As a genderqueer gay teenager growing up in a conservative Muslim household, internal fears of religious and social exclusion led to an array of mental health issues – from severe OCD and paranoid episodes, to recurring nightmares and self-harm.
As ours was a household where I couldn’t safely express my anxieties – disownment was a very real prospect – I experienced long periods of dissociation. At 13, however, arrived a glimmer of hope – for this was the year I discovered marine biology.
On a detour to avoid bullies on the journey home from school one afternoon, I discovered a Tropical and Marine Aquatics Stockist – this was a chance encounter that would save me through my teenage years. The exterior shop window boasted a hypnotising marine tank, and I was utterly seduced by it.
The anemone and corals moved with such unrestricted fluidity, and the fish boasted resplendently coloured and patterned gowns. So stirred by this glimpse into a parallel universe, I enrolled in the Duke of Edinburgh award as an excuse to learn aquarium keeping for my skill, landing myself a job at the aquatics shop in the process.
After months of hard work and some serious swatting, I set up my own marine aquarium at home. The first stage entails placing “live rock” acquired from the ocean into the tank, and then letting it settle – it’s a slow, but pretty magical period, for you have no idea what pick ’n’ mix of sea creatures will be lurking in the crevices. And after a couple of weeks in limbo, earning no more than a basic hermit crab here and there, sitting in front of me was a small pink-red gelatinous creature, moulded to a rock, waving its tentacles as if to say hello.
What I had inside my tank was a “brooding anemone”. Brooding anemones are a pretty rare occurrence in the badass world of live rock enthusiasts. For they are hermaphrodites, beginning life as a female and developing testes later in life. They are also known to wander the ocean, constantly searching for new rocks until they find one that belongs, though never firmly settling in one place. There inside the tank was a mirror of my soul, winking at me through the glass barrier, as if to say: “I know.”
If you’ve been watching Blue Planet II – quite possibly the most remarkable television I’ve ever seen – then you’ll know just how celebratory of non-conformism the ocean is. Under the sea it’s pretty darn woke.
In the first episode, we met the female fish that, when dissatisfied with their male counterparts, hide inside a cave to transition into the male sex, resurfacing with a horn on their head larger than the males it just dismissed. In the third episode, we watched the gloriously matriarchal world of clownfish, where the males are forced to clean the carpet as a way to impress the female boss (they literally inhabit an organism called a carpet anemone).
The queen bee forces the boys to do her housework, and then selects who to bed. As a teenager, I developed a personal obsession with Nudibranch sea-slugs, which are without a fixed sex – literally, non-binary creatures – flaunting kaleidoscopic patterns that would rival the most seasoned of drag queens.
As my behaviour was more aggressively policed at home, as my homosexuality and gender non-conformism became more and more stifled, as the homophobia at school escalated, I would look at my marine aquarium for its promise of an alternative – the formless nature of the anemone tentacles, the way in which the ocean’s creatures were restricted from boundaries, shapes, forms and genders.
When my anxiety was particularly crippling – such as when bouts of OCD meant reading over a piece of homework 43 times before going to bed – my aquarium could pull me out of my dissociative hole, assuring me that a reality free from constructs was just within my reach.
Nearly 14 years on from my first discovery, Blue Planet II has reminded me of the triumphant queer politics of marine biology, and its airing is particularly pertinent. This past month alone we have seen a surge in hateful writing towards trans identities in the media (The Times’s recent rampage was particularly vitriolic). It’s deeply worrying, and as a genderqueer person of colour, it makes me fear for my own safety in the UK.
But I’m pleased that Blue Planet II is reaching such a vast number of British screens (the first episode alone reached 14 million viewers).
It offers a window into a world far more sophisticated than our own when it comes to gender and sexual diversity. If our nation can be so full of awe and respect for the ocean’s queer magic, then maybe there’s hope that as people, we have an innate desire to rejoice in difference, and the utter uniqueness of every living being.