By Devang Pathak May. 17, 2017
In junior college, my classmates started a silly rumour about my sexuality and my supposed gay lover. I had to turn to the standard straight male homophobic response of inventing a girlfriend.
“If you can’t convince them, confuse them” read an olive-green T-shirt I had bought before the start of junior college. The sheltered life of school had ended and junior college now presented the exciting prospect of wearing new clothes every day, which, no one told me, should be bought without the fashion advice of your parents. Just like every other student who has ever entered the hallowed portals of college, I was nervous, intimidated by the vastness of its human population, and wanting desperately to fit in.
Movies and elder cousins had also taught me that the initial weeks were rough, because ragging was rife in colleges. I allayed my fears by making a few good acquaintances on the first day. I’d hoped that we’d find safety in numbers and that we’d have each other’s backs.
What my teenage naiveté hadn’t bargained for, was that the same people I called friends would gang up against me a few weeks later. They’d start a silly rumour about my sexuality and my supposed gay lover and remind me of it daily. That the only thing uniting us, would be our deep-rooted homophobia.
There was no guide on homosexuality as I was growing up. One just saw tabloid stories of Elton John or Ellen DeGeneres, caricatures in Hollywood and Bollywood films, and accepted that it existed. A week into my ninth grade, we had a professor tell two mischievous male students who were whispering to each other that “just last week we held a discussion on homosexuality” and the whole class erupted in laughter. The only stable image I have of the sex education we were imparted, is of the counsellor pointing to a board with the words “necrophilia” and “homosexuality” on the same blackboard and stating that she hoped none of us would fall into either of these categories in our coming years.
It was a small wonder that we internalised these prejudices, and used them in the schoolyard. A quiet classmate became the target of a gang of class clowns and bullies after a dispute. They spent weeks calling him gay and warning everyone that he likes to “touch men”. I avoided interactions with him, convinced that it wasn’t the rumours of being gay, but that I just found him irritating. But the truth is, I didn’t want to be associated with him in public. A couple of times, he told me about going on a date with a girl and how much he liked her, perhaps a frantic attempt at dispelling rumours about his homosexuality.
Little did I know that I’d soon be employing the same tactic.
I wish I could have told my 16-year-old self that just because a group of people were saying something, it didn’t become true.
One of the boys in my diverse junior college class was Rakesh*, who had studied in a Gujarati-medium school. In those initial days, we tried to figure out who one mixed with and who one avoided. Rakesh fit in the latter, not merely because of his background, but because he would routinely irritate me. We’d be passing through our college corridor and without any provocation he’d try to poke my abdomen. A dark, tall guy with oiled hair who looked like an adult but used fifth-grade schemes for attention.
While I routinely ignored it, a friend jokingly suggested that he was doing this because he liked me. A week later, this had morphed into gossip even acquaintances would tease me with. I thought it would blow over swiftly, but the rumour just seemed to take a life of its own. Even when our interactions stopped, it did little to dent the gossip. I’d been teased with multiple girls in school, but this seemed different. This felt cruel.
I wish I could have told my 16-year-old self that just because a group of people were saying something, it didn’t become true. You’re not gay and probably, even he isn’t. But more importantly, even if that was the case, it was okay. I doubt he would have listened to me.
In my attempt to combat this buzz, I found myself creating defences I still cannot fully understand. I became meaner, joined my new “friends” in leching at women, and using expletives I might not have even fully understood. So fervent was my need to fit in with the hetero-normative narrative that I changed into a person I couldn’t recognise anymore.
Despite my best efforts, the incessant teasing refused to let up. I had to turn to the standard straight male homophobic response of inventing a girlfriend.
I recruited the help of my best friend – already in another relationship then – by naming her “Nicole” on my phone and asking for permission to mention her as my girlfriend. I started hustling this theory so that the focus shifted from my gay lover to judging and teasing me about my girlfriend.
The large group slowly bought it and I was free of the teasing which had annoyed me for weeks. But in the process of convincing these people, I’d lost a bit of myself. I’d bought in and contributed to the same homophobia they displayed, where a person’s sexuality was considered fair game for ridicule and public aversion.
I can now only cringe at my juvenile prejudices. I do not recall holding any malice toward LGBT people – having interacted with very few until then – but the idea of being considered homosexual terrified me. The years I’ve spent watching movies, reading, and writing have peeled away the remnant homophobia but I still feel a twinge of regret.
Now when I meet my classmates, we all bear a burden of silence. We make light of the teasing. We pretend that we didn’t mean those things or that it was “just fun”. I know now that it wasn’t just fun – that schoolyard bullying is vicious and scarring, and the root of deep-seated anxieties that shape our future lives and relationships.
As for Rakesh, I wish I could apologise to him for showing so much disdain for what was probably a gesture of friendship. Just the way I wish I could reach out to straight men in situations like mine, who feel guilt and shame if they are considered homosexual and react with anger and revulsion. I wish I could apologise to my classmates who might have wanted to come out, but never could due to the toxic environment we created around them.
But I can only offer a cautionary tale.
Devang Pathak is a writer who even at 50 will insist "I am not quite there yet". He frequently resigns from reality by traversing into films, TV shows, and sometimes books. He is the founder and editor of "Was That Funny?", a publication which writes about Indian stand-up comedy. Twitter: @DevangPat