Being an Indian Hindu always seemed to come with its own invisible rules. Growing up, we followed a strict, silent code with not-so-silent consequences if these rules were broken. I grew up in a religious and culturally conscious family, with cherry-picked and somewhat revised historical myths regarding gender, gender expression and gender identity. I found parallels and influences within certain characters in our religious epics and how they remain relevant in today’s discourse surrounding gender identity.
Both my parents are strict Hindus and we were raised within an Indian-centered community. Despite the rich South Asian diaspora’s history of gender non-conforming traditions, dress and worship, my family was a victim to British brainwashing and dehumanization in the form of imperialist gender binary enforcement. Many Indians subscribe to the compulsory and strict gender roles; the gender binary is seen as “normal.” Despite third-gender citizens being officially recognized in India, there are still large amounts of discrimination occurring through all 29 states.
Gender roles were deeply ingrained in me early on. It was the same, rudimentary shit: pink is for girls, blue is for boys, girls shouldn’t hug or kiss boys, there is no dating before marriage, no provocative clothing shall be worn and there is no discussion about sex.
This Puritanical view on sex and sexuality was the norm for me and my sister. It was not God’s wrath we feared but instead the decimating judgment of our fellow peers and friends in the community. The fear of raging gossip and the potential possibility of bringing shame to our parents loomed over our heads more than an omniscient being who wore colorful clothes and rode lions. The Gods of our imagination had less harshness for us than the people we shared reality with.
I respected the Gods I grew up with. I never felt any animosity towards them nor fear of any kind of judgment from Them. How funny it is that our Gods never seemed cruel in their watching over us, but our own fellow brethren were damning in their gaze.
In my adulthood, learning about figures like Draupadi and her multiple concurrent husbands gave me more clarity of the kind of surveillance I experienced in my youth. Draupadi was a legendary heroine from the Mahabharata. She was known as a queen with five husbands who were brothers. In one story, an aggressor named Dushana attempted to violate her autonomy and shame her in front of a court of men; he pulled at her sari, aiming to expose her naked body to onlookers. Draupadi, understanding that no one, including her husbands, was willing to help, began to pray to her Lord Krishna, who then magically extended her garment so that as Dushana pulled and pulled, only more cloth grew. In the end, Draupadi was able to retain her modesty.
What speaks to me about the image of Draupadi is that her beauty was used as a weapon against her. To be seen as an object of significance and something to be desired instead of a complex human being having to defend herself against sinister patriarchal violence is a common theme in Hindu myth.
There never seemed to be any further insight into the deeper philosophies of the Gods we worshipped and heroes we praised. We didn’t look deeper into why we lauded Rama but glossed over his horrific betrayal and subsequent descent into the earth’s core of his wife. We celebrated and feared Durga, arguably the strongest Goddess in Hinduism, but India has a high abuse rate and women are more likely to experience violence in their domestic sphere, in the workplace and from their own in-laws. My religious upbringing was a constant battle of contradictions. Not even my parents, who were born and raised in India, could defend the horrific rates of abuse that stemmed from imperialist patriarchy.
Acknowledgment of the gender fluidity, gender queerness and transcendence of binaries varies by community. India is not a homogenous country no matter how hard Bollywood (and by and large Hollywood) tries to make it seem the opposite. Because the subcontinent is incredibly diverse, there is a vast richness of stories that have been passed down. These stories, whether carried down in text or by oral traditions, can differ by region.
One deity that is well known, especially for their representations of feminine and masculine energies, is Ardhanarishvara who is a fusion form of Parvathi (Goddess of Devotion and Power) and Shiva (God of Destruction). They represent the opposing yet connected forces of female and masculine energies. Their name translates to “the Lord who is half woman.” I am beginning to research Ardhanarishvara more these days as my understanding of my own gender queerness grows. Their duality is so beautiful and I find peace within understanding that I am reflected in thousands of years of history.
Androgyny always felt safe and normal for me, although the reactions garnered from my family members were the opposite. Any masculinization done with my wardrobe was met with overt hostility or confusion. It was the strangest experience; I could feel the overwhelming love emanating from my parents but could also feel when they are suffocatingly disappointed in me. How can people who love me also make me feel unsafe in my own body? How was it possible that people who have done amazing things for me can also make me hate myself?
I know that dealing with difficult family members is not a new phenomenon for folks exploring their gender identity in today’s world where the influx of information and quick access to so many new ideas can be both a safe haven and a thunderous wave that can threaten to drown your very existence. This process of self-discovery can completely envelop you until you can’t move or breathe. Trying to puzzle out who you are is never easy, but the process is worth the end result of self-confidence and self-love.
Being more sure of myself is something I would never want to trade. The transition was heartbreaking but also granted me extraordinary joy. I met some incredible people, friends and mentors. I heard from diverse groups of people about their experiences and perspectives, and how gender identity and their journeys have been shaped by loving communities and kind souls that shared so many similar stories.
During my time in my master’s program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I began to truly explore my gender identity. The culture I experienced in the Midwest was a sea of whiteness, and I desperately wanted to remain connected to my culture. My interest in Mughal artwork stayed with me throughout the program and I was inspired by the designs I found within various South Asian miniatures of deities and past royalty. These works of art helped me connect to my dynamic gender identity and encouraged me to continue to play around with my gender performance.
Krishna, an Avatar of the God Vishnu, was someone I particularly grew fond of during my time exploring my gender. To be anything like Krishna would be incredibly sweet. He is known for his whimsical behavior, his own brand of femininity and for being celebrated as an absolute delight. An aunt of mine once likened him to Cupid, the Roman god of love. Personally, I think Krishna would kick Cupid’s ass. Like so many other Hindu deities, he is fiercely protective of his devotees. He doesn’t fuck with violence against women, but his connection with Radha, his consort, has me a bit puzzled.
In many accounts, Krishna and Radha were lovers but not spouses. In modern contexts, unmarried women in India who engage in consensual sexual acts are scrutinized and ostracized. Krishna not having the insight to grasp the societal judgment that could be forced upon Radha disturbs me, but I digress. Krishna, with his feminine appearance and debonair attitude, encourages me to embrace my sexuality without shame.
If we are to strive to be like those we pray to, why can’t I emulate the dashing God in front of me, especially if he is an advocate of consensual sexual expression?
Expressing my gender queerness through my clothes and worship of Hindu Gods is powerful. With each piece of selected clothing, I feel confident. I am bolder and I carry myself with strength. With images of the past shown to me in such gorgeous ways, I draw a lot of energy from these reflections. My clothes become a prelude to what my mouth is going to unleash, whether it be to my peers, my colleagues at work or even on the internet.
This freedom of expression isn’t without its drawbacks and internal analysis. I recognize my privilege in being able to mold my wardrobe to fit my gender journey. I used to worry that relying on my clothes to describe my gender identity made my experiences strictly superficial, but I find androgyny and questioning gender binaries to be a natural part of who I am and who I hope to be. I am grateful every day to harness that power.