By Suparna Mathur
October 12th is National Coming Out Day and we were instantly reminded of a beautiful and popular story kindly shared by Vikrant Lal. We hope this helps all those struggling with the unknown.
There is no common word in Hindi, the predominant language of India, which translates to being gay or homosexual. In a language where there exist endless words to depict love, there is no word that recognizes the love between people of the same sex.
How do you begin to address the rights of a group whose own language demonstrates its inadequacy in recognizing the issue? There are growing South Asian gay and lesbian, ‘queer’ communities worldwide, both in and outside of the subcontinent.
South Asian Parent spoke with Vikrant Lal about his personal experience of being gay in an Indian family. Vikrant, part of the Mathur family, is a 29-year-old homosexual male who was born and raised in New Jersey, USA.
“What initially started as ‘gay’ conversations with my parents have now developed into discussions about our relationship that have actually strengthened our communication.”
This is the light at the end of a very long and arduous tunnel, one in which the darkness was often overwhelming and isolating.
“For a long time, I was withdrawn, moody, and angry. I kept asking myself, ‘Why couldn’t I be normal?’” When describing his outlook before coming to terms with his homosexuality, Vikrant concludes, “It was very hard to be happy.”
Even though Vikrant first acknowledged his sexual orientation at 13, he spent over a decade contemplating not telling his family and friends. “I was afraid of disappointing everyone. I went through a phase where I did not want to be close to my family for this reason.”
Their words of judgment kept ringing in his ears. “I continued to try to talk to and date girls because it was expected of me. But it made me feel sick.”
Vikrant hates the term ‘sexual preference.’ The word preference indicates a choice. “If I had a choice, I would never have chosen it. But I didn’t choose this life. This is who I am.”
This is one of the most difficult things for parents and families to grasp about being gay. It is a common reaction to feel that the person has chosen this lifestyle. But this is also a dangerous line of thinking because it only leads to frustration and misconceptions regarding sexual orientation. Countries and states that have passed laws supporting civil unions and gay marriages have all done it on the basis that an individual’s sexual orientation is not a choice.
Vikrant’s parents have also struggled with accepting his identity. While Vikrant came out to his mother when he was 20, he waited 4 more years before talking to his father.
Vikrant dreaded telling his father, and it was only through his mother’s insistence that he finally broached the subject. His father was surprisingly calm, but it took him a much longer time to come to terms with it, almost 2 to 3 years. During this time, his father’s reactions included:
“You’re not a gay. You just think you are.”
“If you do something now, you can stop becoming gay.”
“Maybe you should have done more sports.”
“Maybe we were too strict.”
When his father said to him, “You will never be a man,” Vikrant responded with “I’m already the man I need to be.” Vikrant acknowledges his father’s choice of words was often hurtful, but knows there was always genuine concern behind them.
He believes the real turning point for his father’s understanding came when the Indian Gujarati Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s popular talk show. After watching the special, his father acknowledged to Vikrant, “I guess it’s not a choice.”
Vikrant smiles now as he says, “Oprah, I owe you one!”
As parents, Vikrant’s father and mother had the same concerns most parents do: about his health, career, and future. These concerns were only exacerbated by his being gay.
They worried about discrimination against him in the workplace. They worried about his inability to have a conventional family with children. They worried about STDs and HIV.
Vikrant describes his mother as “very brave” in her ability to broach different issues with him. Even though she was willing to discuss various topics, Vikrant felt she wasn’t always prepared to hear what being gay actually meant. Despite being initially upset and concerned, now all she says is that she wants him to meet somebody and be happy.
When asked if he wished his parents had reacted differently, one will be surprised to hear Vikrant’s words: “To be honest, I think there were more issues with how I handled it than how my parents did. I should have been more willing to trust them. Now that I look back, I wish I’d been less scared.”
Vikrant has had mixed reactions from his extended family. He had one relative ask him to ‘reconsider his lifestyle’ and the effect it was having on his parents. He had another aunt who set the precedent for many family members by stating “You are who you are and that’s it.” Vikrant feels that her reaction was an important lesson to parents: that certain things are not in your control.
Vikrant and his friends have also faced religious premise as a barrier to acceptance, to which Vikrant’s response is,“God made me this way, and there is a reason I am this way. God doesn’t make mistakes.”
When told Vikrant was gay, one of his relatives even assumed he was a eunuch, commonly referred to as ‘hijras’ (transgenders) in the Indian community.
Vikrant believes it is important for parents to be better educated and familiarize themselves with areas of concern so they are more informed and less likely to be surprised or make wrong assumptions.
“My mother has been very sick and that has played an important role too. In these types of times, you realize what’s most important – love, health, and happiness – and you drop a lot of other issues. We have all become closer as a result.” As families, do we need a sick relative to remind us of what’s truly important in life?
It is endearing to hear Vikrant’s story at a time in his life when he is clearly happy with who he is. At the same time, his experiences and words demonstrate just how imperative it is that parents and children find better ways to communicate with each other.
Vikrant explains that it’s very common to hear about the ‘horror stories’ of children being disowned. The fear of parents’ reactions runs so high amongst children who are considering ‘coming out’, a phrase used to indicate revealing their homosexuality. “I’ve seen many South Asian kids disassociate themselves from their families and culture in what I call a ‘pre-emptive strike.’” This same fear is what has led to a despairingly high suicide rate among South Asian gay and lesbians.
It is not uncommon to hear news reports about homosexual suicide pacts, where couples decide to take their lives together because of their being unaccepted by family and society. How parents, family members, and society choose to react can have dire consequences.
Vikrant feels that “It’s important that you start looking at gay people as individuals, as someone’s child.”
As debates about homosexuality permeate courtrooms, classrooms, and family rooms worldwide, the question to ask yourself is how are you, as an individual, choosing to react?