ROJAK – Aarti Olivia Dubey
By: Aarti Olivia Dubey
Edited by: Victoria Chwa
This article is part of ROJAK, a series inspired by the famous Southeast Asian dish, literally meaning ‘eclectic mix of ingredients’. It aims to collate the lived experiences of mixed-identity women who have interacted with both Singapore's society and the wider world, allowing for an exploration of the nitty-gritty hardships of intersectionality while simultaneously showcasing the beautiful diversity in our midst.
Aarti Olivia Dubey is a mental health therapist turned fat activist. They identify as bisexual and non-binary and is a compelling voice for body positivity and the LGBTQ+ community. Here, they recount their journey as an older queer person-of-colour in Singapore. Aarti can be found on Instagram @curvesbecomeher.
I was a teenage girl in the nineties, who was not sure she felt like a girl, and that came with its challenges.
Back then, people were still very harsh on gender stereotypes. Still, I was questioning my identity and journeyed with that despite the public perception and scrutiny. When I was 16, I sported a masculine hairstyle. This was the cherry-on-top that made me hyper-visible. I also had body image issues and used to wear really baggy clothes.
So, there I was: billowing shirt, loose jeans, crew-cut. As I was walking to the MRT station, someone in a lorry drove by me and shouted, “butch!”. He was so loud and clearly stared at me. At first, I was taken aback. Then, I knew – it was working.
In trying to understand myself, I kept pushing the boundaries. I pivoted to a more masculine self-presentation, but I got a lot of hate for that. Suddenly, my self-discovery was less an internal strife and more an event up for public judgment. There was disdain coming from kids in school, from strangers, and even my parents.
Though, it was not always like that. Growing up, my parents weren't exactly insistent on me acting like a girl, behaving like a girl or doing girly things. I grew up with my boy cousins and didn't really have girl cousins until later on. In a sense, I had a sort of freedom at the time, and there was no gender boundary. I presented as a boy a lot more. It was only when my sister was born did I start to notice a difference. My sister was quite feminine which usually meant being more aesthetically attractive. There was a difference in the way that people treated her. That brought more questions to the forefront; questions that I could not avoid.
I never felt really comfortable identifying as a girl or as female except for the fact that, with puberty, my body had changed. I was still growing into my body and the curves that it has. Peer pressure had a lot to do with it, but I took that confusion head-on. I began to present myself as more female and feminine.
By that age, my parents had a more definite idea of how I, as a girl, should behave. They seemed to be saying without words, “it's okay for her to be a tomboy when she's very, very young, but as she grows older, she's got to act like a girl. She’s got to look a certain way, act a certain way, and talk a certain way.” It was a very jarring and confusing shift. One moment, I was just one of the boys and it was okay until it was not anymore.
When I got to secondary school, I realized that while I was attracted to the opposite sex, I was also attracted to the same sex. It was here that I began to question my identity and had to reconcile that amidst all the public perception and scrutiny.
Although, I wouldn’t say I was a stranger to confusion. Being a third culture kid and a first-generation Singaporean, I always have one foot in the motherland and one foot here. There's a lot about me that is more Singaporean than Indian. People have had difficulty categorising me because I don't speak Tamil, and they have questioned my belonging in Singapore because of that. Here, there is a tendency for everything to require establishment and definition. People need to be seen as acting, talking and existing where the lines are not blurred in order to be validated. When black and white become shades of grey, it is unprecedented, unknown and disfavoured. I was familiar with that. Aside from the fact that I felt like a Singaporean, I was also a person-of-colour. Then, a fat person-of-colour. Now, being queer, added another layer to the levels of bias I had faced.
The internal compass of my gender and sexual identity was constantly turning. My husband is someone I can always talk to and be genuine with, but it did take a long time for us to settle down. I did not think marriage was in the cards for me because that is a narrative dominated by heteronormativity and I still had a lot to figure out. I never really knew where I stood in terms of my masculinity, my femininity, or my bi-ness. Having been in this state of confusion for so long, I was also used to repressing everything, so this struggle was not something I would talk about with friends or family. Yet, they’d still see my relationships play out, and they’d pass judgments based on that. There was gossip going on at home behind my back. It was the age-old assumption of “doing this for attention because being LGBTQ+ is trendy”. The lack of support was painful. The turning point was when I made the decision to get all the toxic people out of my life, which really helped me open up.
At this point, Curves Become Her was born. Every so often I would gently insert the fact that I am Bi, and people weren't repulsed by it. People weren't taken aback by it. I had found support from a community of people when I used to have none, and that was liberating. I began to feel more comfortable with sharing and embracing myself, and that’s when more people reached out. They wanted to ask me how it felt like being married to a straight man and being bisexual. In the beginning, I found it challenging. I could not invalidate my bisexuality because it's there, and it's going to be there.
A lot of misunderstanding about bisexuality continues to be spread about our culture. Most people like to assume “we just can’t pick a side”. This biphobia is something people still inflict on bisexual people, and especially bisexuals who are in relationships with people who are of the opposite sex. Usually, it is assumed that we took the “easy way out”. You can't really know what our life decisions were based on, so that's a really big generalization for a very big community that exists. We’re the B in the LGBT.
However, there was still this nagging feeling that my queer story was not over.
My non-binary journey took shape later in my 30s because I had felt more established in my body. Everyone knows that I am bi, despite the fact that some people don’t accept it. Regardless of my age or stage in life, I knew I had to delve really deep to honour that. I realized that the side of me that I wasn’t sure was male or female certainly isn't one or the other.
Over the past two years, I've gotten to know more local queers and folks in the alphabet mafia. I've seen younger ones being so comfortable with not only talking about their sexual identity but also their gender identity. For someone who has never really known how to describe her gender, I found it so refreshing, and I wanted to embrace that too.
I went through two months of wanting to just lock myself up in my room and interrogate myself. I had so many questions. Who the hell are you now? What is this new dimension you have brought on? Why are you messing yourself up? 39, you know, you're about to be 40? Do you really need this right now?
If I was a kid during these times, it would be a different experience, I’m sure. Being on social media for as long as I have, however, shows me that while there may be more support, there is still a struggle. While I might have had the struggles that I have had, being born in the 80s, queer kids these days also have their own set of struggles. None is more prominent than the other. There may be more expression now, but that is often moderated. There is still a lot of homophobia now. There is still a lot of transphobia now. There is still a lot of pushback. I know there are many people who, only after a certain age, do they feel they have the freedom and independence to truly walk into the lives that they were meant to have. Deep down, that resonated with me. A part of me knew that it was time. More than coming out to anybody else, it was really high time that I came to self-acceptance through and through.
Being in this place where I am presenting as gender fluid is very new. Having just come out a few months ago, beginning to talk about it and changing my pronouns, I did not think it would be such a big deal. The implications of it with all the relationships I have – family, friends, communities – had a ripple effect. Thankfully, my friends have been extremely supportive. They've been respectful and curious despite not fully understanding this new non-binary domain. Maybe because I'm introverted and I don't really get out a lot, I don't present as completely masculine to really rattle people's bones. I still wonder how people would react if I made the switch entirely.
I am beginning to settle into what my gender identity looks like for me. I am not hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine, and that's okay. I'm not going to exist so that I can make my gender identity more comfortable for people. It might sound like a nuanced take on gender fluidity because it is so individual. It is so personal. While I was struggling with immense gender dysphoria, I felt like I was obligated to present myself completely differently. Gradually, I realized that I really didn't have to. There really isn't anything I would like to change. Nothing about my appearance, or how I speak about myself needs to change. I’m somewhere in between.
I’ve always been somewhere in between, and that feels right. That feels like me.