I was in Tesco in Hayes with my partner, who like me, is queer and desi. I always get nervous going into this Tesco, even though I’ve been going here since I was young – it’s the nearest supermarket to my dad’s house – I know the type of people who go here incredibly well; desi people. I always anticipate the checkout as more often than not, the person serving me decides the payment card isn’t mine before I even hand it over. And then they read it, and it says, ‘Mr Sabah C.’ My signature on the back of the card is terrible, as expected when one tries to write on a tiny white strip that no pen works on except for a thick permanent marker. My signatures generally don’t ever look the same and when I’m nervous, I rush it or my hand is shaking so much that my signature never comes out identical. The servers always ask me to do it again. And so I concentrate harder, trying to ignore their eyes on me, on my hairy face, on my piercings, on my chest, on me. The signature matches but they’re not satisfied. They hand over the card after one more inspection and give me the receipt silently. They can’t bear to look at me yet that’s all they want to do. I want to get away so quietly and I want to escape so fast. I don’t want a scene. I don’t want to give anything more away. Anything else I say or do is immediately used against me, because anything I give away means anything is theirs to take.
I was wearing two gold studs through both tragi and a gold ring through my septum. I looked averagely androgynous, in a dull purple sweatshirt and straight-leg blue jeans. I stood a few steps back from my partner, also with a gold nose ring and an ear stud on the cartilage.
This desi man at our checkout must have been in his late 40s. He was so smiley, I actually felt bad for anticipating this experience. After we unloaded the trolley onto the conveyor belt we waited and exchanged smiles once more before we were welcomed and it was ‘our turn.’ He pointed to his nose and ears and then at me. He said something in broken English that sounded like he was interested in my jewellery as he was smiling. I said, “Oh do you like them?” And I touched my ears and smiled back. I looked to my partner and wondered why he hadn’t been looking at them. We both have nose and ear piercings.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” He holds his smile and doesn’t break eye contact with me. I make a few awkward shrugs and say something like, “Yeah! Whatever!” In a light-hearted way. I have no idea what I want to say or what I should say. This isn’t the first time someone has asked me this question and it won’t be the last time, but I never have and never will know what I want to say or what I should say. His smile disappears so quickly and he is so angry when he realises I didn’t give him an answer to his invasive question and that I refuse to give away any more. His sudden shift in his mood very unnerving and almost scary, and I want to disappear so quietly.
I feel so deeply embarrassed because my partner had to see this. And then sees me do nothing and say nothing. I feel so deeply ashamed because I did nothing and said nothing. I feel so deeply this way because I am scared. Scared that this common for me? Scared that these things are normal now? Scared that I can always predict what happens next yet I can never be prepared for it?
As our groceries were checked through, I wished we only had one item. The shop dragged on into minutes and those minutes felt like hours, and in those metaphorical hours he was trying to figure out what I am, what am I not, and what is wrong with me. I had given away my voice and in every second I packed each item I was giving away my behaviour, my gestures, and my manner. These insignificant things did not match up with what currently exists in his mind. These trivial things do not usually correspond with what people perceive me to be. So naturally, I change the way I come across to protect myself. But sometimes it gets tiring to put on this character, and when someone smiles, it makes me think ‘I’m okay this time.’
The last grocery item made it past the barcode scanner and I threw my Tesco card into his line of sight, “I’m paying with this too,” and I already know he has decided the card isn’t mine. His expression and behaviour has shifted incredibly and I feel so uncomfortable, I realise I haven’t said a word since my awkward non-answer. He doesn’t like me, he doesn’t get me and he wants me to know it. I feel so uncomfortable. I have walked into a dynamic that has been turned on its head. It is usually the customer that is in a position of power, asking for a service from the server who is there to provide information and help. And everyone knows the customer is always right.
But here I am feeling so wrong. This brown man has such power over me; he holds assumptions, information and now the power to force me to reveal myself. I’m halfway through a pathetic signature and I’m thinking how I can get out of here quickest with the least amount of interaction. I feel my wallet in my back pocket and know my driving license is in there. It has a recent photo of me and my signature on it; you cannot argue with that. I am almost laughing as he says the signature doesn’t match, because it was so predictable and I’m like, “I know, I know,” mumbling about my hand shaking or that the pen wasn’t working, and I’m pulling out my driving license saying, “It’s me, here’s my signature,” and just before I let the pink piece of plastic leave my hands, I look at his face and I stop. He isn’t checking that my signatures match. He is looking at this pink piece of me and at this brown piece of me and I realise I have given away these pieces of me, these pieces are his to take and he has taken them.
He is confused and I am mumbling and crumbling. He doesn’t really agree that the signatures match but I honestly think he was so thrown by this whole experience, he lost his words and let me go. I leave in a hurry.
It always hurts every time this happens. But I realise something; it always comes from brown men. Or from LGBTQ white people. But I rarely hear this shit from hetero cis white men. Not to my face. I know they’re the worst, trust me I have heard it. But they leave me the fuck alone. It’s always people who are close to me in some way already, in my community, in my neighbourhood, in my bar, in my workplace, in my fucking family. It’s people who know what being different feels like. From people who I want to feel a connection with, people who make up parts of my identity, whose stories I want to know. I want to feel a connection with queer and trans people. Even more so, I want to feel a connection with people of colour, especially with desi people. Because I can’t change my behaviour, my gestures and my manner to alter my skin colour. We can’t pretend to be white. So we see each other and we look out for each other.
It feels like they see me. But they watch me. And they probe me. As if I should stop pretending to be whatever it is they see. Not that I’ll ever know what they see. Or that they’ll ever tell me. They’ll just tell me I’m wrong. I am all wrong. As if my presence is dishonest and my appearance is immoral. As if I am pretending to be brown. And they see me as if I don’t belong.
So I leave in a hurry, I take home my groceries, and I know once again where I stand.
Every little helps.