Gay or not. Is coming out passé?

In India there are many ways to be out, even if you are still in the closet. But the media demands an in-or-out narrative. And these stories don't fit in there.

Sandip Roy November 23, 2011 17:41:27 IST

Once gay men and women couldn’t come out because they were afraid of breaking their parents’ hearts.

Now their parents are coming out on television about their gay children.

“I did not want to lose my son,” says Keya Ghosh in the CNN-IBN documentary My Child is Gay. “If I had opposed him he would have probably left home.” Now she discusses his love life with him over Skype.

“Section 377 (the law criminalizing homosexual sex) called them criminals,” says Chitra Palekar, both indignant and emotional. “My child is not a criminal.”

This is huge. When a friend came out to his mother in the nineties and told her he could introduce her to other mothers, she recoiled in horror. She said the last thing she wanted to do was go air her dirty laundry in front of strangers. This is not some American talk-show she told him.

Gay or not Is coming out pass

Of late gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues are covered with a lot more sensitivity and sympathy in the Indian media. AFP

Fast forward to 2005. Sonali Gulati set out to make a film about her pain at not being able to come out to her mother before her mother’s death.  I Am became an award-winning portrait instead of families living with a gay son or a lesbian daughter. “It was quite easy to find parents to be in the film,” says Gulati. “The harder part was convincing their children to be in the film.”

That coming out moment

Now that there is a lot more sensitive, sympathetic coverage of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues in Indian media there’s also a lot more emphasis on coming out. Even a well-meaning program like My Child is Gay is fixated on that coming out moment. It has become the moment of truth.

“She said, ‘I am lesbian.’” Freeze frame.

Except in India, that’s not the way everyone comes out. In India it can often be a  statement in the negative says Gulati. As in “I’m not interested in getting married.”

But “I am lesbian” fits better in a television sound byte. As in: Coming up - She said, "I am lesbian." Don't switch the channel.

Coming out in reality, is a lot more amorphous and a lot more muddled.

In America coming out once meant telling your parents “I am gay” and then buying a one-way ticket to San Francisco or Manhattan on a Greyhound bus. It was an assertion of individualism.

In India coming out often meant your parents went into the closet with you. Now the whole family got to be the keeper of the secret. Oh, we cannot tell your cousin in Mumbai because he might be liberal and all but his wife is from your didi’s in-laws’ family.

“It is more of a spectrum, than a binary,” says Gulati. It is very important but it’s not the “happily ever after” end of the story.  Nor is there only one sanctioned way of being “out” as in “Are you ready for your close up on television now?”

Coming out is a many splendored thing

A few months ago I ran into a young lesbian in Kolkata, who introduced her girlfriend as her wife, and said she had posed in Femina with her.

Then there was the young corporate executive, who has a boyfriend, plenty of gay friends but says he cannot imagine being out in his conservative company.

In the rush towards the binary of “out or not out”, we start to lose these stories, the many shades of being out. Being out in a particular media-friendly way becomes the only honest way of being gay. Except that’s not true.

Denis Flanigan, an openly gay therapist in Texas, who calls himself a “militant homosexual” created a stir when he said in a New York Times story that he counsels some men, mostly very religious, to not come out, that it wasn’t the only way to be true to themselves, when their sexual orientation conflicted with everything else about their lives.

“Psychological ethics say that we’re supposed to support religious beliefs and support sexual orientation,” Flanigan said. “But there was nothing I knew of that says what to do when they conflict.”

“When I counsel a person I tell them if you are not financially independent, and cannot challenge your larger family, then don’t come out,” says Ashok Row Kavi, founder of  The Humsafar Trust, India’s first CBO for LGBT men and women. For many years, Row Kavi was the Indian LGBT movement, the only one willing to stick his neck out and be visible as an openly gay man.

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The gay trucker and other misfits

It’s not just the fear of losing a job, or losing family that stops people from coming out. Steve Kornacki the news editor of Salon.com had no reason not to be out. He worked for a liberal media publication. He didn’t  come from some rabidly religious homophobic family. He lived in Manhattan. But as he wrote in “The coming out story I never thought I’d write” he just couldn’t relate to the gay world he saw out there. As an all-American boy, an ESPN addict who loved baseball, he didn’t feel like he fit.

It’s easy to dismiss him as a “self-hating homosexual” but gay activist Aditya Bondyopadhyay says he can totally empathize. Though he calls himself “loud and out” now, he says at one time he was like Kornacki. He drove trucks in Jharkhand’s coal fields. He had an NCC certificate and was a champion rifle shooter. He flew gliders. And he still doesn’t like bars and clubs and has no fashion sense.

He says the gay community often doesn’t have space for people like him. “By simply refusing to accept anyone who is not following the classic (and often melodramatic) coming-out 101, by refusing to accept anyone who does not follow the soft/sissy fashion-conscious makeup-savvy, hard partying way to gaydom as one of their own, the community is guilty of rendering alien a part of its own.”

This is not to suggest coming out is meaningless. Sonali Gulati remembers hesitating when an Indian news channel wanted to interview her. But she did it. A few weeks later, while on a flight, the air hostess came up to her and told her that her sister who was engaged to be married to a man was able to come out to her. The air hostess helped break off the engagement without outing the sister.

“I see that visibility brings about change,” says Gulati. “But for many, inhabiting the closet is about survival. This means that those of us who have the privilege of being out shoulder a far greater responsibility to speak up.”

It's all tickety boo

It is ultimately not about being out but about being honest. “To say sexual identity is so different from sexual orientation is one of the biggest problems in India,” says Row Kavi. “So they marry and then they rationalize it.” I remember meeting an Indian engineer who said he had it all figured out. He was married with children, but was having a long-time affair with his best friend. Their wives were good friends as well, so the families socialized together all the time. He felt he was having the best of both worlds. It didn’t occur to him his wife might think differently if she knew.

Bondyopadhyay hopes that more public images and spaces for the “straight acting gay guy,” allowing for more nuance in the coming out story, will dissuade them from getting married and plunging into double lives.

Ashok Row Kavi knows of one man who has a lover in one bedroom, wife and family in another part of the house and they all go on cruises together. “And it’s all tickety boo,” laughs Row Kavi.

Not everyone will have partners who are that accommodating. But within that story lies a hint of the complexity of our lives, gay or straight. It is the urge to be ourselves and not to be reduced to only one thing or the other.

Coming out should not be about making you gay. You were already gay. It should just add that to the mix.

Nishit Saran came out to his mother, Minna on camera in his documentary Summer in My Veins. He died in a traffic accident a few years later. Minna Saran, interviewed on My Child is Gay is vociferously and touchingly supportive of gay rights. It's almost an homage to her son.

But then she says almost wistfully, “Nishit was not just a gay boy. There was much more to Nishit.”

Watch the documentary My Child is Gay here:

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