“Long before I am near enough to talk to you, you will make certain assumptions based on my clothes” – guest writer Pamela Rani Chabba discusses wearing traditional Indian clothes in queer spaces
A group of mostly South Asian people are marching past a local gay pub in Walthamstow. The demonstration’s quite small, but it’s a colourful group, with many of the protestors dressed in saris, burkas, shalwaar kameezes or Indian kurta tops over jeans. It’s a warm Saturday summer afternoon in the mid 1990s. Some of the regulars stand by open doors and windows, sipping drinks. “Look,” someone says, “it’s Paki Pride.” There’s some laughter.
The procession passes by quickly, but the feeling of shame I have for not responding loudly, preferably with a put down so scathing it robs the offender of the power of speech, doesn’t. After all, I’d long railed against the epithet “Paki”, even being drawn into physical fights because of it.
It has been so many years since I divested myself of my naive hope that the LGBTQ+ community, itself marginalised, would be more tolerant towards ethnic minorities than those in the wider populace. It’s been decades since I’ve been shocked into silence or even surprised by casual racism in queer spaces. In the present political climate where asylum seekers, migrants and refugees are demonised daily in social media and much of the mainstream press, I wonder whatever made me ever think the LGBTQ+ community was immune to the hysteria being whipped up around and within it.
“Pamela, have you always looked this ethnic?” I was asked by a friend of a friend very recently. It was sometime soon after the “Paki” comment that I began to move away from a totally “westernised” look and first started wearing bindis whenever I went out, something I now always do. The intention was to signal unequivocally my ethnic origin without having to answer that oft repeated question: “where are you from?” (The answer is Tooting by the way). Do you not hear my English accent? Or do you mean to ask a different question?
It has been so many years since I divested myself of my naive hope that the LGBTQ+ community, itself marginalised, would be more tolerant towards ethnic minorities than those in the wider populace.
Later, I added chunnis or bangles and other Indian jewellery, or wore dresses over trousers or kameezes over tights. At Pride Marches I began always to wear a sari. Most often I pair all these with my Doc Martens. What I choose to wear makes me feel connected to my roots and closer to beloved relatives: my mother and especially my grandmother, who raised me until I was ten.
When my grandmother died a few years ago, I wore saris every day, all day, for a month as a tribute to her: to work, parties, queer bars and clubs. She wore one every single day, starched cotton in the summer and heavier materials in colder months. She taught me to tie mine. The response from the LGBTQ+ community to this was sadly unsurprising. “Do you know this is a gay club?” bouncers asked me with depressing regularity, often speaking very loudly in case I didn’t understand English.
People who had seen me in other clothes would say: “You’re Indian? Well, I would never have guessed!” as if that was some sort of compliment. People stared. A white cis gay man at a gay wedding more recently confidently informed me that my sari was rather nice, which was surprising to him as “saris are usually so gaudy”. He was openly astounded when I introduced my wife to him. Not only are sari-wearers generally gaudy, apparently, they are always straight.
Ideas of “western” versus “eastern” fashion, with the former perceived more “liberal” than the latter are as omnipresent in the LGBTQ+ community, as they are outside it. More than that, wearing South Asian clothes is not always seen as a choice we make, but something that is enforced by our fathers in the name of patriarchy. The idea that South Asian women are meeker than non-South Asian women lingers.
Not only are sari-wearers generally gaudy, apparently, they are always straight.
When I wear a sari it’s often assumed I am politically conservative or religious, or both, and can’t possibly be a feminist. Lesbians have told me that they wouldn’t approach me romantically because my look was “intimidating” and they would assume I was “traditional”. There’s still a sense that a South Asian woman can’t be queer, and the more South Asian a woman looks, it seems, the less likely it is that she is.
It’s not my job to educate the LGBTQ+ community, and I may be less than gracious when I’m told by someone at a gay wedding “You look very Indian”. What on earth do I normally look like? Norwegian? I will roll my eyes when I see non South Asians wear bindis in the wrong place on their foreheads. I may continue to make up ridiculous reasons when asked what my bindi means (“It means there will be a fire today.”)But I will continue to wear South Asian clothes (or just “clothes” to us) and Indian kurta tops and I will always wear a sari on Pride.
Long before I am near enough to talk to you on the street, or in a queer space, if you don’t know me, you will make certain assumptions based on my clothes. We all do it. But when you see me dressed in my own particular mash up of cultural signifiers holding hands with my wife, it just may make you look differently at the next woman you see in these clothes. Possibly. I hope so. But I don’t dress like this for you or anyone else. It’s all for me.
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