Baylya. Homo. Bobby Darling. What do homophobic slurs in Indian languages say about the acceptance of the queer? Compiling the definitive list of homophobic clurs, I visited painful memories along the way
“The next award is Bobby Darling of the Batch!”
I was at my college farewell. My batch-mates had voted for a set of spoof awards that they were now giving away. “And the award goes to… Aditya Joshi!” An audience of over a hundred people burst into laughter. I, a closeted gay man back then, could barely make it out of my seat. I remember, how I was often addressed in school, “Kya baylya, Kaisa hai tu?”
Not much has changed since.
Words are closely linked with the culture they are derived from. Homophobic slurs in Indian languages can be divided into three broad categories: Slurs that are derived from genders, slurs that are based on queerness, and slurs that are based on sexual acts.
The first category of homophobic slurs is associated with gender roles.
Three distinct sub-categories are seen here: The first sub-category of slurs is words that call an effeminate man ‘woman-ly’. Words from many languages follow this template: the word for ‘woman’, followed by the suffix representing similarity or likeness (‘-ly’). Examples are ‘Baay-la’ (Marathi), ‘Mou-ga’ (Bihari), ‘Mai-ya’ (Odiya), ‘Pott-aya’ (Tamil), or ‘Kyntha-i’ (Khasi).
The next sub-category is that of words that simply mean “woman”. Such words may not be offensive to a biological woman but are meant to offend an effeminate man. Thus, an effeminate Bengali man may be called ‘Sokhi’ or ‘Boudi’ which means a female friend and a sister-in-law respectively. As one can see, these sub-categories stem from the misconception that a man becomes less a man if one likens him to a woman!
The third sub-category is similar. Due to apathy towards the Hijra community, words that otherwise refer to the Hijra community derogatorily are used for effeminate gay men. This includes ‘Chhakka’ (Marathi), ‘Khadro’ (Sindhi), or ‘Ali’ (Tamil).
The second category that mocks gay men within the pretext of queerness is the category that spreads across three dimensions: gendered roles, behavior, and comparison with celebrities.
A hairless, effeminate Haryanvi man (among other beefy, hairy Haryanvi men) may be chided for being just that – a ‘chikna’. Similarly, the perception that sweetness is an undesirable trait in a man can lead to a Marathi gay man be referred to as ‘Gud’ or ‘Mitha’ – both synonyms for sweets. (My Bengali respondent was taken aback when I asked her for similar words in Bangla. “We love our sweets. We cannot make cuss words out of them!”).
Other words that mock seemingly-queer behavior include ‘Paavali Kam’ (Three-fourth, in Marathi), ‘Dhyamna’ (Not masculine enough, in Bangla), or ‘Shyele’ (Boys who talk like
girls, in Tulu).
Finally, some cuss words are based on the more famous representations of the queer in popular culture, these are ‘Dostana’, ‘Bobby Darling’ or ‘Ganpat Patil’ (Maharashtra). While ‘Bobby Darling’ played comic roles in many a Hindi movie, ‘Ganpat Patil’ was an age-old Marathi actor who played the Naachya, the effeminate sidekick to the
main Lavani dancer.
The third category of cuss words is based on sexual acts.
The best example is ‘Gaandu’ which literally means someone who practices anal sex. The word also finds dialectic equivalents in ‘Bondu’ (Punjabi) and ‘Gandua’ (Bihari and Rajasthani dialects of Hindi). The India-Bharat divide is apparent in the choice of homophobic lingo as well. In urban circles, you are more likely to hear slurs in English like ‘faggot’ or ‘homo’.
While English has no dearth of cuss words like ‘cocksucker’, Indian slurs related to sexual acts are few. This is interesting because, in this country, while the sexual act was criminalized, defining gender-based identities is encouraged!
Professor Sunil Ganu, an English language trainer with over 30 years of experience, believes that this is because conceiving of identity-based on sexuality is an alien concept to the average Indian. “The most apparent representation of homosexuality is nonconformity to gender. What stands out, gets targeted,” said Professor Ganu.
As is the case with some racial slurs, it is true that some of these words may be used as terms of endearment among friends who share the same epithet. Manoj Thorat, a Pune-based androgynous man says, "I use many of these words for my friends. But I wouldn't let a homophobe use them for me!” Manoj insists that when an effeminate man who has not come to terms with his sexuality hears these words, the impact can be long-lasting.
Dr. Ambrish Dharmadhikari from the Department of Psychological Medicine at R N Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, recalled a case from a hospital he worked for in the past. A person traveled from Kerala to Ranchi in the hope of changing his sexual orientation. When they told him it wasn’t possible, he said, “The word gay sounds like an abusive term to me. I associate it with all the other Gaalis (abuses) I have heard about such people.”
Dr. Dharmadhikari believes that the way a stressful environment can induce stress in us, the use of homophobic epithets makes gay people intrinsically devalue themselves. “It affects their sense of self, and often impacts their socio-occupational functioning," said Dr. Dharmadhikari.
Ansh Agarwal (name changed), a Mumbai resident who still keeps his sexuality discreet, agrees. He claims to have received messages like, “Oh God, you look like a chakka,” from what are presumably gay men on gay apps like Grindr.
Some queer people refuse to be put down by these words. Pradipta Ray, a trans filmmaker told me an interesting story. When Pradipta moved to Ahmedabad, men would
look at him and whisper, “Liti chhe”! “Liti” means a line, and “Liti chhe” meant “This one’s from the queer line!” When it came to choosing a name for her film banner, she decided that it would be ‘Liti Films’! Today, she has produced three short films under the banner. “Maybe Liti was used as a derogatory term at that time. But in the long run, if I keep producing good films, the implied meaning will change,” Pradipta said with a smile.
Homophobic cuss words reflect as well as impact the way homosexuality is perceived by gay people and others. The implied meaning, like Pradipta, says, of these words, will remain the barometer of the society’s attitude towards its queer citizens.
As for me, the incident from my college farewell affected me deeply. Years later, when I made a coming-out video, I sent it to people from my college class. The caption was ‘The Bobby Darling of the batch comes out of the closet”.
This article is based on interactions with people - both LGBTQ and others - of diverse linguistic backgrounds.