For years, every part of me felt ambiguous and inauthentic. Now I know there’s no one right way to be the person you are.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand
Original illustrations by Ahnand Unka.
“You’re a fake gay!” the stranger exclaimed, a pointed finger aimed right between my eyes, venomous spit speckling my skin.
I’d gotten pink eye the night we landed in Auckland for our friend’s 21st, dashing my careful plan to break my four-month Instagram silence with a cute weekend-away photo shoot. After more than an hour on public transport dressed in a bright pink jacket that now insultingly matched my eye, and now feeling the fading tipsiness of a half-finished Smirnoff Ice can, I sensed my performance of the Eccentric Gay Friend at the party coming to a desperate close.
At the exclamation of my fake gayness, however, I felt myself woken with a hypnic jerk. My heart was pounding; profound confusion made laps around my brain. The pure shock of the statement triggered my stress responses. A fake gay? What the hell does that even mean? Before I could pounce at the perception of a threat, or continue to sit there like a wide-eyed deer in headlights, a friend reappeared and whisked me to the bathroom, where the remnants of a $17 gin and tonic and a sub-par day floated sadly in the toilet bowl. Thankfully, the rest of our friends were also starting to feel the possibilities of the night dissipating, leading to swift Irish goodbyes, an $80 Uber ride home and silently slipping into our rooms without another word.
To be fair, the stranger had only been referencing the fact that I hadn’t watched the second season of Drag Race All Stars, which I have seen now, I swear. Still, in the hours that followed, I wrapped myself up in the possibility of this statement being a transformational Oprah-esque “Aha!” moment that could reshape the trajectory of my life forever – or, you know, something chill like that.
Picking apart the situation well beyond its realm of meaning, I pondered the accusation of inauthenticity, and whether it was solely due to my lack of engagement with queer pop culture, or for reasons I wasn’t quite aware of. Many years later, I’d be able recognise the history and impact of white supremacy and privilege in marginalising queer people of colour within our own community. At that time though, in my baby gay days of 2018, I had no mechanisms for unpacking the claim. Those four words continued to hang over me like a thunderstorm. For most of my life I believed that others were more reliable narrators of my character than myself; the depth and intricacies of my queer identity were still uncharted territory.
For as long as a could remember, my queerness had been the central motif in my Book of Shame. Most incidents, experiences and realisations in my young adult life always seemed to loop back to the trauma of discovering my queerness as a kid in Y2K Aotearoa, subconsciously accepting that other people’s perception of me was a danger to my safety. I knew that in order to survive, the days of powdering my face with Mum’s Thin Lizzy, fashioning a wool blanket around my body as a sari and dancing to ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ for my friends and family needed to be buried away somewhere deep as I navigated the minefield of teenage conformity.
But even as an adult, emancipated from the shackles of high school shittiness, shame and guilt were continuing to weave themselves tighter around me, the wall I’d put up as a teenager blocking all attempts at vulnerability. My internalised homophobia overshadowed the coming-of-age experiences I’d missed out on as a teenager, ones that I was now encountering in young adulthood: stiffly dancing at Ivy while stealing envious glances at all the pretty gays locking tongues on the dancefloor, or offering up a lame “being gay isn’t a big part of who I am, honestly” to friends and family, then later trauma-dumping at a house party bathroom on unsuspecting freshers just trying to have a good time.
It had become so much easier to be vulnerable with strangers, usually supported by four too many glasses of cheap wine or a puff-puff-pass, than to the people closest to me. I let myself believe they couldn’t see through my veneer of being too cool and apathetic for sexuality or even desire. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t decode how to be myself, because it was tangled under the laborious practice of how not to be myself. Any attempts at expression of identity felt disingenuous, a half-assed attempt at remembering my cues and mouthing the right words, a performance that people in the back rows would probably believe, but those up-close saw right through.
Meanwhile, I was coming to terms with my identity as a New Zealand-born Indian. As a child I masqueraded rich cultural knowledge to impress my classmates and teachers, glowing with desi pride as I served up supermarket-bought samosas for shared lunches, or boasted of attending the TSB Diwali festival during show and tell. Many New Zealand-born POC grow up with shaky foundations of cultural identity, and my reverence for Indian culture was an attempt to make up for it. I was mesmerised by the poetic movements of Bollywood actresses, by music in languages I didn’t understand. The taal ran through my veins, as familiar and warm to me as the smells of spices as Mas and Masis placed more rotli on my plate than I could possibly eat.
Still, I felt the deep absence of a genuine cultural connection. No amount of commercialised cultural events, old Bollywood films or bautaka nau sak could assuage the shame of not following any real traditions and being unable to talk with my Gujarati-speaking family members. For years I resented my parents for not passing down this whakapapa to their sons, and I inhabited the guilt of feeling like a goriya in a brown boy’s body.
Every part of myself felt ambiguous. Perhaps I was a fake gay, and maybe a fake Indian too.
That was then. What I’ve now begun to learn is that for most queer people the path to authentic self-expression is a yellow brick road filled with bumps and cracks. It took me a long time to step outside the self-imposed pressure to be a certain type of queer person and to notice the sheer diversity of queerness that existed around me. I had put myself in a box where my queerness was measured only against the white cis male gayness I was surrounded by. Now I was discovering that queerness was not a competition, a table with limited seating or a jungle where I had to fight to survive. I no longer felt the need to be a contrarian, hating on queer people of colour who I felt were conforming to the majority.
I’ve learnt that queerness is not performed through my likes and dislikes but embodied in every fibre of my being. While the term takatāpui is reserved for Māori, its meaning – emphasising one’s identity as Māori as inextricably linked to one’s gender identity, sexuality or variation of sex characteristics – resonates deeply with me. Exploring those links within myself of being Gujurati Indian and queer has opened up a new world of possibilities. For the first time, I’m aligning these dual identities back-to-back to find the delicate loops that are intertwined within my genes. After a lifelong search for authenticity, the goal feels within reach. My cosmic destiny at birth has coloured a path forward in shades slowly becoming visible to the human eye.
My search for authentic identity has coincided with an increase in positive representations of queer people in South Asian media. Seeing white words spoken through brown lips – feelings of fear, confusion and self-acceptance painted through a uniquely queer Indian perspective – helped pry open the mental cage I had enclosed myself in. New Zealand queer literature such as the new anthology Out Here and the work of authors Witi Ihimaera and Hinemoana Baker has opened me up to a whole new world of queer outlooks and identities. These discoveries helped show me that gender identity, sexuality and culture are not mutually exclusive, and that I didn’t need to bend myself to fit into a certain box or compare myself to those I thought had got it “right”.
You’re a fake gay. Through this journey of unpacking those four words, I’m untangling the cords that tied a voiceless child whose world was shaped by nature and nurture. As he slowly emerges, I wonder what his desires are, what his beliefs are, what his values are. Who is he becoming?