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Alok Vaid-Menon Excerpt: Music Player
I grew up in College Station, Texas. When you would fly into our tiny airport, there used to be a sign that read: WELCOME TO COLLEGE STATION, THIS IS COUNTRY! And in this small town, I was part of an even smaller community. Growing up, all the Indians would come together every weekend for a potluck dinner. There weren't that many of us, so we developed a close network. My friends' parents were my aunties and uncles- they were our extended family. There was something about coming together, gossiping, and eating delicious food (we had to drive two hours away just to find out spices!) that made living in this town, so far away from everything that we knew, more tolerable.
At these parties, I used to take my mom's and sister's clothes and promenade around the living room dancing and singing along to the latest Bollywood hits. The ceiling lights in the living room had those fancy dimmers, so with some finesse, you could simulate stage lighting for dramatic effect. Everyone would huddle together, clap, and cheer me on. I'm not sure I was particularly good at the whole dancing part, but I can confirm that I made up in cuteness what I lacked in choreography.
So when the first-grade talent show came around, I had absolutely no inhibitions about signing up. I took to the stage and spun around with reckless abandon: leaping, twirling, skipping, somersaulting- a whole production!
The entire auditorium laughed at me.
It was the first time I remember feeling shame. "Boys don't do that," said my classmates. I couldn't understand why something that gave me so much joy could be met with so much judgment.
Boys don't do what exactly? Dance, feel, somersault?
I learned about gender through shame. In so many ways, they became inseparable for me. As I grew older, people told me to stop being so feminine and grow up. Gender non-conformity is seen as something immature, something we have to grow out of to become adults. Overnight, so many of the things that I loved not only became associated with femininity but with shame. Because I was a "boy," I was no longer allowed to want to be a dancer or a fashion designer. Because I was a "boy", I had to stop. Stop dancing. Stop being myself.
Most of this advice was offered with genuine concern. I suppose some people wanted to protect me from bullying and didn't realize they were bullying me in the process. Others thought this was just part of growing up. But in so many ways, that's what made me even more depressed: how normal it was. How something so painful could be dealt so casually.
The thing about shame is that it eats at you until it fully consumes you. Then you cannot tell the difference between their shame and your own- between a body and an apology. It's not just that you internalize the shame; rather, it becomes you. You no longer need the people at school telling you not to dress like that; you already do it yourself. You no longer need your family telling you to be quiet, you already do it to yourself. You edit yourself, and at some point, it becomes so normal that you can't even tell that you're doing it. And the worst part is that you no longer have anyone else to blame.
Eventually the clothing in my closet started to get darker. I threw out all the pinks and florals for cargo shorts. I even tried (rather unsuccessfully) to go Goth. The trouble with being an immigrant kid is that I had to have my parents' approval on what I wore, and they refused to let me shop at Hot Topic. I opted for black sweaters and black slacks instead. The finished look was closer to orchestra recital than hardcore.
Over time, I became more and more insecure about every part of my body. My gestures were too "feminine," my voice was too "feminine," my existence was too "feminine." I couldn't listen to recordings of myself without feeling embarrassed, and I hated looking at photos of me. I spent so much time and energy analyzing everything, trying to become as invisible as possible.
The other kids in my school started calling me a sissy and saying that I acted like a girl. Every aspect of myself was analyzed as either "masculine" or "feminine." There was no in-between. And nothing outside of these two options. "Why do you have so many friends who are girls?" "Why do you sit like that?" The idea here was that if you were a boy who displayed even a hint of femininity, then you were gay. And if you were gay, then you were wrong. And if you were wrong, that meant they had license to beat you up in the name of morality.
I wasn't really sure what I was, but I knew that I didn't want to be hated. I tried my best to fit in and not draw attention to myself. I tried my best to deepen my voice to talk like the boys, to walk like the boys, and to dress like the boys. But I never felt like I was one of them. Boys' spaces traumatized me because they were where I experienced the most harassment. I didn't go to the restroom in middle school and high school because I was so afraid. As soon as I got home, I would rush to the toilet. This is what happens when fear becomes stronger than need: the body becomes its own closet.
Truth be told, I don't remember much of my childhood because I spent so much of it separated from my body. My body was where the shame lived, so I retreated into my mind. I was bullied everywhere, and it never stopped. It seemed so all consuming, like there was no escape. I became so terrified that my body would betray me- the hint of lavender in my voice, the sparkle in my gesture- so I sought comfort in my head, studying as hard as possible so I could one day get out of my town. I figured if I was going to be effeminate, then I should at least be smart, to have something redeemable about me.
Looking back, the worst part is I couldn't even talk about what was happening. To speak about the violence would mean acknowledging that I was different from the people around me, which would result in more violence. I couldn't talk to my parents about it because I felt like they would stop loving me if they knew that I was different.
That's the thing about being an LGBTQIA+ kid- you often don't have the luxury to come into yourself on your own terms because other people have made up their minds for you. I wish my family had been more proactive. I wish they had introduced a conversation about bullying so that I knew I could speak about it happening, too. I wish they could have let me know that this was not okay.
It took me 15 more years to embrace my femininity and regain the strength to wear the clothes that I wanted to and not that society told me to. When I started wearing what I wanted to again, it didn't feel like something new, it felt like reclaiming something that I had lost.
It felt like coming home.
Written by Alok Vaid-Menon, Beyond the Gender Binary (2020)
Narrated by Andy Sheridan
Alok Vaid-Menon Excerpt: Text
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