In India, there’s no one-size-fits-all coming out story. While some members of the LGBTQI community are lucky to have supportive families, others pay a heavy price
In a society where the Indian Psychiatric Association clarified only as recently as 2018 that homosexuality is not a mental illness, where there is as yet no explicit ban on unscientific “conversion” therapies and families can force LGBTQ children into an array of quack treatments, coming out can be daunting and, worse, downright dangerous. (HTPHOTO)
The Big Story : Kal Penn and Other Coming Out Tales
Actor Kal Penn, one of Hollywood’s most prominent Indian-American actors who served a two-year term in the Barack Obama presidency, told the world he was gay this past weekend. The 44-year-old Penn — real name Kalpen Suresh Modi — was promoting his memoir, You Can’t Be Serious and told People magazine: “People figure their shit out at different times in their lives, so I’m glad I did when I did.” He added that he had been in a relationship for the past 11 years and had plans to marry his fiancé.
Penn’s announcement set off a frisson of excitement in the Asian American and LGBTQI community back home in India. Film-maker Apurva Asrani who made his screenwriting debut with Aligarh, based on the life of gay professor Ramchandra Siras, tweeted that he “backflipped with joy”. Mumbai-based director Onir who goes by one name told Vice, “It’s so important for people who are in public spaces and who are role models to come out.”
Coming Out Stories
There’s no one-size-fits-all coming out story. For Ayesha Kapur, proprietor of home-made ice-cream business, Chubby Cheeks Creamery and one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court landmark Section 377 case that decriminalised consensual gay sex in 2018, coming out to her family was “absolutely uneventful.” Kapur said she first told her mother about her sexuality, a few months before she died of cancer in 2009. A few years later, in 2012, during a conversation, she came out to her father. “There was no prolonged family drama conversation. He listened and said, ‘Ok, enjoy your date’. And that was that.”
Coming out is not a “one-step” process. “I had struggled for years with my sexuality,” said Kapur. Senior advocate Saurabh Kirpal agreed. By his mid-teens, Kirpal knew he was gay. Over the years, the first to know were close friends and a close circle of people he could trust. “That circle expands until you reach that seminal moment within Asian families of finally telling your parents the truth because not coming out to them leaves you hollow. You know you are living a lie, worried about when you will slip up, trying to be someone you are not. Until you finally realise that if you have to have a happy life, you have to come out to them,” he said.
While his mother had an inkling, Kirpal continued, his father, then a senior Supreme Court judge who would go on to become the Chief Justice of India had no clue. Both parents took it well, even opening a bottle of champagne. “Once you agree on a fundamental precept that you love your son, the rest is just details,” he said.
Not everyone is as lucky. When T came out to her parents at age 41 in 2013, she was in a high profile job and although her parents had had an inter-caste “love marriage”, her mother in particular is yet to come to terms with her daughter’s sexuality. “She tells me she accepts it, but also worries about what people, especially her relatives, will say,” T said. Because of Covid-19, her parents who live in another city haven’t visited her ever since she moved in with her partner. “The real test will be when they come to stay, because I have every intention of continuing to live with my partner and not have to ask her to move out,” T said.
Bearing a Cross
I asked T if she was under pressure from the community to come out as a role model for younger people. She was, she said. But, “My private life has never been a part of public discourse.” Two factors hold her back. The first is her mother’s ambivalence and the second is her fear of trolls. “As a woman with an opinion, I already get a fair amount of online abuse. I do not want to deal with trolls because of my personal life,” she said.
Kirpal understands why many people would choose not to come out especially in India, but felt, “It’s my moral responsibility. It’s not a cross I bear, but a choice I made.”
In any case, he added: “Living by example is also a form of activism.”
Price of Coming Out
And, yes, coming out, even for privileged and urbane Indians, comes at a price. In 2017, Saurabh Kirpal’s name was put forward for consideration as a judge in the Delhi High Court. That decision has been deferred four times. “There is no way of knowing why my name keeps getting deferred but it’s most likely because I am gay,” he said. If true, the same judiciary that decriminalised section 377, is yet to demonstrate a similar liberalism by allowing for a more inclusive bench.
And, yet, there are no regrets about coming out as gay and living an open, honest life. “I don’t have the luxury of keeping quiet anymore,” Kirpal said.
In a society where the Indian Psychiatric Association clarified only as recently as 2018 that homosexuality is not a mental illness, where there is as yet no explicit ban on unscientific “conversion” therapies and families can force LGBTQ children into an array of quack treatments, coming out can be daunting and, worse, downright dangerous.
In May 2020, a 21-year-old queer woman from Kerala died by suicide after being dragged off to multiple “de-addiction” centres against her will, leading to a renewed conversation on how sexuality is something people are born with and does not require a “cure”. But over a year later, the so-called treatments are yet to be banned.
“In the Indian context, coming out has a whole different meaning,” said Raj Mariwala, director of the Mariwala Health Initiative. When the ‘normal’ is assumed and doesn’t require to be stated, coming out is often an outcome of discrimination, she said. “There can be a range of responses from parents and family, friends and even workplaces.”
To access queer affirmative mental health professionals, peer supporters and organisations click on this link.
Stories you might have missed
The Delhi Commission of Women has taken suo motu cognisance of rape threats made online to the nine-month-old baby daughter of Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma. The commission issued notice to the police over the threat made by an account that goes by the handle CricCrazyGirl (since deleted) soon after Kohli defended fast bowler Mohammad Shami who was subjected to online abuse after India’s loss to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup.
In a year dominated by talk of “Covid orphans”, you might have expected to see a spike in adoption numbers. In fact, the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) reported a drop in numbers of children available for adoption, writes Avinash Kumar, founder-director, Families of Joy Foundation.
A new manual to sensitise and educate teachers towards the LGBTQ community and different gender orientations has been taken down from the NCERT website. Titled, Inclusion of Transgender Children in School Education: Concerns and Roadmap, the manual ran into a controversy over its content after the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights sought rectifications of “anomalies” in the manual. The child rights body has asserted that the manual will deny equal rights to children of diverse biological needs. Read more here.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD
Educating boys: Adolescent boys who attended classroom discussions of gender rights and equality for two years, ended up having less regressive attitudes even two years after the classes ended, finds a new study. Conducted by a research team of Diva Dhar (University of Oxford), Tarun Jain (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) and Seema Jayachandran (Northwestern University), the study looked at how intervention using discussion and persuasion reduced the participants’ support for gender regressive attitudes and increased the value they placed on education.
The study will be published in the forthcoming American Economic Review. You can read a PDF here.
Women in the World
Snuffed out: Distressing reports coming in that 29-year-old Frozan Safi has been shot and killed in northern Afghanistan, the first known death of a woman human rights defender since the Taliban swept to power three months ago.
Smash, smash: Bangladeshi American Shahana Hanif became the first Muslim woman, and South Asian, to be elected to the City Council of New York City. “Together we are building an anti-racist, feminist city,” she said soon after her historic win. In Boston, Michelle Wu became the first woman and person of colour to be elected mayor.
Gen X: The United States has issued its first passport with an X gender designation, marking a milestone in the recognition of the rights of people who do not identify as male or female.
That’s it for this week. If you have a tip or information on gender-related developments that you would like to share write to me at: