Wendell Rodricks was an icon of Indian's LGBTQ rights movement — a pioneer who ventured where few had dared to
The matter-of-factness with which Wendell Rodricks chose to be himself was groundbreaking, something hard to comprehend now in a time when gay pool parties happen at five-star hotels and Pride Parades march down the streets of cities like Ahmedabad and Guwahati.
One full pod garlic
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 tbsp jeera
1/2 tbsp haldi powder
One finely chopped onion
Grind the above with one and a half cup water and a tablespoon of homemade coconut oil (optional but makes a difference to the flavour).
So begins the recipe for 'Greta Rodricks Prawn Curry'. My coconut oil is not homemade but I cooked the prawn curry on Thursday night in memory of the person who shared it — Wendell Rodricks, fashion designer, world traveller, Goa aficionado, Padma Shri, gay activist and so much more. In his fashion he was a minimalist, but when it came to life, he embraced it to the maximum.
I knew of Wendell Rodricks long before I met him. In 2002 he had made news by entering into a civil partnership with a Frenchman named Jerome Marrel. A timeline of Indian LGBTQ history from Queer Ink takes note of that, under 2002 —
First legal same-sex union on Indian soil with Indian fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, a Goan Catholic, and Jerome Marrel conducted at French Embassy under French law.
This was an India where few public figures were out as gay. Section 377 was law. Among other LGBTQ events in 2002, Queer Ink lists “Police harassment of Sangama organisation in Bangalore”, “Lovers Geethalakshmi and Sumathi commit suicide in Tamil Nadu” and “Naz Foundation files petition in Delhi High Court, challenging Section 377.”
It was not surprising that a fashion designer was gay. Many were rumoured to be. What was remarkable was that he not only chose to be out, he chose to out his relationship. He told Reader’s Digest years later that he and Jerome signed the Pacte Civil de Solidarite almost 19 years after they had first met on a blind date in Oman because they wanted some legal rights — practical things like filing taxes together, signing each other off for a life-saving medical procedure or approaching immigration in countries that recognised such partnerships. “It wasn’t a romantic decision but an assertion of our rights,” Wendell said. When an Austrian who lived with his Indian girl friend committed suicide, the police told her she had no right to enter their house. They did not want to end up in a situation like that.
At that time in India, we often talked about “passport princesses” — privileged gay men who marched in LGBT Pride Parades in San Francisco and partied in London but led closeted lives at home. Wendell Rodricks with his French partner could have easily chosen to do that. But as he said, “I am very firm about it. The state has no right to peep into my bedroom.”
Their reasons for doing it might have been pragmatic, but by going public Wendell and Jerome showed a generation of queer people in India that there was a life after coming out.They continued to live in Goa just like they always had. And Wendell still got a Padma Shri in 2014.
When Wendell and Jerome embarked on their relationship, apart from the occasional image of a lesbian sculpture in Khajuraho or tales of transgender mythology, most tropes of gay life for Indians still came from the West. Those were images of angry ACT-UP AIDS activism, of kinky bars with backrooms and drag queens at Pride Parades. For most Indians that sounded like something from another planet. By being out as a couple, Wendell Rodricks and Jerome Marrel gave us an image of the possibility of a domestic life together that happened to be gay.
Wendell told Bombay Times that growing up gay in '70s and '80s India was “sheer cold terror” and he came out on national television in 2002 to “show the younger generation that it was possible to have a long love life and celebrate it.” In a country that understands marriage more readily than it understands sexuality, he was in a sense saying you could come out as gay and still realise every Indian parent’s dream of seeing their children “settled”. They could very well have been, writes Premankur Biswas in Indian Express, “India’s first official gay couple.”
Of course it’s not that many gay Indians looked at Wendell Rodricks and Jerome Marrell and automatically saw their lives reflected in them. They existed in a charmed circle of fashion designers, top models and Bollywood stars. Most gay Indians had no access to a Pacte Civil de Solidarite. But the matter-of-factness with which Wendell chose to be himself was groundbreaking, something hard to comprehend now in a time when gay pool parties happen at five-star hotels and Pride Parades march down the streets of cities like Ahmedabad and Guwahati. That today his obituaries say matter-of-factly that he is survived by “his husband Jerome Marrel” is in a way testimony to how far we have come, thanks in part to his refusal to keep his relationship discreetly tucked away.
Later I discovered none of it was as easy as it seemed to those of us who watched it from afar. While his family supported him and his mother called Jerome her “fifth son”, at that time they were not happy about him going public. In his memoir The Green Room, Wendell writes that no one from his family came for the celebratory Christmas lunch that year. Jerome and Wendell went to bed fighting back tears, feeling dirty, drained and defeated while “forty kilos of pork lay cooling on the buffet table.”
But India caught up with him eventually. When Section 377 was read down, Wendell appeared on television shows, elated and happy. He started a helpline for the LGBTQ community with Ruby Almeida, the co-chair of Rainbow Catholics India. In 2017 he gave Mona Campbell, a plus-size transgender model, her big break on the ramp at the Lakme Fashion Week. She told News 18 Wendell made time to breakfast with her parents and tell them to keep supporting her.
I first met Wendell at a literature festival in Shillong. I was a first-time novelist. He was the bona fide celebrity in aquamarine pants. Talking about gay rights in Shillong was a big step for the festival. There were school children in attendance. Wendell understood his job was to reassure the audience that being gay was not about growing horns. He complained that people only thought about sex when they heard 'homosexual', or worse, clubbed it with things like pedophilia and bestiality. They forget it is also a celebration of love, he said. And the joys of domesticity that came with it.
Like a good prawn curry.
Somewhere in that recipe, Wendell writes:
Mix 200 gm Nestle or Maggi Coconut powder in one-and-a-half cup hot water till smooth. Add to the curry on the stove.
Boil on a low to medium heat till the curry starts boiling (like milk does). At this stage a prayer for Greta.
Tonight as I cooked the 'Greta Rodricks Prawn Curry', I said a prayer for Greta. And one for Wendell Rodricks.
Thank you Wendell, for being you.
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