Growing up I was constantly compared to my aunt who had passed away before I was born. Our birthdays were a day apart, she played the piano and so did I. Her mother often mused that our hands were the same, and that we looked very alike. I was given all her musical notebooks, and our handwriting leaned in a similar way, hers neater than mine. I later learned that she had committed suicide after suffering from years of schizophrenia. I carried her silence with me for years. This was when I was a bit older, but for as long as I can remember, I felt weighed down as a child, unable to smile and relax like the people around me, and by the time I was twelve years old, I often thought about not wanting to live.
In those years, I took refuge in white men singing angst filled rock music, and converted my pain into rage. Raging helped for a while but, with no channel of communication with my parents, whose bafflement contributed to my mental health worsening in some ways, I had no means to seek support and diagnosis. I wrote and drew to survive, read when the words didn’t pave way for uncomfortable silence and of course, played music with all the books my aunt had used as a child.
Ten years later I still have no formal diagnosis, my attempts at therapy have led to dead ends. I can look at myself and identify some of the roots; I am queer and gender non-conforming and a survivor, these are my lived realities. However, there are still oddities in me that I cannot explain or understand.
I’m often upset over the way queer lives are depicted in mainstream media. Headings sensationalise love, and all of our trauma is clubbed under the over-hyped, misrepresented article 377. When I was exploring what it meant to be queer in my early years, these misrepresentations often mislead me. Polarised conversations around societal rejection and love gave little space to talk about the multitudinous loves that exist in our communities. We aren’t just lovers, and our friends are chosen families. Our trauma doesn’t start and end with the Constitution. It spans across our lives on the streets into the rooms we grow up in. The conversations around queer life don’t even take into account the state of our mental health, and the lack of sensitive avenues.
In my community it is common for us to feel like vagabonds. We don’t feel comfortable going to mental health professionals, because even while they may be sensitive and really well intentioned, there is a sense of disconnect. How does one bring another person to understand that sense of constant rejection? Can someone really medically empathise with what being looked at with disgust every day feels like? My short attempts at therapy did heal me a bit, made me feel understood, not judged for as long as those sessions lasted; but they somehow fell short of what I was looking for. I also feel this scepticism is not entirely unwarranted.
I remember that my friend who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder was recommended to a facility for his alcoholism. The family, of course, listened to his therapist and dismissed any concerns that we, his chosen family, had. The initial decision had been to have him admitted to a queer friendly facility and instead they stuck him in a room, without any of his books, without the music that he survives on. There was no visitation, and I don’t know to this day how he is doing beyond some infrequent updates from his mother.
Some friends frequently deal with conversion and ‘curing’ tactics, others take the same medication for eight years and still cannot sleep at night. These are just some of the cases. There is a lot of violence that is meted out to the queer community in the name of formal medical care, and stigma is a huge part of these structured, established institutions. Love, the way it is sold to us, also becomes part of this oppressive narrative.
On Valentine’s Day every year, we meet up to fall in love. Some of us sprawl about in corners drunk or crying because the homo-normative ideal of love has failed us, and the rejection is so real and intensifies the rejection we have felt as a people. But by the end of it, we hold each other close and celebrate community and the kind, intense, difficult friendships that sustain us. These moments heal us.
Even when we talk about pain, acknowledge that this world gives us very little space to breathe, and chokes us with its hostility, these conversations seep into our bones and repair the irreparable. I’m constantly in awe of my friends in the community, there is so much resilience and pushing and shoving; our eyes glisten with pain, but the strength is so apparent. A room full of queer and trans people can transform a space, because we don’t just survive, we improvise and create, every single day.
I found healing in community as a kid straight out of school. I joined a queer trans feminist gathering which centred around personal narratives about navigating as women, non-binary and trans folks in the city. We’d gather in groups at night and reclaim public spaces as personal and free to people like us. One of the organisers would tenderly reach out to all of us and start by talking about their own experience. Immediately people would start feeling comfortable and we would all confide in each other. These became spaces for healing, all of us in some way traumatised but really listening to each other, and crying together. This was the first space that I got to process what it meant to be non-binary, to be juggling difficult situations in different aspects of everyday life. I began to feel validated and legitimate.
Today my partner and I organise a queer trans space with our friends. We are both artists and our art, writing and performance are coping mechanisms that are core to our organising and activism. Over the past four years we have imagined worlds for us to feel vulnerable without fear. As gender non-conforming people we come with years of abuse, trauma and assault. Since our work revolves around our queerness, it always follows us home. We don’t come home and become less vulnerable. It’s impossible to isolate the emotions and triggers we feel at work and personal safe spaces are absent most of the time.
In a world where people associate love with big flashy feature films, our love is strange. For me love is that meme in the morning that gets me through the day; my friend who travels every day to see me through heartache and makes me lunch. It’s late night conversations till 4 am to get each other through a difficult day, and train journeys outside the city to meet in small pockets and connect with each other. Sometimes it’s a year of planning to see a friend on the other side of the world because we understand each other’s pain, because we need each other.
People want us to define ourselves and fit the unhappy boxes they build. When researchers and journalists interview us, they ask us, ‘What issues are you facing in society?’ and we have to perform our pain over and over again. No one asks, ‘What holds you together every day when people try to stare you out of existence?’ We hold each other.
Upasana Agarwal is an illustrator and activist from Calcutta. They are an organiser of Amra Odbhuth, a queer trans feminist art space.
Featured image credit: Alia Sinha