Why Mumbai means hope and freedom for LGBT youth from small-town India!

Breaking free from the stifling small-town atmosphere, Afreen Fatma goes chasing liberty and finds herself in the big city.

The grass always looks greener on the other side, but in retrospect, it isn’t. In the context of my own journey, I’m talking about the way we small-town folk look at big city life. It’s a human tendency to assume that everyone except “me” is happy because they each have something “I” don’t have. Unless we walk a mile in their shoes, we will never know what other people go through to get to where they are or the things they endure to continue to strive forward.

Lesbians in small towns have to deal with conservative thinking, not only from their families but from everyone around them. Certain religions are more conservative than others but all of them impose hefty restrictions on women which makes it severely difficult for lesbians to come out and embrace their identity. Sporting western clothing is enough to make some townsfolk stare at you as if they are in the presence of a new species, some with disgust, some with lust.

7 pm curfew

As a small-town girl, I have lived through several restrictions; the fact that I was gay didn’t make things any easier. I couldn’t stay out past 7 pm, I wasn’t allowed to wear western clothes even though I felt more comfortable in them. The worst part was that there was no support from anyone - despite my relentless efforts, I couldn’t find any LGBT friendly community or even a lesbian.

Even online chat sites were of no help. Everyone I knew who was genuine and gay lived in metros or big cities. They provided the best support they could, but it was never enough. Eventually, I ended up spending most of my time at home, in my room chatting away, as it wasn’t easy telling people how I felt without letting them know who I was.

There persisted a constant fear that my parents would find out and force me to get married. In the worst-case scenario, I would have gotten a solid ass-kicking to boot. Living in constant fear and locked away in a room talking to virtual beings eventually proved to be of no help and it could have only set the stage for depression and other diseases to follow.

So what does a gay person do in this situation? The answer is to go where the rest of their community is. As is typical of us humans, we crave to be around people who are like us in some way or another. My chats with people living in the metros convinced me that I would have a better life there. So I packed my bags and headed for the nearest most-LGBT-friendly metro, “Mumbai”. It is a completely different world here, people are relaxed about “culture” and are least bothered about what others do. Everyone is friendly and helpful and doesn't judge or bully. It was like a dream come true to be someplace where I didn’t have to worry about the smallest things like what not to wear.

The moment of truth was meeting the other members of the community, I was excited and had some preconceived notions but it turned out ok. I started meeting lesbians through an NGO that supports

LGBT rights. It was the most amazing experience ever, to know that you are not alone, that there are other people like you and for the first time, you experience a sense of belonging. I don’t know why, but the experience was liberating, it brought me closer to who I am. The small-town girl who felt caged and deprived of freedom was finally able to spread her wings and fly. Sometimes, people take freedom for granted, they should meet the LGBT community and see how we struggle to get our freedom from stereotypes, religious fanatics, family pressures, and if all of that weren’t enough, the government is trying to take away our rights.

Moving to Mumbai

All good things eventually come to end whether we like it or not. A few months after I moved to Mumbai, and I had been participating regularly in LGBT events in an effort to meet more people and be of help to the community. The more people I met, the more I realized that even this small community, which is still struggling for recognition, is prey to groups.

People file themselves into categories like butch lesbians, trans women, femme’s, effeminate gay men, macho gay men, rich lesbians, rich gay men, and other linguistic and cultural minorities. And then prefer to stay within these groups and interact within the cocoon. It seemed surprising to me that, considering the long hard fight ahead of us, we couldn’t rally together.

I understand that classification is how humans understand the world. But in the case of the LGBTQI+ community, there is enough marginalization to deal with as it is. I have met a few others like me who come from smaller towns and they have had similar experiences.

Students in the LGBTQI community have support systems in the form of their friends and classmates, but those who move to the city for work feel less welcome. “Right now, I have friends in college. I have my books to study. But for someone whose only point of interaction is the office, the community is going to figure more greatly in their lives” is how a gay student from IIT summed up the situation.

“I just want a peaceful life and liberty to live the way I want. As of now, groupism doesn't affect me,” is what another female student said. So is such voluntary compartmentalization an issue? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It all comes down to the fact that we all need support, not just from one group within the community, but from the entire LGBT family. By helping and supporting each other we only grow stronger and so does our fight.

Despite the class-distinctions, living in a big city where people are more open-minded people is better than being oppressed by a conservative small-town society. Mumbai is a land of opportunity and for many small-town LGBTQI people, a land of hope and freedom. Mumbai gives me hope to one day be strong enough to come out to my family and make them understand who I am.


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