Monthly Archives: April 2010

Body Language

A colleague of mine from the Paris office came to visit and stayed in Mumbai for three months. We became friends and I was delighted to meet her again a year later. In conversation about the country she said she had fallen in love with, she suddenly remarked,

There are a lot of gay men in India!

I was surprised. We debated briefly on whether this could be possible. I mean, since human beings are fundamentally the same worldover, barring superficial differences of physical appearances, can something as deep-rooted as sexual orientation vary by region?

The debate petered off when it fell into the abyss of ‘Why does a person turn out to be homosexual? Heredity? Environment? A deviant childhood experience?’ Neither of us had enough information to make a call on that, and true to our analytical roles, we let it drop with a unanimous judgement of ‘Data insufficient’.

But I went back to her original assumption later and discovered that it boiled down to a laughably simple point. She said she kept noticing men all over the place with their arms slung around each other’s shoulders. At my confusion, she clarified,

In Europe, only gay men do that. Straight men never put their arms around each other that way.

It took me awhile to get over my surprise at that to tell her that it was common practice in India among men, straight or not and no one thought twice about it.

It was a telling point. Cultures vary and etiquettes differ. On one hand, the West is a lot opener about displays of affection between opposite sexes. So kissing, hugging and dancing are all regarded as normal where these would raise a few stares in most parts of this country. On the other hand, behavior between people of the same sex is rigidly demarcated in a way that it doesn’t even occur to Indians to think about.

After the above conversation, I’ve been studying how we behave with people of the same sex. There is a fair degree of physical contact between men, with the arm-around-shoulders being the most common one. A man riding pillion on a bike and scooter is at ease holding the rider by his waist or shoulders. Older brothers, fathers and authority figures express their role of ‘benevolent benefactor’ by the arm on the middle back of their protege. Friends will massage each others backs in a gesture that would seem quite erotic if they had been from opposite sexes.

Women with women are even freer. There is plenty of hugging and kissing in the more Westernized factions. And in the others, there is a lot of touching, of holding hands, of squeezing up next to, of putting heads on the other’s shoulder or lap. I’ve done it myself without thinking about it, for years on the end.

In fact the one interesting thing that came to light recently was when I realized that two women would not mind sharing a bed but a lot of men would be uncomfortable doing so. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this since the same two men would be perfectly fine with sharing their personal effects and talking about deeply intimate things that women would shy away from.

Body language is as nuanced and subjective as any of the verbal ones; possibly more since it is the one language that speaks only the absolute truth. This may be why the loose-limbed gesture that popular media often patronizes comes across as juvenile to real gay people. It could be why we occasionally blunder on the gay/straight perception divide and why ‘gaydar’ isn’t down to a precise science. And it may also point to the fact that sexuality isn’t a binary defined world (one or the other) but as fluid as our moods and passions.

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Understanding Homophobia

Some time ago I was at the receiving end of the unsolicited and unreciprocated attentions of someone I barely knew. At 30, I’ve learnt to deal with such situations, practically on auto-pilot. What made this situation different was that this time, there was a woman at the other end.

The details of the situation are not important. Indeed the matter has been wrapped up and laid to rest. But what struck me was the thoughts and concerns it raised. I agonized and brooded over it far longer than I usually would have. I was apprehensive about my reaction and also more strongly impacted by the other person’s behaviour, than usual.

And at the very base of it, I unearthed something I wasn’t expecting to find and certainly wasn’t pleased to see. I treated that situation differently only because it was a gay person propositioning me and not a straight person. The realisation surprised me because I always thought of myself as liberal and completely open-minded about this.

It’s taken me a good while to hit upon something else though. My response is indicative, not of discrimination or stereotyping. It was an acknowledgment of a situation that was different from what I was used to. I do not understand the norms and the beliefs and the signals of the gay community as instinctively as I understand those of straight people. My extra consideration was coming from the assumption that things could be interpreted differently. If I discovered that at the end of it, they weren’t that different, that’s just, well, learning from experience.

An interesting thought that came my way from a friend was,

A stupid person is a stupid person. It has nothing to do with being gay or straight.

I realized that I had been extraordinarily fortunate in having encountered only insightful, mature gay people prior to this. My attitude so much stems from my experience and it has all been only good thus far.

On the other hand, what if things had been different for me? What if my first ever encounter with a gay person had been someone who was desperate, clingy or immature? Given how little education we get about homosexuality, would it not have been a natural response for me to decide that all gay people were like that?

I’ve taken to asking my straight friends who display homophobia (and they’re mostly men) about why they feel the way they do. A number of them don’t have a clear answer to that and it turns out that they are just going along with what they’ve been conditioned to think, by early influences or popular media. Such people will generally listen to reason and have been even willing to acknowledge that they could be wrong. A sample of the things I’ve heard,

I don’t have a problem with gay people per se. I guess I’m just afraid one of them might hit on me and I wouldn’t know what to do.

There is also another set of responses I’ve received. These are from people who’ve been assaulted, felt up, hit upon (in one case during a job interview) by the first gay person they met. Also considering that this is the average Indian man to whom being the recipient of attention as opposed to the giver is an earth-shatteringly alien experience, you can imagine why this has a diabolical effect on their thinking.

There are no conclusions to draw from this line of thought. Except that my own experience and what I learnt from it, made me understand homophobia a little better. And then again, to tackle something, it’s necessary to understand its origins, isn’t it?

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