You’re reading our series The Women Who Came Before Us. At a time when the generations can seem more divided than ever, HuffPost UK writers thank women in their family – or chosen family – who paved the way for the lives they lead today. Read more letters here.
When womxn of colour are asked if there are any queer people in their families who’ve helped with their journeys, you will often notice an air of silence. It’s rare you see or hear these people. They exist, but it’s rare.
I thought I was the only (out) queer person in mine. I came out as bisexual almost two years ago, in an article for my magazine. I did it without telling anyone first. I was scared of what people might say. And having placed myself in a vulnerable state, I was aware of the isolation that would follow.
Among my relatives, I was already considered a lost cause for being ‘reckless’ with life decisions. Some reacted negatively about my sexuality, too – seeing me as a stain on the respectability of our name.
Then one day I heard about you.
You lived in India your whole life and I knew you mostly as the woman who had untreated schizophrenia. Only recently has your condition been diagnosed; before that, ableist terms were used to describe you. You were always referred to as “the mad one” in your lifetime. The diagnosis came after your death.
There were a handful of times, when I was very young, that I met you, on one or other of the many trips we took to India. You were labelled as dangerous and scary, so I found myself hiding behind my parents when we were introduced. I now remember the pain in your face.
You died in old age, a few years ago and it was only last year that I found out about the relationship you’d had with another woman. I remember saying, “No, you mean she had a girl who was a friend, not a girlfriend.”
I was interrupted with a simple, “No, Sharan. She was gay.”
Things are changing for my generation and those younger than me. But looking back, it was harder then for people in immigrant communities to come out, due to cultural or religious strongholds. It was – is – especially hard in families where there’s an entrenched need to please, whether because of lingering colonial mindsets or honouring back-dated caste systems. In my own Indian family, these things have held some people back from living their true lives.
You never came out. Instead, you were married at a young age and because of your mental health and abusive partner, you went through a divorce. Getting a divorce in those times was looked down upon – but because your schizophrenia was viewed as destructive, you were were branded as unlovable.
“Your sexuality has rarely been discussed until now. But since I heard your story, I’ve felt a powerful energy.”
So you stayed single and isolated, until this other woman came into your life. She helped take care of you and from there, a relationship blossomed. You fell in love and were by each other’s side constantly. Then one day, the family found out. They stopped you from seeing each other and you died alone.
Anonymity even after death is something I wish to hold for you – your sexuality has rarely been discussed until now. But since I heard your story, I’ve felt a powerful energy. Knowing that someone else in my family was out there, in a relationship with a woman, has meant the world to me.
Now, in my relationship with my own partner, I know that every moment counts, because those before me suffered to get what I have. Every time someone tells me they don’t approve, I know I have the freedom to continue as I am, because I have your story in mind.
Despite all that you went through and your lack of access to the care you needed, you were able to have that moment of joy with the woman you loved.
I didn’t know you had paved a way in my family to conversations about being gay. For so long, I believed I was the only one. Nor did I imagine the young girl hiding behind her parents as she looked at you in fear would one day look at you as someone who validated her existence.
There was a queer woman before me. And the life she wasn’t able to have is the life that I will loudly lead.