Illustration by Debarati Sarkar
Getting therapy was one of the many firsts of living by myself. Shouldering many responsibilities and living with my family, and caring for a parent with significant disabilities, I had no space to think about myself. My therapist created a safe space for me to help me heal from trauma and gave me the language to understand myself better. I told her about my experiences with my vaginismus support group, the dilation process, and the constant fatigue of healing from this condition. I felt safe and cared for talking about my sexual well-being.
Most recently, I talked with my therapist about my sexual identity. When I think of defining myself as ‘bisexual,’ my shoulders immediately become stiff. As an educator, I create safe spaces for young people to embrace their sexuality, but thinking about my own sexuality makes me feel vulnerable. Because I have vaginismus, I fear what people I might want to have sex with will think about me. I feel this immense burden to prove myself and to act in a specific way. When I am with a man, I freeze up about thinking of penetrative sex. I feel like I am giving them hopes only to let them down. Now that I am thinking about being with women too, I fear I don’t know if I have the right to claim this space. I have been trying to understand why that is.
I grew up in an abusive household entrenched in shame and secrecy. I wore masks at home to hide my feelings from my parents. I did not tell my father about the ongoing sexual abuse that I faced as a pre-teen because I was afraid of what he would do. I did not want to bother my mother because she was in an abusive marriage. I wore masks for survival.
I even wore a mask in my first relationship. I had to pretend to be this person who wants a happy, married life and wants to fit into his family, wants to live with his family, and give myself the family that I never had. Eventually, he succumbed to family pressure and that relationship ended painfully. No matter how many masks I wore, it was not enough to protect my relationship. In his last email, he told me that I hope I also find a person I can settle down with, and one of the things I wrote in my reply was that I will not marry someone that I don’t love. When my ex and I were trying to convince his family, I was not only gripped by fear of losing him, but also of the fear of being the only young woman and person among my cousins and in my family to take the marriage route. When I told a friend about my reluctance to marry, they reminded me that I did not have a positive example of a good marriage growing up. I don’t think that is the only reason though. All I want is a partner who loves me deeply, cares for me, and understands me. I want love. I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who compels me to put a label on it, and for whom love is not enough.
Now that I have been living by myself for some time now, the silence, the quietness around me has given me some time to take off these masks. There is a memory from my early teens and childhood that is buried too deep inside. That memory continues to surface, bobs its head out, sinks in, and suddenly crashes like waves against the rock. I remember cuddling, kissing, hugging, and making out with a female cousin. I remember using a doctor’s set to examine the vulvas of my neighbour’s daughter and another cousin. I was curious, fascinated, and if I am being true to myself, then slightly titillated. That young girl in me did not have gender labels. She knew that marriage and love happen only between men and women, and on TV and in films only men and women fall in love with each other. I meet these cousins at family dinners or once in 2 years and we act like it never happened, as if we were never those people. I am single and they are all married now. We don’t have an emotional connection. I find myself admiring women’s bodies and imagining caressing their breasts. In my solitude, I was vulnerable with myself. I told myself that I might be a woman who also likes to have sex with women. What does that make me? Does it make me bisexual? Does it make me a woman who is questioning her sexuality? I dismiss labels in my head because I am scared that if I conform to it, it will stay with me. In my mind, these labels feel heavy. I feel like I might have to subscribe to a certain way of being queer. If I don’t, I won’t be accepted as a woman who is queer enough. Then I get scared and try to talk myself out of my experience of queerness.
I have explained to myself that this was only a childhood experience. Children are curious by nature and they enjoy exploring. When I look at other women, it is only aspirational. I want to look like them. This is just me admiring other women. This is common and it does not mean anything. I have fantasies about women sometimes, but this only means that I am ready to fall in love with another man again. I even scold myself, “just because you have queer friends, and you share so many posts about LGBTQIA+ topics, just because you support queer students it does not mean you are queer. This is not your space. You are not a part of this community. You don’t even know how to explore your own self, let alone go down on a woman. How do you even do that? Don’t play with people’s emotions. This is the lived reality of many people.”
Then this other part of me peeks out – the part of me that does not have any doubts about my sexuality. She reminds me that a few months ago when I was cuddling with a female friend watching a TV show late at night, I was so drawn to her sexually. It was like fire, consuming me, it was the same kind of attraction that I felt towards men. At that time, the feeling, the desire to make out with her was so overwhelming that I could not logically reason with myself at that moment. My desires grew stronger than my critical voice. After some time, when we all went to bed, my critical voice suppressed that desire. It informed me, “you have not been sexually active in 2 years, and that is all. Just go to bed, friend.” I did.
I imagine what it would be like if I had not grown up doubting myself, my worth, and my sexual desires. I never thought my self-doubts would creep into my sexual life too. I know that I don’t need to wear masks in my present context. I am not the same person I used to be. I am scared to explore this sexual desire, but I feel excited to be on this journey with myself.
But then the voice also reminds me, you are a person healing from vaginismus. Maybe you think it is too hard to ask cis+het men out? It makes you feel inadequate, so you are turning to women. This is not your space, stay out of it. Try to be a good ally.
I am so confused.
The two voices at war inside my head rage in other situations too. This voice that dismisses my sexual desire for women also belittles me at work. It tells me that I am not good enough, that I am not worthy of love. My therapist has helped me have a conversation with these voices. Rather than what these desires mean and allowing all kinds of questions to bubble over in my head like: “how will I even ask a woman out? I cannot ask a man out without turning into jelly. How will I explain this to my parents?”
“But my kinder self tells me, your desires are real and alive. Now that you have some time and space to remove the masks of being a good girlfriend and not be a referee for my parents throughout the day, your desires can breathe.”
I confided in a few friends and I also explained to them how I was suppressing them. They have been supportive. It felt like an announcement though. Even while I was sharing, I was reading the expressions on their faces. I was trying to detect their disapproval. They were accepting on the surface, but do they think I am a fraud? Wait, am I a fraud?
Hiding myself and wearing masks was important and necessary once, and there was a time for it. It served its purpose, but now that I have so many physical ailments, mysterious pains, asthmatic symptoms, I am realising that my body was holding on all this pain and suffering, and now that I am not wearing most of these masks, it is reeling under the impact of the suffering that it had to endure.
I don’t know if I will act on my new found desires for women. I keep telling myself that it is okay for me to take one step at a time. Just like my journey of healing from vaginismus, my journey of exploring my queerness is also not linear. When my therapist asked me what it felt like to embrace myself as a bisexual or a queer woman, I told her that I felt complete. I wait to get there. I keep walking in that direction.
Tara is an educator. She loves talking to young people and seeing them grow. Outside of work, she takes long walks, takes care of her plants, reads and admires art.