Debolina is a literature professor at Ramjas College, University of Delhi. The first person in her family to speak English and, more so, to teach the subject, she’s aware of her privilege. She hails from Siliguri, in Assam. Initially having come to the capital in 2001 to join a school near Chattarpur, she decided against it, ultimately returning to Siliguri. It was college that brought her back to the city. Debolina wanted to study English Literature in Kolkata. However, while waiting for the results of the West Bengal College entrances, she applied to do her degree in Delhi.
However, her experience in Delhi was traumatic. “The college was homophobic and my peers were homophobic. My partner was homophobic. And I was butch. I was visibly queer.” On days Debolina dressed butch, people pointed and whispered. She recalls filling up a form and consciously checking the box that said ‘male’ when asked to specify her gender. This lead to further teasing and whispers. She felted stifled by the homophobic space she was in. Being butch in all girls’ college made subjected her to daily harassment.
Marks of her sexuality started disappearing as her body evolved. “Back in 2003, it meant you are not man enough.” The sense of inadequacy originally coming from her homophobic partner and peers caused Debolina to decide to act femme. For Debolina, “It (being butch) wasn’t easy, I was not an activist and I was really tired of being butch. I had been butch for far too long and didn’t suit me anymore.”
Over time, Debolina gave up being butch. Being femme made it easier for her to navigate the city. Androgyny wasn’t difficult at all. She did not face much discrimination in the university where she was out with her sexuality while being a part of the English department.
Debolina is vocal about her sexuality. She was out to her peers in school, at the age of eleven in 1996. She recently came out to her parents and no longer feels the need to hide her lovers from them. Now, after the incidents while studying in Delhi, and others she faced later in life, Debolina feels that the problem of misgendering lies not with those being misgendered, but rather with those who are homophobic and lack awareness about gender; Misgendering should not be taken as an offense or be embarrassing to a queer person but rather to the ones who attack or humiliate them. Debolina does not feel embarrassed, ashamed or angry by such attempts any longer. She feels that “it is the burden of other person to educate themselves of different gender roles.”
Debolina has now been living in Delhi for fifteen years and she confidently says that she loves Delhi. “My first interaction with Delhi was from Chittranjan Park, Lajpat Nagar, Dhaula Kaun. After that I lived in north campus. Now I am in Chattarpur. I know the roads and horns of Delhi but nobody can claim to truly know Delhi and its subcultures. I find home in Delhi. People are less nosey in Delhi compared to a small-town. I like the fact that I can go the India Habitat Centre and listen to Spivak. There’s a lot of privilege people living in Delhi have that they do not realise.”
“It is liberating to be queer in Delhi. My first pride was in 2008. I remember going with my partner to celebrate the judgement. I don’t think I would have made the decision to be openly queer without the independence the city gave me. This would not have been possible in Silguri or Kolkata, where it is quite the norm to be queer and yet be married (in a heteronormative marriage). Delhi has enabled me to be queer.”
Debolina feels deeply inspired by other queer women who are strong, living alone and financially independent. Her educational background in a liberal arts subject and having lived alone for fifteen years have helped her immensely to be an independent, queer woman in the city. Even after being at the receiving end of a few sniggers or jibes on the streets, Debolina feels living alone in the city gave her the freedom wear whatever she liked (despite being aware of her mother’s concern over it).
Debolina does not think she has achieved anything extraordinary.“I’ve managed to earn myself a living and I have a room of my own. I can fight patriarchy and I do it in my own way.”