Between Love and the Label: My Experience with Sexuality

Nine. That’s when you first realise it’s wrong. Your friends ask you, “Which boy do you want to kiss?” their answers ranging from the decent-looking boys (as decent as they get in third grade) to film actors. You nod, say the name of a boy you’re friends with, and end the conversation. Later that day, you realise that in your head, when you see yourself kissing someone, it’s not a boy; it’s a girl. An uncomfortable feeling settles in the pit of your stomach. The image is wrong, you tell yourself, you can’t kiss girls if you’re a girl. Only boys can kiss other girls.

You don’t think about it. 

Ten. You’ve convinced yourself that you like this one boy, and that you’d like kissing him, and you’re happy because he’s not a girl. Yet, you can’t deny the part of you prefers girls, because when you’re trying to sleep, too tired to control coherent thought, you think about what you’ve been avoiding: you think about a girl’s body, you think about her touching you and you think about her skin, and then you can’t deny that it made you feel something, a weight in your chest that leaves the rest of your body hollow, this strange satisfaction that has you holding your breath. You don’t know what it means.

However, you assure yourself that it’s a phase, that you’d be willing to kiss a girl in college just to see how it feels, and that’s all it will be. An experiment. It won’t mean anything to you. You don’t want a girlfriend. You don’t like girls like that. You hit your head against a wall and tell yourself, “I don’t like girls like that.”

Eleven. You finally understand exactly what feminism and misogyny are now. You read about them on a blog, and come across this other acronym, this new acronym – ”LGBT”. You look it up and  remember all those stories you’ve read earlier, cautiously hidden under the covers, stories about two girls falling in love and pleasing one another and kissing, and you don’t think about it. 

Twelve. You realise you find a sense of belonging within “LGBT”. You also realise there’s much more to it than those four letters, there’s a “Q”, “I”, “A”, “P”, and “D” and so many others you’ve forgotten. One sticks out to you, though. The “B”. There was never any doubt that you liked boys — thanks to one Benedict Cumberbatch — and you were always glad you had that option, to feign what you considered normalcy. You learn it’s natural and normal to feel the way you feel about girls, but you don’t allow yourself that privilege. You’re convinced it’s minimal, an ephemeral feeling, and you will grow up to build your life with and around a boy, not a girl. But you take a liking towards this new identity. It makes you ‘different’. You like being different. You want to claim it as your own, but can’t find solace in it.

Thirteen. You choose to identify as bisexual, you like the word. Then, you like a girl. She’s smart, and funny, and you think she’s a good friend. You like her, you tell your friends you like her, and you tell her that you like her, too. She doesn’t feel the same way. It doesn’t matter. You like the word bisexual more — to the extent that you feel superior identifying with it. Your friends notice, but this urge to be different gets to your head. You’re bisexual and proud, you say, you’re ever so proud of it.

Fourteen. Things have changed. You’re different, mellowed, you’re not as loud and open about yourself. Your friends have changed, too. They notice the changes in you, but no matter what they say, you don’t open up to them. After weeks of prodding, you begin talking about how you were never comfortable with who you were earlier, and you feel better, now. You feel positive. It takes more weeks and more months, and you realise those “superior” feelings you associated with your pride in your sexuality were actually a mechanism to cope with your insecurity towards it. Sexuality, you realise, isn’t some quirk that makes you fit the “not like other girls” complex. It’s difficult, it’s emotion, it’s your body, it’s your desires. It is not what defines you, or makes you different, you come to learn. It’s merely a part of who you are, and there is much more to you than that. You begin to find solace in it. 

Months later, there’s a boy. You’re both smart, and he makes you laugh, and you get along well. You ask him out. It’s not awkward even though he’s an awkward person. It lasts three months, because  while he was a great boyfriend, he’s a better friend. It makes you realise how much stronger your attraction towards girls is, compared to boys.

During these months and after, there’s a girl. She’s from a different city, and you don’t meet her often enough. You think about her hands and her lips, you think about kissing her, over and over, and now you can’t seem to focus in class and or fall asleep at night. You think more about this girl than you did about your boyfriend, and some part of you registers that you were never actually attracted to your boyfriend, at least not romantically. You realise, eventually, that this doesn’t make you any less bisexual. While you did doubt this label and question whether you were bisexual in the first place, it would’ve been nice to have someone to tell you that labels don’t matter, you are who you are, and that doesn’t need to be catagorized.

Fifteen. You’ve learnt more about sexuality than you’d ever known before. There’s this girl you know vaguely, and you think she’s pretty. If you were asked to pick out the prettiest girl in school, you’d pick her. She asks you, one day, how you knew you were bisexual. You answer to the best of your abilities, because honestly, you’ve always known, though you took some time to accept it. There was no sexual awakening, or incident, or turning point. You’ve always known. 

Months pass. The pretty girl gets a haircut. You think she’s absolutely gorgeous, and when she asks you if you have a spare hair tie the very day you snapped your own hair tie, all you can tell her is that you like her hair. She thanks you, and you can’t take your eyes off her. You don’t dwell on it. 

Weeks later, you see her again, but this time, it feels different. You decide to talk to her. She laughs, and you get a text later that day, and then you’re texting everyday. The summer goes on like that, you’ve made a new friend, and you realise soon enough that you have a crush. It feels good. You talk to her on the phone for the first time and there are butterflies in your stomach. You really like her. 

When you kiss, it’s surreal. It’s over too quickly, you think, and you dive back for more. Kissing her is exhilarating, it is new, and it sets your entire body on fire. You love it. You realise that you love her, too. When you finally get around to telling her this, you’re happy. You’re happy and in love, and even better, she loves you back.

The relationship gets rocky, you stop to take breaks. That’s fine, you think. It happens. Your love will be enough — until it isn’t. You break up. Heartbreak is a new kind of pain. You want to cry but you can’t. You remember how she looks under the glare of the sun, her eyes squinting to look at you because she loves looking at you. You remember the warmth of her hand wrapped around your cold one, you remember kissing the back of her hand just because you could. You remember how she tried to fix a flower in your hair and called you beautiful and how she always, always made you smile. You don’t have it in you to move on from that.

It takes you weeks to accept that it’s over. You’re not over it, even after months have passed. That’s okay, you think, she was worth it. It’s only after you talk to your friends that you realise it’s normal. Your friends who have dated boys. Your straight friends. You realise your sexuality doesn’t make your experiences different, because at the end of the day you’re all still human, and just because the gender was different, the feelings were not. Sexuality is fluid and it never had to set you apart in the first place.

Sixteen. You’re older, wiser. You’ve never felt more in touch with your sexuality. Your experiences make you comfortable with it, and even though you’re still not entirely sure if you’re bisexual, you know that your label can always change, or you could simply go without one. You take pride in it — the whole idea of pride starts making sense to you, and you understand why people fought the way they did, all those years ago. They did it for love, to live their truths, and you decide you would fight that battle too, everyday. Even if it would hurt you, scar you, break you down. You finally understand how it feels to not be alone.   

Samara from the REDefine Team

Featured image by Anaanya Poddar.

Our Collaboration with Salaam Baalak Trust

Our second session at Salaam Baalak Trust was testament to how different a talk can be at the same institution.

Dear reader,

As you know by now, our articles serve as our own feedback  to develop our campaign. For this article, I’m trying a new format to present our feedback in a more constructive and concise manner., 

Future Advice #1: Document the names of the girls who attend our session each time. When we reached Salaam Baalak Trust for the second time, we were welcomed by smiles from faces familiar and new. Because we hadn’t written the names of the girls from our first talk, it took longer than usual to populate the little mats on the sunbathed roof. 

Future Advice #2: RLD (Response Language Detection) does work. If you find this term cool, it’s because I coined it. In our previous talks, we often struggled to understand which language our audience is more comfortable with when using scientific terminology. We came up with a strategy to overcome this – when introducing a body part on a diagram, we would teach them both the Hindi and English term for it. To test their knowledge, we would then ask them to name the body part as we pointed at it. The language the majority responded in indicated which one they were more comfortable with. For instance, we applied RLD by introducing the term for “vagina” in both languages, English and Hindi (“yoni”). When asked to respond, most referred to it as the “vagina”, suggesting we could use English terms later. 

RLD in action

Future Advice #3: Draw and carry diagrams for all biological topics that can be spoken about – ranging from the menstrual cycle to sexual intercourse. While our biological segment covers menstruation, a diagram depicting the menstrual cycle can help expand on the topic if our audience permits us to. “Permitting” is, of course, a vaguely interpreted term and we couldn’t rely on the possibility of questions to gauge how comfortable or curious our audience was. The seemingly less talkative girls intermittently nodded when we recounted our experiences with vaginal discharge, which we ascertained to be a green flag to elaborate on this phenomenon. Even though we were able to expand on vaginal discharge in terms of varying thickness and colour, a diagram would have proved more than helpful. When the concept of sex was met with a few confused looks, we were forced to rely on some classic hand gestures which, quite surprisingly, sent the message. 

Future Advice #4: Stick to the dispersed seating arrangement. As opposed to sitting next to each other as we did this session, we would politely ask our listeners whether they could scoot to the left a little bit – thank you, I’ll sit here, if you don’t mind. We’ve noticed that the shy, yet inquisitive, audience members take advantage of this arrangement and whisper their doubts to the nearest REDefine member while others are more vocal. This time, because we sat together, we only received questions that were addressed to the group (which were comparatively fewer). When bidding farewell to Salaam Baalak Trust, a girl approached me to ask about how height changes upon puberty. While I appreciated the question, I reflected on why she didn’t ask me during the talk. Perhaps it was because of our group arrangement. This really helped us identify how the simple subconscious act of scattering ourselves through our audience encouraged questions. 

Our collaboration with Salaam Baalak Trust was definitely a memorable one, showing us the effectiveness of new strategies and the importance of old habits. We look forward to implementing our learnings in future talks!

We’ll see you next time,

Ritika from the REDefine Team

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Our First Session at Auxilium Snehalaya

Our first talk at Auxilium Snehalaya tested our own boundaries of transparency and gave us the opportunity to interact with an insightful group of girls in Dwarka, Delhi.

There has always been a degree of extempore in the sessions we conduct with the girls, but never to the extent with which we conducted this one. Don’t worry, I assure you we always rehearse our talk before going to the home or NGO. The impromptu sections depend on how comfortable our audience appears. If they reach a limit and are simply too scandalised by menstruation or copulation, our speeches begin to fall on deaf ears. So, we slow down and start afresh. However, that didn’t stop us from wondering where our sessions would lead if there were no such limit. Ironic though it may be, Auxilium Snehalaya, a very Catholic establishment, gave us the answer.

Our earlier post about the survey we conducted here painted a picture of the corner of Dwarka we had entered. Having met the eager girls before, it was easier to connect with them. I noticed a camaraderie between the girls I hadn’t seen during other talks. There was more conversation between them (which had proven to be a problem when conducting the survey), more poking fun at each other, and more welcome to a new group of girls.

We began with a video that helped us explain the parts of the female reproductive system and, specifically, how fertilisation occurs. This was a bit of an experiment because fertilisation is much harder to picture than we thought. The girls were clearly visual learners and the video even helped them remember the terminology better. We noticed this when we asked them questions after the video. The only drawback was that circling the laptop was quite time-consuming. So it’s reasonable to use this resource only with a small group of girls.

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Tara in need of attention.

As it turned out, the girls were quite familiar with the need for hygiene and, having received sanitary pads in the orphanage, were familiar with the level of cleanliness required. The passing of the pad, a little REDefine Talk Tradition (patent pending) to demonstrate how the pad works, was met with little resistance from the girls. However, as always, there were few who abstained from holding it. There was a hearty “pad hi toh hai!” (“it’s just a pad!”) from one girl. While we agree that it is just a pad, pushing an individual’s comfort boundaries is not necessarily the right approach to educating them on a sensitive topic like this. We corrected her imposition and emphasised the importance of respecting people’s boundaries.

This back-and-forth set up a candid discussion about taboos related to menstruation. Many agreed that menstruation is a natural part of a female’s life and is nothing to be ashamed of. The consequent influx of questions took us by surprise, but we welcomed them eagerly. We discussed the horrors of cramps, how period blood can be brown and how Tara thought she had accidentally taken a dump the first time she saw brown blood. A frank discussion about sex and the importance of contraception led to some important questions being answered: the appropriate age for sexual intercourse, whether you have to be in love with your sexual partner, and whether one should abstain before marriage. It became interesting, though, when we were suddenly interrogated about our own love lives. “Uske paas toh hai,” (“She definitely has one.”) announced one girl, pointing at Ritika. It was met with general agreement and silent protest from a startled Ritika.

We need to hire a professional photographer.

The question of sexuality arose when we briefly addressed the heteronormativity of our talks – in reality, the person another is sexually attracted to can belong to the same sex. Although a few looked at it with hostility, one girl vehemently argued in favour of loving whoever you want to. Ideally, we wish everyone was tolerant of people with differing sexualities, but we were glad there wasn’t an uncomfortable silence after this conversation. They stated their opinions with ease and were also open to changing these opinions with ease.

There’s something about how quickly they began to trust us that makes me smile thinking about it. We were allowed into their world: joking about their friend’s short haircut, speculating about whether the girl to my left had a boyfriend (I think there was growing consensus that she did).

Although we deviated greatly from the path we had planned, I think I speak for the entire team when I say we are grateful for being able to have these conversation with the girls at Auxilium Snehalaya. Exchanging perspectives and opinions from individuals with two very different backgrounds is beneficial to everyone, us included. It reminded me why we began this campaign in the first place.

Until next time,

Jhanvi from the REDefine Team

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Our First Talk at the Amba Foundation

Our first talk with the girls at the Amba Foundation was one of the first talks we had in a classroom setup.

Dear reader,

The Amba Foundation, in its own words, focuses on education, skill-training, health and community-development of underprivileged women and children. It is an organisation hidden in the markets near a village called Mandawali. I say “hidden” because we got lost twice. It was in one of those infamous locations where Google Maps would allege that there was, in fact, a path through a wall and following said path would lead us to our destination. We fell in the same traps as the last time we had come here, so experience had not taught us much.

Their field office is on the second floor of a dusty building. However, this time, we were escorted to another building, further down the street. In typical Delhi fashion, it was adorned wires, uneven sidewalks, and red spots in odd spaces. However, we passed a mosque that appeared discordant in the busy market. Newly white-washed, the Masjid Fazle Ilahi’s deep green tiles glittered in the sun. While the passers-by were used to seeing it, it certainly turned our heads.

We arrived at a double-storied building, the first floor of which was occupied by young women herding the twenty odd girls who we were to talk to. We were soon welcomed into the room to find them seated on their desks and waiting patiently. Due to the lack of space, we were not able to sit in the circle setup we are comfortable with. We had a whiteboard behind us and we appeared as teachers to them. When we were greeted with a “ma’am”, we quickly denied the title.

Through our previous talks, we had learned the importance of “small talk” or establishing rapport with the girls. This time, it was especially necessary, given how much they looked at us as teachers. We also realised that we weren’t the only “teachers” in the room – a few young women from our earlier encounter flanked the walls at the back of the room.

While introducing the concept of puberty, we noticed these girls were generally more responsive compared to earlier groups we have spoken to. A few spoke about periods without hesitation – perhaps, they had learnt about it as a part of their school’s curriculum. However, many were reluctant to speak. When Ritika showed them a pad, some began to whisper and giggle. With each member holding the pad, we tried to explain to them that pads were. Even after these efforts, we could tell there remained some hostility towards the pad.

After pointing at our diagram of the female reproductive system, we looked up at our now silent audience. Ritika is infamous in our team for her untimely jokes with obscure references, and so her attempt to lighten the mood was met with slight confusion. I remember seeing Ritika peering expectedly at the girls, waiting for a laugh. She returned our gaze with mild embarrassment. Looking back, I realise it was so characteristic of Ritika’s interactions with people in general. At the time, of course, it caught us unawares. Flustered, we brought the conversation back to biology and segued into talking about taboos.

The taboos’ section is often approached with precaution because it can be odd having strangers dispute your cultural knowledge and address the silence around topics you didn’t know existed. To our surprise, it was much easier this time. This was because Pranavi suddenly realised using a role model would help them overcome their discomfort with menstruation. She reminded the group that our beloved Bollywood actresses like Alia Bhatt and Priyanka Chopra also advocated the need for conversation about periods. They were shameless and proud, qualities that allow people to be heard. Hearing the familiar names did eventually lighten the mood. They know these women, they’ve seen them on television and newspaper adverts. The game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ that we play to demonstrate how a story changes through generations was met with more excitement than usual. Perhaps having a large crowd for one session has its advantages.

Having concluded our talk, the teachers gave us feedback (for the first time, as far as I recall). They recommended that we shorten our biology section putting a greater focus taboos. We greatly appreciated their suggestions and even discussed future collaborations with them. If you have some suggestions too, we’d love to hear from you!

Signing off,

Jhanvi from the REDefine Team

Our Talk at Salaam Baalak Trust

The REDefine Campaign gets the opportunity to talk to engage in one of the open and casual conversation we’ve had with the girls from the Salaam Baalak Trust.

Google Maps, our friend and foe, got us lost in an alley before we found the Salaam Baalak Trust building. The red brick building was much easier to find last time, but luck was not in our favour today. It stood cheerier than similarly tiered houses in the seemingly deserted neighbourhood. It is the only NGO we can safely say has an aesthetic – red brick warmth interwoven with black wrought iron. But I speak for all of us when I say we associate it with a tragic story one of the girls narrated to us before we left.

Tara’s favourite – Lakshmi (you may remember her from our post on the survey we conducted here) held her hand the moment we entered the gate and led us inside. Since too many girls at one talk inhibited the interactive aspect of our sessions, we decided to give the talk to only one group of fifteen girls. We sat them down in a circle and then dispersed ourselves in the midst of them. Although all the girls didn’t actively participating, we were satisfied with a general note of comfort and receptiveness from our audience.

Tara and Pranavi (with my occasional inputs) took over and explained the biology behind periods. Unbeknown to us, a few girls had already learnt the functions of the various organs of the female reproductive system. This gave birth (pun intended) to an interesting conversation about pregnancy- which was a slight detour from the standard menses talk. It also prompted our first sex-ed talk which he hadn’t really incorporated into the session before. We have to admit, it was fun to watch the girls giggle as Tara wiggled her finger to depict a sperm.

Ritika and Pranavi taught them our Five Period Points (i.e. five steps/rules of periods and what to and not to do during your period.) It was a relief to hear all the girls were using pads.

Tara and I then dived into the heavier part of our session: the taboos. Being acutely aware that the girls in front of us come from very different backgrounds and are raised with different mindsets, we had to make sure that what we preached would not get them into trouble here. Upon asking them why they think girls aren’t allowed to go to the temple while menstruating, a couple aggressively piped up with retaliation to the common practice. But it was important to remember that these girls were raised in a home and not a household. Their customs were significantly different so, if they knew about most of these taboos, it was because they had heard about them from somewhere else.

That done and dusted, we went back to light conversations with the girls- asking what they were having for lunch and talking about the plans for the upcoming Diwali break. Once we announced the session over, they ran away for their lunch break. All, but one.

She looked much younger than the others but had a note of maturity when she spoke. She recalled the day she was returning from school, pad in hand. Four men sexually assaulted her having allegedly been triggered by her ‘act of defiance’. She went to the police who pointed the finger back at her and blamed her for what happened to her. Hundreds of girls in her village, both young and old were and still are being brought up with that very mindset and hearing her story reminded us how much road has yet to be covered.

Until next time,

Anshika from the REDefine Team