Supriya’s father was an enigma to her in her teenage years. He wasn’t necessarily a bad father, but he seemed to consciously keep her and her brothers at arm’s length. In college, she came out to her parents as a lesbian, which affected their relationship. “They limited their interactions with me at home, would tell me not to come for family functions, and even tried influencing my brothers to sever ties with me. I felt abandoned.” Now 37, Supriya still lives with the trauma of not having the support of her parents.
Lesbian invisibility has become a deep-seated feature in Indian society and has had a deterring effect on the formation of a lesbian community. As opposed to the visible male homosexual community, lesbian networking has largely taken shape on the peripheries of society’s consciousness, which can be attributed to strong patriarchal undercurrents, male supremacy, and homophobia that have shaped women’s lives in India.
Supriya believes the looming shadow of her family keeping watch on her every move has prevented her from fostering romantic or platonic relationships with people from the community. “They keep tabs on who I chat with on the phone or meet. To add to my confounded annoyance, finding a date is hard. I’m not very social, so I avoid queer mixers or get-togethers. I know I have to put myself out there, but I constantly feel I will be rejected,” she says.
New Delhi-based psychologist Asha Saxena believes that the family plays a crucial role in shaping a queer woman’s identity. “There is a strong sense of communitarianism where personal space is seldom respected. Often, these women are reduced to an infantile status by these family ties, who treat them like they are incapable of taking care of themselves economically and socially. This extreme familial dependence and lack of personal space can pose a threat rather than offering a safe haven. This feeling of confinement triggers bouts of loneliness and isolation,” she explains.
Her Own Woman
Mitali, who hails from West Bengal’s Bardhaman, and is openly queer, has dated women in the vicinity but has had to end these relationships prematurely because she never wants to feel stifled by women who are not ready to accept who they are. “Everyone has the right to come out (or not) on their terms. I’ve broken that door. I refuse to date on the fringes, so I stay to myself,” she says.
For Rupa Sengupta, the founder of The Modern Tail–a queer owned business that produces holistic and eco-conscious pet care products, navigating the queer landscape was initially daunting because her generation didn’t have the option of dating apps. “My heterosexual friends would accompany me to parties so I wouldn’t feel awkward approaching other women,” she says.
Saxena agrees that not being able to find a social circle or potential partner that espouses the same beliefs can set an individual back. “It almost feels like they’re re-entering the closet because they aren’t surrounded by people who celebrate that freedom. Without that level of support, acceptance and understanding, most queer women experience intense periods of loneliness and isolation.”
Queer women are more likely to be vulnerable to loneliness than their heterosexual counterparts as a direct consequence of many years of privacy and self-concealment. Also because they are likely to be single, childless, and endure fractured relationships with their birth families. These are all significant losses, viewed as the price women face for being lesbian. Over the years, many groups, including the New Delhi-based Sangini Trust (founded by queer rights activist Betu Singh), Stree Sangam (renamed as LABIA later),and more recently, Gaysi, have helped alleviate loneliness among queer women through workshops and community-building activities. These institutions have provided a safe place and a sanctuary for queer women in India to be themselves and forge friendships.
Sengupta believes that it is easier for younger lesbians to meet women nowadays, given the proliferation of dating apps and mixers organised by queer groups. While catfishing isn’t a phenomenon that exclusively affects lesbians, women from the community, including Sengupta, have faced an unpleasant type of catfish in the form of straight guys pretending to be women to hook up. “It’s honestly mind-boggling how these guys think it will ever work. These types of experiences can be particularly scarring for women who may have just mustered up the courage to dive into the dating scene. It could further isolate them,” she says.
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