In an essay titled “The Murderous Gays”, the academic-critic Robin Wood recalled being an adolescent in 1940s England, romantically attracted to other men and unable to fathom what he was going through – until he came across the word “homosexual” in a book about Tchaikovsky and realised with amazement that there must be others like himself in the world. But even then, the idea was so radical, so removed from his everyday life, that Wood grasped it only at a theoretical level: “It didn’t occur to me that I might ever meet (or perhaps already know) such people.”
Wood went on to discuss the obsessive identification he felt with one of the lead characters in Hitchcock’s Rope – a film that is today acknowledged as having a strong gay subtext, though the theme could not be explicitly dealt with on screen at the time. He observed: “Despite the fact that I knew I was gay myself, it never occurred to me that the characters in the film might be; it was, at that time, literally unthinkable. If I couldn’t believe, emotionally, in the existence of other homosexuals in real life, how could I believe in their existence within a Hollywood film?” Yet there was something that made him gravitate subconsciously towards the film’s vulnerable anti-hero Brandon.
People who are marginalised because of their sexuality have always had to seek mainstream acceptance to get the rights and freedoms they need for a dignified life. Anyone familiar with the history of LGBT rights knows that this is a grim struggle, marked by small victories and big setbacks. But Wood’s essay is a reminder that sexual minorities often have to come to terms with their own feelings first – they have to gain the self-confidence that they deserve respect however “different” they might be from most other people. For those living in very orthodox settings, where all manner of societal pressures and facades are constantly operating on them, this is a particularly complex process.
This is one of the many things that makes the life-story of the hijra writer-activist A Revathi so remarkable. Revathi’s memoir The Truth About Me – translated from Tamil by V Geetha – is about hard-earned wisdom that came not from exposure to books but through personal experience. It’s the story of a boy named Doraisamy who realised early in his life that he felt like a girl inside, and wanted to be female. One especially poignant passage has Dorai dressing up as a girl for a festival dance and then finding himself reluctant to shed his female clothes afterwards: “As I re-emerged in my man’s garb, I felt that I was in disguise, and that I had left my real self behind.”
But how does a child – the youngest of three brothers who are expected to quickly grow up and take on men’s responsibilities – in a small and provincial Indian village even find the language to express these feelings? It can be misleading to even use the word “conservative” to describe Doraisamy’s family’s attitude to his sexuality, because that word might imply a choice – the considering, and rejecting, of a more broad-minded outlook. But for Dorai’s parents, the idea of their son becoming a woman would have been outside the very bounds of imagination.
And so, Dorai (soon to be Revathi) ran away in despair. Even the first train ride seemed like an impassable hurdle (“Oh, my mother, the train was so long! Where was I to get in?”) but she negotiated the two-day journey from Salem to Delhi. She found people like herself, slipped into the crannies where social outcasts make their own spaces, forming private kinships and rules of conduct. Eventually she underwent the painful and potentially life-threatening operation that meant a formal break from Dorai's maleness, and changed her name.
This is a hard-hitting story, often difficult to read – and all the more so because the writing is no-frills, as if a lengthy interview with Revathi were being transcribed and translated simultaneously. She now works with the human-rights organisation Sangama, and her hardships are far from over – though she wants to be a full-time activist, sex work is almost necessary for someone in her circumstances to earn a proper living. But by the end of the book, one gets the satisfying sense of having met a protagonist who beat difficult odds and became comfortable in her own skin. That’s worth a lot of trouble.
[A version of this piece appeared in my Sunday Guardian column. Also see: this obituary I wrote of Robin Wood for Business Standard early last year]