In Kashmir, the queer community is underground, unsung, and invisible – so is their personal life. In absence of safe spaces, the uncertain nature of Kashmir – including the clampdown and communication blackout – shrinks the thin rope of expression within the community.
Three young Kashmiris from the community – aged twentysomethings – tell their stories of struggle, with themselves and the society; of identity; of love.
Amaan Shah, 26
I was born in a middle class family in Srinagar. In the family of five already, I was the youngest. As a child, I was effeminate; I never liked masculine games; I preferred being a wife when we played house. I was subjected to much harassment; I remember once at school, senior boys forced me to unzip my pants because they wanted to see if I’s a girl. In college, too, batch-mates and teachers mocked me.
I could not connect with my classmates or cousins of my age. Wherein they would talk about girls – there I was – crushing over their brothers and friends. Like every other individual, my first school crush was a teacher – though, a male. I felt disgusted at myself and ended up shaming myself for what I was.
I came to understand my sexuality when I was about 15; I was in tenth grade and I felt intimate feelings for my best friend. There was lack of education and I was really confused – I thought of myself as a shame and disgrace. I believed I was impotent.
The feelings were taking over my mind and I thought of committing suicide multiple times. There was no end to this chaos. I was not aware nor shared my feeling with anyone in my family or friend circle. But finally, I was lucky to find someone like me in my college.
Thereon, in absence of safe spaces, I always took to social media networks to take care of my privacy. It was 2013 when I was in my final year of graduation that I found him online. He was the first person I liked and I was really scared; for the first time my privacy was at stake. One breach at it and I would be an outcaste. I was so nervous that within ten minutes, I left without having tea.
Unlike elsewhere, our community doesn’t take liking for someone to next level; that is impossible. For me being with another person in Kashmir is limited to an experience – it is more or less like a support system.
To be honest, without support system, no one from our community can survive – ever; especially those who are feminine. We find support among ourselves. We would talk, meet every week and discuss our issues, including marriage and sexuality. And oh yes, from politics, Kashmiri wazwan to development – we talk about everything!
Despite everything, when I choose to live discreetly, the hatred of people towards our community is really disturbing.
remember once when my partner wanted to have dinner outside. But, when we moved in the restaurant, holding hands and smiling at each other, people stared. We ended up having dinner inside our car. See, nothing can be worse than inability to go out with your partner.
I have had a long depressing phase in my life but I was over it. The morning of 5 August  brought it all back. Online dating is like catharsis for me. I would connect to people across Kashmir and would think of them as a support system. In August 2019, I was seeing someone from Jammu, and the clampdown put everything at halt; I was not able to work or study properly and could not connect to people anymore.
I had never thought that it would last this long. For months, I sat at home, read books and took long walks. Now it has been two months that I’m seeing a psychiatrist. In general, I’m not able to communicate with people and it is leading me to a dark phase all over again.
In Kashmir, where there is only the narrative of survival, our lives matter least. Men and women are fighting over Article 370 for years now; Article 377 means nothing to them.
Future? I’m scared. One day, I will be forced to marry a girl and I’ll be ruining her life – which I don’t want to do. Deep down, there is hope that the society will change, understanding that I’m neither diseased nor like this due to child abuse or lack of girlfriends. I’m a child of God.
Lately, I have been thinking of moving to New Delhi, but living in exile – forever – is not an option. I just want to tell the world that please don’t hate me; I just want a small world of my own. My love is not shame.
Hibaah Shah, 28
I came to realization of my sexuality at the age of 8, but it was followed by a long journey of denial and self-blame. It wasn’t before I joined college when I started exploring my sexuality and became a bit comfortable with it.
Initially, I thought of myself as alone in this – the only one cultivating these feelings. Later, in college, when I came across a website, I got much better understanding. Alongside, I read stuff on internet to educate myself.
In the final year of my college, I gathered the courage to come out of the closet to my mother. And she freaked out. She took me to a healer to exorcise the spirit of homosexuality out of me. The healer read something, burned Rue seeds, pulled my hair, and tortured me in the most intimate ways. Then, I was taken to a psychiatrist. He asked me to think myself as a normal heterosexual – I felt unlovable and unworthy.
Back in high school, the first person I liked, whom I found online, was eight years older to me. We stayed together for four years.
After that, she was forced by her parents to marry a boy. That is what I fear – among many struggles, the thought of forceful marriage petrifies me.
In Kashmir, we are not able to express our love; we are seen as freaks; patients of psychopathology; we live a double discriminated lives: of being women and queer. It chokes my freedom and of other people like me.
I have faced discrimination at all institutional levels. Personally, my family was discriminatory, so was every other space I tried to navigate as who I am.
This pressure leads me to negative coping strategies, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and many chronic psychological ailments, including low self-esteem. The most difficult challenge is acceptance – by self and society.
Herein, I came in contact with Sonzal Welfare Trust [an LGBTQIA++ support group] and they have been able to create a sort of safe space to some extent. If it had not been for them, I wouldn’t have lived.
But, again on 5 August, I woke up to my mother’s voice telling someone that the government has imposed curfew. I tried logging in my social media, but it won’t work. The first thing that struck my mind was my girlfriend – “how would I talk, or meet, her?”
Unlike earlier, when I would talk to her over call and meet in cafes, nothing was possible now. In my relationship, it was the toughest time; she was 32 kilometres away from my home in Srinagar, with no way to reach out to her.
In the clampdown, all I could do was listen to offline music, write sometime, and cry for the most of the time. I had nightmares; I believed that all of us will be killed and I won’t be able to meet her – ever. I may not be able to read the eulogy either.
About seventy days later, when my phone rang for the first time – it was her. When she said, ‘hello,’ I broke down in sense of relief. At the roots, the world should know that Kashmir’s LGBT [QIA++] community exists.
Mir Absar, 22
As far back as in second standard, when the fellows would talk about girls, I would tell them that its shit; obviously, I was attracted to boys. Though, I was lucky to be in Burn Hall School [in Srinagar] as the place was comparatively better exposed.
I was never shy about my feelings and would discuss it within my close group of friends. In eighth standard, one of my best friends shared a book explaining the community for my better understanding.
I would regret why am I like this? My identity was making me suicidal. I thought how people would accept it? But then, what matters more than yourself?
Since childhood, I was always close to my father. I would share all small details of my life with him but not this – I was scared of what he would think of me. I was the only child in this upper-middle class family.
I rang my father from Lucknow and told him that I cannot find answers; he called me back as soon as possible. During the flight, I was depressed; I couldn’t think of a way to make my parents accept it.
While confronting, I remember my mother’s reaction. She had told me that she bathed me all my childhood and I seemed normal. I was taken aback and didn’t get it. From there, my parents took me to faith healers, psychiatrists, and everywhere else they thought I might be treated.
After a dozen visits to different places, at last, a psychiatrist told my parents that I could slip further into depression (that I was already in) if they push me more. And my parents settled down.
Today, they stand next to me – shoulder to shoulder, supporting me. My cousins and extended family know about my sexuality and I wear it on my sleeves. A few times, in arguments, my cousins hurl homophobic abuse at me – but, I would simply smile back and say, ‘Yes, I’m!’
They are embarrassed and left with nothing to say.
I understand that my life has not been much hard; so, today I help other members from the community to cope with the difficulties. I came in contact with Dr. Aijaz Bund [an LGBTQIA++ activist] and joined Sonzal Welfare Trust. I learnt counselling from him, and now I try to do my bit.
Illustrations by Anis Wani for The Kashmir Walla.
Yashraj Sharma is a Features Writer at The Kashmir Walla.
The story appeared in our 10-16 February 2020 print edition.