Gay in Cambridge

Balaji Ravichandran 15 November 2007

Say the word ‘homophobia’, and King’s is probably the last place in Cambridge which will spring to the well-informed mind.

Yet I recently discovered, rather painfully, that homophobia is alive and kicking even in the liberal paradise that I now proudly call my home. What had been initially tangible yet subtle descended last week into an ugly exchange of words that offended me to my very core.

Coming from a country (which I don’t call my home) where one can be jailed for life for being gay, the offence made me unusually angry, and I had an urge to stage a vehement protest. So I did. Silence.

Well, how would anyone else in my position feel? Apparently:

• Homosexuality is a matter of choice, and one can choose to be gay (given the choice, I’d rather be a self-absorbed queen than an intolerant monster).

• It is “fucking” abnormal (as if sex is ever normal – ask the biologists).

• It is natural for people to feel uncomfortable with gay men (note the absence of ‘women’), particularly when they are embracing or kissing each other. Gay men should not express their ‘gayness’ openly , or ‘over-do’ it. (Not that straight men don’t ‘over-do’ their straightness at every opportunity in this heterosexist and patriarchal world).

• Saying these things does not constitute homophobia .

These comments were made more or less directly to my face, and without so much as a shred of respect for who I am.

Nor was this the first occasion when such disrespect was made manifest. Palpable homophobia, expressed in sinister but subtle ways, is widespread; not just in King’s, but across Cambridge. “I’d never go into a gay bar: It’s my worst nightmare, being hit on by another man. It’s disgusting”. Or “Even if I had a close friend who’s gay, I’d never be comfortable going out with him to a bar. Never know what’ll happen”.

This isn’t homophobia, you see. It’s just men being honest. They are ‘made’ that way. Sure. Imagine they were talking about ethnic or religious minorities and suddenly comments like that don’t sound quite so inoffensive.

Quite frankly, I’m tired of it. It’s bad enough that people like me had to endure 2000 years of oppression and brutality. Worse still is the fact that every hour of every day, heteronormativity is thrust down our unwilling throats by male-dominated societies with a narrow limited view of human sexuality and individual identity. And when we think we have some semblance of equality and respect, reality always ends up proving otherwise.

Cambridge may have the world’s first transgendered mayor, but I wonder if it really is as tolerant as it’s often touted to be. I think not.

A word needs to be said about the important distinction between sexuality and identity. For me, and this is a personal opinion, homosexuality (i.e., the physical act of two members of the same sex, who define themselves as such, having sexual and personal relationships) is not the same as having a ‘gay identity’.

Indeed, I find the idea of labelling someone on the basis of their sexual orientation alone discomfiting to say the least.

On the other hand, I’m proud of the fact that I am ‘gay’, and that the fact that I’m ‘gay’ is a quintessential part of my identity. I see it as an embodiment of a distinct sub-culture that emerged as a reaction to a heteronormative world where the majority suppressed the minority.

As an identity, it was a struggle for recognition and respect. Despite some of the negative connotations that have come to be associated with it, particularly the stereotypes, it has been rather successful in its fight for acceptance and equality.

In other words, it is possible for anyone, including heterosexuals, to ‘be gay’.

Whether or not I am a homosexual, I am proud of being ‘gay’. If that, for some people, suggests all the stereotypical traits thought to accompany that, then I’m not bothered. That’s who I am.

But, most people who have trouble with sexual minorities aren’t acquainted with life as a victim of persecution, let alone with the subtleties of individual identity and queer theory. No, their problem stems from something more base – a distaste that arises purely from the idea of two men sharing their bodies and emotions in a loving relationship. (Notice again the absence of women. This is the same mentality that has historically viewed them as nothing more than sexual commodities, as the so-called weaker sex, and forced them into lives of domesticity.

No, if they can’t do it, it must be abnormal. And if we try to convince them otherwise, it could only mean that we’re trying to impose our hideous lifestyle on them. What rubbish.

Whether such intolerance arises out of insecurity or ignorance, I do not know. But it has no place in a civilised society. If thirteen years of formal education cannot teach these bigots the basic tenets of tolerance, perhaps they’re just not fit to be in a university like Cambridge. Sound extreme? Put yourself in my shoes. Would racism or xenophobia be tolerated in Cambridge? Why is sexuality treated differently?

Well, I’m no saint. And it’s not my responsibility to reach out to people who find homosexuality, and sexual plurality in general, uncomfortable. But I was angry enough to protest, and so I have. Silence, they say, is the perfect expression of scorn. Or alternatively, in the words of Kafka, “Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. Someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence, certainly never”.

I went completely mute on Monday, and did not speak a word. For, if people want me to suppress the person that I am and thereby want me to remain emotionally and mentally silenced, I might as well remain physically mute. Many did sympathise with my position in King’s, and went silent as well, if only briefly. Whether this silence is to continue, only time will tell. I, for one, am not hopeful.

I came to Cambridge for purely intellectual reasons, and in that respect it can never disappoint me or make me unhappy. It’s a privilege to be here and to study here. Come what may, I will not lose my identity as a proud gay man. If that means I lose a few people along the way, I’m only too happy to let them go.

Balaji Ravichandran