Out and Proud: Meet Aruna Desai, mother and ally who helps young LGBTQ people to come out to their families
Aruna Desai's stubborn optimism and drive has made her a go-to person for young members of the LGBTQI community, when they need assistance or want to come out to their parents | FirstCulture
As 3 February 2018 marks the Queer Azadi Pride March in Mumbai, we're publishing six compelling coming-out stories: first-person accounts of coming out about your sexuality or gender to friends, loved ones, colleagues or even to yourself. This interview was part of Harish Iyer's 'I’m Coming Out', published by Juggernaut Books, in which the personalities he speaks with explore what it means to be gay in India.
Mumbai is a city that boasts of many things. It is also the queer capital of India, and has a thriving group of empathetic people who work together to help others who are grappling with their sexuality and gender identity. One such admirable person is Aruna Desai.
Aruna Desai is my friend Abhishek Desai’s mother. I fondly call her Aruna Aunty. I first met Aruna Aunty at a parents’ meet organized by Gay Bombay – a support group for gay people. My mother was on the panel and Aruna Aunty was in the audience. While my mother was naïve and shy about speaking in public, Aruna Aunty was exactly the opposite. She is like a modern-day Jhansi ki rani when it comes to standing up for her child’s rights, and for others like him.
If you didn’t know better, you’d mistake her for an average Mumbai working mom. But Aruna Aunty is different. And she is special, very special.
Aruna Aunty was born into a middle-class Maharashtrian family. She has three sisters and a brother. For the past three decades, she has worked in the human resource and administration department of a firm that specialises in making elevators. She is as dedicated to her work as she is to the causes she undertakes – which are several. She often donates money to a children’s home and helps soldiers’ families. Sometimes, you’ll spot her in an old-age home, spending time with people, listening to their stories and making sure they have everything they need. Whenever I bump into her and ask her what she’s up to, the answer is always the same – she is helping someone, either financially or emotionally. She is always the first to step up when it comes to organising events or contributing to social causes. Her husband is a businessman and they live in Vasai, in the Palghar district.
Her son Abhishek and I have been friends for over a decade now. I’ve known her for as long as I’ve known him. At the start, Abhishek and I were never friends. We’d see each other only once a year during the parents’ meets organized by Gay Bombay. But we soon started hanging out more often, and I inevitably became acquainted with Aruna Aunty after we connected on Facebook.
In September 2016, I remember meeting her at a common friend’s place. We got talking, and little did I know, it would be one of the most memorable discussions I’ve ever had. She had come straight from work and I asked her if she was as accessible to people in her office as she was to the gay community. Her face lit up instantly.
"Approachable yes," she said, "but I’m very strict at work. I am the HR person, you see. We’ve got to be strict."
"Are you strict with Abhishek too?" I asked.
"Sometimes," she smiled.
Abhishek is blessed to have a mother like her. He was a minor when he came out. Up until two weeks before that day, Aruna Aunty had no clue about what homosexuality was. However, Abhishek and his close friend started preparing her to receive the news. Children do this. They throw little testers to check how their parents will respond to a particular piece of news. Abhishek and his friend made up a story and an imaginary friend. They told Aruna Aunty that he had been thrown out of the house by his parents because he was gay and they couldn’t accept this news. Then they told her that their friend was suffering a lot – he was out on the streets, he had no food and was terribly lonely. Aruna Aunty was touched by this story and began to educate herself about homosexuality. Thus began her journey into her son’s world.
So when Abhishek finally dropped the bomb, she was absolutely unperturbed.
"I still remember the date when he came out to me. It was 3 December 2007," she said, beaming with pride. "Abhishek and his friend had told me about their friend whose family had not accepted his sexuality. Before that I had not known there was a thing such as homosexuality."
"You didn’t know at all?" I interrupted.
"I didn’t know. And I definitely didn’t think about approaching the subject so closely. The day he came out, Abhishek had been crying since morning. It was clear he wanted to tell me something but couldn’t muster the courage to do so. He was miserable all day long. I was horribly sad to see him so desperate. Finally, sometime in the evening, I was struck by a realisation. I remembered the story about his friend – the one who had been thrown out by his family because of his sexuality. And I wondered if what he wanted to tell me was along these lines. So I just decided to ask him directly. “Are you gay?” I asked. To which Abhishek responded, “Mama, do you hate me?”’
"What did you say then?"
"I took him out for dinner and told him everything was okay. I told him he needed to love himself and that I was proud of him – gay, straight or otherwise."
"Wow. Was it really so easy?"
"Look, Harish," Aruna Aunty said, "He is my child. We need to accept our children for who they are. Anyway, in the first place, what is there to accept? Homosexuality is not a disease. It’s a natural orientation. People should be allowed to love who they love. It is really as simple as that." She added pensively, "I can’t imagine how parents can throw children out of their homes when they discover they aren’t heterosexual. I’m really shocked to learn that someone can be so cruel to their own children."
Aruna Aunty had to literally drag Abhishek out of the closet because he was hesitant. Have you ever heard of a more supportive parent? How many parents of gay children are proud of their child’s identity? Would you be? I have included Aruna Aunty’s story in this collection because it is a crucial one. Children thrive when their parents support them. It gives them the strength to face the world and the criticism they’ll come across. And no child needs their parents’ support more than someone who’s gay. Being gay in India is hard enough, and without your parents backing you, life is full of hate, suspicion, ridicule and exclusion.
Aruna Aunty has accepted her son the way he is, and this extends to the men in his life. I once made the mistake of asking her about Abhishek’s relationship status. She explained to me very sweetly that she didn’t interfere in her son’s private matters and simply accepted the men in his life. However, she added, "Once I’m introduced to them and we have our own personal equation, then my relationship with them is independent of my relationship with Abhishek. Irrespective of Abhishek’s relationship status, they are a part of my life too."
And that is the absolute truth. Never have I felt uncared for in her presence. She has always been a role model who doubles up as a confidante, friend or mother figure whenever I want to speak to someone.
But it is her social outreach that defines Aruna Aunty. She’s always the first to make contact in case of an emergency. The first to open her purse strings, and to travel distances to speak to parents of queer children.
A year ago, she was approached by a lesbian couple. They were from conservative Jain families and were frightened about what their family members would say about their relationship. Aruna counselled the girls on the phone several times before finally deciding to go and visit them in person.
All her life, she has faced a lot of tough parents and answered many difficult questions posed to her by other parents. But nothing deters her from her goal. She won't give up supporting someone because of a few tough words. It only encourages her to be more driven towards the cause. Aruna Aunty is very easily accessible when it comes to asking for help.
The families of the lesbian couple were hostile. Aruna Aunty tried her hardest to convince them that lesbianism was as natural as heterosexuality, but they refused to listen, meeting her every statement with only one answer – ‘This is a sin’. Aruna Aunty didn’t give up hope. Over the next few weeks, she continued to speak to the parents, having conversations for hours. Not for a moment was she disheartened or tired. She always kept her cool in the hope that one day, the parents would come around. And they eventually did.
"Parents will accept their children. They need to be educated and things must be explained to them in a patient and warm manner. It may take time but they will come around," she said. "If such conservative parents can accept their daughter’s sexuality, I’m convinced everyone has it in them to do so. I’m so proud of them. In fact, they are planning to welcome their daughter’s partner into their house," she said, with eyes full of pride and empathy.
It is this stubborn optimism that makes Aruna Aunty so special and distinct. Most of us give up when the odds are stacked against us, but not Aruna. She will persevere till justice is done.
Aruna Aunty always maintains she is first a parent and a mother, and then the mother of a gay child. "Children are children. They don’t come with tags. Society puts these tags on them. But I would never let anything change between my son and me. How can I stop loving him if he decides to love a man? That’s not how parenting works. That’s not how mothers should think. I love his friends and everyone else he loves. His world is an extension of him. My son is an adult. He will define who he wishes to call “family”. I am a part of that family for sure and so is my husband.’
If only parents thought about relationships like Aruna Aunty. But sadly, it almost always never works like this. People are blinded by misconceptions about the gay identity; they think of it is a sin, and unnatural. They rarely try to see through the veil of homophobia and ignorance. In all her years of helping gay children, Aruna Aunty has realized that in most cases, most parents with gay children prefer listening to other parents over a psychologist. That is why she never tires of the responsibility.
‘How do you keep going on? Do you never get tired by it all and want to give up?’ I asked her.
‘No,’ she said. ‘And it’s because I can empathize with Abhishek – how would he feel if I reject him? – that keeps me going. It is this feeling that makes me pick up the phone when a child in distress calls me.’
Aruna Aunty will never retire. She has been responsible for uniting many families and has a lot of success stories under her belt. But she has never paused to revel in the joy of having been solely responsible for some transformational ‘change of heart’ stories.
Instead, she picks up the phone to take another call, and help another queer person deal with their identity and find peace.
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