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Home > Lifestyle News > Culture News > Article > The price of pretence LGBTQIA individuals share their lived closeted experiences

The price of pretence: LGBTQIA+ individuals share their lived closeted experiences

Updated on: 22 June,2023 08:04 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Maitrai Agarwal |

A recently released Hindi film portrayed 'lavender marriage', which sparked conversation across movie halls and living rooms. Queer individuals share lived experiences that delve into the multifaceted implications of pretence and how it impacts their wellbeing

The price of pretence: LGBTQIA+ individuals share their lived closeted experiences

Representative Image. Pic/iStock

'Badhaai Do' starring Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar received accolades for portraying 'lavender marriage'—a marriage of convenience entered into with an intention to conceal the socially stigmatised sexual orientation of one or both partners. While lavender marriage is an extreme case of pretending in order to conform to societal expectations, many closeted LGBTQIA+ individuals have to resort to everyday acts to mask their identities—from having to hide their same-sex relationships to staying silent in the face of homophobia.  

Being in the closet or being out aren’t absolute binaries in the queer community. Many LGBTQIA+ individuals come out to their close ones yet choose to keep their lives private when it comes to society owing to the hetero-normative culture which often permeates home, school, work, and other significant aspects of life. This more often than not may involve pretending to be cis-gendered heterosexual (cis-het). spoke to queer individuals who shared their lived experiences, and delved into the multifaceted implications of pretence and how it impacts their wellbeing.

Anni (name changed on request)
24, Pansexual

“I still remember the first time I realised I liked men. I was 18 and curious, searching on the internet for gay dating applications. Upon downloading Grindr (a dating app dedicated to queer men), I came to know that I am not alone, there are many other men who are also interested in men. I learned from people what it meant to be queer, and even happened to meet my present-day partner after overcoming initial hesitation,” recalls Anni.

“I was beyond happy after the first time I met him. There was this feeling of completeness I hadn’t known till then. We started dating, but the reality of our relationship existing behind closed doors never left us. We were afraid of being judged by society and our parents, but as days went by, the burden of keeping our love secret started weighing heavily upon us. We couldn’t do things that heterosexual couples did, even holding hands in the park, or catching sunsets at Marine Drive while laying my head on his shoulder was unthinkable,” admits the Mumbai-resident.

“Archiving his chats, and not posting our photos on social media might not seem to be a big deal, but all of those actions were intended to hide ourselves. The endless societal backlash we experienced in public spaces has been extremely heart wrenching, and makes us fear if our families will cut off ties with us. We wonder if they will kick us out of our homes, take us to therapy to cure us of our queerness. People have tried to scare us by saying our parents might even kill us,” shares Anni.  

As they gather the courage to overcome their fears and apprehensions, Anni and his partner have decided to keep their relationship hidden. “We decided to be a beautiful secret in each other’s lives, which I think is a huge compromise. I still cannot sleep peacefully at night. I still have to ask him to not hold my hand when we are in the proximity of my home.”   

“I guess many of my queer friends go through similar challenges. We all want to change it by spreading awareness among people, especially our families, so all of us can live the way we want. I know that change comes with a price, but maybe we aren’t ready to pay it just yet,” concludes Anni. 

Maya (name changed on request)
27, Queer

Being in the closet—to whichever degree—can be a complex existence. The never-ending pretence that straight-passing LGBTQIA+ individuals have to partake in on an every-day basis impacts quality of life. “The act of coming out is a never ending process for most queers. Each time you meet a new person, whether cis-het or not, straight-passing queers have to decide whether we wish to reveal our true selves. Alongside the harrowing incessant fear of being found out, being forced to make this very decision repeatedly is a constant stressor in my life,” says Maya. 

The Goa-resident is closeted for the world including her family, but is out to her inner circle of friends, who happen to be cis-het. “Even the best intentioned liberal friends of mine reacted with a startling amount of indifference when I first came out to them. In their speech of ‘it doesn’t really matter’, they failed to grasp the gravity of it all. The fact remains that even those who love me the most fail to have a nuanced understanding of the weight of my intersectional identity, of being a queer woman. It is one thing to ignore the hatred and malice that comes your way from strangers, but the indifference is what makes one feel isolated—as if even those who love me do not understand me.” 

Ruminating on the ramifications of pretence, she shares, “Pretence is a double edged sword for the queer community. Under threatening circumstances, pretending may ensure physical safety, and help to avoid altercations and unpleasant conversations, however, at the same time it is also a persistent denial of self. For example, using gender neutral pronouns while referring to a romantic interest or significant other, might pass unnoticed by cis-gender heterosexuals, but is a conscious effort to mask identity. Whether it is through an outright lie or by omitting the truth, the choice is to intentionally deny who I am on what can be an everyday basis. I have spent years navigating the conflict I have felt as I wanted to be straight passing in certain circumstances at the same time felt pain when someone assumed me to be cis-het. Such acts are extremely disorienting.”

Stressing upon the privilege that comes from being straight-passing, she says, “It is important to acknowledge that not everyone has the privilege to pretend, and pass off as straight-passing, thereby benefiting from cis-het privilege. My agency to reveal my truth lies with me, and helps me protect myself in seemingly unsafe spaces. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t trauma that comes from everyone assuming that I am cis-het.” 


26, Transgender non-binary pansexual

It was somewhere in 2016 that Sujitha admitted to himself that he was pansexual. “I had witnessed the casual queerphobia and misogyny thrown around first-hand. I used to feel guilty because I thought I was a perverted monster, and never considered coming out in certain spaces.”

The hetero-normative assumptions regarding his identity didn’t help. “Meeting new people is exhausting. Most people assume I'm a cis-woman based on my appearance, and mis-gender me.” Hetero-normativity is a systemic problem which impacts LGBTQIA+ lives. “I blame the system which actively benefits from enforcing hetero-normativity and the gender binary. The individuals who make the assumptions are just a product of this system. Some people like to get a little more personal, asking me about my previous or current romantic partners, again assuming that (a) I'm a cis-woman, (b) I'm monogamous, (c) I'm heterosexual. For example, when they assume that my previous partner (who is also transgender non-binary) is a cis-man, I laugh on the inside. While it is amusing, the erasure is heartbreaking.”

At times, queer individuals adapt strategies to be subtle about acknowledging their identities in public spaces. “I speak three languages: Tamil, English, and Hindi. Hindi is an aggressively gendered language, while Tamil and English are just a little bit forgiving. I discovered a life hack that I use all the time now. Since Hindi is not my first language, I use masculine gendered words to talk about myself. And people just assume it's because I don't know Hindi well enough. Of course, there have been people who have tried to ‘correct’ me, but I insist on using what they consider the incorrect gender.” 

The intersection of Sujitha’s identity beyond his gender and sexuality is important to him. “I want to acknowledge that I am privileged in several ways and that doesn't negate my trauma.” Contrary to plans, Sujitha had to come out to his parents (not by choice) and younger sibling in 2018, but his workplace is still a no-go. “My relationship with my parents has been super weird. My father kicked me out of the house in 2019 (I've never been there since) because I had shaved the hair on my head. Honestly, I don't think my hair says anything about my gender, but even so, just the idea of me not conforming to feminine body standards made my father do that after claiming that he loved me for decades.”

Coming out to his family enabled him to live a life where he could be closer to his truest self. “Being out has been liberating. It was a difficult journey to get to this point. It took a lot to even realise that there's nothing wrong with me. I don't have the bandwidth for pretence anymore. It takes too much effort and I'm the one who has to live with the consequences of my choices. I don't want to accommodate others when they're not going to be affected by me.” 

The importance of representation for the LGBTQIA+ community cannot be reiterated enough. “Younger queer people, even the closeted ones keep messaging me online to say how good they feel seeing me live my life. My ex once told me that just by existing, I was showing younger trans people that a life like mine was a possibility.”

Richa Vashista
Mental health professional

To pretend to be someone they’re not is not a preferred state of being for most. “One may feel the need to pretend to be someone they're not because they are not fully comfortable with who they are, or when they fear for their safety. Their internalised bias may prevent them from expressing who they are openly, or if a person feels like they may be attacked if they disclose their identity, they may refrain from sharing the same. A fear of losing access to resources including social status, economic stability, access to housing, and even losing familial affection can force someone to pretend," explains Richa Vashista, a queer affirmative and trauma-informed mental health professional who has been working at the intersections of gender and sexuality since 2014. 

For LGBTQIA+ individuals, the task of pretending in their everyday lives is exhausting. “When someone is trying to come off as straight passing and they succeed, it can lead to experiencing many conflicting emotions at the same time - anger, betrayal, guilt, shame, sadness, frustration. After all, the only reason why someone would ever be able to 'pass' is because we live in a cis-hetero-normative world. A person is more easily able to 'pass' when they are indulging in stereotypes or norms dictated by a cis-het society. This can create a sense of despair or hopelessness, and can even lead to a decline in their mental health - triggering depression, anxiety, panic attacks and more. All of these stem from a feeling of not having the freedom to be themselves or express themselves the way they want.” 

Living in the constant fear of being found out is a stressor that negatively affects quality of life and mental well-being. Talking about the most prominent feelings and negative behaviour patterns that can arise due to being in the closet, she says, “A person still in the closet may feel a myriad of emotions. They may feel anger and sadness with the world for not being more accepting, they may feel guilt for hiding things from their loved ones, shame for not being 'normal', distrust towards others, pain and fear for not being able to share their truth.”

When asked how constant lying (either explicitly or by omission of truth) impacts self-worth, Vashista shares, “People who are still in the closet may reflexively use gender-neutral language when they speak. A gay person might avoid references to gender altogether: "I went out last night with someone I've been dating for the last few weeks. We went to a movie in their neighbourhood." A heterosexual person listening to these words might automatically assume a heterosexual relationship was being discussed. It can be painful to keep this aspect of oneself hidden. Constant hiding brings barriers in trust between friends. It also makes it difficult to recognise one's own strengths. It can be difficult to feel one's actual accomplishments as reflections of one's own abilities.”

Also Read: Repeating one’s truth: Why coming out is a never ending process, not a one-time event

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