By Kriti Das
Art by Ashton Atts
We were driving up to the mountains - my mother, my father and I. Along a winding, roundabout road, against the backdrop of a purple sky. The cold high altitude wind in one’s hair and lungs a relief and reprieve from the city air. We three were silently taking it all in, with occasional comments on this and that.
This my mother in due course mentioned - Rituparno Ghosh’s last film before their untimely demise. “Chitrangada”. Like the protagonist of Tagore’s seminal dance drama based on the Indian epic of Mahabharata, in Ghosh’s retelling to the protagonist charts a tumultuous path through love, parenthood, and finally coming, to terms and into, one’s gender identity. My mother and I, having long been ardent admirers of avant-garde Bengali cinema, it was no surprise when this movie came out that she would be among the first to see it. I was away at college at the time and wasn’t able to join her. So I asked her, exultant expectations dripping from my eyes, how it was.
“It was good, yes. But...”, and here she hesitated before continuing, “just the amount of maakha-maakhi (physical intimacy) shown between two men on screen. It made me uncomfortable."
Of course, it did.
In the grand scheme of the kinds of things closeted queer kids are prone to hearing from their cishet parents about queerness- this was, I guess, fairly mild. And as shocked and betrayed and hurt this statement made me, I can’t say I entirely blame her. In India, Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which criminalised consensual homosexual sex, calling it “against the order of nature”, was deemed unconstitutional only in 2018. In 2019, the government of India introduced the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act - a misnomer of a bill, opposed unanimously by the trans community, as an attempt at actually policing their bodies and persons, in the name of protecting them. In India, since the introduction of colonial rule with its “Christian” ideas of morality and sin, the queer community has been viewed, from those not belonging to it or in any way associated with it, with, at best, confusion, and, at worst, disdain. Such are the times our parents grew up and old in.
And such are the times we queer kids were born into. Choosing, or forced to stay closeted until we can move out of the house - sometimes even after that. Risking severing all ties with family if you don’t. Risking even getting kicked out of house and home. We hide. We seek solace in other secretly queer friends. We take antidepressants and anxiolytics - if we can afford them. We channel all that hurt and abandonment into writing 2000 word articles on the internet. We end up parenting ourselves.
So here’s a few things I learnt from Mama Kriti, that she thinks the future (and present) generation of parents would do well to remember - cishet and queer alike -
“Cis-het” is not the norm.
Oh, but it is overwhelmingly abundant, yes. Gender reveal parties making decisions of pink or blue for intrauterine clumps of cells. Games of Antakshari and charades at children’s birthday parties somehow automatically, “conveniently”, splitting kids into teams of Boys vs Girls. Seeing your “little man” or “little princess” with another kid, who happens to be of the opposite gender, seen as an invitation to start teasing them about their supposed “girlfriend” or “boyfriend”. He dresses up as Superman. She dresses up as Cinderella. The list goes on and on - I had to physically stop myself from mentioning the inanely gendered Happy Meals and Kinder Joy toys. Oh wait, I can’t not.
Given the long history of these seemingly innocuous practices, it might seem strange to our cisgender, heterosexual friends and family as to the harm in them. Because after all, they didn’t mind, they were comfortable with this. So why would queer people have an issue with it?
Because they’re not cishet.
Growing up is a long, arduous process as it is. Imagine, adding to that, the sense of alienation, the confusion that comes from growing up in a world, in a household, that is constantly telling you, either outright or by the small everyday gestures mentioned above, to act, feel, love a certain way that goes against what you know in your being to be the right way for you.
To assume that there is one set way to live, based solely on one’s set of genes. To deny the child the ability and freedom to explore all the ways there are to be human based on one aspect of their biology. And, moreover, to punish them, with unkind words, and even worse actions, if they don’t fit into these arbitrary, yet rigid, structures.
Moving away from these structures too can be daunting. Well-intentioned parents, who do understand, and do want the best for their children, may fear backlash from society at large, targeted not only at themselves but also at their kids. What will the neighbours think? What if the kids at school bully them? What if it affects their employment opportunities? That is a very real risk you run, yes. But it is that very phenomenon which compels us to ensure that our kids know, starting right from home, that they are accepted for who they are. It is that culture of compassion and understanding that as parents we need to teach the world, through our example.
So, when you take your kids to the toy store, what if you let them lead you to where they would want to go? At the clothing store, what if you don’t tell them which section is just for boys, and which for girls - and simply make sure that whatever they pick fits the way they like it? When they bring home someone and introduce them as their partner, what if you don’t pay too much attention to whether they’re a boy or a girl, and instead place emphasis on their character, how good they are to your child, and marvel at how happy they look together.
What if you choose to foster the kind of household where your children don’t feel the need to nervously come out of the closet, in some grand dramatic gesture, that will forever change the way you look at them. After all, they’re still your children. No matter what.
Simply giving birth does not make a parent
The story goes something like this - boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl make love, boy and girl make a baby. And probably throw a gender reveal party for the kid, too. Blue or Pink it has to be.
It’s a good story. It’s one we’ve told and been told pretty much since the dawn of human time. However, much like the cishet story we discussed above, while it has been propagated as the only story, much to our relief, it doesn’t have to be.
For reasons that should be clear from a cursory understanding of 8th-grade biology - a lot of (but not all) queer couples, and even cishet couples, are unable to have children that way. But, to the merit of the times we live in, that is a concept that should cease to matter.
Irrespective of how one’s journey to parenthood begins - either through assisted fertility or adoption - it is the act of, the daily struggles and rewards of parenting a child that make one a parent.
When your child asks you where babies come from - as they are bound, at some point to do - tell them. That, sometimes, they come from test tubes. From nice ladies, who help out parents who can’t make babies themselves. From office buildings full of forms and background checks and social welfare workers who help parents find their children in the wild. That the process can be weird and messy and tiring, but at the end of it all, you have a beautiful child.
Whether or not your child shares your DNA or came from your womb are questions that do not concern your child. All they care about is if you can provide for them if you love them. So, it shouldn’t matter to anyone else either.
"Sex" is not a bad word
Speaking of, when your kids ask you where babies come from - remember “the talk”? I most certainly don’t, since I never got one from my parents. But if I did, it would probably go something like this -
“Okay, beta, when a man and a woman love each other very much, sometimes they choose to show that affection in, well, certain ways….” etc etc descriptions of heterosexual relations, you get the gist. Now, if you’ve made it this far, I expect you to already have an inkling of what is wrong with that statement.
I will elaborate nonetheless.
Using language like that is assuming, and thrusting upon your child, cisheteronormativity. If your child does not identify under that dynamic, it will simply further their confusion about, and add to their discomfort around, sex.
When children don’t get their answers about sex from trusted sources, like their parents, or schools, or when they feel that these are not sources that they can trust to talk about these issues, they go looking for answers in the wrong places. Ending up misdirected, misinformed, with unhealthy misconceptions.
As parents, it is our duty, our responsibility towards our kids, to be informed, in all spheres of life, so that we may pass on that information to them. Granted, that is not an easy task. If you yourself are cishet, it’s only natural that you can’t speak from experience when it comes to all the myriad facets of sex and sexuality. And that’s okay. However, parenting isn’t simply about acknowledging our shortcomings and doing nothing about it. Once you recognise a gap in your knowledge, it is imperative that you try to educate yourself on the matter.
If you know a queer person, and if they are willing to answer your questions - ask them.
Depending on what the policy is in your area, you could get your children’s school to adopt more inclusive sex education classes, taught by qualified sex educators. As a parent, concerned about your children’s holistic development, that is a proactive demand you can make. And we encourage you to really, REALLY, do.
The important thing here is to ensure that your kids know that you are someone they can come and talk to about these things. About their crushes, their feelings, their desires - or lack thereof. And that you will listen, without judgement, but with love and understanding and the wisdom of your years. And, on occasion, the wisdom of the Internet.
Having said all that, there is no straightforward, universal, guaranteed formula for good parenting. All parents mess their kids up, one way or another. The goal here is to learn from the mistakes of those who came before us. To mess our kids up differently than our parents did us.
Which brings me back to the awkward conversation and the ensuing awkward silence en route to the hills - a silence I deemed fit to break with - “Why would you say that? What’s wrong with that? Are you saying if I, your daughter, were ever to fall in love with a woman, and bring her home to meet you, that too would make you uncomfortable?”
More silence. Why did I say that? What was I even expecting her to say? I’m not sure, but what she did say is -
“I think it would. I would be uncomfortable.” She said, to my dismay, but not surprise.
What did surprise me was -
“But I can’t be. I’ll have to learn to be comfortable. And I’ll try.”
Ma, that’s all we ask.