It is a very strange experience when you realise that your identity is a slur you grew up hearing at school. Gay was never a clean word. It was a vulgar epithet, the worst insult you could throw at someone, enough to get you into trouble in front of adults because even they knew it was a terrible thing to say. Bullies would hurl it like an impenetrable rock, breaking through the most determined efforts to “ignore what they do to you and everything will be alright”.
To then have to pick up that same rock, now bloodied with constant use, and realise that it was the only word to describe who I was — it was like an act of violence on myself, even if I may not have recognised it as such at the time.
I do not remember what age I was when I actually realised I was gay. I know that I am supposed to recall the exact time and date, the weather, who was staring at me, the inevitable rushing of my pulse, and so on, but the truth is society had forced me into such deep denial that the finer points of those memories escape me. What I do remember is the panic. The overwhelming sense of doom and terror at the thought of life as I knew it coming to an abrupt halt.
In hindsight, that life I led then was one of comfort and privilege. My bullies notwithstanding, I grew up in a well-off home, with an unconditionally loving family and a good circle of friends. I was a committed student, which meant that the all-encompassing issue of grades never troubled me. I know I was fortunate, especially in a country that has an unfair share of poverty and homelessness, a socially ingrained pressure to succeed even from a young age, and a severe lack of understanding when it comes to emotional and mental health.
Yet, none of that mattered. Realising that my first ever crush was a boy was the single most calamitous thing that could happen, and no amount of rationalising would convince me otherwise. Hiding it from others became the most important goal of my life. I tried, and mostly failed, to get better at sports. I always hated it but that did not matter, to be masculine meant being sporty. I stopped auditioning for school plays because theatre and art were seen as effeminate. In those dire times when my eyes wandered towards other boys, I resorted to ripping the skin off my fingers, the pain distracting me from giving away my thoughts through my glances.
Confiding in anyone was out of the question. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I was entirely convinced that opening up to my family or friends — “coming out” — would mean I would no longer have a home. I thought it did not matter that they loved me when it came to everything else; it did not matter that they stood up to the bullies who called me gay without realising the truth of their words; and it did not even matter that some of them were vocal about how society needed to treat others better and understand difference. I thought that I was an abomination in their eyes, that one bridge too far when it came to compassion and kindness.
I internalised a lot of that hate. I would like to think that I never called anyone else gay as an insult, but I know that is a lie. When Carol and Susan on the TV show Friends, the first ever same-gender couple I saw on screen, were the butt of the joke, I laughed loudest. I tried to get a girlfriend and, whenever that ended in disappointment, I convinced myself it was because I was not one of the popular kids at school — not because, really, my heart was not in it.
I joined in when it came to gawking at the local Hijra community. Queer solidarity was not something I discovered and embraced until much, much later, so the idea that I was partaking in the oppression of others in a similar situation to me never crossed my mind. I can only ever be grateful now that, as a teenager, I only judged them and did not actually abuse them. I know others did that.
I also came to learn that being gay was not just a moral offence but also a criminal one. That knowledge snuffed out any lingering doubts I had about whether denying my sexuality was the right thing to do. Not only would I be made a social pariah, I ran the very real risk of being imprisoned, or being handled by the mob, something that I had seen happen far too often to other lawbreakers. Staying hidden was the safest option.
Such was the life of a closeted gay teenager in Dhaka. I concealed my identity from myself and from others to the best of my ability, burying my secret deeper and deeper. Focusing on school and, eventually my O-level exams helped me stumble on that same path. My loved ones kept being there for me, even as I lost a few of them without ever sharing my true self.
It was only after I left the city I called home that things changed. I completed high school and, eventually, university abroad. The former was in India, another country where being gay was a crime, but the boarding school was internationally run and in a remote village, so students and teachers from less stifling backgrounds were comfortable sharing their identities with the rest of us. I began to know and befriend queer people as fully formed humans, not caricatures of demonic indecency. It was eye-opening.
I was still studying there when, in 2009, the Delhi High Court temporarily decriminalised homosexuality. For the first time in my life, I saw other brown gay folk like me, unshackled and happily celebrating their love. I remember a couple of my classmates finally being able to exhale and let go of the fear that I still felt whenever I travelled home for the holidays. It gave me hope. It also made me ashamed of how much I was hiding.
By the time I came to the United Kingdom for university, the uneasy comfort of the closet was suffocating. I was becoming much more aware of matters of social justice, especially given the humanities and social science focus of my studies. With that awareness came a new kind of self-hatred, one where I was disgusted at myself for believing that people should be able to live exactly as they are while still denying myself that same right.
By the time I plucked up the courage to come out, first to my brother and parents, and then select friends, I was struggling with severe depression. I was not eating properly and I was even temporarily hospitalised due to the effects of being underweight. When I first told my brother, I tried to say I was bisexual, in the hopes that I might still be able to settle down with a woman. His immediate love and acceptance made me properly come out as gay a week later. I have worn that label ever since.
My parents have been wonderful. It is a real shame that everyone cannot say that, but they embraced me the minute I told them and have been amongst my staunchest allies. They continue to learn more about the community every day and I could not be prouder of them, especially knowing the types of homophobic social stigma they grew up around. I have a circle of friends again, some old, some new, all accepting me just as I am. I have even found the love of my life — proof that gay folk can have “a happily ever after”, no matter what others might say.
I am content in my own life. I get to be authentically me and it has done wonders for my health. Most importantly, I get to be “me” to myself. That was probably the toughest hurdle to surmount, but once I was able to say “I am gay” with pride and not disgust, I knew I had won.
Yet, for all the positivity in my own life now, I am also very angry. I am angry because the life I lived, with so much pain and doubt and utter self-contempt, is considered lucky. Of course, I am lucky. My circumstances have led me to a place where I can be safe in sharing my truth, and it is infuriating that that makes me special.
I am angry that there are others who are still not open to themselves. I am angry that there are others who have family and friends whose love is not unconditional. I am angry that many who have had the courage to come out have been beaten back, hurt, even killed, for their openness. I am angry at a world where the country I have found myself in is the same one which led to my condemnation back home through the sins of its colonial past.
I am angry that I am lucky and that I feel gratitude for being treated like a human being — and I am determined to use that anger. Rage is a good thing because it means we recognise the world is far from being fair and just. I know I am unlikely going to see that egalitarian world in my lifetime, but I know that we can make tomorrow just a little less cruel than today, and the day after that less cruel than tomorrow, on and on, until we no longer have to feel lucky for being unashamedly ourselves.●
Ibtisam Ahmed (@ibzor) is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham. He works on utopia and decolonisation, and is committed to undoing the histories of homosexual criminalisation that continue to oppress millions.