Being an LGBTQ+ ally isn’t just about draping a rainbow flag and marching in a rally. In order to uncover the subtle nuances of allyhood, and how we, as a society, can create healthier spaces, My Kolkata spoke to members of the city’s queer community to find out their point of view.
Listen, listen and listen
There is an almost unanimous consensus that the one thing straight people rarely do is listen. Instead, many often try to dominate conversations in queer spaces. Unmisha Misra, who recently completed their post graduation from Jadavpur University puts it aptly: “As an ally, you can’t help us unless we tell you how to help us. Give us the centrestage, this is not all about you. A lot of straight people actually mean well, but they ultimately take up space or take over the voices of queer people.”
Md Aqib Khan, a content writer from Kolkata who currently works in Delhi, elaborates on the difference between speaking for, and speaking on behalf of the community. “Don’t take the mic away from someone just to put yourself on a pedestal. Even if it comes from a good place, queer experiences are not your experiences to talk about. No matter how good an ally you are, the mic should be passed onto people who have lived through those realities,” Aqib said.
Pointing out how people often say, ‘I love you no matter what’ in response to their close ones coming out, Ankita (name changed) suggested a better alternative: ‘I am glad you told me this, and learning more about you makes me love you even more’
Ankita (name changed), a student from Kolkata, who studies mental health in the UK, added that while listening is the first step, responding with carefully chosen words is the next. Pointing out how people often say, ‘I love you no matter what’ in response to their close ones coming out, she suggested a better alternative: ‘I am glad you told me this, and learning more about you makes me love you even more’. “When someone tells me they love me ‘no matter what’, it often implies that my queerness is a bad thing, that they have to overcome or overlook it to love me. Besides, no one deserves an award for being an ally.” She also adds that allies often feel compelled to rush in support, whereas many times, the queer individual just wants to share a fact about themselves, and isn’t looking for any advice or support. “My telling you about my queerness shouldn’t change our established relationship, right?”
In the end, words aren’t the only things to offer, as action is far more impactful. Megha Malakar, a student from Kolkata currently pursuing a Master’s degree in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, emphasises on the importance of seemingly small acts that can make a huge difference. “If your queer friend is scared and anxious about expressing themselves a certain way, support them. Go with them to a salon if they want to trim their hair or dye it. If they want to pick a shirt instead of a dress, take them shopping. Companionship is very important,” said Megha.
The only counter to ignorance is knowledge. In their quest to understand a new concept that they haven’t experienced, allies often tend to burden their queer friends with their questions about the community. While it is natural to seek information from someone you know and trust, members of the community have stressed how it is not their duty to educate their non-queer peers, especially today, when there is plenty of information readily available. “You have the internet, educate yourself. If you have questions, stop treating us as your personal encyclopaedias and just Google it!” said Unmisha.
Ankita suggests following queer and sexuality educators on Instagram for starters, although she does advise allies to take everything with a pinch of salt and study multiple informed learnings before forming their own opinions. “One of the best ways to show support for your queer friends and family is to do your homework and be motivated enough to research about queerness on your own. When I come out to someone, I give them a basic definition and encourage them to study it.”
Saimita, a visual artist and entrepreneur, caps it off perfectly, “None of us are perfect and society will continue to evolve. As long as your questions are polite and respectful, people are always willing to answer them. Unlearning, learning and relearning is a constant process.”
Aqib found an accepting and vibrant queer community in Jadavpur University. “I actually remember there being a question on bisexuality during the entrance exam!”
There is an overwhelming agreement that schools in Kolkata do not provide spaces that are healthy for exploring gender or sexuality, something that people believe should change. Most people recount school as being suffocating, and often traumatic, where they had to conform to gender binaries and heteronormative opinions, because there was no space to be themselves. Only in college did most people find the room to explore their gender and sexuality. Luckily, Aqib found an accepting and vibrant queer community in Jadavpur University. “I actually remember there being a question on bisexuality during the entrance exam!”
Ankita expresses hope in the new National Education Policy, since it recognises mental health. She said, “It’s a good start, since sexuality and mental health go hand-in-hand. However, the implementation is another question. If I, as a cisgender person, am teaching a subject on gender identities, children identifying as transpeople will not identify with me. We really need representation from the community.”
While recounting the uncomfortable expressions on some faces in response to conversations about her sexuality, Saimita sighs at how much this judgement can affect people who are trying to be themselves. “We shouldn’t be looked down upon or questioned for our sexuality and gender. This is something that needs a lot of work, sensitisation and kindness. Ask, rather than assume, as assumptions can really affect people badly,” she said.
Megha faced the brunt of these assumptions in school, when she was often reduced to only her sexuality. “I realised that I was attracted to women, so a lot of my peers would ask if they could kiss me to figure out if they were attracted to women too. Using us to test your own sexuality is wrong on so many levels.”
“I realised that I was attracted to women, so a lot of my peers would ask if they could kiss me to figure out if they were attracted to women too. Using us to test your own sexuality is wrong on so many levels.”
Sushmita (name changed), an art director from Kolkata currently based in Mumbai, shares how her friends would often make instances of her coming out about themselves. “Whenever I would come out to friends from my gender, they would ask me if I’d ever liked them. They even felt the need to clarify that they didn’t like me ‘like that’. They would think that the only reason I talked about my sexuality with them was because I liked them.” Such eschewed notions of queerness percolated to her conversations with people on dating apps, where one guy prematurely wished for her to be queer, because apparently, queer people are more ‘freaky in the bedroom’.
Ankita echoes a similar experience. “When I tell people I’m bisexual, their response often is to mention that they have another bisexual friend, and ask if I want to meet them. They don’t realise that I don’t want to sleep with every bisexual person. This is a lot like me telling a heterosexual person that I know another heterosexual person, and if they’d like me to set them up just because they have the same orientation.”
Recognise your privilege
Unmisha elaborates that not all queer people have the same issues, and non-queers fail to understand that they can’t be put under the same blanket. “Just like I can’t make general statements about straight people, they can’t make general statements about queer people too. Within the queer community, everyone has different needs depending upon their demographic, location and circumstances. Allies need to be mindful of this,” they said.
Megha’s experiences seem evocative of this, as she comes from a Dalit family. “My queer identity is already less talked about, let alone my Dalit identity. People who have an intersection of gender, sexuality and caste, and come from such a marginalised section, should be given more space. The accessibility and resources I have are considerably lesser than queers who don’t come from my caste, and voices like mine need more space within the community. When there are other Dalit queer voices in the forefront, it becomes easier for someone like me to find accessible reference points too,” Megha said.
“My parents probably don’t even know the meaning of the word, ‘gay’, let alone the concept of alternate sexualities, so how do I come out to them? For me, coming out is not a one-time thing. Moreover, the journey to self acceptance involves us discovering layers, so for queer people to accept themselves is an even bigger aspect.”
Coming from a conservative Muslim family, Aqib also confesses that for people from marginalised communities, coming out is rarely a linear process. He said, “My parents probably don’t even know the meaning of the word, ‘gay’, let alone the concept of alternate sexualities, so how do I come out to them? For me, coming out is not a one-time thing. Moreover, the journey to self acceptance involves us discovering layers, so for queer people to accept themselves is an even bigger aspect.”
Unmisha confesses that the most significant way to overcome this is for allies to be mindful of their own privilege, and work towards developing self awareness. “Just because I am queer doesn’t mean I can’t be problematic. All of us grow up with internalised homophobia, patriarchy and sexism. Hence, we have to account for different kinds of oppression and discrimination. Whether you are queer or an ally, remember that none of us are free till all of us are free.”