"I don't want to tie rakhi, they call me 'didi'!"
"What else should we call you?"
Festivals are not happy for everyone. For some, it can be extremely difficult. Survivors brought up in abusive homes feel pressured to perform the stereotypical happy family image. And those disconnected from family may feel lonely when Instagram is flooded with #MummyKiMithaai. The ones who decide to not conform to mistreatment in a family get dubbed as the 'black sheep'. In queer people's case though, we are automatically the 'rainbow sheep'. And hey, as beautiful as a rainbow sheep sounds, it is a lonely feeling to be the only openly queer person in a family that probably still has internalised homophobia – if not an apparent one. I mean, they may not put you into conversion therapy, but some part of them sees you as someone you are not.
Basically, the strict gender binary in society has made festivals extremely uncomfortable for non-cisgender people. Several female assigned at birth people face familial pressure to perform roles assigned for cisgender females. And news flash, doing so can induce gender dysphoria, trauma and anxiety. To clarify, I am using the term female/male-assigned-at-birth as blanket statements, and not to exclude or offend any of my non-binary people.
I have always felt uncomfortable at family functions. Even after making my non-binary queer identity explicit, grown-ups still talk about me being "a nice boy's wife" and give uncomfortable expressions if I correct them. Some even go as far to school my parents about "proper parenting" and how to turn me "not gay". Queer people choose to skip attending festivals altogether because of similar discrediting experiences. As a non-binary person, I feel forced to present femininely due to my sex assigned at birth. If I dress in a masculine way, I get perceived as confused or a tomboy. You also hear invalidating and frustrating questions that erase your identity. Like "If not a man or a woman, what are you?" It is difficult, triggering and dysphoric to have these conversations when lights are adorning every corner of the house, and eighty percent of the people are drunk. No Pooja Mausi, I'm not going to meet Sharma Ji's son, I'm gay.
If I present myself in a stereotypically feminine manner (since I am genderfluid), my family celebrates their secret prayers of me “becoming a woman again” being answered. Even the seemingly accepting relatives switch to a gendered language and use ‘she/her’ pronouns to address me, reducing my identity to my expression when the two exist in parallel lines but not the same one. Meanwhile, dressing “like a man” makes them sneer at me with internalized transphobia and question my mother if I am “becoming a man”. My body parts are visually picked apart and questioned by some invasive relatives. The little respect that my identity is given is by the younger generation, that too when I am “looking non-binary”. As if non-binary people must owe androgyny for basic respect. At one point, in 2019, I decided to use the name ‘Kush’ while exploring my gender identity but my family refused to use it outside the house (or even inside, but that’s a different conversation). I would hide in washrooms and lawns to ground myself and curb the anxiety. Although I don’t use the name anymore, the memories of doing so still terrify me.
While trying to avoid intra-family conflict, many parents ask their gender non-conforming children to gulp down dysphoric comments, dead naming and perform roles assigned for their biological sex. Given how gendered several languages are, terms like "beti", "didi" and "bhaiya" are enough to trigger gender invalidation.
I do not like being called feminine terms, and my family refuses to call me masculine terms, so the options are to either be misgendered or ignored during a celebratory event. Festivals like Rakshabandhan are heteronormative and patriarchal. And it doesn’t just end there. While I want to get married, my current non-binary partner and I often talk about how that would look like for us. We don’t want to be “wife and wife” or anyone’s “daughters in-law”, we are scared of our day and life with each other’s families turning into a dysphoric nightmare. Almost every ritual seems to be heteronormative and adhering to the gender binary. At my sister’s wedding in 2019, I carried out 'tilak', which is meant to be carried out by the male sibling of the bride to welcome the bridegroom. My parents were equal parts applauded and ridiculed for making their “daughter” (since I was closeted at the time) do the ritual. Lawyer Arundhati Katju describes India as a "marriage society", where only a legally recognized marital setup is validated. In such a society, the institution being heteronormative and binary-based sets back the progress. Especially when someone like the government argues that the sanctity of marriage is between a biological man and a biological woman in the Delhi HIgh Court.
Even outside familial settings, we get kicked out of public restrooms, denied accommodation, discriminated against at educational institutions or workplaces, endure harassment and violence. So clearly, the need to “pass” - wrongly perceived as vanity -- becomes integral for many simply trying to live.
So, this festive season, I hope you are mindful of people whom it triggers. I will be dancing around family parties with my lehenga and “boy cut” hair, winning all the tambola money from homophobic uncles. The need to be accepted by them is the least of my concerns. I will keep correcting them and saying “partner” when they ask, “beta, do you have a boyfriend?”. There will be zoom parties with my LGBTQIA+ chosen family where we will dress in drag and celebrate each other, even if the lights don’t guide us home. Find your chosen family and your exclusionary blood-relations will stop mattering.
And for everyone who keeps asking what they should call me, "You don't have to call me didi, you can call me Eishita. I am still your sibling/cousin, regardless of my identity."
Reply to me, and let me know what you think!