conditioning I have long been subjected to, and the comforts of conformity that I have always craved as a result.
Maybe one day I’ll rip that veil apart with my nails painted inslime green. So dear reader, if you happen upon my Insta story on how I resumed colouring my nails, be kind to it.