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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Your grandma may not be that homophobic after all

Give your queerphobic family a chance this winter break, and be the bigger, gayer person if you can

 

By KOMOLIKA INDRANIL BASU — ibasu@ucdavis.edu

 

TW: Homophobia, queerphobia

 

As one of the very few students who actually lives with their family in Davis and is staying back here for the break while seeing the campus become a ghost town, I’m realizing that all my queer friends are facing their own versions of a “happy holiday” at their homes. In a country where four in 10 LGBTQIA+ adults are rejected by their family or friends for being queer, we have to deal with our generally queerphobic families and do some conflict work when we’re back home for the holidays. With my mother in Davis this holiday season, I can’t help but reminisce about how our relationship changed over the last break. 

I came out as gay to my mom around three years ago. I thought she’d take some time to understand, but being my mother and loving me unconditionally, she would eventually come to support me. My mother and grandmother have been huge influences on me, and I thought they’d be happy to see me become more like them while embracing my femininity. But I was wrong. 

My relationships with my mother, and even my grandmother, were greatly affected by my coming out. They wouldn’t allow me to do anything related to my queerness: I couldn’t own it, talk or write about it, do my makeup, paint my nails, dress androgynously, post pictures on Instagram or engage with queer content. I knew that these things were each a huge deal for them as part of a very binary, cis-heteronormative patriarchal society in India, so I tried to ease them into it, but it didn’t work.

 Last winter, I came to the realization that I am trans-feminine and largely reached the conclusion because of the questions my mother was asking me about my gender identity. When she was expecting me, my grandmother prayed that I would be born a son and was overjoyed when I was assigned male at birth, so I see why they feel let down by my trans identity and choice to live openly as a trans person (as much as I can within my circumstances). Maybe they feel that I am voluntarily giving up all the privilege I got by “being born a man” and instead “choosing” to live a much harder life. I had stopped speaking to them on and off in my freshman year as it was hard to talk to them while I was struggling with my identity myself. 

However, things changed this summer when I went back to Kolkata in India and stayed with my mother and grandmother for four months. I was made to cut my hair short, remove my nail polish and not go out much. These might seem like very small things when queer people are facing so much violence elsewhere, but they still mattered to me. 

I became bitter about their lack of acceptance, and I ended up moving every conversation toward the fact that they did not accept and support me as a queer child. We would have arguments about it because almost every aspect of me — the art I make and the cinema I study — stems from my queer identity and its oppression in some way. I thought that if my own parents don’t support me, how will I be confident in myself and how will the world ever accept me? And as I was suffocating in the lack of freedom of gender expression, I saw this spoken word poem by one of my favorite poets and people, Alok Vaid-Menon, called Trans/Generation, in which they speak of a similar experience but react very differently.

Vaid-Menon says, “Today my grandmother calls me the biggest disappointment in her life,” referring to their queerness and gender-non-conforming expression. “I recognize this not as a form of my own gender oppression, it is hers / You see, I come from a long legacy of women punished by men, who continue to push the man inside of me / How good it feels for the hurt to hurt someone else.” They go on to say, “I refuse to call my grandmother transphobic / I will not blame her for her own violence / Instead I will join her […] / And there is solidarity in this silence / And there is resistance / In our refusal to pretend we are both something we are not.” 

This made me think a lot about how my family, too, is only acting from a place of what they know and have experienced in the past. They cannot understand what I’m trying to ask of them, or even why I’m asking it. I know that they are worried about me facing the world as a queer person, as any discussion of or reference to queerness they had been exposed to was extremely negative. 

Bollywood movies or TV serials contain few gender-non-conforming characters who are often portrayed in stereotypical and problematic ways. Further, distant friends my family members had who were rumored to be queer ended up in bad domestic circumstances. A lot of their negative reaction to queerness comes from social conditioning and not having seen anyone express themselves like me before. If I am struggling so hard with my own identity because I am forced to face it and am scared of the world as a queer person, I can imagine how much they, who are not in my shoes, would struggle with coming to terms with my identity. 

This, coupled with some other TV and cinema I saw where queer children are bearing with and forgiving their parents for not being able to deal with their queerness, inspired me to take a deep breath and stop begging for their acceptance. The main offense they did was to not accept me or support me for my queerness, but I missed their silent acts of support in letting me do other things and all the other ways they loved me: the way my grandmother hid the best mangoes in the high kitchen shelf from the rest of the family this summer to save them for me, or argued with other relatives defending my other stupid actions, or the way they loved listening to me sing. I realized that I needed to accept myself first and give them some space. 

So I let go of their snide comments and only explained things once, ignoring them if they didn’t understand. Instead, I spent my time loving and letting myself be loved in whatever way we could love each other. I felt the rage I had experienced for so many months leave my body to be replaced by self-acceptance and fortitude. This approach helped my whole relationship with my mother and grandmother, as well as my own mental health, and made them look at the issue in a different light where I wasn’t projecting or pressurizing them to be there for me in a particular way.

Now, having moved to Davis and living with my mother, and regularly calling my grandmother, they have become more accepting as I keep making my own choices related to gender expression. Even though they question them and may not vocally support me, I can feel them slowly and silently standing with me, as they see me be more organically myself, and see my peers and faculty on campus at UC Davis supporting me. They see that I can be myself in a safe and accepting environment in ways that they had never seen before. I know that a lot of what they say, comment or ask of me isn’t fair or healthy for me, but I strive to find a balance and look at the brighter side. Their love for me might not be unconditional but it is still immense and they are my two favorite people in the world. 

I reached out to Angel Bernardino, the trans advocate and Student Services specialist at the UC Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center, and asked for some advice on how queer people can deal with our families when we’re back for the holidays. 

“Identify who your allies are,” Bernardino said. “Often, LGBTQIA+ people are outnumbered around their family, and allies can act as a buffer to some of that pressure. Don’t underestimate the importance of creating a chosen family. Not everyone has a supportive biological family and that is okay. A chosen family can provide a sense of belonging and security, and everyone deserves that. Most importantly, know when it is time to step out. No amount of familial approval is worth having to put up with verbal or physical abuse. While my experiences have only been verbal, queer hate can become violent. Having constructive conversations with people willing to listen is great. Knowing when to remove yourself from a harmful situation is even better.”

Although families may be ignorant, hurtful or hateful, remember that sometimes ignoring that part could help to maintain a relationship with a (hopefully mostly loving) family, and, sometimes, your grandma is not homophobic but just extremely conditioned and unknowingly continuing a tradition of queerphobia. Maybe give your family a chance this winter break, and be the bigger, gayer person. See if you can find your own solutions to dealing with your queerphobic family. That may be by ignoring parts of them while appreciating others, understanding where they’re coming from and letting them be unconditioned, or something more drastic based on your situation. No matter what, make sure to always prioritize your own safety and mental health, as Bernardino said, and navigate accordingly.

Happy Holidays to everyone (especially my queer friends)! If you need support dealing with any form of queerphobia, I’d recommend you to reach out to our campus LGBTQIA Resource Center or email Ms. Bernardino at aabernardino@ucdavis.edu

 

Written by: Komolika Indranil Basu — ibasu@ucdavis.edu

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