Shades of Grey: Versatile Top/Versatile Bottom - Anindya Hajra

Does a particular performance of gender have to match a certain performance of sexuality? Does what you wear to the nightclub predict what you may do in bed? Are our political positions wedded to our sexual ones? Are our own identity politics restricting our sexual choices?

All is not black and white…and we want to explore the shades of grey. We don’t always agree totally with one another, though we may share a similar perspective. 
When it comes to sexual activity, sometimes it is very confusing. How do we identify to others what we like and what we don’t? Are there only certain ways of being and doing that are ok? If we like doing something in a certain way, does that become a marker of our identity? 

Anindya Hajra 

I don’t think position matters. Making the other person satisfied is the important thing

A top’s masculinity is what makes me happy. I am happy when a masculine man has a good nice orgasm in me

I’ve always been a total bottom. I love acting like the woman and being the woman and helping the man get satisfied. 

My role, and my enjoyment of being either a top or bottom, has more to do with who I’m with, than what I’m doing.

As a pre-op transsexual, I’ve wondered why it seems that a lot of men want transwomen to top them? I mean, duh! I’m walking here in heels and hose with a skirt and blouse, long hair and carrying a purse. I’m taking enough oestrogen for three women… 

What would make you think I would want to be on top?  

I’m not into other transgender/ transsexual or crossdressing  guys either… I want a masculine man who wants to make me his squeeze…

There’s a lot of macho types that always pose as and act like tops, but they are really bottoms...I doubt especially the ones that claim to be ‘versatile’…

If I’m sucking how on f***ing earth am I passive?!

…fragments of conversations over the years with different individuals, including trans/ kothi/ gay/ bisexual/ transinfinite/ straight/ ‘heterosexual’ individuals on the issue of ‘top’/ ‘bottom’. It wasn’t until recently when I started using the Web to meet guys that I renewed my curiosity about (gay) male tops and bottoms. Looking for love (or, some days, whatever I could get) online, there were the folks who’d wander into a chatroom and say ‘Looking for a top’ or ‘Are there any tops in here?’ On simply putting the word ‘top’ in the little one line chatroom personal summary would flood me with chats.

In the idiom of personal ads I’ve usually described myself as ‘versatile’, or ‘versatile but biased towards being bottom’. Some of my fellow cyber folks simply said they were tops. In the land of online dating amongst queer folk, being a top is like being rich, exhilaratingly handsome, owning a fancy car: makes you an in-demand commodity. 

I was proud of my versatility. But it proved bogus. And I wonder why? In my fantasy world, sodomising posed a thrill. But in real life … 

My sense of ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ as it is mostly used was largely limited in distinguishing those who enjoy being inside a guy’s bottom from those whose greatest delight is having a man inside them. Being given to nutty abstract sexual curiosity I’ve often wondered if the term applies equally to anal sex and fellatio. Many gay tops seem almost ‘heterosexual’ in their aversion to being penetrated. Are they equally opposed to fellating their partner? I’ve known many men who identify as ‘heterosexual’ and/or ‘bisexual’ and who’d otherwise state their aversion to anything (touch, kiss, hold) but anally penetrating their ‘bottom’ partner in not so uncertain terms. However many of them boast of how good they are at orally pleasuring their female partners. The closest they might come to their ‘male’ partner is rimming, but that’s rare too.

I’ve been wondering about the sense of self that gets constructed around sexual roles and personal erotic imagery associated with being a top or bottom. Does the sexual preference encompass slightly more than a liking for having certain nerve endings stimulated? 

Memories of a conversation out of many with Heena, a non-castrated hijra somewhere in 1998 stand out. I remember him having told me how he loved (I believe maybe he still does) to be picked up by truck drivers. There was a railway yard close to where he stayed, where truck drivers would park their cars for days on end waiting for goods to be loaded and unloaded from goods trains. He would go there every evening for his ‘picks’. 

Heena lived as a hijra by day and in the evenings he sold sex. I only imagined his choice for truck drivers to be ‘natural’ considering how I perceived Heena’s gender construction to be. To me that self-construction could only desire or be desired by ‘real’ men. And to be desired or desire too had its own set of rules — talking about them both of us would share our sexual curiosities and giggle like two adolescent girls.

It is only later on that I realised that there was far more than just that to Heena’s desire for these swarthy, hulky men. It surprised me to no end to hear that Heena ‘didn’t quite mind’ when his ‘clients’ failed to pay up after having sex with him. It would happen once in a while and sometimes quite frequently when they would say that they can’t pay. It seemed to me strangely that he preferred it that way! When I said this to him, Heena was quiet for a while but then spoke shyly, ‘You see then I’d be the one who would be fucking them, if they cannot pay…’

Honestly that information blew me. Public identities — a hijra, a sex worker, a trucker, men who are known to fuck only, non-men who are known to get fucked only — and their private interplays. A secret world where roles constantly get reversed, played out, and reversed again. Identities around the existence of a social penis, its shadows and arseholes. In that brief moment Heena taught me a lesson that years of activism and fieldwork couldn’t possibly have — the interplay of sexuality and sexual behaviour within gender. Sexual identities suddenly did a somersault and showed their true faces beyond l/g/b/t…

Is there an unspoken taboo against ‘heterosexual’ men as passive partners in sexual relations with kothis or hijras ... or are we mistakenly holding this as the litmus test for all cases? Certainly the perceptions of masculinity and sex-roles are more universal amongst men in our communities. The machismo culture is firmly entrenched — from the traditional, patriarchal family unit to the long-standing practice of ‘strong-man’, authoritarian, non-democratic leadership, which only now is beginning to change (or is it?)

The trappings of masculinity are also highly valued within the kothi community. Within this community, attitudes appear to shift and lines of ‘transgression’ particularly within relationships and sex between kothis and panthis seem to be privately accepted. But the unspoken (public) agreement is that panthi men will assert the active role; panthi men who ‘bottom’ for kothis are frowned upon and are awarded a less prestigious role by kothis themselves, if word gets around.

A few weeks ago, I was bar-hopping and clubbing with several friends at one of Delhi’s hot nightspots for gay men. Here’s the scene: it’s prime time — eleven or twelve p.m. and we’re loving the moment. Punking out to the DJ’s score, in full drag, we were drenched to the skin. Someone feels my back and rubs against my butt. No big deal, right? We’re only partying with some hundred odd other men in this cramped space. But it happens again, this time more direct. Turn around and there’s an older, dark-haired, circuit-type with a goatee. ‘I want to give you a compliment’, he said. Okay, I knew what was coming next. In the hotel room, half an hour later, here it was: ‘I just want you to bend me over and ...’.

STOP. REWIND. Say what? ‘Have I heard correctly?’ I ask myself. True, it was just a request and that too within the confines of my private hotel room. But I was offended by the remark, frowned and proceeded to salvage what remained of my eminent femininity. What exactly did he say that was so offensive? In all honesty, it’s nothing that we kothis haven’t said — but what was the insult? Even when it was happening in private? The fact that what he wanted was not within the realm of (my imagined) sexual possibilities? Would it have been more acceptable if he were to ask the reverse? Was it the wrong intro? Or did the older, darker, hairy and ‘masculine’ projections make me believe that what I heard was a deviation from my notion of how a ‘top’ should market himself?

Let’s be honest: the broad sexual spectrum should suggest that there are men willing to experiment within a wide realm of (sexual) possibilities. Why does it have to be so binary? Is that really it? Top or bottom? There is another category for those lucky individuals who do not prefer one over the other — versatile. Although many times placed in league with top and bottom, versatile does not gain the same credence as a choice. 

Is it against some great rule that every queer male must identify his sexual behavior? If I don’t make a choice will I never find a lover? Better yet, will not knowing destroy the foundation of queer male culture? On the other hand, it might help. It would get rid of the pressure to fit into one of our (sexual) subculture’s defined roles. 

‘Please, don’t act like you don’t know. Certain traits and roles come with the assumption of being a top or bottom. Tops are considered tall and masculine, while bottoms are short and effeminate’. So, what happens when you get a five foot top with a lisp? Is he a top or bottom? Oh wait, I just realised I forgot ‘versatile’ again. But what if that person doesn’t like to do every position with every lover he has???

I don’t think that enjoying bottoming is feminine.

I’ve been on the top more than the bottom but it certainly struck me how boring being on top can be. It isn’t just a matter of motion.

Being a bisexual I can enjoy penetrating my wife but what really turns me on is submitting to a masculine top.

I’ve always like pretty and feminine guys, and only became attracted to conventionally masculine ones later in life, so the butchness of the guy doesn’t matter to me. I like him to be at least somewhat to rather aggressive in coming on, and to know what he wants sexually, so that he directs me to do what he wants, rather than asking, and doesn’t mind if I act like I’m enjoying myself.

I completely surrender my body to my top lover. I tune in to his progression during love making, and I think this helps me as I am very orgasmic and it is very easy for my top to make me orgasm without even touching myself.

I further confused myself when I fell in with an older, bisexual (?) woman, who knew what she wanted and how to get it, taught me how to please her. If she had not also had a jealous lesbian lover I might be with her yet.

Anindya Hajra works with Pratyay Gender Trust, a sexuality and human rights advocacy group based in Kolkata, India