Seema Mattu: Why Am I A Gay Icon?

Recently, I’m talking around March this year, I was outed at the funeral of a close family member. It was literally so extra and dramatic I couldn’t believe what was happening. Anytime the word “funeral” is used in a story, the morbidity levels increase tenfold, so lemme give you some context and why this is relevant: As a teenager from Birmingham, good ol’ ignorant Birmingham, I lived a mildly dramatic life at an all-girls school. It was a typical arrangement – harmless race cliques, cis-girls fawning over the slightest glint of a cis-boy, spotting the pregnant chick, spotting which of the best friends were secret lesbians, and so forth. Then there was that time when white friend became white foe, arguing back and forth about whether Shilpa Shetty was actually a victim of racism or not. It was probably my first taste of creative expression. Arousing.

There was just something odd about me. I was the brown chick with one shaved side and a random, oversized fringe which led to nowhere. I was the chick who cared more about the deep friendships I had formed with other girls rather than the next moment i’d see a cutie from the boy’s version of my school. I was the embarrassing fool who was like “So what were Emily and Naomi doing in the woods that time when the camera showed Emily lowering down and Naomi panting?” A white friend had to point out what went down (literally). Thus started the whole “am I gay? I am gay.” complex I’m sure the majority of the lgbt world deals with. At this stage though, 15/16, I was definitely in the am I gay? “phase”.

I can’t lie, I feel like I always held the archetype of a comedian of sorts. Even when my world blew up in my face and I was under major lesbian scrutiny, to the point where I was literally forbidden from being around other individuals, I continued being absolutely fucking hilarious. Part of this ruse, was to call myself a gay icon at all times. It wasn’t enough that I hadn’t actually dealt with my sexuality, I had to find comfort into making everything a joke. Now, that I reside firmly in the “I am gay.” district, I’ve realised that the comfort I was seeking, and still do to a degree, comes from fame and celebration. And this means acceptance.

What the fuck is a gay icon? No joke, I’m writing this as I think so I’ve just googled “gay icon” and the second hit, after the inevitable number one wiki spot, reads: 8 Reasons Ariana Grande Is the Gay Icon of Her Generation. Some of these indisputable reasons include: “her gay brother”, “she sang at pride”, “her Celine Dion impression” (?!?!) and her “genuine love for the community”. I mean seriously, if this suffices then it’s about as easy to become a gay icon as any white person ever claiming to love a good lamb bhuna on the weekend. My friends, this is true solidarity. (Check this link if you find this as important to your gay life as I probably should.

Personally, I define a gay icon as a public figure who is embraced by the lgbt community and seen as an ally of the rights of these persons. A gay icon is also often someone who lives a cute hetero life, someone who doesn’t have to actually think twice about safety or scrutiny or security for the reasons an lgbt may. When I was a scared little girl, I latched onto this dream. I wanted to be part of the community without being the community itself, and in hindsight I feel so sad for my teenage self. But she needed to go though that then, so I could go through this now. Since forever, I have thought about what I can and would have to do to survive if the worst case scenario becomes reality. If my brown family deny me, disown me, kill me. For those reasons, I kept the biggest secret of my life locked away from my father and my brother, but at 16 plucked up the courage to tell my mother and sister. These women kept that secret for me for 7 years.

Back to this funeral in March: As some of you brown folk may know, once the funeral is done and the body’s ashes blow into the air as if that person never even existed, usually friends and families of the deceased will go back to the family’s house at which they’ve been mourning for the past couple of weeks or so. So there I was being hilarious, and I was summoned upstairs to be told that it was finally out. That I was finally out. Rumours had spread like wildfire, and I could feel my eyes burning into horrific scenes of my imagination. After confirming my induction into lesboland with the kind family member who advised me to tell my father asap before anyone else does, I ran downstairs and froze, and melted and burned up and withered away. All at the same time. I’m a bitch who takes on a lot. I deal with insanely judgemental family members and people trying to match my skin to my personality to my hair style, I deal with more and more stories of the ill treatment of those painted with the same lowcaste brush. I deal with all of this on a daily basis. And it’s not fine, but it is (if you know what I mean). On this day, I wasn’t ready to deal with my own funeral.

My dad was dropping me off to the train station and he didn’t suspect a thing. That didn’t matter to me though – I was now programmed to suspect that he suspected me so I suspected him back. I burst into tears and nothing was funny anymore. He panicked and asked me profusely what was wrong, I was too scare to answer. We held hands in the car and it reminded me exactly of the way my girlfriend and I hold hands in her car. The way the familiarity filled my heart made me cry even more. To my surprise, though, thinking of her and this opportunity I have to rid myself of this innocent secret gave me the tiniest bit of strength to quietly raise my usually loud voice.

Eventually, he parked up in a random spot and I thought of the most strategic way of giving birth to myself in front of him just in case it was goodbye from here on out. I mentioned my ex and said: “[She] was my girlfriend. And even though we’re no longer together, any partner I have in the future will be a woman.” I was secretly proud of how I worded that through tears, and readied myself for emotional, mental, physical pain. Suddenly, his flood of tears was double mine. I thought that this was it, the end, kaputt, goodbye, fuck off. He apologised to me for feeling like I had to keep a secret like that to myself for so long. He held my hand my entire journey. CAN U BELIEVE IT. A BIG BROWN MAN, SAID SORRY TO ME FOR MY NEED TO BE ME. We lived happily ever after.

Present Day: No we really did, or are, should I say, living happily ever after – in terms of gay shit anyway. The moral of this very true story is that I have experienced a world of things I never thought possible. And though I continue to live through the discrimination, the phobia, the double standards, the stereotypes and these overlapping states of minority, I am here. I am so unbelievably lucky. Others are not. And this is why I’m an artist. Gay icon: pending.

Disclaimer: I say lgbt, but I mean every letter that exists to make up the longer version. I am simply being lazy. Sorry.

Seema Mattu’s work will screen along side Pratibha Parmar’s at the Scottish Queer International Film Festival at the CCA on 30th September 2017, after which she will join us for a discussion. Collect:if Presents: Gaysian Superheroes presents a focus on the work of two British-South Asian queer women filmmakers across different generations. Activist and director Pratibha Parmar’s work centres on gender, race, and LGBT issues. Her groundbreaking Khush (1991), for instance, portrays lesbian women and gay men in India and the Indian diaspora discussing acceptance and embracing of their sexuality. We explore Pratibha’s prolific output alongside that of emerging London-based artist Seema Mattu, who uses digital media to present an awareness of the overlooked ethnic self in regards to various degrees of minoritisation. Curated and hosted by Nyla Ahmad, who researches South Asian identity in comics. In partnership with Collect:if, Glasgow Women’s Library’s women of colour collective.

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