Call me shallow, but I have always wanted a gay friend. I like to think I watched too many American sitcoms, and I was swayed by visions of us going shopping, discussing dissecting men, gossiping, and generally having a great time. (Conveniently ignoring the fact that I don’t enjoy shopping.)
One day, while complaining to a friend (henceforth referred to as N) about gender (and other kinds of) discrimination, he mentioned he was gay. For long I have wondered – I talk the talk, but would I be a supportive and accepting friend? Turns out I can be. I wasn’t surprised, we just carried on talking like I always knew (though I really didn’t). I know we won’t go shopping, but we did discuss men (haha!). Here I am, interviewing him, in the context of being gay in India, in the society and community we both love and feel suffocated by.
[Please be kind to me, this is my first time interviewing someone. I hope I have been able to do justice to the issue and to my friend. I know I cannot empathize, except from the point of view of being at a disadvantage while seemingly enjoying privilege.]
Did you always know you didn’t like women the way you were expected to, or was it a slow journey of self-discovery?
Just a correction! I do like women in many ways the society expects me to, and in ways that society doesn’t expect me to. I know, however, that I cannot be romantically and sexually involved with a woman.
N says his epiphany was slow in coming, a process that took place over a decade. Growing up, he realized he was different. He found himself trying (subconsciously), to not express ‘that’ part of him.
I use the word ‘that’ because, growing up, all I felt was “I was different”. I didn’t understand how or why. I couldn’t put it into words, not for myself, not for others. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it. This could be why I didn’t socialize much. I had one really close friend and a couple of (not-so-close) friends after I completed high school. Nobody thought much of this. For the rest of the class, I was the “nerd”, the “good boy”. Now I think, the reason I didn’t socialize was that I didn’t trust anyone enough to express myself. I didn’t trust myself either.
According to N, the lack of a clear definition for his feelings had an impact on him. He remembers thinking that his sexuality was a part of him that needed to be hidden at all times.
My first porn search was ‘penis pictures’. When I did that, I didn’t understand what it signified. I didn’t know it gave me a label as far as my sexual preference goes. But I knew one thing. “Don’t tell anyone till you figure it out”. I repeated this to myself.
N says he accumulated quite a bit of guilt over the years for his feelings and emotions. He did not think it possible to share these emotions with anyone. He was not interested in playing sports, and in a sneering manner typical of high school kids, he was called “transgender” (not to his face). Once, his close friend confronted him about his lack of interest in sports (deemed unusual for a boy in a cricket crazy country), and he panicked.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t particularly have a childhood that would require sympathy. I was happy (mostly), content (mostly). Just that I had my share of struggles and fears too.
It was in college that N became aware of the entire spectrum of sexuality and brought himself to the understanding that it was not wrong to be attracted to the same gender. In his words, he tried to alienate the issue from himself, by saying “Being LGBT is not wrong but I am straight”, or, “(laughing) Maybe I am bisexual”. He convinced himself that he was sexually attracted to both men and women but romantically only to women, simply to conform. This was more evident when boys gathered to discuss which actresses they liked (as in, found sexually attractive). He pretended. He imagined that he found them attractive. He almost believed the lie too.
Once, I casually remarked to two of my friends in college that I might be bisexual or gay. They didn’t take me seriously. I didn’t either.
Part of the reason I didn’t accept myself was that I didn’t want to disappoint my mother. Like all Indian boys, I was my mommy’s son through and through. I have tried to not be influenced by her views now, but we have shared a close relationship for as long as I can remember. Though it is funny that despite this close bond, I still cannot open up to her about this. I don’t know yet if this is a good thing or bad. Seeing my mother every day, living with her in the community she has built around her, all of it gave me a sense of fear. I considered it irresponsible to upset her equilibrium.
N moved out of India in 2012, to pursue higher education. He finally found time to analyze his identity and express his individuality. He was able to isolate himself from the relentless pressure he faced back home, and understand himself better. It also helped that he fell in love. He calls it accidental, cheesy, dramatic, and he found this person online. Initially, he wondered as to why he was romantically interested in a man. Over time, he reached out to an online community that helped him with his ongoing process of accepting and understanding his sexuality better.
And his love, you ask?
Haha! It was one-sided, and took me a year to come out of it (with a LOT of help from Adele’s albums). But it helped me embrace my sexuality.
Yes, embrace. Not merely accept.
Could my realization have happened much earlier, or not taken as long? Definitely, if I lived in such a society. Life might have been easier.
I remember a conversation I had with a (younger) colleague. I’m not sure how, but she didn’t know what homosexuality was. I had to explain, and I am sure she felt uncomfortable. Was it difficult for you, sharing this truth with a friend (or a family member) the first time? Were you anxious, worried, or merely curious as to how they would react?
Yes! It was difficult. I started coming out to few of my friends in early 2013. The girls, invariably were cool with it! The guys, most of them, not so cool. I encountered a variety of responses:
That’s okay machan. You have every right to be yourself. Just don’t tell your parents.
I think you haven’t found the right girl yet. Once you find her, things will fall in place.
Why on earth did you register yourself with gay dating apps? Look where it has brought you.
Just don’t tell your parents. Whomever you settle with, he can be your best friend according to your parents. Just don’t tell them. They can’t take it.
N thinks he was prepared to face these responses. He felt like the support system he had discovered helped him absorb the shock in as calm a manner as possible.
The online community I was part of did a wonderful job. I could reach out to anyone. I met many interesting people. I realized anew that I was not “weird”. I felt more confident. I felt liberated. I was prepared to wait until my friends accepted me on my terms. Things started looking up after about a year. One friend mentioned he was happy to know someone gay for the first time in his life. Another apologized for not being able to relate to it.
N hurries to add that all of his coming out, until recently, has been online. The internet offers you some protection. After all, you can log out if the conversation gets too awkward.
I came out to someone a week or so ago, for the first time in person. I was quite anxious, but I needn’t have worried. The conversation was beautiful. She immediately started showing me shoes and dresses she planned to buy, and asked for my opinion. Haha!
N admits that his own personal acceptance of homosexuality (not the fact that he was gay) was a journey that took over two years.
It happened when I started venturing into the world of Tamil magazines (credits to my mom for getting me to read Tamil magazines in the first place). Madan and Gnani Sankaran used to write articles on how homosexuality isn’t wrong and how it was natural. It took all that for me to understand homosexuality when I was a teenager. As an adult though, I expect my colleagues to understand the world around them.
Do you hope for your family’s acceptance? Do you consider it possible?
Family’s acceptance is important. I want to be able to interact with them and talk to them. I don’t want to “cut off all ties with them”, as parents in India are so prone to declaring. But I have to make my peace with the fact that the repercussions will be unpleasant when I do come out to them. It is a common enough experience for almost all members of LGBT community before they come out to their parents. I feel they wouldn’t react too severely. They might not be the same after I come out, but they will still be my parents and a part of me still hopes strongly that there will be acceptance (after numerous dramatic episodes of course).
You can visit http://orinam.net/category/personal-stories/ for more (true) coming out stories.
What do you think is a bigger concern – not being able to live the way you want to, or being a disappointment to your family?
I am hesitant to answer this. The response to this question is very dynamic, as you very well know. As I said earlier, it matters to me what my mom thinks. It was a big concern (not the only one). Not being able to live the way I want to would definitely be a problem. But not so much given the privileges I will have, namely a PhD degree holding Indian Hindu male. Society wants to respect me (unless I give them a specific reason not to). Issues like work place discrimination are still somewhat unfamiliar to me, and I am not sure if I completely understand it.
Do you feel at peace outside India? Do you see yourself wanting to return?
I have lived outside India for three years now. There are different levels of peace one can experience. In India, my sexuality was always at war. Here, abroad, it isn’t. But I view myself as living in a bubble. Not just here, but even in India. We all live in our own bubbles just to make ourselves comfortable physically and/or mentally and to forget the dangers that lie outside in the world. We are privileged enough to do that. As far as returning to India is concerned, I would at the very least want 377 removed. As Gautam Bhan once put it, “We can have all the conversations about LGBT but we cannot have it with a gun pointed to my head”.
[Meanwhile, let me quickly find out who Gautam Bhan is.]
I haven’t made up my mind as to where I would want to live the rest of my life. Partly because of personal apprehensions and partly because it is not something that I can decide individually. It might involve another person. There is time. For now, let me take it one day at a time.
Thank you N! Thank you for consenting to do this, and for helping me understand you (and others different from me) a little better.
N would like to say one thing in parting:
I think many of us get away with alienating anything that is ‘different’ from who we are or what we have experienced. Do you know silence is a violent response too?