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my mother's dupatta

"the contrast between my assigned gender identity and who I really was became a negative dialogue in my mind"

photograph by Chelsea Brown
words by romea kumar


My sister and I prance in the sun that shines through the window of our small one-bedroom unit in rural Victoria, the Bollywood music travels with the scent of my mums cooking through our neighbourhood. I twirl under a heavily embroidered dupatta imitating Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit in the iconic song “Maar Dala”, the ceiling sparkles as I spin and, in this moment, I feel happy, like life is happening all around me and I’m just a disco ball in the centre of it all.

Moving to Australia at the age of two, all I remember are the quiet suburban streets, lightly populated malls and lots of people who didn’t look like me. I began to realise I didn’t look like everyone else, when I started preschool, my Mum retells a story of me coming home and crying saying “I don’t want to play with the black kids” in Hindi, I must have also been colour blind because everyone in my pre school was Caucasian. I remember going with my sister to her grade one class on multicultural day and Mum had dressed us in traditional clothing, as we walked in, I noticed we were the only ones dressed up and the rest of the kids were in casual clothes, while Mum would have felt joy representing our culture in a new country, I got the feeling of being othered and misplaced. 

Playing with my Mums clothes and jewellery was a regular activity for my sister and I, running around the house in her dupatta wasn’t anything new, but on this particular occasion I must have been around six when she stopped and scolded me, saying “stop playing with that, they are for girls not for boys!”. And that stuck with me. Growing up I was always a little loud and flamboyant, walking with a limp wrist, having mostly female friends, all of which I was told off for, and a lack of interest in boisterous activities such as sport and boys in general. Constantly being told that you’re not conforming to gender roles has major impact on a developing teenager and for me this manifested as depression, for a good three years from year 8 to 10 I struggled with my body image, sexuality and gender which is when I began to shut down.

"Constantly being told that you’re not conforming to gender roles has major impact on a developing teenager and for me this manifested as depression"

Depression was company I began to feel comfortable with as it loomed over my shoulder whispering sweet negative thoughts into my mind, my way of dealing with them was to turn off the extrovert and keep everything in, I’d go to school and only interact with my closest friends, then go home and delve into the internet where I could escape reality for hours on end. At this time, I was struggling with my sexuality big time, as a hormonal teenager my attraction to boys became very prevalent, I tried to mask any flamboyance with masculinity, but that shoe never fit quite right on me. Late at night I would cry watching coming out videos on YouTube which made the stakes of my sexuality much higher, ‘would they love me or kick me out?’ Became a fear that felt paralysing, in effort to shake this I’d then switched to watching Beyoncé and Gaga performances to find strength in my femininity, the contrast between my assigned gender identity and who I really was became a negative dialogue in my mind, which I battled alone, causing trauma as I never voiced my struggle to anyone.


In year eleven I moved to a senior secondary school which meant new beginnings, and I had mustered the courage to change my life around after years of suicidal ideation, looking back I’m not sure what pulled me out of that dark hole but I’m grateful that it did. I came out to my close friends and focused on my love for art in various subjects, fashion, visual communication and, in photography I began to explore my journey of accepting my sexuality. The outcome was my year twelve final, a large-scale print of me naked on my bed draped in my mother’s red dupatta the same one I used to twirl in all those years ago, reaching up in pain, which was reflected onto a mirror, so the viewer saw my perspective of the scenario. This image represents the triumph I had over my depression in terms of my sexuality as I was actively reaching up and out of the dark room, I had kept myself in for several years. I thought to myself ‘this would be a great way to come out to my parents, I can present them this image and explain to them my struggle, and all will be great.’ Which was true, through my tears I told them, and their response was embracing, they told me they’d love me regardless and followed with, “focus on your studies don’t worry about all this right now”. A classic immigrant parent response to any issue.

"this image represents the triumph I had over my depression in terms of my sexuality as I was actively reaching up and out of the dark room, I had kept myself in for several years"

Facade - Romea Kumar

I moved to Melbourne after being accepted into my dream course of Fashion Design and told myself I’d never look back, cutting off all my high school friends. I subconsciously listened to my parents and focused solely on my studies in the hope to prove myself as worthy, ‘a queer child who had disappointed their parents’, was the mantra that kept the Indian mindset ‘what will others say’ well alive in my mind. I excelled under that pressure but when the pandemic hit in second year of uni, I spiralled thinking ‘who am I doing this all for?’, I began to research into gender identity for my folio and came to the realisation I identified as non-binary, since that moment I feel better about the body that I’m in, the battle of gender roles still looms but I categorise them better as Judith Butler would describe a performance of masculinity and femininity.


Now as someone who is closing the chapter of academic education and entering a new chapter of opportunity, it’s grounding to think that the person who was dreaming in that dark room all those years ago has accomplished most of what they dreamed of. I still haven’t told my parents that I identify as non-binary, but I don’t think that’s a conversation that holds weight in our relationship, as I don’t value their approval like I once did. I won’t let someone else’s opinion of me hold me back from being who I am, because I know where that path leads to and it’s not a pretty one. I feel hopeful and scared because for the past few years I was working towards my degree and now that I’ve achieved this milestone it’s time to dream again, I hope I haven’t forgotten how.


I don’t blame my parents for how they raised me because holding a grudge I’ve realised, doesn’t lead to any sort of satisfaction. Instead, I’m trying to understand that they never had the intention of hurting me, they used the tools they were given to try to raise two children in a foreign country. But that doesn’t take away from my experience, as my feelings are as valid as their sacrifices, but as an adult it’s my responsibility to heal the issues I have now gathered, blaming others at this point only makes me irresponsible for using my unhealed trauma to hurt others indirectly. I know my parents love me even if we don’t say it, I know I can always count on them if I need them, and that’s not something I want to take for granted as it’s not the case for many queer people in my community.


My story is one of resilience and hope and it’s given me a moral perspective of my values and a purpose which I hold closely, I hope I can be the representation for other queer kids that I needed growing up. If I walk in that truth every day, I know it was worth fighting for, I still struggle with anxiety and depression and waking up everyday can still feel like a chore. I’ve come to realise that each day has its challenges and I’m the only person responsible for my actions so I choose the ladder, even if I don’t know where it leads, because in the end I will only remember the journey not the destination. That sounds so dramatic but it’s the truth, I try my best every day and that’s all I can do. So that dupatta may have been the start of a long-term challenge with my identity but without it I might not have the same motivation I have today to leave a small part of the world better than when I entered it.

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