My Chacha is Gay is a radical and controversial text that has the audacity to state such terrible things as “love is love” and “you can’t control who you love.” Rather unsurprisingly, given that the context is Pakistan and the symbolism directly addresses common homophobic interpretations of Islam in Pakistan, the author has received… well. You know. I probably don’t have to tell you how well received apostates are in heavily religious Republics, nor that homophobes of any stripe jumped on too.
But rather upsettingly the author has also stated she’s received flak from Western liberals accusing her of Islamophobia, which is a rather strange accusation to be made of criticisms directed at a country that literally institutionalizes homophobia. It is not xenophobic to say the Pakistani government is draconian especially with respects to gay rights–certainly Eiynah, a Pakistani woman herself, would not argue that all Pakistani citizens are in agreement with her government’s policy. But she does observe that enough people do agree that there is a structural problem to redress, which is an argument that sticks to the facts and makes a very conservative assessment thereof.
And none of that is even touched in My Chacha is Gay. In fact the children’s book is a pretty cookie cutter template of “religious homophobes are dicks, gay people are normal, stop being dicks.” Apparently a lot of people struggle with this whole “not being dicks” bit. So when Samar Esapzai writes that a mother refused to let her daughter read the book, I’m disappointed but not particularly surprised.
Anyway, this week when I took my daughter to the library, it was like any other week, except that after the reading circle was over, I sat down with my daughter at one of the tables to read to her some more. The little girl — I will call her “Priya,” as I do not want to share her actual name — bounced over towards us, and suddenly placed a book on my lap. I looked down and almost jumped for joy! It was a book authored by a dear friend of mine, who goes by the name Eiynah. And the book was entitled, “My Chacha Is Gay” (Chacha means “uncle” in the Urdu language).
Unable to contain my excitement, I quickly asked Priya where she found the book, and she told me that she found it lying on the floor. She then asked me whether the author of the book was really my friend, and I said, yes, yes she was! At that point I asked her whether she will be borrowing it, but to my dismay she frowned and shook her head.
“No, my mother won’t let me borrow it!”
Surprised, I asked her why that was so. I turned to look at her mother, who was standing at the far corner, busy sifting through children’s books for her daughter, it seemed.
“She won’t tell me. She just said ‘no’. She then told me to put it back on the floor where I found it, because that is where it belongs.”
Shocked, and very disappointed, I told her that I will take the book as it is not meant to be on the floor. The book is actually very beautiful and has a very wonderful meaning in it. Perhaps, some day, when she is older, she can check it out herself. But, in the meantime, I will borrow it and read it to my daughter.
Priya, who clearly seemed disappointed as well, nodded slowly, smiled, and ran towards the direction of her mother. At that point, her mother turned towards me, saw the book in my hand, shook her head in disapproval and walked away with Priya, all the while holding her hand tightly.
It was the first time I experienced homophobia in public, in the children’s section of the library, and I was beyond irked. While I seemingly liked Priya’s mother, who seemed like a nice enough person, I couldn’t help thinking how her disapproval of the book was unjust and uncalled for.
I am sure she saw the word “gay” on the cover of the book, and decided that there was no way her five-year-old child was going to read it. She probably didn’t bother to sift through the pages. I am sure she didn’t bother to see the adorable illustrations, and the sweet, simple, and very loving, language in which the book was written and explained.
She’s probably even against gay relationships, and sees them as wrong and immoral, which explains the look of disapproval she gave me as I handed the book over to my daughter to read. And it was an utterly disturbing and ugly feeling. The fact that homophobia is still quite rampant, and obvious in public spaces.
For the first time, I came out of the library feeling disheartened. My mind kept wandering back to Priya, who is at a very curious age, and old enough to understand a lot of things. I kept wondering what must be going through Priya’s mind, when her mother said ‘no’ to her wanting to borrow “My Chacha is Gay,” without even bothering to explain why she wasn’t allowed to borrow it.
Perhaps, having to explain homophobia to your child may come off too overbearing, too negative? Or, maybe she didn’t know howto explain her disapproval to her daughter, because she didn’t think it was worth the time nor the effort — best to say ‘no’ and be done with it.
It’s, of course, easier to say no, rather than having to explain something, which you, yourself, can’t comprehend and reject. However, conditioning your child to stay away, or hate, certain human beings for being different is extremely harmful.